Safely Obscure Bands, or “listening to bands that actually released albums is so, like, mainstream…”

19 10 2007

Top Five Myths and Legends of the Punk Era

1. The London SS

2. Rocket From The Tombs

3. The Crucial Three

4. Destroy All Monsters

5. The Electric Eels

There are many examples of snobbery amongst music fans, but one of the most pervasive is the belief that if too many other people come to enjoy a band, then their value to the true fan will be diluted. The optimum scenario is being a part of a small cognoscenti; occasionally there will be the opportunity to commend one another on having the “right” taste.

For music fans with this outlook there is a problem with supporting any up-and-coming or contemporary artists, however obscure they may currently be. For one thing, that band or musician’s time near the zeitgeist may pass quickly and they may prove to have been not so much cool, as irrelevant. Worse still, God help us, they might get popular! It would be profoundly embarrassing to have ever liked such sell-outs.

The route to more secure music snobbery must therefore lie in the past. You can then pick artists who have not only proved incapable of selling any decent quantity of their music over several decades, but have already conveniently been earmarked as “cool” or “influential” by equally snobby musicians and critics. A good example might be Krautrock – mentioned by lots of hip people, not about to listened to or liked by the general public.

Beware! The exclusivity of your appreciation cannot be guarranteed! Freakish trends and strange belated justice occasionally bring bands from the past the attention they always deserved, and then lots of people will hear of them. Nick Drake was rediscovered by miserable students everywhere in the ’90s and now there is no special kudos to knowing his records at all….

So I came to wondering how one’s taste could remain aloof and cool – what bands could be championed with the absolute certainty of their cultural weight, and the absolute certainty that larger numbers people will never get in on the act and like them too? Tricky, very tricky….

The answer is to claim to like very cool bands that are well documented, but never released any albums to start with! There is the slight downside that you probably won’t own any of their music either…. but that’s the price of exclusivity! Here are five bands from the 70s that could vaguely collectively be described as Punk, whose reputations remain untarnished by any proper back-catalogue….

The London SS

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Formed in ‘75, The London SS was a fetid petri dish out of which grew the London Punk scene. Core members Mick Jones (later of The Clash and B.A.D.) and Tony James (later of Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik) played with various lineups that also included Brian James and Rat Scabies (later of The Damned) and future members of the Hollywood Kids, The Boys and the Rich Kids. They never played a gig, but there is a demo to be found; no-one claims it’s great… However, they were essential in bringing together like minded people and putting Mick Jones in touch with Bernie Rhodes, who later did much as manager of The Clash to make them the titans they became.

Rocket From The Tombs

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Not to be confused with Rocket From The Crypt. Rocket From The Tombs existed in Cleveland around 1974-75. They never released an album and only played a handful of legendary gigs. [disappointingly their demos and live recordings have been collected on a recent CD. Luckily they’re very rough] RFTT members went on to found two of the great American bands, The Dead Boys and Pere Ubu. Indeed, old Rocket songs lived on in both subsequent bands’ repertoires, although stylistically they took the music in very different directions. The Dead Boys, having drafted in front-man Stiv Bators, became a classic sounding Punk band, although their best known song (Sonic Reducer) apparently dates from RFTT. Pere Ubu are better grouped with ”Post-Punk” – they got very much weirder, artier and experimental. Pere Ubu are way-cool, and remain fairly reliably limited in their appeal – but why take the risk? Best to plump for Rocket From The Tombs.

The Crucial Three

The Crucial Three have a lot in common with what may have been hundreds of groups formed in the spring of 1977 – a bunch of mates went to see The Clash on the White Riot Tour and decided to get a band together. It lasted for 6 weeks. Significantly the singer was Ian McCulloch (later of Echo & The Bunnymen), the bass player was Julian Cope (later of The Teardrop Explodes) and the guitarist was Pete Wylie (later of the Mighty Wah). Overpowered by egos, they never even recorded a demo, although both McCulloch and Cope recorded the Crucial Three song “Books” on their first albums.

Destroy All Monsters

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Destroy All Monsters had two distinct phases. From 1973-76 this bunch of University of Michigan Art students played their weird brand of experimental music at parties and exhibitions around Ann Arbor, confusing people with their use of broken, modified and odd instruments. The perfect obscurity of this period has been ruined by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who has gone out his way to collect and release recordings of this line up. Following a split in 1976 two originals (crucially still including ex-model Niagara) teamed up with a bunch of new faces including Ron Asheton (ex of The Stooges) and Michael Davis (ex of the MC5). This full-on-Punk line up wasn’t stable, but several EPs were released with Niagara and Asheton under the DAM moniker until a final split in 1985. No proper album though, and nothing easy-listening either….

The Electric Eels

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Around on the same Cleveland scene as RFTT from 1972-75, The Electric Eels were wholly precient in marrying music that would later be decribed as Punk Rock to nihilistic and pointless displays of aggression. Only ever playing 6 gigs (some say 5) they nonetheless managed to get themselves banned from numerous venues by reputation alone. Of course it’s upsetting that all their recordings were made available in the 90s, but a relief to note that they are all almost unlistenable and redefine the appelation “lo-fi”. Band members went on feature in The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, the Styrenes and The Cramps. None of them were involved in anything this unpleasant or anti-social again…

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