"I worry that humanity has been 'advanced'
to its present level
of incompetency because evolution works on the Peter Principle."
~ Jane Wagner (1985)
Mind Caviar Vol. 2, Summer Issue 2001
"How a series of many notes lain next to each can provide in part an illusion of music, and an airy mood-affecting disturbance, and leadeth mankind to enjoy the death of artistry..."
Gwar. Sugar Cubes. The Urinals. These are all bands started by art students. They started as jokes, but accidentally continued for a reasonably long time. The good part about committing an act as a joke is that if it flops or goes horribly awry, or you offend each and every member of the audience down to their last moral fiber, you can write it all off and say, "Ha! Gotcha. I didn't really mean it-- but you came along for a little while. See ya!" And then you can pack your shit and run for the door, ready for the next one.
The only danger with jokes is that sometimes people take them seriously. What happens then? The audience thought your joke was great. They want more joke. The joke continues, cycling around and sputtering about, dragging audiences with it, waiting for the right moment to die.
The year was 1978 at UCLA. Music culture in the U.S. was a dissatisfying miasma of album-oriented rock, super groups of megastars, sappy ballads, disco, art rock, and tired funk. Punk was in full force overseas and slowly filtering down through the squalid atmosphere of stagnant sound to this side of the pond. At this point in the U.S. scene, two film students, John Jones and Kevin Barrett, and one philosophy major, Kjehl Johansen, put together a five piece band in order to play songs without skill, without merit, and without really any redeeming qualities.
They wanted to show 'em all: to play short, idiotic and simplistic songs; to get the idea across that music is not a hallowed craft viewed on an altar with velvet ropes keeping away audiences; to say the current state of pop music is an overproduced, windbag-driven, crusty pile of recycled ideas and illusory talent. But, of course, the worst happened, as it must. Audiences took them seriously, and kept coming to the shows. Worse than the audience, the band took itself seriously, and kept playing the shows.
They continued to write songs, still maintaining the stance of simple, irritating, loud, and driving-- music made by non-musicians. Then the best character that could possibly enter the stage came: the rich and interested friend. Vitus Matare recorded the Urinals in his parents' pool house to release an EP, The Urinals, on their own Happy Squid label. The four songs gave them the road map of the sound they were going to spew for the next three years. As long as we're dropping names, they played shows alongside Black Flag, the Middle Class, Circle Jerks, Roky Erickson, and the Gun Club. Happy Squid released records by the Leaving Trains, Meat Puppets, and Neef.
Three years had gone by, and the Urinals decided to call it quits under that name. The reason? Their songs were getting too complex and melodic, therefore those were not Urinals songs. They became the band 100 Flowers and kept going. That's where the sum of this reviewer's knowledge becomes red print on the ledger sheet, and that's where this reviewer quits history and starts to dissect.
Negative Capability is the Urinals' collection of two EPs, three seven-inch A and B sides, four tracks from various compilations, and eleven live tracks from three shows. These numbers speak nothing except to give some idea of the low budgets and sparse releases involved. Most of the songs are between thirty seconds and two minutes, wonderful brutal insulting singalongs. They have two or three chords, but a few get more daring, and get up to five. They have much drums, a staccato warbling bass, a metric crapload of guitar, and heaps of distortion, including vocals. The key to remember is that this is nothing fancy. It's so basic and horrible that it becomes a thing of beauty, like the publicly funded abstract art in your town square.
An Exercise in Despair
Picking a few favorite songs is an exercise in despair, notwithstanding the incomprehensibility of the majority of the lyrics. But here are a few choice and meaty bits.
"I'm a Bug"
I'm a bug!
So are you baby
I wanna use my
pincers on you
Buzz buzz! (x3)
I'm a bug
is my breakfast
along with tea, yeah
Buzz buzz! (x3)
I'm a bug
I got a stinger
You got one too, baby!
(Let's wing it)
What's Left to Say?
Three chord riffs, college DJ-style shrieking, and one minute and thirteen seconds of trashy goodness.
"Ack ack ack ack"
This song was recorded before Bill the Cat made it his language. As best I can tell, this one-and-a-half chord song is about Johnny gunning down the singer, the media trashing him, and that Johnny is his hero. "Ack ack ack ack" follows about every line-- the sound of the gun.
"I'm White and Middle Class"
"I'm tearing up my income tax" and "Shove it up your ass!" are all I could get reliably from another great monotone melodic vocal line. "A cripple to society" is a maybe somewhere in here. The singer pauses four beats, then delivers incredibly fast lines. I didn't get them, but I'm sure they're good.
"Surfin' with the Shah"
From the first EP, this is a droning instrumental with sparse but steady percussion and a simple hypnotic descending lead from the guitar that appears in between the single-note exploration.
The first of the live tracks is introduced by what seems to be a voice-cracking muppet. "You want the best? You got the best! The hottest band in the world-- The Urinals!" The stage versions of the songs are as good as the studio recordings, if not better, because of the energy of the clubs. There are a few covers as well. The Jetson's theme is mangled beyond repair, and Soft Machine's "Why are We Sleeping," Roky Erickson's "You're Gonna Miss Me," and the Kingston Trio's "Shape of Things to Come" are part of the live sets.
There are still a few bands left out there that the Machine hasn't gotten to yet. I just hope I don't have to discover them by their epitaph, a collection of songs salvaged from the rubble of a wasteland. So now the Urinals are gone, punk is dead, blah blah blah. Their songs are short, bizarre, violent, primitive, and horrible. And that's what made them beautiful. Drop curtain.
Tongue " Copyright © 2001 A. Lark. All rights reserved. With the
humble author's gratitude to the Honorable Byron Coley of Northampton,
Mass. for his liner notes, which are liberally plagiarized, misconstrued,
and indecently treated as all liner notes should be.
A. Lark is a media slut with a preference for animation and subtitles. Lark lives in a perpetual delusion but not one of grandeur. He believes it's much better to disturb than to entertain, but if you're really good, you can pull off both at once. He is also a musician, having played in bands in Baton Rouge and New Orleans for years. He mostly uses keyboards, but considers anything that makes an interesting noise worthwhile. Lark still has a dream band to put together. Unfortunately, however, 1971 is gone, Peter Gabriel has left Genesis, and R. Fripp won't return his calls.
Email A. Lark. Abuse is welcome as long as it's funny.
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