Savoy Sound Wave Goodbye(Go! Records) 1981. Anyone who has read Simon Reynolds book Rip It Up and Start Again knows that it is at once a very informative and enjoyable read and at the same time a real pisser. It’s a geographic problem, really. Simon is from the UK. I shouldn’t blame him that Scritti Politti is more important to him than Pink Section or the Inflatable Boy Clams. At the same time, no book has ever cried out for a sequel more than Rip It Up and Start Again and it probably shouldn’t be written by Simon, who is a bit of an Anglophile. The sequel should focus on the US post-punk scene which, as befitting a country the size of the US, was far more sprawling and less unified than the UK scene. As was so often the case with the US, the bands here did what they wanted because the idea that there was any commercial potential to what they were doing went down in flames pretty early on. In the UK, there was always the possibility of commercial success and some groups that made unique and challenging post-punk music in the UK, like Scritti Politti and New Order, went on to cash in a bit on all of their hard work. Over here, and especially in my neck of the woods, Journey was doing the cashing in.
X wrote a song about this particular conundrum within the US underground music scene entitled The Unheard Music and yes, it could oftentimes be a frustrating feeling to be a part of something that was so real and immediate and yet at the same time so completely ignored by the culture you lived in. It made you feel like an alien. Out of step, with the world….as someone once said.
But there was strength in being off the radar as well. Because in the US, bands weren’t all competing at being on Top of the Pops, there was a lot more crazy experimentation. It is almost impossible to conceive of this in today’s sometimes-oppressive, media heavy environment but there is freedom in being able to go about your business unnoticed. Things were happening in the moment and they could differ from town to town. There was an informal network of information that moved a lot slower than kilobytes but was still faster than society at large. And luckily there were labels and zines capturing these moments for posterity.
Case in point, the small label Go! Records which only released four or five albums in its obscure lifetime, one of which was the seminal, and I mean SEMINAL Rat Music for Rat People. Besides contributing this proto-hardcore classic onto the underground music scene, Go! focused primarily on a couple of Moev releases and this compilation which documents the last days of the Savoy music venue in San Francisco, where the Go! record label was located.
Others have written about this before including me, but was there a better post-punk experimental scene in America than San Francisco, 1977 – 1982? A simple look at some of the bands operating during this period is staggering. Let’s list a few; Tuxedomoon, Chrome, Residents, Pink Section, The Units, The Sleepers, Toiling Midgets, Novak, IXNA, BOB, Voice Farm, Factrix, Flipper, Z’ev, Bay of Pigs, Minimal Man, Romeo Void, The Mutants, Ultrasheen, Psyclones, Inflatable Boy Clams, Pre-Fix…the list goes on and on.
Savoy Sound Wave Goodbye captures a good portion of what made San Francisco so goddam amazing back then, pretty well. It’s a live album, but the recordings are all excellent. Besides possibly The Mutants track, it is not “punk rock”” by any extension of the word. There are some forays into reggae and a few pure noise experiments but the core of the album remains a set of songs by bands that were occupying a space we can only define as “undefinable”.
It all starts off with Tuxedomoon, who were at this very moment going through their most artistically rewarding and challenging period. At least to me. The track Jinx in fact, is on their seminal 1981 LP Desire and it is impressive to hear how well they pull off the dense orchestration of the song in a live setting. The next band is called Cipher and they do a great industrial mambo entitled Cymetic Mambo. I know nothing about this band other than they released an obscure EP in 1981 that I would LOVE to hear. Anyone have a copy?
After Cipher, the album reaches its high-point, nay its “zenith”, with The Sleepers. Those who know me know that I rank The Sleepers among the greatest American post-punk bands ever. Their first EP is a drug addled, Sci-Fi meets the Stooges masterpiece. They became much more experimental over time, employing poly-rhythms and David Gilmour-style digital delay. Later recordings are often somewhat sterile but this live rendition of their 1980 single Zenith/Theory adds some bite to the mix and really reveals what a powerful band the Sleepers were live in their prime.
The B-Side of the record never fully lives up to the heights (depths?) of the Sleepers. That’s not to say it isn’t excellent though. It begins with a few meandering forays into reggae before Ultrasheen moves us back into more experimental soundscapes. I know very little about Ultrasheen beyond what I read in Hardcore California many moons ago, but I have always been intrigued by this band. Anyone have additional information? Charles McMahon follows with some synth noise before Snakefinger delivers one of my favourite songs by him, the sinister Culprit/Victim, which was originally recorded on 1979′s classic Chewing Hides The Sound LP. The Mutants then follow with an upbeat punk rock number that re-energizes the set before closing out with some more synth noise by Eazy Teeth, a side project for Tito Larriva, who released a ridiculously cool 45 in 1980 entitled Car Noise with a cover by Don Van Vleit.
Although the album is excellent all the way through, there is a certain melancholic edge to it as well. The Savoy club was closing down and these bands were recorded to commemorate it. One can’t help when listening to this LP, feeling as though the twilight was setting in for the San Francisco post-punk scene in general at the time of this recording. Many of the bands on this LP would break up and Tuxedomoon left the USA, never to return shortly after this LP. Bands like Romeo Void, Chris Isaak and Translator started playing around town at this time and pushed new wave music in more commercial directions. The hardcore scene in San Francisco, which would eventually become one of the best in the country, was just starting to coalesce around bands like The Dead Kennedys, Code of Honor and Flipper. The original outpouring of creativity that comprised the San Francisco post-punk scene was starting to disappear and that gives this album an additional emotional resonance.
Plus, the music is fucking cool.