1971: King Tubby - “Psalms of Dub”
“Psalms of Dub,” originally “Not Responsible” by Carlton Patterson and Leroy Brown, is rumored to the be the first dub track King Tubby, founder of dub music, ever released in 1971.
Dub is created by rearranging original studio tracks of a recording and delicately applying ambiance and variation through EQ, volume, and general dynamics. The first dub records were primitive versions of what we now know as the remix.
Interestingly enough, the dub process was not discovered through rigorous experimentation or mad-scientist studio alchemy. It was an accident.
Rumors claim that while working for Duke Reid as a studio engineer, Tubby inadvertently excluded fragments of the vocal track during a song’s final mix. Instead of fixing the error, Tubby and Reid capitalized on the mistake, cutting apart the original tracks and giving them the so-called “dub” treatment – a postmodern deconstruction of the original track via sudden drop-outs, volume fluctuations, and layers of effects to shift the silence. Jamaica’s singers were soon buried within cascades of echo and reverb, reduced to specters and shadows within this restructuring of Jamaican popular music.
These “versions,” as they were known, were an immediate success in both the dancehall and the record store. Tubby’s legacy, the modern remix, remains a staple of popular music to this very day.
But let us not forget that the process began with a mistake. King Tubby did not endeavor to remix. By following the inspiration catalyzed by his mistake, the engineer revolutionized the role of the recording studio in popular music, creating a format that continues to ensnare both imagination and profit nearly half a century later.
2006: Lifelover - Pulver
While many a pseudo-musicologist and snobby music fan are quick to call you out for lumping the two styles together, black metal and goth actually have a lot in common. Leave the similarities in face paint aside and you’ll find two mediums where death is worshiped, tragedy almost a given, and dissonance an inevitable consequence. Which makes it all the more surprising that, save for Lifelover, hardly anyone has tried to merge both sounds without being overwhelmed by the results.
It’s perhaps black metal’s stubbornness for keeping things true to the (perceived) core style, disregarding any innovation, that has kept it from growing faster. It has stunted the genre’s potential as one of the most sensitive styles in music; and by “sensitive” I don’t mean soft and caring. The music can mold nerve receptors to the sound’s conjured atmosphere and, when it’s good, ends up feeling full of despair and hateful isolation, no matter if the guitars are recorded inside a trash can or if gritty keyboards are used.
That level of evocative despair is Lifelover’s accomplishment, and nowhere is it more evident than on their debut full length Pulver. A song like “M/S Salmonella” even has melancholic piano plinks and plunks while “Nästa Gryning” does away with drums and gives us wrist-slashing arpeggios, Bernard Sumner-like minimalist, and sharp guitar lines that make it a fitting catalyst for depressing poetry. And then there’s the vocals, alternating between the desperate screeches of B and the anguished yelps of ( ) – that’s right, like the Sigur Rós album – that sound like ancient pagan spirits possessing young men into a suicidal fit, even if life is ahead of them and they really don’t want to die.
On September 9 2011, Jonas Bergqvist, known within the band as B, died in his sleep, thus ending Lifelover’s career in a tragic manner. Luckily their debut album remains to demonstrate how desolate and horrific music can be both unsettling and quite enjoyable.
1996: Gastr del Sol - “Our Exquisite Replica of ‘Eternity’”
Driving cross country this summer, I saw a lot of rest stops. They vary in little ways, but one thing you’ll always see in the bathrooms is a perfume dispenser. I’ve never seen anyone use one, but they sit there, usually a little rusted with age. For a small price, you get a spray of bad knock-offs of famous perfumes — “exquisite replicas” they’re called. In such a dismal location as a truck-stop bathroom, it’s a beautiful juxtaposition to see something so out of place. Gastr Del Sol’s opening statement on the brilliant Upgrade & Afterlife, “Our Exquisite Replica of ‘Eternity,’” shares a great deal with its namesake that resides in those ugly bathroom vending machines. David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke, with help from Kevin Drumm, give listeners a fractured and atrophied approximation of something elegant.
This was not new ground for the duo. Their previous album Crookt, Crackt, or Fly was filled with sprawling deconstructions, but the fact that the album was mostly acoustic set up “Eternity” as a shocking opener. From the start, the song is overflowing with haunting organ drones that are simultaneously angelic and queasy. The balancing act builds tension until it releases in a brittle solo of feedback. Grubbs and O’Rourke never surpassed “Eternity” in its use of both noise and restraint. The middle section is explosively dissonant, yet controlled and focused. In the beginning we hear beauty with an undertone of menace, until they make it very clear that the menace and decay have won.
The last section of this opener ends with more fanfare than most album finales, including Upgrade & Afterlife. It is one of the first cases of sampling from a band that made very unique use of the technique (one of the most memorable moments on the album is a duet between a trumpet and a hissing tea kettle on “The Sea Incertain”). “Eternity’s” finale explodes into trumpets and strings. The moaning orchestration is taken from Hans Salter’s score for the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, a surprisingly deep B-movie that ends with the titular shrinking man failing to save himself, but accepting and finding comfort in the fact that everything he is will eventually fade into nothing.
That sampling of strings might finally make sense in the year of The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (TMT Review), an album also about atrophy and deconstruction and one that owes a lot to O’Rourke and Grubbs. “Eternity’s” closing section is suddenly gorgeous and triumphant, but it is backed with hideous insect-like electronic chirping, reminding listeners that it is only a replica of something beautiful. Soon, all the other sounds die, and we’re left with a two second loop of a piano, a phrase with no end and no beginning, no memory and no future, slowly decaying into silence. The shrinking man will eventually be reduced to an atom, but he still finds value in his existence. “There can be grandeur in a small thing,” Garrison Keillor once said; I would add that there can be beauty in broken things, as well as originality in replicas. And you know what? I’ve smelled the Exquisite Replica of “Eternity,” the perfume that is; it’s just fine.
1985-1989: Drunks With Guns
St. Louis’ Drunks With Guns were never really destined for much. It is unlikely that there will ever be a reunion tour, a reissue campaign, or a documentary filmed around the bands’ undying influence on the landscape of modern music. Their story is the prototypical one of the Midwestern hardcore band: started by four guys with enough suburban malaise to pick up some instruments and write some snotty songs about their misery.
What make the Drunks worthwhile are the details. Their songs don’t just crawl, they ooze forth slowly and recklessly, the rhythm section front and center with the droning bass work of Jim Boyle and Mike DeLeon on alternating releases. Stan Seitrech’s guitar work, obviously indebted to Ginn and Falconi, threatens to careen into jagged leads at any moment, while lead singer Mike Doskocil’s vocals are delivered in vitriolic spurts.
The band always appeared to have tongue firmly placed in cheek, though reports of their behavior may suggest otherwise. The cover of their first self titled 7-inch spoke volumes: a bunch of average looking guys hanging out in a basement with empty cans of the local swill heaped in piles around them. Lyrically, Drunks With Guns stayed true to their namesake. You won’t find songs with overarching metaphors based on the human condition. Just ruminations about getting sauced, crashing cars, and going to dumb parties. Opening lines like “Where’s my drugs/ Where’s my cash/ You ripped me off/ Stole my stash” are idiotic but certainly endearing.
“Wonderful Subdivision” is the group’s magnum opus. The track is the equivalent of a musical hangover with its’ pulsating bass throb and lumbering, giant drum beat. The guitar tries in vain to lighten the proceedings while Doskocil wretches forth lyrical proclamations steeped in suburban angst. The biggest and dumbest song in the bands’ big and dumb repertoire.
While Drunks With Guns may not be recognized as a classic punk act, it’s easy to argue their influence on the emergence of noise rock in the late 80s and early 90s. They definitely are not a thinking man’s band, but they never aspired to be. As a pallet cleanser I am hard pressed to think of anything better. Their recordings, while uneven in quality, do show surprising depth for the time. Beyond all of this, Drunks With Guns were a rarity in the hardcore scene in that they were actually a lot of fun. After the release of their final classic 7-inch Drug Problems in 1989, the group splintered into two very different bands under the same name. Neither quite reached the glory of the original group.
1968: The Crazy World of Arthur Brown - “Fire”
Arthur Brown, who recorded the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic “I Put a Spell on You” and once played with British hit soul band The Foundations, is known first and foremost for his association with the element of fire, and secondly for his outstanding soul/R&B growl-to-falsetto. He wore special helmets on stage to resist fire, which only became a problem when he attempted fire-setting while wearing a colander on his head; a fan put out the flame in time to prevent serious damage.
However, if Arthur Brown’s acknowledgment of Screamin’ Jay’s influence is anything to go by, he was more than just an eccentric, he was a seasoned soul/blues performer for whom the devil was an integral part of the act. He inspired Alice Cooper, Kiss, and The Darkness (he appeared in The Darkness’ video as a priest – presumably in homage to his priest role in The Who’s Tommy). Wherever there was a flicker of hell-raising in music, Brown seemed to turn up. His one-hit-wonder “Fire” was heavily sampled by the Prodigy, who led their fans to believe that they were the original twisted fire-starters, when their rave tune owed its ferocity to the man who started fire-starting in the first place (N.B., the Prodigy’s “Fire” should not be confused with their single “Firestarter”, if possible).
Like Screamin’ Jay, Arthur Brown was ambitious and a trouper. Screamin’ Jay had aimed at a career in opera; when it fell short he played blues piano and sang. Brown’s ambitions carried him to Paris, where his band took up residency in the Moulin Rouge, honing their theatrical skills by playing with transvestites and other ‘characters’ of the Paris scene. Brown played with R&B and soul groups too before attracting attention (most notably from Pete Townshend of The Who) with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown band. The second single from the The Crazy World of Arthur Brown album went to Number One in the UK Charts and Number Two in the US during 1968.
As evidenced by live Brown’s live performances, even at his most outrageous his wonderful voice put all high jinx into perspective. Even in 1999, without the aid of fire, he was able to cast his theatrical spell. With his legacy cemented – Kiss’ makeup, invitations to play gigs all over the world – he appeared to have given up fire-starting. Only once in 2007 did he set his hair ablaze again. Another musician caught fire as a result; happily everyone was OK, and Brown remained the exception that proved the rule about playing with fire.
1984: Blurt - Bullets for You
Bullets for You is a classic recommended in hushed tones, even in this age of rabid internet file-sharing. The saxophone screeches without being obnoxious or out for blood like James Chance’s instrument; the guitar plays an amelodic but rhythmic march of random notes; the drums pound ahead monotonically like a choo-choo train trying to boogie for all it’s worth, scared to derail and kill the passengers within; and Ted Milton, the guy who’s blowing the reed, stops handling the sax to sing it and preach it like he’s not too convinced or enthusiastic. Yet it sounds like the most exciting thing in the world, or the 1984 equivalent of that feeling.
Milton formed Blurt in 1979 with his brother Jake, who had played in 70s psychedelic/prog band Quintessence, to give a vehicle to his lyrics. His verses have been described as existentialist, which isn’t surprising once you learn that Ted was a poet in the 60s (admired by the likes of Eric Clapton) before becoming a saxophonist. He was also a puppeteer who, among other things, worked on Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky.
More than no wave, Blurt sound like a less hyperactive (and political) prototype for bands like The Dog Faced Hermans, toying with playful dissonance even though their aim isn’t to destroy ears, but to sing a half constricted, poker-faced tune, as if they’re trying not to laugh from being overtly serious. Here’s the title track of the album, which you should definitely track down and enjoy.