The Aberrant Years
Last week music writer Marc Masters posted to Twitter, “Here’s a list of broken-up bands that will never reunite.” He ended his tweet with a colon, and after the colon—nothing. He may very well be right. Australian power trio Feedtime—who broke up in 1989, got back together briefly in the mid-90s without playing any shows, and most recently released a record in 1996—have reunited. It’s not as though people have been clamoring for them. Unlike, say, the Pixies, they’ve faded from memory since they split up. Nonetheless they’re finally making their first U.S. tour, which brings them to the Empty Bottle on March 27, and it’s obvious why: this week Sub Pop released a four-disc box called The Aberrant Years, which collects the four albums (Feedtime, Shovel, Cooper-S, and Suction) the band put out through Aussie label Aberrant between 1985 and ’89, plus singles and compilation tracks from the same period.
Feedtime disbanded in 1989, shortly after the release of Suction, on the eve of what would’ve been their first stateside tour. I was a huge fan of the band in their initial incarnation, and I didn’t even remember they’d made a fifth album—Billy, cut with a different drummer for Amphetamine Reptile in 1996—until I started writing this. To be honest, I probably hadn’t played any of their records in two decades. But revisiting Feedtime’s music—especially their second album, Shovel—instantly reminded me why I’d loved it.
Founded in the late 70s by guitarist and singer Rick Johnson and bassist Allen Larkin (drummer Tom Sturm joined in 1982), Feedtime developed an unstudied, homemade sound that’s nonetheless perfectly distinctive—heavy, stout, sawed-off, graceless, and hugely loud. Johnson is a big blues fan—he plays with a slide, crudely—but what really gives the music its primitive intensity are the trebly, distorted bass and caveman drums. These guys weren’t great players, but they made for an awesome unified front, even managing to swing in spite of themselves.
For the most part Feedtime only did one thing, but they did it well. On their third album, the covers collection Cooper-S, they give the same treatment to songs by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, X (the Australian one), the Stooges, and the Easybeats, among others—every tune, regardless of its melody, dynamics, or tempo shifts, gets flattened into a brutally one-dimensional howl. In some ways Feedtime worked like the Oval software Markus Popp would develop in the 90s, which could transform any recording into Oval music—these guys could turn anything into Feedtime music using just muscle and bone.
Feedtime was a down under analogue to the antisocial posthardcore that had emerged in the States (Big Black, Scratch Acid, Butthole Surfers) and a likely influence on grunge (Mudhoney’s Mark Arm remains a huge fan, and chose his favorite Feedtime songs for a Sub Pop Soundcloud playlist). Both the covers and the band’s original songs still sound great today, though their single-minded focus—the source of their strength—can also make them seem a little narrow. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that Feedtime’s reunion isn’t going to teach anyone to appreciate hidden subtleties in their music that went unnoticed two decades ago. What you see is what you get, now as then.
Free Again: The “1970” Sessions
Tav Falco’s Panther Burns
Behind the Magnolia Curtain/Blow Your Top
The single-disc anthology Free Again: The “1970” Sessions collects Alex Chilton‘s first post-Box Tops recordings, and in its title tune he doesn’t exactly hide his feelings about leaving the band: “Well I’m free again to do what I want to again / Free again to sing my songs again / Free again to end my longing / To be out on my own again.” Chilton began recording this material in 1969, when he was 18 years old, at Ardent Studios in Memphis. He ducked in for sessions when the Box Tops weren’t on the road, and the songs form a sort of bridge between that group’s R&B-flavored hits and the brilliant guitar pop he would soon deliver with Big Star. They went unheard until 1996, when the studio’s label released them as the album 1970. It didn’t stay in print long—hence this reissue, with in-depth liner notes by former Reader staffer Bob Mehr.
Free Again includes gorgeous, exquisitely crafted tunes—among them the title track, “The EMI Song (Smile for Me),” and “The Happy Song,” one of several redone Box Tops obscurities—as well as raunchy R&B numbers such as the funky “All I Really Want Is Money,” a dig at the Box Tops’ management, who took home most of the band’s earnings. There’s also a high-energy cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and a twisted medley of the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” and James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’.” The liner notes acknowledge Chilton’s ambivalence about these recordings, and given how far they fall short of his best work, it’s easy to see why he felt that way. Despite some real moments of pleasure and humor, Free Again is a minor collection—a snapshot of an underdocumented moment in Chilton’s development as an artist.
In October 1978, when Gus Nelson (aka Tav “Gustavo” Falco) made his live debut as part of the final show by Memphis rock institution Mudboy & the Neutrons, Chilton was in the audience. Falco sang Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues,” running his guitar through the speaker of a movie projector and taking a chainsaw to the instrument. Chilton was impressed. By then Big Star had come and gone, a commercial flop despite its peerless brillance. He was about to begin work on his raw first solo album, Like Flies on Sherbert, and he started hanging out with Falco, forming a band with him called Panther Burns. For Chilton, chewed up and spit out by the music biz, it was a chance to play blues and rockabilly guitar while staying out of the spotlight.
Chilton had been producing the Cramps’ early material, and those songs informed both Like Flies and Panther Burns. His band with Falco, though, made Lux Interior and company look like a precision drill team—when they signed with Rough Trade in 1980, they were such a mess that the label interceded to get some relatively reliable players involved. Drummer Ross Johnson, who played on Flies, was shown the door—Chilton and fellow guitarist Jim Duckworth ended up alternating on drums—and bassist Ron Miller was added. In 1981 that lineup cut Behind the Magnolia Curtain in wild single-take performances, occasionally joined by members of the Tate County Fife & Drum Corps. The songs are all covers: obscure nuggets of trashy rockabilly, bloodied takes on songs by Junior Wells and R.L. Burnside, even a spin on the Ary Barroso standard “Brazil.”
Fat Possum’s reissue also includes the four-song EP Blow Your Top, recorded in New York in 1983; by then the band, sans Chilton, was more professional, with future Bad Seed Jim Sclavunos on drums. But the thrillingly sloppy Magnolia Curtain is the real business, a triumph of raw guts, and it captures the singular spirit of rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis—where American traditions have long collided in bizarre ways—as well as anything ever has.