Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

I’ve been praying a silent prayer every evening before tuck-in that someone would take it upon themselves to collect MONOSHOCK’s 45s and miscellaneous odds/ends onto a CD, but never in my deep talks with the Lord did I imagine the results would come out this tip-top. Before diving deep into this excellent 1989-95 overview of one of America’s hottest lost 1990s “local” bands, some disclaimers & a little history. My personal involvement with Monoshock goes back a ways, so for me to pretend there’s zero connection between us would be more than a tad disingenuous. I will say that I’ve had nil contact with anyone in the band for several years now. I took it upon myself to post an unprompted yet non-maliced warts-&-all discussion of Julian Cope’s experiment in extreme Monoshock hyperbole 18 months ago, pretty much the first real post on this site. I put some distance between myself and a subjective view of the band’s music a long time ago, and I think I can, in 2004, critically approach this CD as a non-jaundiced fan might.

That said, after reading the liner notes by “The Captain”, which provide a terrific overview of Monoshock’s life story, the dots began to reconnect. I played – OK, sang – in Isla Vista, CA’s UMBILICAL CHORDS in 1988 with a pre-Monoshock Rubin Fiberglass & Grady Runyan, and because I was a whiny 20-year-old purist of some sort & tried to keep their band rooted square in a dead-end fast/loose/hard Lazy Cowgirls-esque direction, I happily assisted in driving those much more visionary & talented gentlemen from the Chords, whereupon they created the more expansive proto-fuzz Monoshock that summer. Monoshock quickly became one of those rare bands that one sees live repeatedly not because your friends are in the group, but because they’re really, really good. Later, hard feelings assuaged, I played/sang in a 1989 one-time-only tribute band to the awful Mystic Records hardcore compilation “We Got Power” called, you got it, WE GOT POWER, featuring all three members of Monoshock + me decked out in our finest Ill Repute/Willful Neglect wear. Still later, after the band had broken up & reemerged in 1993 in the San Francisco Bay Area, I put out their first 7”EP on my exceptionally short-lived label Womb Records. All three tracks from that CRIME/CHROME-damaged 45 kick this CD off in screaming fashion, and that’s where the REAL story – the interesting one –begins.

The first thing you notice if you were at all familiar with this band is that the remixes of what were some of the dirtiest, filthiest, most buried SOLGER-esque rock recordings ever are now hot, frothing and bursting off the laser to grab you by the lapels of your fine Dacron ensemble. Now how did they do that? It’s a stone-cold miracle; the transformation of these crud-encrusted recordings into items for home fidelity systems are akin to a radical Queer Eye intervention. The band’s first three 45s are here, along with their two comp tracks and loads of unreleased gems. These sons of VOM are three of the most clued-in musical minds I’ve ever met or observed, and they breathed in and coughed out a whole host of killer influences. Starting with the most obvious: Hawkwind, The Stooges, Can, Black Flag, Pere Ubu, Pink Fairies, Von Lmo, the MC5, and Chrome. Later in their flickeringly brief career they trended more toward heavy Japanese-style PSF psychedelia and outré space rock experimentation a la F/i, Vertical Slit and any number of barefoot Germans from the 1970s. I’m not sure where they’d have ended up had the band not petered out in 1995 – it appears from the direction they were trending on the LP/CD “Walk To The Fire” that it was into a heads-down, dark & deep spastic noise murk rather than back to the bull-rushing primitive fuzz-punk squeal of these earlier recordings.

The revamped, post-college MONOSHOCK were the great white hopes of Bay Area sub-underground rock for about a year; the few of us that closely followed their comings and goings, best captured on those three loud-as-fuck 45s, were flat-out convinced that they were one big Forced Exposure write-up or one big WFMU endorsement away from selling the nation on their considerable charms. It wasn’t to be, and it was frustrating for lots of reasons. One of them may or may not have been related to the band’s motivation declining in an inverse proportion to their moderately ascending popularity. I could be way off base here, but Monoshock tended to wander off the reservation of coherence frequently enough that self-sabotage has to be considered as a worthy theory for salon discussion. That way they could remain fully sub-underground and in so doing, ensure they’d be so in there’s no chance they’d ever sell out. Witness the uncoached “special musical guests” on tambourine or sax who snuck in, stuck around and somehow became unofficial band members. Or how about weed-baked tracks on the CD like “Terminal Roctus” and “Cabalgando a la Luna” (as my pal RW said, when was the last time you broke out “Fuck That Weak Shit, Volume 3”, from which this emanates?), which, well, if you’ve got another word for self-indulgent, I’m all ears.

But this unpredictability and spontaneity was much more frequently a source of strength. Even way early on, Monoshock let plodding thud monsters like the 1989 demo that closes this CD, “Destination: Soil”, break out into impromptu, freakish, extendo Big Muff jams that left half the party in rapturous awe & the other half passed out on the floor. Grady Runyan was and remains a destroying guitar player, a guy who has done as much with distortion and pedal-based chaos as anyone has the past 15 years. Likewise Scott Derr (on the 1989 stuff) and especially Rubin Fiberglass (most of the 1993-95 tracks) were top-shelf vocalists; Fiberglass in particular had a snot-assed delivery that sounded like the gutter stepchild of Darby Crash and the McDonald brothers. This CD conveys their unrestrained powers far more cohesively than even most of their live gigs did, and with a far better mix than any of the vinyl that preceded it. It’s one that’s worth playing repeatedly and which’ll deservedly make them a whole lot more friends in the afterlife than they garnered in the here and now. Kudos to S-S Records for making the release happen & to Monoshock for allowing it to.