By the time Shockabilly embarked on its first lengthy tour, guitarist Eugene Chadbourne had already traversed at least two distinct musical phases – one as a member of improvised jazz nebulae and one as a champion of mock-heroic country and western revalorizations. His own guitar style matured, incorporating the elements of blues, bluegrass, lo-fi and (mostly acoustic) noise.
Monumentally irreverent and scurrilous, the Shockabilly trio evolved out of the larger ensemble known as the Chadbournes. Together with Lower East Side dwelling Mark Kramer and David Licht, Chadbourne was now ready to set his “free improvised C&W bebop” into a pastiche-bound, noisy power-trio. Kramer was on the cusp of reaching temporary celebrity as a musician, producer and owner Shimmy Disc label. David Licht accompanied him in some of the later adventures, not least in Ball.
Surprisingly for a short-lived band famously doomed by personality clashes, the documents dish out astute, hyperreal covers, improvised snippets and seductively manipulated tapes. Their brusque, pelean inroads into American song classics were often redemptive for syrupy, generic originals. They remain excitatory and fresh a quarter of a century later.
Pile Up All Architecture
A taped voice is telling us that this is – surprise – “a new Shockabilly record”. Meaty electric guitar and hysterical falsetto crop up soaked in closed-space echo. No sooner do we establish a set of expectations about the heavy rockin’ band when a pop parody intervenes with the piano, surrendering again to a grimy guitar assault and David Licht’s accents on small xylophone.
Born on the Bayou
Californian John Fogerty wrote some awful pseudo-southern songs in the early 1970s and Chadbourne dissected one of them here, producing a simulacrum far worthier than the “original”. It starts innocently with moronic story-telling (“when I was just a little boy”) turned into slapstick by the infantilized howl. The ambiguously mixed-down trio trawls on, upstaging the yowing-zowing, elvis-ing, rockn’n’rolling vocal effects. The archaic treatment ricochets against a freaking guitar and bludgeoned drums. Before the track eventually disintegrates, Kramer throws in some muddy, looped tapes.
Your USA and My Face
This is most probably Chadbourne’s self-made electric rake – an instrument sounding like a cross between a tenor guitar and a taut A-string in a cello. Ever scary sounds of neighing horses (remember Steve Moore’s “The Threshold of Liberty”?) play but an auxiliary role. The song rocks despite its acoustic context, set against musique concrète canvassing. The tapes are but an ornament, and fail to melt the structure of the song to follow the steps of John Fahey’s “Requia” nearly 20 years before. But despite being merely a decorative element, these industrial sirens and animal whinnying do affect our capacity to discern the instrumental tone quality of the band.
Iran into Tulsa
Oh, how topical. From Persepolis to Oklahoma? Dystopian, rumbling rhythm drowns out fatuously carefree beach vocal harmonizing. Underlain, a metamorphic voice growls over a classic (pre-speed) punk ostinato and a single-channel guitar scream. There is always an expectation of an actual melody line. Instead only scraps fall.
John Lee Hooker’s blues – slow, head-banging, delivered with clean drum work from Licht, abrasive guitar screech and a multifaceted organ responsible for both bass line and harmonics. Several voices bathe in angst-swamped proto-singing, illuminating regular guitar builds-ups redolent of Randy Holden’s anachronistic stylisms.
What used to be a passable organ vignette in Lennon-McCartney’s original, flares up here on off-pastoral acoustic guitar, guiro and woodblocks. An appropriately wavy electric guitar washes up 5 ascending chords. Nonsensical tapes intersperse this alleged bliss with male voices and passing single engine planes. Finally Chadbourne enters his trademark, hyper-active improvisation mode, abusing his acoustic guitar until the end.
Kramer’s ratatouille begins with a call from an elderly dad. It is closely followed by a largely inarticulate psych rock jam: a clangy “I don’t care if it fits” guitar, overdrive bass assorted rumble, plus sloughing organ. All participants seem to just get a kick out of these non-sequiturs.
Georgia in a Jug
After an irrelevant excerpt from a gig, Chadbourne intones a standardly country and western ballad: “I am going down to Mexico in a glass of tequila and then to Puerto Rico in a bottle of rum”. The subtext could be considered comical – Chadbourne sings of travels as wide as a Georgian bloke could possibly fancy. Kramer’s tapes speed up, all over up to an eruption of hysterical yell and heavy, booming rock. Soon we are back to the country-rock territory and the drunken confession. Chadbourne’s predilection for C&W themes always seemed tongue-in-cheek, but his syncretic, half-improvised style did attract following in the US South. This song was penned by one Bobby Braddock, who is apparently considered as a Nashville institution.
This begins with a call from an aphasiac fan (?) who has trouble describing Shockabilly’s songs. The instantly recognizable, vintage Syd Barrett’s guitar riff intro leads to sliding signifiers, light years away from the original. The trace of Swinging London recurs only in a verse-ending whistle. David Licht’s drumming sounds wonderfully ramshackle. Shockabilly is here more of a futuristic jug band that a young Barrett could have ever imagined. It gets perilously close to the edge of chaos.
An old ballad from Arthur Lee’s repertoire, reconfigured by Chadbourne into a wrestling acoustic guitar, plucked within the fringes of tonality. Hand drums and wooden tapping on guitar body reverberate. The production of this escapist, spacious folk pastiche is superb. Were it not for the rather predictable chord progression, the echoes of worn-out squawk and guitar strings would presage some of Keiji Haino’s acoustic experiments in the following decade.
After a well-intentioned rant against “Jonathan and his cruise missile launchpad”, ex-Fugs legend Ed Sanders spills his ‘anti-American’ venom with all the pet obsessions of the era: “CIA surrounds Nicaragua and Reagan says yes to the death squads of El Salvador”. It is amazing to hear Sanders’ doggerel on a record entitled “Vietnam”, with each verse accentuated by the frayed guitar. Sanders remains a living monument of underground manifestos. As much as I could never share the pro-Ortega naiveté of the mid-1980s, many years later I found myself chanting with Sanders “Impeach George Bush” in New York’s Knitting Factory when the Fugs returned with gusto at the beginning of the Iraqi War. Times they are a-changin’.
Shockabilly’s music survives.
SHOCKABILLY: “Dawn of Shockabilly” EP (1982)
SHOCKABILLY: “Earth vs Shockabilly” (1982)
SHOCKABILLY: “Colosseum” (1983)
SHOCKABILLY: “Greatest Hits” EP (1983)
SHOCKABILLY: “Vietnam” (1984)
SHOCKABILLY: “Heaven” (1985)
SHOCKABILLY: “Just Beautiful. Live” (1982, 1984-85)
The last record contains the entire debut EP plus live recordings. “Vietnam” and “Heaven” are my favorites.
Unless there is something entombed on elusive cassettes, the earliest Shockabilly can probably be found on Eugene Chadbourne’s double LP “LSD C&W”.
The band’s recordings also appeared on several compilations. Unique tracks were contained on “That’s the Way I Feel Now – Tribute to Thelonious Monk” and “Passed Normal vol.1”.