Blast from my past

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When I was still in high school, a long, long time ago, the only radio station I listened to regularly was WPRB, operated by students at Princeton University. I first heard a lot of great bands through the station, including some that eventually became standard-bearers--R.E.M., the Violent Femmes, the Minutemen, the Feelies, Mission of Burma--but to be honest I know I've forgotten the great majority. I learned about groups like the Neats and the Dream Syndicate, who didn't quite get canonized but still mean just as much to me now as they did nearly two and a half decades ago. And I remember a handful of songs that earned a special place in the station's rotation but were by bands that nobody really knew much about, even at the time.

One was called "King Size Cigarette," a fantastic, ultracatchy garage tune by a band from Des Moines, Iowa, called the Law, reputedly the state's first punk act. It'd been released as a single in 1980, but WPRB had transferred it to a cart--a bulky cartridge containing a tape loop, usually used for commercials or public service announcements (I know this because I eventually got to DJ on the station one evening in 1986). Another fine song from the single, "Reason for Treason," also got some airplay. The Law's front man, Charlie Chesterman, later moved to Boston, where he started Scruffy the Cat. A great holiday song by the Law called "What Did Santa Claus Bring You for Christmas?," cut in 1981, eventually turned up on the My Pal God Holiday Record, a compilation released by WPRB alum and former Chicagoan Jon Solomon.

The other song indelibly burned into my memory by WPRB was "Go to a Party" by a weird punk band from Buffalo, New York, called the Fems. Fueled by impossibly bottom-heavy tribal drumming and a fuzzed-out guitar-bass throb, this hilarious ditty constantly returned the refrain "Go to a party and act like an asshole / Go to a party and get real drunk," sung in a grating, nasal sneer. When I first heard it, the song seemed to perfectly capture idiotic college-boy machismo, though admittedly it doesn't seem quite so profound in 2009.

Not long after I moved here in 1984, the Fems played in Chicago at the West End, a great club at the corner of Racine and Armitage that was booked by Sue Miller--who, of course, went on to book shows at the Cubby Bear and later Lounge Ax, joining founder Julia Adams. I don't remember much about the show, except that I thought the Fems were terrific. Onstage their sound was much fuller than the lo-fi "Go to a Party" recording, and the singer had a wonderfully warped persona, a kind of unhinged intensity that made him seem like an escapee from an asylum. (It didn't hurt that he was missing a bunch of teeth.)

I didn't think about or hear much from the Fems after that show, so I was kind of floored a couple months ago when I saw that Drag City was reissuing a Fems single. I don't remember if I knew "Go to a Party" had been issued on a seven-inch with three other songs, but I was mighty pleased that the label had rekindled those memories.

The decision to release the single came from Drag City cofounder Dan Osborn, a former music director for WNUR, the great student-run station at Northwestern University. It turns out that WPRB DJ Ken Katkin--who went on to run Homestead Records in the late 80s, after Gerard Cosloy, who took over the imprint when he was just 18, split to launch Matador--left a copy at WNUR in 1982, and the following year Osborn became smitten with it. He says it was a big hit at the station. In fact, Osborn was also at that West End show, hoping to score a copy of the single for himself, but the band no longer had any.

The only serious source of info about the Fems is Katkin, who wrote a post about the band on WFMU's blog--where you can also hear two tracks from the single and two subsequent versions of "Go to a Party." The first pressing of 500 has already sold out, but a new batch is on the way. I'm very glad to finally have my own copy.

Today's playlist:

BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa, Passing Out (Helen Scarsdale)
Peter Delano, For Dewey (Sunnyside)
Brötzmann/Wilkinson Quartet, One Night in Burmantofts (Bo' Weavil)
Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (Columbia/Legacy)
Richard Pinhas and Merzbow, Keio Line (Cuneiform)

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