Guest Music Correspondent on Noise Rock

By Niubi Cowboy

Apologies to my Guest as I lost some of the formatting and bolding in my cut and paste.

KT’s been kind enough to let me write a short guest column about a musical subject of my choice. So, in order to attract (alienate?) as many people as possible, I’ve chosen to write on noise rock. To me, noise rock encapsulates the outliers of a number of different genres including but not limited to metal, garage, punk and its various offshoots, rock, and yes, even jazz. I’ve always thought that a good way to determine if a band can be lumped into this nebulous category is by putting it to a vote among each genre’s constituency of purists. If the punks say “Oi?”, the metal-heads say “RARGH?”, and the rock and roll bros say “Play Freebird (US)/Khe Sanh (AUS)!”, chances are your band qualifies as noise. Congratulations, you’ve pissed off all of the genre stalwarts!

Because I view this as an introduction of sorts, I’m going to try and link as many accessible tracks as I can. You’ll think me later for sparing your consciousness from the audio onslaught of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which is more noise than rock, anyway. However, Lou Reed does provide an interesting segway into my first track. As I conceived of this post and pondered a way to begin it, my thoughts kept returning to the Velvet Underground track “Sister Ray,” from their 1968 album White Light/White Heat. Its length, the drone-like repetition of the lyrics, and the rawness of Lou Reed’s guitar all come together to form what is, in my mind, a noise rock masterpiece.

The Velvets, along with other acts like The Stooges and the MC5, were part of what came to be known much later as proto-punk. Their musical innovations served to inspire the younger group of artists that came to form the first wave of punk rock in New York and London. While I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Blondie, lesser known among them were the acts that arose in opposition to the rising tide of New Wave artists. Drawing from a number of different genres and describing themselves as No Wave, groups like DNA, the Theoretical Girls, James Chance, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks began charting new sonic territory and, in doing so, even managed to piss off fellow fans of underground music.

Within the short-lived movement itself, the music ranges from catchy…

…to what most people would consider to be completely unlistenable.

As punk entered the 80s, the experimentation that characterized much of the first wave of punk gave way to a more homogenized sound that was embodied by acts like the Ramones and the Exploited…who then continued to produce the same music for the next twenty years. Despite all this, however, noise rock could still be found lurking at the edges of the status quo. In the early 80s The Germs were the darlings of the California punk scene with a killer, don’t-give-a-fuck sound aided in part by the don’t-give-a-fuck dumbass frontman, Darby Crash.

Meanwhile, in Texas, hardcore punk was creating big waves. But, Texans being Texans, they insisted on doing it their own way. Enter San Antonio act the Butthole Surfers, who transformed heavy metal anthem “Sweet Leaf” into Texas brand “Sweet Loaf” on their album Locust Abortion Technician (check out the killer artwork on the cover).

Unlike the Ramones and the Exploited, thankfully, most people get tired of playing the same three chords song after song and album after album. The real musicians who stuck around even after their teenage rebellion came to an end at age 30 were bored and ready to make music that defied the conventions of the non-conformist music movements of which they had been part. Noise became the counter-culture to the counter-culture (hardcore) to the counter-culture (punk), I suppose you could say? The seeds were sown and it was once again time for some interesting music to be made. We’ll start with a man whose name must be mentioned in any introduction to noise rock: Steve Albini. He was a founding member of seminal noise rock acts Big Black and Rapeman.

Connections abound among these mid-to-late 80s noise rock bands: first, the drummer in Rapeman was the drummer in Texas hardcore band the Big Boys along with Austin-based noise rock outfit Scratch Acid.

Second, the bass player in Rapeman was the bass player in Scratch Acid as well as noise terrorists The Jesus Lizard.

But, as with everything else, time goes on and the second-hand clothing wearing guys who used to play in abandoned bread factories are now old men who have been replaced by young people wearing $50 t-shirts purchased at Urban Outfitters made to look second-hand AND playing shows in hip, new, gentrified venues (“This place is awesome! I heard it used to be an abandoned bread factory?”). But, kids these days are capable of making good music. In the early 2000s, the Providence noise rock scene was booming. Bands involved included Arab on Radar; its offshoot bands Athletic Automaton, Made in Mexico, and the Chinese Stars; Pink and Brown; Olneyville Sound System; and Daughters. The band I leave you with though? Noise rock legends, drum and bass duo Lightning Bolt (starts at 1:54):

Because I didn’t want to make this too long, I left out a lot of bands that surely deserved to be included. I also tried to follow noise rock through punk rather than through traditional rock and garage outfits. But, in case I don’t do another post, here’s a brief list of honorable mentions of rock pioneers who helped pave the way for future noise acts:

Can

Captain Beefheart (easy-listening)

Captain Beefheart (double-ewe tee eff, in a good way)

Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd (the ONLY Pink Floyd, depending on who you’re talking to)

The Monks

And, lastly, an unintentional noise rock trio whose debut album is now one of legend. Behold, The Shaggs:

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3 Responses to “Guest Music Correspondent on Noise Rock”

  1. kingtubby1 Says:

    The Shaggs and The Monks hands down.

    The Shaggs. Ah Gee Dad, it doesn’t really matter where the guitar break goes.

  2. bucketoftongues Says:

    SISTER RAY!!! Oh, god, SISTER RAY!

    I seriously considered getting a tattoo saying “Sister Ray” for quite some time, but I never could find a font that captured it. An impossible task, no doubt. I love the way that Cale’s organ playing is louder and more aggressive than both electric guitars.

    Great post, and nice to see noise-rock getting proper attention. I would also mention Big Black/Steve Albini and Sonic Youth.

  3. NiubiCowboy Says:

    KT, there was a chapter devoted to The Shaggs in Irwin Chusid’s book, Songs in the Key of Z, that details their strange path to “success.” Well worth the read.

    Thanks bucketoftongues! A Sister Ray tattoo would indeed be wicked awesome. Near the end of my post, I did include two clips of Steve Albini performing in Big Black and Rapeman. As for Sonic Youth, I totally agree. But, in the end I decided to include groups that most people might not have heard, assuming that most of us would be familiar with Sonic Youth.

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