Cipher – Body Chemistry, Harmonic 33, Cymatic Mambo // Modern Medicine, Brown (Right Brain Records) 1981. A band I was first introduced to on the Savoy Sound LP. At the time I assumed they were a local San Francisco act but it turns out that they were actually from Los Angeles and were contemporaries of bands like Wall of Voodoo, Savage Republic and The Fibonaccis. Apparently, the owner of The Savoy also owned Go! Records and he asked Cipher to play their closing weekend and be on the compilation. Quite a compliment really when you think about how many great local SF bands could have filled that slot. The track Cipher contributes to Savoy Sound is entitled Cymatic Mambo and it is one of the best on the LP, full of tribal tom-heavy beats and live guitar squeals and squalls. Knowing nothing about Cipher, I was intrigued enough to beg publicly (as I am known to do) for more information on this mysterious band. One of the comments on the post mentioned that there was an EP out there by Cipher and shortly thereafter, Marsha Mann, lead singer and producer of the band, sent me a copy.

The first thing that struck me about the EP upon listening to it was how unlike their contemporaries Cipher were. Then it hit me, none of their contemporaries sounded anything like each other. I spoke briefly with Marsha via email and then a bit by phone and she confirmed this. In her words, the LA scene that Cipher were a part of were, “a group of avant-garde musicians who were very aware of each other’s work, partied and played shows together, and spurred each other on to experiment and be unique…NOT to sound like anyone else, and certainly not like each other.”

I like the idea of artists approaching art for art’s sake. Trends be damned. Coming from the Midwest, where the idea of playing this kind of music draws a clear ideological line in the sand, I always viewed the pursuit of creativity over money as a noble pursuit. Not that I have ever had a problem with financial success, just a problem with the idea of financial success being the primary motivating factor for art. Marsha points out, “(Cipher) also lived in L.A. – the epicentre of the Music Business, so there was always talk of how to ‘break through’ without compromising or selling out. Unless you’re 17 or 18 years old and just thrashing around to have fun and express yourself, all serious bands have aspirations of ‘making it’…it’s the only way you can keep doing what you love for the long term.”

Cipher: Michael Carroll, Marsha Mann, Francis White, Jose Garcia

In our online discussion, Marsha mentioned that I occasionally espouse a “romantic notion of artistic purity” on Last Days and I think in her opinion, all bands pursue success. In this sense, a band like Savage Republic were pursuing commercial success and were simply idealistic enough to believe that this could be achieved on their terms. From my point of view, it seems insane to think Savage Republic were pursuing financial success, but maybe it did seem more possible in early 1980s Los Angeles to be challenging artistically and successful commercially. Maybe it’s generational, maybe it’s geographic, but I don’t think my view is merely a “romantic notion” and I would offer this blog as proof of that.

See, Last Days has survived for four years without ever making a cent. I have no staff, no advertising, and no profit margins. I am a one man show. I get a lot of hits a month and sure, I would love to write about great music all the time and support myself. I can’t stand working all day on shit that offers no reward for me. However, in my opinion, the delusion that this could be possible is a romantic notion. The fact is, once you sign up with them, you become a tool for them. Just look around the blogosphere and you will see plenty blogs who are merely just tools for a music industry going through its death throes. I started doing this so that there could be something pure in my life that wasn’t motivated by making money and thus far, I have been very happy with the results. Would I sell all of you down the river for a wad of cash? Hell yes. But in the interest of my narrative, let’s refrain from making me contradict myself.

Regardless, I found Marsha’s insights fascinating and I have been mulling them over for quite some time. We tried to continue our discussion on the phone but some phantom reverberation kept us from being able to after about ten minutes. Damn technology, you serve me so well sometimes and other times you betray me.

Anyhoo, I use Savage Republic as an example above instead of Cipher because of all the LA bands of that era, Cipher probably had the most commercial sound and potential. Side B of the EP sounds somewhat like Siouxsie and the Banshees. I don’t think this was intentional. Just two bands in very separate parts of the world hitting the same sounds at the same time. Side A has some resemblances to other bands, I can hear a bit of Suburban Lawns in Body Chemistry, some surf rock in the amazing Harmonic 33. Guitarist Jose Garcia, is an excellent guitar player and he experiments with a bunch of weird tunings that predate Sonic Youth by quite a few years. The rhythm section of Francis White and Michael Carroll keep it tight and tribal. Lots of additional percussive elements are employed which point to bands like Savage Republic but also at times to some of the music on the East Coast at that time including The Feelies, Pylon and Polyrock. With that said, this is clearly a West Coast thing and I can even hear elements of the exotica of Martin Denny and Yma Sumac in the mix. Marsha has recently been in contact with Jose and they have some unreleased tracks that they may be releasing down the road. Until then, I’ve been given permission to share this EP.

Cipher came out of a theatrical background and from what I have been able to research, their live shows were super intense. They would put a lot of thought into how they presented themselves. One trick I read about in an old article from BAM magazine that Marsha sent me, mentions how she would sit on a stool, dressed in black with all of the lights dimmed except for a spotlight so that it seemed like her face was suspended in space. Her picture on the back of the LP is consistent with this. So intense. So uncompromising. I love it. In fact, records like this are the fuel for my romantic notions of artistic purity. You have to forgive my delusions, this kind of music made me the way I am.

This entry was posted in Art-Punk, LA, New Wave, post-punk. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Cipher

  1. danny g says:

    i thought I was the only guy in the world who owned this record! can’t wait to read the article in depth. nice work!

  2. Alex M says:

    Sounds a bit like a slicker version of Human Hands, too.

  3. Bart says:

    Great album. Thanks for dredging it up from the depths of Reagan-era history, and for sharing it.

  4. Marsha Mann says:

    I’m so glad Alex mentioned Humans Hands…I had totally forgotten about them. They were a very young, nerdy cool band who were excellent performers (kind of the Weezer of that time). Cipher actually did several shows with HH and the B People, who were also really interesting sonically.

  5. Joe says:

    I love B-People (and the Human Hands). In fact, some of my earliest posts on Last Days were about those bands. One of the reasons I was so thrilled to discover Cipher!

  6. I have the ep with Harmonic 33, really love this band! I read they had an album back when, is this true? is it available to buy or download? I would gladly buy it if it does exist. Int’l Discogrphy of the New Wave listed Cipher and the lp, easily one of the top bands ever, one song on the ep puts to pasture many a band then and now!! Hope to hear back from you on this! Love yr blog and any romantic ideas u have, God Bless you! Ian Curtis(of Joy Division), he was romantic, and look what HE did before he died on us!! Sincerely, Will

  7. Marsha Mann says:

    Will…thank you so much for the kind words. Jose and I are planning to release a ‘Best of CIPHER’ CD later this year, which will include 5 more songs that were never released. It will also be made available on itunes at some point.

  8. terence cloth says:

    yes you hit on something here, that era of bands being aggressively original (to the point of being un-listenable/unfathomable at times) seems to have long past! maybe it will come back…everything is based on something else, even cipher, but you had some weird fucking hybrids going on in the underground pre-internet and these bands occasionally also got big…think of big black, melvins etc…

  9. TG Chicago says:

    Joe, it’s clear that this blog is a labor of love for you, and it’s very much appreciated. It’s so much more satisfying to read about music when the writer’s motives are so pure and… yeah, romantic.

    I’ve been loving this place for the past few years. Thanks for all you do!

  10. oldskool says:

    Thank you Joe for pointing us to this and for your great info. And thank you, Marsha, for the fantastic music! I’m so glad the internet has been invented, otherwise I had had no chance to find this in Germany.

  11. elliott says:

    it’s funny before i discovered this blog i had no interest in art punk or new wave. those are still not my favoritest genres of music but still i’ve grown to like some bands like this one. it’s a cool band. deffinetly some creative stuff going on in that band. looking forward to the cd.

  12. E says:

    I want to say hi to Francis White, if anyone knows his whereabouts? I use to take lessons from him. Pretty cool guy and awesome drummer! I also met Jose Garcia through Francis at an art supply store they both worked at, after the Cipher days.

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