(Kill Rock Stars)

Y Pants
Y Pants
(Periodic Document)

You should listen to Liliput

Where punk rock starts and ends

Maybe if you listened to Liliput

Your songs would find more friends

—Yummy Fur, “Liliput”

I’m not Tina Turner.

—Marlene Marder of Liliput

We rely on a narrow, conventional sense of good and bad every day–maybe we need to do that to get along, maybe we don’t. Straight, shiny things get canonized, most other things continue to be ignored, and we accept it like the weather. For example, when the Pulitzer committee awarded the prize for criticism to the New York Times book writer Michiko Kakutani, they said she had what Keats called “negative capability.” They were praising that clean, anonymous quality that makes her writing look objective and official. Their point was that like some kind of human mirror, Kakutani came to have something to say by polishing away her personality and feelings until what she was writing about just reflected off her onto the page. But clean and clear though they may be, Kakutani’s opinions are what you already thought before reading them. Writers who like her, or are like her, are uncomfortable scratching at the shiny surfaces. Writing about art shouldn’t be, can’t be, objective. It should be more like making art–carving up the surface, not just reflecting what’s there.

And anyway, screw Keats–Negative Capability is also a record by the Urinals. It’s lucid and clean (remastered for CD!), but not publicly presentable (they were called the Urinals, for fuck’s sake)–the opposite of fake-objective journalism or responsible pop culture. Rickety, awkward, and personal, the Urinals never matured, softened, or grew overly competent. You could hear the music-making parts grinding together. The songs were intense, hooky, and raw, like sweet and sour mangoes in summer: too short to “develop,” they burst with grainy juiciness. Lacking the clenched aggression people used to associate with punk and now connect with bad metal, they just walked up, said something that stuck in your head and then split. The Urinals had the negative capability to avoid what they didn’t have to say, that clean official stuff with no content, everything other than what moved the song forward until it stopped. Real negative capability: an experiment with lack.

There’s a whole world of music with that capability: the power to chop things up or out, to deny and set off alarms. It’s a real power: It can be fetishized so the charm and mess are worn like brand names in that punk-rock high school style of learned slovenliness. I still see this around Wicker Park. But most of those people look half asleep, which is normal. Because most normal musicians want their music to get good by becoming smooth, going unconscious. Phrases like “locking in” and “laying back” describe what happens when the playing becomes transparent, and it’s no coincidence that they also describe shutting things down or out. That’s fine–but it’s no substitute for waking up.

The Art of Self Defense by High on Fire, who distill everything gory about Black Sabbath, starts with that kind of wake-up call. Actually, it evokes my favorite Christmas scene ever: my friend Sam and I are trying to see Dungeons & Dragons at 600 N. Michigan. We go across the street to kill time looking at body glitter in the Guess store–and we catch this guy in a Santa suit, playing guitar for donations on the corner. He’s trying hard to play the oldest, easiest dunce-metal riff in the book–Sabbath’s “Iron Man”–and failing. He keeps stumbling, falling off at three and a half beats to the bar, four and a half, the notes never line up: this guy suuuucks. Half an hour later we’ve seen all the slutty sequined clothes we can handle and he’s still there, lurching through “Iron Man,” falling on his face, smearing a joyfully unsound noise all over the Magnificent Mile. It made our night. High on Fire’s album opens with guitarist Matt Pike doing the same thing, throwing his body into every lurch. After he almost plays his riff four times, choking it off each time with thick, ropy wads of delay and never coming in at quite the same place, the rhythm section slams in behind him on the beat and he locks into its timing. The playing isn’t transparent; it’s superkinetic and alive: the Sabbath imitator kicked hard enough in the ass to knock his lurch into a full-tilt run.

Is there something valuable about the way things sound when they sound like they’re going wrong? Everyone who’s played music has experienced that teeter between failure, success, and something lurking beyond that threatens the rules dividing them: what if the mistake, the music of what happens, is better than what you were planning to play? People dismiss that by saying it’s immature, just covering up flaws with other flaws. Is it charming to suck if you’re cute about it? Sometimes it’s definitely a tease–Pike deliberately messes it up and the tension squeezes more rock out of the rest of the song. High on Fire obviously know what they’re doing. But if you take it further, it’s a whole way of making music, not just challenging but gut-level exciting, and people can actually get good at it.

The Swiss group Liliput were around from 1978 to 1983. Their most famous lyrics are something to the effect of “Hotch-potch hugger-mugger bow-wow hara-kiri hoo-poo huzza hiccup hum-drum hexa-pod hell-cat helter-skelter hop-scotch,” and they sound tough enough to kick Pantera’s ass in a dark alley. If that’s not enough for you you’re crazy, but there’s more. Described once as “a Swiss art-punk band previously known only to Greil Marcus,” they put out records on Rough Trade, got a lot of press, inspired a lot of people, and seem to have had a lot of fun. But when bands like that break up, they tend to go off the map. A Swiss label called Off Course put them back on in 1993, and the two-disc, 46-track retrospective became a collector’s item almost instantly; Kill Rock Stars has just reissued it. Liliput are usually remembered as “joyously childlike.” It’s a nice thing to say, but it makes me want to barf. Comparison with children is one of the ways “people” tend to praise women, primitives, and black people of any gender and age: nice and undeveloped (and underdevelopment is what makes them nice). It’s a way to simultaneously appreciate and totally ignore someone.

Liliput in fact fully realized their negative capability. It’s true they started off sounding ominous and singsongy on their first four songs, the only ones they knew–the rhythms moved forward by trudging. Primitive and mysterious is a good way to go if you can’t play: as John Waters said about low-budget filmmaking, “Use lots of blood.” But as Liliput got better and better they just started kicking ass while maintaining this unpredictable, huge openness. Guitarist Marlene Marder and bassist-singer Klaudia Schiff are the only constant members; expert drumming (by Lislot Ha. and then Chrigle Freund) made them ominous and singsongy in a different way, and on songs like “DC-10” and “Eisiger Wind” they’re thunderous and smooth, evoking the heavy-metal dream of a whole orchestra with a few gestures. They use an inventory of vocal sounds outside their native tongue, making the noises you might find in Little Richard’s nonsense lyrics. But they’re not historians–they pick up those familiar syllables and make them do jumping jacks. They also bleat on saxophones, make kissy-squeaky noises, and whistle.

Everything they’re doing comes together on songs like “His Head is All Red,” where an almost mechanical beat pumps under talk-yodel singing. The vocals (like Pike’s solo) start out way off the song’s tempo–taking an extra bar to finish, maybe more. Over the course of the song they drift sweetly into place for a few bars, then step right out of line again. It’s like watching someone confidently step over a ship’s railing, then walk on water next to the boat.

A band called Y Pants did the same thing around the same time as Liliput but seemed to make no impact at all outside their native New York. Their complete works were issued on CD about three years ago by a Minneapolis label, Periodic Document, that seems to have issued nothing else since. Y Pants were a trio of plugged-in scene people–for example Barbara Ess, who played bass and ukulele and sang, edited an arts magazine called Just Another Asshole, collaborated with Glenn Branca, and is now a photography prof at Bard. They made the Lower East Side seem like a beautiful and creepy universe that belonged just to them and their screwed-up boyfriends. In the heyday of no wave, while people were trying to blow each other’s legs off with sheer edgy hate, they did a very calm song about washing a sweater. Specifically, they said they weren’t able to wear it because it wasn’t dry yet, and later told us “don’t be afraid to be boring.” The song thumps and chimes without needing to snarl; it’s raw in a crisp, refreshing way. Another song, “Off the Hook,” takes the Stones tune about being blown off and lays it over a nonchalantly lopsided beat. The song’s simple, painful story leads you onward until the rhythm works–it’s like walking on crutches, awkward and tentative, but also exciting and new. Y Pants’ “cover version” of the Emily Dickinson poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz,” about leaving both your things and your body, is built on an organ riff catchy enough to power the hookiest 70s funk song: with all hook and no funk it leaves you feeling weird but happy. “That’s the Way Boys Are,” the final song from their LP, is Lesley Gore’s sad song of accepting humiliation at her boyfriend’s hands. Y Pants chant it straight, but someone in the background starts shrieking as if her throat were being cut. It’s the most violent sort of riot grrl sentiment, slipped effortlessly into a 1950s shell (because people felt that way in the ’50s too).

Liliput and Y Pants radiate courage. Without the bluster, ponderous musicianly moves, or the arsenal of cliches available to most rockers, they invented dead-on rhythms, rich melodies, and a new language that was fun to learn and share. Their negative capability was the ability to step away from what you can or can’t do and just go: probably the reason people fixate on their work being childlike. But that’s stupid. The fact is they were adults: smart, talented white women from supportive communities in Europe and New York. While it’s hard to imagine them not being women, it’s also hard to imagine them not being punk, or white. So maybe the problem is with our imaginations. As perfect feminist artifact, the music both embodies and goes beyond what we imagine about the people who made it. And the beauty of this stuff on reissue is that it now belongs to nobody and everybody. The potential downside? Thinking about it made me go out and get a guitar.