By Peter Margasak
There's a point where more information becomes too much information. Every year more records come out, more books are published, more E-mails come in, more Web sites go up. If I miss a new CD these days, it's usually because I lost track of it in this overcaffeinated shuffle--not because it was hard to track down. And yet, amazingly, since I moved to Chicago from Philadelphia in 1984, I've still met no more than two or three people who've ever heard of the Stick Men--a remarkable early-80s quintet from Philly whose complete recorded output has just been reissued as the CD Insatiable by the prog-oriented D.C.-area label Cuneiform.
Of course, back in the days before zine culture, widespread independent music distribution, and Napster, this wasn't surprising at all. The Stick Men--the missing link between the Contortions and the Minutemen--put out their 1982 debut album, This Is the Master Brew, and a 1983 follow-up EP, Get on Board the Stick Men, on a tiny Philly indie called Red Records. They were club fixtures at home and played frequently in New York and other east-coast cities, but aside from one short midwestern tour in '83--which brought them to Tuts, at Belmont and Sheffield, where they played for me and about seven other people--they didn't get out much. Booking tours and getting reviewed in nationally available publications was much more difficult for underground bands than it is now.
And while that may have been disappointing to the Stick Men, in hindsight it was probably good for them. Despairing over the soundalike mediocrity of so many contemporary rock bands, I've often thought that the relatively lethargic speed of information just two decades ago may have made it somewhat easier for a band to develop an original vision--there were far fewer moderately successful models to emulate. The environment the Stick Men emerged from was not unlike the busily cross-pollinating musical community we've been fortunate enough to enjoy here in Chicago. Philadelphia at the time was home to Sun Ra's Arkestra and loads of strange rock music, from the primitive electronic sex thud of Executive Slacks to the Buddhist thrash of Ruin, who dressed all in white and were fond of covering Leonard Cohen songs. Guitarist Rick Iannacone, who mixed both Stick Men records, worked regularly with Jamaaladeen Tacuma, a bassist in Ornette Coleman's Prime Time.
The Stick Men have been called Philadelphia's contribution to the New York-based no-wave scene, but by the time they formed, in 1980, bands like DNA, Mars, Red Transistor, and the Contortions had either broken up or peaked, and the comparisons don't do justice to the strange assortment of components the Stick Men juggled. Plus, where most of the New York no wavers embraced a confrontational stance, the Stick Men were just plain weird--fearlessly goofy and cartoonish.
The band was the brainchild of Peter Baker, an art school grad who'd been kicking around in long-forgotten acts like the Undertakers of Love and Blu Beth and the Gentleman Caller. His brittle chicken-scratch guitar covered a wide palette of richly hued grays, filtering the concise funk of James Brown's Famous Flames through the ominous string mangling of the Contortions' Jody Harris. He was an intuitive player who ranged far and wide from the deep, bouncy funk favored by Bill Bradfield--the band's primary melodist--and hyperkinetic drummer Jim Meneses. (This rhythm section joined in 1981, replacing original bassist George Shirley and drummer Michael McGettigan.) The splattery foreground sound was augmented by keyboardist Beth Stack, whose mix of Acetone organ and clavinet drew together the B-52's, Sly Stone, and the Residents, and horn man Chuck Mattern, who offered spare, well-placed accents of Ayler-esque sax and sour-Cherry trumpet. The songs, propelled by Baker's percussive vocals, would fly along at hardcore velocity, come to a lurching halt as if at a just-sighted speed bump, then take off again, usually clocking in at under two minutes. Five of the 22, including "Legend of the Stick Men," mention the group by name. This sharp, spastic punk-funk attack predated--and outclassed--the version later popularized by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone.
Baker knitted together decontextualized black slang and low-rent wordplay into a private vocabulary. On the manifestolike "Master Brew," he swipes cadences from early hip-hop: "Gonna rock then shock then pick your purse / We're the rock jam curse / From the center of the earth / It's a slimey, timey drilling tool / With a sensitive bit just right for you." His talent for mixing oil and water hits its apex in the epic "Funky Hayride"--it's almost five minutes long--where Stack chants, "Shoop bamma lamma lamma lamma lamma crack" as he blurts, "Chickens in the barnyard / Cluckin' it up / Cows and pigs and horses run amuck / They all jam down at the pigsty / Gonna get on board / For the funky hayride."
The band had burned itself out by the end of 1983. They reportedly practiced almost every day, and couldn't sustain that energy. The members toyed with other musical projects in the years immediately following the breakup, but only Meneses is still active in music, playing free improv and experimental rock and jazz in Amsterdam. Baker suffered a fatal heart attack in 1994, closing the door on one of the most intriguing chapters in the history of Philadelphia music. Now that Insatiable, which also includes 20 minutes of shockingly tight live footage, has reopened it, I hope it doesn't get lost in the shuffle.