Clip: The ambiguous pleasures of San Francisco's '80s and '90s concept rock.
- Joe Pop-O-Pies and Neil Hamburger?! I had to clip this article.
(Alt.country fans may recognize Nuf Sed as the label that released
Tarnation's first disc all those years ago...
The ambiguous pleasures of San Francisco's '80s and '90s concept rock.
By Will York
'PUNK ROCK CHANGED my life," the Minutemen's D. Boon once said.
In the same way, mid-'90s San Francisco obscurist concept rock changed
mine. ?So no matter what great things happened before or after, when I hear
the words San Francisco and music scene together, I think about the same
old stuff I never really shut up about: Amarillo Records, Mr. Bungle's
Disco Volante (Warner Bros.), Flipper, Faith No More's Angel Dust (Slash),
the Nuf Sed label, and the Pop-O-Pies.
Yeah, I realize that Flipper and the Pop-O-Pies were active in the '80s and
that a platinum-selling band such as Faith No More isn't exactly obscurist.
But it's all connected, at least in my diseased brain.
My indoctrination into this world came in 1998 when I heard "The Naked Hot
Dog Vendor," from Neil Hamburger's America's Funnyman CD (Drag City). I was
a college radio DJ in Chapel Hill, N.C., and a fellow DJ handed it to me
and told me to segue out of some electro-acoustic sound collage I had on
the air. The track consists of four minutes of scissor noises and awkward,
intermittent laughter ? the sound of an elaborate sight gag being
documented on the wrong type of media. It's a subtle joke, but it sums up a
lot of the Amarillo aesthetic: the sideways, audience-baiting humor, the
sense of futility and failure, and the almost aggressive pointlessness. As
one of my exasperated fellow DJs wrote on an album by another Amarillo act,
the Three Doctors, "Is it funny because it isn't? Or is it?"
Amarillo specialized in records by baffling bands and down-and-out,
screwball entertainers who spent excess time and energy on obscure, often
impenetrable notions and occasionally just plain bad ideas. There was an
intriguing sense of mystery and ambiguity in bands like Faxed Head and the
Zip Code Rapists: it was hard to tell what was supposed to be funny and
what wasn't, or what was real and what was fabricated.
The more I research and obsess over the music that's connected to this
Amarillo axis, the more I hear this sort of ambiguity ? this willingness to
let people squirm in their seats and wonder what the hell is going on ? as
a common thread. It's evident in the scant discographies of Amarillo and
Nuf Sed concept bands like Job's Daughters, the Easy Goings, Totem Pole of
Losers, and the New Session People. But the aesthetic was also already in
place in the early '80s, when the Pop-O-Pies played entire shows of nothing
but the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'," driving unsuspecting punk listeners out
of their minds, and when Flipper performed their prank song "Brainwashed,"
which repeats the same frustrating 30 seconds of music over and over, with
a dozen false endings.
The same intangibles are also at work amid the prog-funk-pop-metal of Angel
Dust, Faith No More's 1992 studio follow-up to their 1989 MTV-land hit, The
Real Thing (Slash). It's there in the cheerleader-sung chorus to their
gay-sex anthem "Be Aggressive." But I bet they know what I'm talking about
here even if no one else does. FNM's core members are Pop-O-Pies alums, and
the band invited Amarillo-Nuf Sed scourges the Easy Goings to open for them
at the Warfield around the time of Angel Dust.
When I got to San Francisco in late '99, most of this stuff was over.
Amarillo had closed up shop in early '99, the same year Mr. Bungle released
their last album and a year after Faith No More broke up (and years after
their last good album). Nuf Sed put out its last release in 1996, the
Wandering Stars' self-titled CD. All of which means I'm hopelessly
nostalgic and stuck in a weird, very specific part of the past.
Its echoes can still be heard, though, if you know where to listen. A month
ago, in one week, I saw Cambodian-Thai cover-song specialists Neung Phak ?
who share a guitarist with Amarillo's Heavenly Ten Stems and Nuf Sed's
Job's Daughters ? as well as Amarillo artists and past/honorary San
Franciscans Sun City Girls and Secret Chiefs 3. The latter were making
their first Bay Area appearance in four years, this time as a nine-piece
band playing somber, Middle Eastern-inspired music on a stage decorated
with Persian rugs, one of which depicted a plane flying into a tall
building and a violinist wearing a hashasheen mask ? speaking of letting
There's no single defining sound to any of this stuff, but there's a
worldview that's at least partly shared by these acts ? a realization that
there's a fine line between comedy and tragedy and that the funniest things
in life are often the most depressing (and vice versa). The scene may be a
thing of the past, but if that basic idea isn't still relevant in today's
sick world, I don't know what is.
1. Secret Chiefs 3, Book of Horizons (Mimicry)
2. Pig Destroyer, Terrifyer (Relapse)
3. Danny Cohen, Dannyland (Anti)
4. Princess Nicotine, Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar (Burma) (Sublime
5. Isis, Panopticon (Ipecac)
6. Cambodian Cassette Archives, Khmer Folk and Pop Music Vol. 1 (Sublime
7. Meshuggah, I (Fractured Transmitter)
8. Sun City Girls, Carnival Folklore Resurrection Radio, Vol. 13: 98.6 Is
9. Flying Luttenbachers, The Void (Troubleman Unlimited)
10. Puffy Amiyumi, Hi Hi Puffy Amiyumi (Sony)