Das Love Boat
Hard Attack/Big Hits
Angel Corpus Christi
White Courtesy Phone
MX-80 is one of those idiosyncratic bands that came of age in the dark hours before the indie-punk revolution of 1976-'77. Along with such combos as Pere Ubu, Chrome, Debris, Half Japanese, and Destroy All Monsters, MX-80 discovered their sound in relative isolation. Since there was nothing else even vaguely like them around their hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, they operated on the assumption that they were alone in the universe. They produced a weird brand of huzzing, spazzy power sput for no ears other than their own.
The band's creative core consists of Bruce Anderson on guitar, Dale Sophiea on bass, and Rich Stim on vocals and saxophone. They've staggered through various drummers over the years, but have incredibly managed to stay together for two decades now, surviving a move to San Francisco and even a run-in with a major label. As a payoff for their persistence, people have finally started to notice MX-80 over the past few years. Their name pops up with some regularity as an influence on hip bands, and their back catalog is being salvaged from rare-record lists by a few key reissues. It's now more possible than ever for the mass tongue to rub itself appreciatively across the textures of MX-80's sound.
A good place to sample the various flavors of MX-80 is on Das Love Boat (Atavistic), which reissues a band-assembled compilation of instrumental tracks recorded between 1975 and 1990. This album is sequenced in reverse chronological order, devolving through several drummers and distinct strata of musical sophistication.
The newest recordings (with the solid thrubbing of Marc Weinstein) have a shiny surface, and are composed of tightly interlocking power parts. The 80s recordings for their own Quadruped cassette label (recorded with a drum box) are comparatively relaxed in terms of structure. The riffs are fairly simple (which is apropos, one supposes, since the songs were originally released with vocals), and compared to newer work the music can seem a bit loose and even laconic. The early 80s recordings for Ralph Records (with Dave Mahoney on drums) are in the classic style that most people associate with MX-80. Riffs and rhythms are layered to create a great avalanche of guitar-based rock. This is the stuff that once drew critical comparisons to heavy metal due to its overwhelming heft. Heard now, it's obviously not metal, but it certainly does share some of the metallic sonorities that mark the nonmetal work of early Rhys Chatham and mid-period Swans. Thunderous opposition to heavenly forces, y'know?
As one moves backward through the Ralph material (with Mahoney and Jeff Armour on drums), Rich Stim's alto sax becomes more prominent. Some of the interplay between Stim and Anderson is reminiscent of jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock's work with Philly's overblowing tenor player Byard Lancaster, but in most cases Stim's horn work seems to have its base in distinctly rock origins, most specifically indebted to Captain Beefheart's trowel-snapping soprano around the time of Lick My Decals Off, Baby and also the generic "barwalking," Eric Dolphy-like range employed by the Mothers' late 60s horn section.
Stim's presence becomes more pronounced the further back one travels, while MX-80's hyperkinetic oddness expands and the band's initial influences become more transparent. It would be difficult to assay their specific roots, but the band's early work is obviously conceived along post-Beefheart, anarchic-art-rock lines. Some of the stuff combines the heaving guitar of pre-Mahavishnu McLaughlin (angular pleasantries and unanticipated cadences) crossed with the apple-pie craziness of the Hampton Grease Band (shouting as singing, road maps as lyrics). The most fascinating pieces here are the oldest ones (with Armour and Kevin Teare on drums). These date from the still largely uncharted regions of the prepunk art wasteland and have the same wonderfully primitive feel as Rocket From the Tombs or the three-man Half Japanese--music conceived and performed in extreme opposition to prevailing cultural trends. Naturally, no one cared a whit then. The time to rectify that sorry situation is now.
Atavistic has also reissued MX-80's 1977 album Hard Attack (originally issued by European Island) and tacked on the self-released 1976 EP Big Hits as well as a bonus track. The album captures the sound with which the band first made their mark, back when they were called MX-80 Sound. At the time it was tempting to think of them as a red-blooded American version of Henry Cow, substituting that band's brittle intellectualism and class-war didactics with pop-culture regurgitations. Surely the two bands share many of the same basic ingredients, but the results couldn't be more different. MX-80 were interested in creating an atmosphere charged with offhand humor. Stim is a wonderfully daffy frontman, and his screwballism combines with the band's emerging instrumental chops in a way that's addictively fucked.
Less concerned with the generation of good cheer is Bruce Anderson's Brutality (Atavistic), which collects a variety of material issued on cassette throughout the late 80s. Brutality offers a shavetail version of MX-80's sound. Stripped to the essential core of Anderson's guitar (with occasional help from Sophiea), it's riff thuggery overdubbed, distorted, and shoved right back into its own face. Anderson's guitar is locked in deadly battle with itself on most of the cuts. Of course there are a couple of aberrations. "Oakland: Beauty" has a lyricism that veers close to Glenn Phillips's postfusion dipsy-doodles, and "France" has a line tone that reminds me of contemporary work by Henry Kaiser, with whom Anderson was playing at the time. Indeed, throughout Brutality there are places where Anderson's guitar intersects with things that Kaiser might play but hasn't (to the best of my knowledge). Listened to as a whole, Brutality offers a somewhat limited, yet engagingly disturbed presentation of Anderson's instrumental vision.
Tangential to all this is White Courtesy Phone (Almo Sounds) by Angel Corpus Christi. Angel is a longtime associate of MX-80. She's appeared on two of their record covers, recorded with them as a member of Playette, and her own musical projects over the years have always included bounteous MX-80 input. On White Courtesy Phone, Rich Stim plays guitar and is the cowriter of all tunes. Still, it's difficult to fit the album into MX-80's oeuvre. In the past Angel has seemed at times to be both the Martin Rev and Alan Vega of the postrock accordion; here she doesn't present so aggressive a front. Angel, Rich, and such unlikely guests as Herb Alpert produce a thoroughly modern bubblegum/girl-group hybrid that will probably appeal more to fans of Blondie's Parallel Lines than to Hard Attack's partisans. It's certainly an interesting release, and is possessed of a self-confident Street Hassled lyrical charm, but unless you're addicted to head bobbing it's inconsequential.
And inconsequential is not a word that should be associated with MX-80. They are one of the great secret influences of the past 20 years. With this spate of newly available tuneage, ignorance of their music should no longer be tolerated.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sasha Rose.