Sunday, October 2, 2011

ugEXPLODE Influences #1: The Electric Eels

The Electric Eels (or is that "the electric eels", or is is "die electric eels", or . . .) sprung from the filth and boredom of the early '70s Midwest and directly anticipated the artastic nihilism of both punk and no wave in one fell swoop. Between 1972 and 1975, this volatile, Cleveland-based combo only played about five shows total, most or all of which ended in confrontation and/or arrests. The core of the group consisted of guitarist John Morton and vocalist Dave "Dave E." McManus with assistance at variable intervals from guitarists Brian McMahon and Paul Marotta (co-leader of The Styrenes), plus help from musicians like Anton Fier (Golden Palominos), Jim Jones (Pere Ubu), Jamie Klimek (also Styrenes) and Nick Knox (later of The Cramps). Their sound was abrasive, loud as fuck, obnoxious, aggressive and primitive. Their lyrical matter, spat out with nothing less than utter contempt by Dave E., covered a range of trashy impulses ranging from extreme irritation to surreal gibberish to dadaistic beat-poetry parody.

I first heard the Eels in 1989. I was on a visit to Madison, Wisconsin with a few pals and wound up, inevitably, at a record store. As I browsed the racks, I would instinctually scrutinize every single record I saw which I didn't recognize and quickly determine whether or not it was of any interest. Maybe it was the raw, scratchy artwork (rendered by Morton), the picture of four ornery punks or perhaps the naughty swastika, but it became obvious, this disc was worth further investigation. I stood and began to absorb the liner notes on the back cover.

-They formed after a Captain Beefheart show. CHECK.
-They used to pick fights with jocks and win. CHECK.
-At their first gig two of them were arrested for being drunk and disorderly while wearing stupid clothes. CHECK.
-At the next gig they augmented their sound with sheet metal played with a sledgehammer. CHECK.
-Another gig featured the singer trying to start a lawnmower and "singing emotional versions of TV theme songs and commercials." CHECK.
-None of their recordings were made in a studio, but instead made through some kind of ass-backwards, jerry-rigged set up while the band played "just like always, deafeningly loud." CHECK.
-They had guys from The Cramps and Pere Ubu, and mentioned Albert Ayler on the back cover. CHECK.

So, I quickly concluded that this record, entitled "Having a Philosophical Investigation With The Electric Eels", was more than just "interesting": in fact I was going to buy it with my hard earned cash. I couldn't see how this could possibly go wrong. All the signs said "YES".

I didn't go wrong. When I got it home, I put it on the turntable and ragged, scabrous guitar noise sprayed from the speakers like ammonia as the asshole singer reared towards the mic blurting, "OooooohhhhHHHHHHHHH . . . I'M SO AGITATED!"  I was hooked in 5 seconds.

Back then, some records were just like that: you anticipated them so heavily on their reputation and then, sometimes, they would actually sound exactly the way you wanted them to . . . (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks was another example of this effect).

Despite rarely having a bass player, this band was a ROCK band - their crude songwriting definitely had a foot in basic pop structures and owed much to Stooges/MC5/Hawkwind brand of pre-punk savagery. John Morton's rabid, atonal guitar mangling dwarfed the band, brutally bullying the rest of the members who fought desperately for room in the soundscape. His chaotic choice of intervals predated the kind of free-jazz danger Black Flag's Greg Ginn would later become more famous for. The drums were hilariously undermixed and moronically bludgeoning. Dave E.'s vocals were extremely snotty, but had no problem cutting through the wall of fuzz . . . obviously the Eels' message was intended to be heard loud and clear, with zero ambiguity. "God must be . . . IN MY REFRIGERATOR!" "GIGANTO HAS HAD IT WITH YOU FUUUUCKKKKS!" These were cretinous manifestos which my disenfranchised teenage brain could take very literally. I really didn't care for my hometown, school, scene or anybody in it and the level of empowered alienation the Eels were expressing made a direct connection to my own situation.

Needless to say, tracks from this fine LP wound up on a favorite mix tape which I blasted at insane volumes from the beater I drove around town, to and from work, record stores and my few remaining friends' houses. The Electric Eels music fit in well with the harrowing "Soon" by Sonny Sharrock, shrill electro-acoustic music by Iannis Xenakis, Pussy Galore, early Last Poets, second album Pop Group and other aurally offensive skree.

During the early '90s, after moving from shitty Rockford, Illinois to less shitty Chicago, I saw a flier on the wall at my school which said "Brian McMahon from The Electric Eels looking for musicians". I couldn't believe my eyes. I called Brian immediately and we hung out at his office, which was only a few blocks away from my apartment. At first Brian seemed a bit incredulous that I was such a huge Eels fan. I got the idea that he didn't yet realize the massive influence the band had. He didn't even remember anything about the handful of shows he played during his service with the group. I had been listening to them for years at that point and I had a million questions which he politely fielded. We never played any music together, but we stayed friends and talked every now and then.

1996 eventually rolled around and The Flying Luttenbachers were in full gear. The year before, Nondor Nevai and I had crashed some To Live and Shave in L.A. gigs in Detroit and Chicago and we were drawn into the wide aesthetic orbit of The Shave's culturally omnivorous singer Tom Smith. Around the summer of that year, Tom began planning a big festival to be held in Atlanta, Georgia called "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and not only did he invite the Luttenbachers, but, it turned out, there was going to be a reunion set by none other than THE ELECTRIC EELS. I was psyched to hear this news. I tried desperately to position myself as their session drummer, but ultimately the line-up included Morton, McMahon, and Marotta with singer Christian Brown and Marotta's son Paul Lawrence on drums.

When the fest rolled around in December, it turned out to be quite a collection of freaks. We were there, sharing a van with Bobby Conn and Zeek Sheck. Harry Pussy, Eugene Chadbourne, Simeon Coxe from the Silver Apples, Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Quintron and a ton of others also played. Excerpts from the shows eventually appeared on the 2003 compilation "Tarot or Aorta: Memories of a PRE Festival" released on Smith's defunct imprint Smack Shire. The Luttenbachers set was a disaster - essentially we couldn't hear what we were doing, so, after unsuccessfully trying to make it through the song "Death Ray" a dozen or so times, I abandoned ship and just decided to make a free-form energy freak out. Chuck Falzone quickly followed me into this artistic oblivion on guitar, but I remember Bill Pisarri being less than excited about not playing the planned set, so I think he just stood around and pouted for most of it. Afterwards we all felt insecure about what happened, but I think the general consensus was that everybody enjoyed watching us melt down on stage. I wound up jamming with Harry Pussy at the end of their set, Bill performed with Zeek Sheck and Chuck did double-duty with Bobby Conn and Zeek.

At the festival, I remember standing outside and shooting the shit with John Morton for a long time in the parking lot of the venue. He was extremely sharp and witty, but constantly prodded me with pointed barbs as if he was assessing my meddle and worth. I was game and we seemed to hit it off. Earlier this year, we met again when we both performed as members of Scarcity of Tanks at a two-day recording session in Brooklyn. Morton still has that devilish intellectual edge and his guitar playing sounded great. He contributed interesting musical concepts and refused to accept any musical complacency in the group - a man after my own heart. Of course, he also insisted on showing me his tattooed penis. He remains a bold character, true to his roots as a smart malcontent and boundary-defying artist. I look forward to hearing the final mixes from that wild, multifaceted session . . .

The Electric Eels' set at the '96 Tora fest was highly anticipated. I felt a wave of relief when they didn't suck. Ha ha ha. Let's face it: most "reunions" in rock music blow. Why is this? Well, many rock bands are the sum total of certain personalities, times and places. If you remove one or more of these elements, most often, you're not left with much of the impetus which might have made it so good in its original form. I wasn't crazy about the singer - he was irritating in a geeky, somewhat clueless way that seemed to banish him straight into the shadow of Dave E.'s massive reputation - but the guitars were loud and the drumming was supportive. During the song "Anxiety", the room seemed to levitate slightly. There was a distinct sense - and I could even feel this from the band - that SOMETHING WAS HAPPENING. It was a fleeting moment, but I could tell everybody sensed that the Eels could be back for good. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. Morton and McMahon fell out afterwards and that was the end of the Eels, part deux.

Luckily, their recorded oeuvre survives, thanks to the meticulous archiving of Paul Marotta. Without his efforts to protect the funky cassettes all the Eels' music was laid down on, there might be no documentation of their nebulous existence. To date, 50 separate Electric Eels takes have been released on a myriad of CD and LP anthologies. The earliest evidence appeared on two posthumous singles on the Rough Trade and Mustard labels, in 1978 and 1981, respectively. The 1989 "Having A Philosophical Investigation . . ." LP followed those. Homestead Records released an expanded version, poignantly titled "God Says Fuck You" (possibly a jab at the born-again Christian Dave E., who eventually disassociated himself with the band) in 1991. In 1998, UK label Overground issued yet another variant on the now-familiar material under the hilariously unwieldy moniker "The Beast 999 Presents The Electric Eels In Their Organic Majesty's Request". Scat Records dealt a double whammy by vomiting forth both the collections "The Eyeball of Hell" (2001) and the three-band split "Those Were Different Times" (1997), also featuring tracks by CLE-punk comrades The Mirrors and The Styrenes.


bruitiste said...

Fascinating stuff. This blog is great, please keep it up!

Nadner Nevdi said...

it's all true.

Anonymous said...

Weasel , I found out about Brian McMahon's actual residence in Chicago and that he was looking for musicians to collaborate with , around the time you did. I saw an ad in The Reader. I had to confirm that we were talking about the same Electric Eels. He really didn't seem aware of the scope of their influence , at the time. Nothing came of it , but we kept in touch . A couple of years later , he told me he was forming a band , and asked me to procure some friends who might be interested. With absolutely zero effort , I rounded up Henry Polk ( Ex - Sky Saxon Bassist and friend to Arthur Lee.) , Chris ("Chris Piss" , "Ilth" )Erickson (Horizontal Blackouts , WE PLAYED TOGETHER ONCE AS A TWO PIECE.) , and Sherrilyn Nelson ( Velveteen Loveseat , Colorado.). wE WERE SHAPING UP NICELY , BUT ,DID'NT HAVE A DRUMMER. We took turns on percussian , until Brian found a rather strange individual ( I THINK YOU KNOW ME WELL ENOUGH TO KNOW I DON'T USE OVERUSED WORDS LIKE "STRANGE" LIGHTLY.)who looked and acted like a young Fred Schneider(Even worked in the same place The B52'S FIRST REHEARSED IN. A BLOODLETTING ROOM IN A MORTUARY.). HE WAS ON A BIT OF A POWER TRIP , TOO. The band was called Brian Mcmahon Mit Das Volt. I did three gigs with them , attended , collectively, by about 30 people. KEVIN JUNIOR BROKE A RECORD BY ATTENDING TWO OF THE SHOWS. I'm positive , a lot of people have never heard of us , which is too bad , WE WERE ACTUALLY A PRETTY GOOD BAND , EVEN IF WE WERE'NT RECONSTRUCTING THE EELS' CATALOGUE . We did do "Jaguar Ride".

I was just telling a friend about that show you and I did together at that bookstore in Wicker Park. Good Times. Nobunny blames that show for wating to become a far more successful solo artist. Be well , John Battles.