In honour of NZ Music Month, Gary Steel climbs into the crumbling catacombs of his back catalogue, and disinters a different story Every Day In May (EDIM). Today’s piece appeared in the Times on 23 January, 1983.
Note: The Decayes were/are a Long Beach-based group whose approach to independent releases in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s predated the current fetish for limited edition, collectible hand-made vinyl. Love it or hate it, their music is singular, existing pretty much in their own universe. I will follow up this reprint with a review of the group’s brand new album, Aquarium, and a full examination of Kane, his group and his/their legacy. Why does an American qualify for a series about NZ music? Well, there’s the obvious: Ten Guitars was released only in NZ, bore a name that could only have come from NZ, and featured audio soundbytes recorded in NZ. But it’s more than that. As I’ll explain in more depth later, Kane was one of the first Americans to get obsessed with Kiwi pop, and every chance he got throughout the ‘80s, he would fly down here to collect, mix and mingle. He can even be found blowing a clarinet on a Tall Dwarfs EP. Following Kane there was an avalanche of Flying Nun-obsessed Americans coming through and stripping our second hand record shops of valuable items, but Kane was into The Swingers, early Enz, Blam Blam Blam, and his interest in our music was such a rare occurrence back then that he was often greeted with a big metaphorical “WTF?” from our unbelieving denizens. Oh, a few things I should mention: 1) Decayes never did get to tour here, and 2) Jayrem’s Jim Moss says that Ten Guitars wins the award for all-time worst selling title on his label. Lastly, for a bit of context, anyone investigating the Decayes will find links to the now very hip LAFMS (Los Angeles Free Music Society), and the secret guest performers on Ten Guitars were members of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.
IF YOU WERE leader of a weirdo Los Angeles underground group who had a new album finished and ready to go, what would your next step be?
Well, bring the master tapes to New Zealand and release it only in New Zealand, of course.
At least, if your name is Ron Kane of the Decayes, that’s what you would do.
Shortly James Moss’s Wellington record label Jayrem will release the Decayes’ fifth album, Ten Guitars. The first four were released independently on the Imgrat (Immediate Gratification) label in Los Angeles. Kane ignored LA and took the albums to Europe, where Decayes records today swap hands for vast sums, and the group has accrued a considerable reputation among avant-garde music makers.
But why New Zealand, of all places, to release a record?
It transpires that Kane, on hearing Phil Judd’s underrated New Zealand pop band The Swingers in 1980, became a convert to Kiwi music fandom. He has visited here every year since, and has a knowledge and enthusiasm of and for local music that could put most New Zealand fans to shame.
The previous, American-only Decayes album went so far as to boast the title horNetZ, and its sleeve dedications included many New Zealand notables. It could be bought as an import here and now goes for $18 in a local second hand record shop.
Says Kane: “There’s this horrible mescalin burn-out in Wellington that when he sees me just says ‘Don’t let the hornets get out’.” (A quote from the record).
America, according to Kane, is one hell of a place in which to release a record. Not only is the competition fierce, but the cutting and pressing facilities are overworked and there are long waiting lists for those who want to release records.
“We were disillusioned at the enormity of the music industry and lack of coherent scene in Los Angeles,” says Kane. “It seemed the logical thing to release Ten Guitars in New Zealand.”
Kane, who engineers, plays bass, guitar and clarinet in the Decayes, arrived in Wellington early this month with the intention of releasing Ten Guitars independently.
But: “I was confronted with an unusual attitude of the New Zealand recording industry which is that they’re all on holiday until the 20th of the month.” At which date Kane was due back in America.
This is where James Moss of Chelsea Records jumped in to save the day. His Jayrem Records would see to the release of Ten Guitars in New Zealand.
The Decayes, unlike commercialised, compromised underground bands such as the Residents and Devo, represent the true underground of American music, says Kane. The Decayes do what they want. Their music is truly pointless and made by middle-class Californians who are honest enough to admit it.
On the other hand, the Residents are popular because they hide under a cloak of anonymity. “They’re clerks for record stores in Berkeley,” says Kane. “One of them’s name is Russ,” he says disparagingly.
As for Devo: “You have no idea how underground Devo started out. Morons with synthesisers who nobody would go near because they smelled funny. Warners managed to homogenise them beyond all concept.
“The only American bands that we would listen to are The B People, Human Hands, Black Randy… underground Los Angeles bands who achieve similar nonsuccesses. The independent music I listen to and enjoy comes from England, New Zealand and Holland.”
The Los Angeles/San Francisco rivalry is intense and vicious, but Kane hasn’t much time for LA bands either, specially the so-called “hardcore punk” that flourishes there – bands like CH3, China White, Black Flag.
“Because America is homogenised we got punk later and we got a distorted version of it. Punk doesn’t exist in the American poor. Punk exists in the LA elite. You have rich parents, you’re from Beverley Hills.
“Those bands are trying to recapture a lot of the glory of the original new wave punk music, but they’re feeling it oh so necessary to add the heavy elements of the harsh Los Angeles environment. You have, because of the immense drug problem in Los Angeles, bands called China White, nickname for a type of heroin.”
Says Kane: “The Decayes have faith in themselves. We’re an extremely self-motivated band. I went so far as to record, produce and release four of our own records, because I wanted to do it, not because there were other people who wanted to do it,” (or make money from it).
The concept began in or around 1969 when Kane was about 10 and consuming vast quantities of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart records. In 14 years they have played nine concerts. They have achieved the status of being both booed off a stage and having food thrown at them. They would play more “but we don’t like lifting heavy equipment.”
They have tapes dating back to the late ‘60s – Decayes versions of Donovan and Rolling Stones songs. This material, says Kane, will be saved “for the 200 LP boxed set Golden History Of The Decayes. It’ll be coming out in Japan in the year 2000.”
Their earliest song, remembers Kane, was ‘Hey Creep In The Javelin’, which was a type of car available in about 1966.
Kane attributes the first real musical flourish to a period of depression following breaking up with a girlfriend, when he abused his father’s Visa card. The only worthwhile purchase turned out to be a “$29 electric guitar”.
Along came the first album, Ich Bin Ein Scheigel. “It comes from a quote in a German girls’ magazine in which a girl is looking at her face in a shocked fashion saying ‘I’m a fried egg’, which is apparently what young German girls say when they’re having trouble with their complexion.”
He says, however, that the major change for the Decayes came in 1979 when they travelled to Europe and met major influences such as German genius Holgar Czukay (whom they befriended) and others.
From this end of the swimming pool the Decayes sound wonderful. Their music is funny, weird and more than a little bit unhealthy. It echoes Euro avant garde and progressive music, jazz, intelligent new wave, but at the same time captures all the plastic splendor of LA in its grooves.
Ten Guitars, besides the usual lineup of Kane, John Payne, Warren Bowman and Mark Florin, features two members of a legendary American rock group that must go nameless.
The main work on Ten Guitars is ‘Hobo Music’, “which begins with a wind quartet of clarinet, bassoon, alto sax and garden hose, and evolves into a guitar orientated shuffle.”
Ten Guitars was started “November 1981 with a massive jazz jam session. This ended up as ‘Tarot Sofa’ and ‘Hobo Music’. ‘Tarot Sofa’ is an edited-together segment from those jazz sessions with various things recorded in New Zealand, Spain and Long Beach (where the band comes from).
“I engineered all of it, I’m responsible for it. I should be shot,” he says.
Although the band’s catalyst, Kane tends to underplay his role within the Decayes. “You see, I’m not much of a musician or composer. But there is a very important element that I play in the Decayes. And that is to keep it from being too boring.
“I am a moronic, non-musical person. I interject this half-step moronic minor-chord idiocy that still twinges my ear from King Crimson days.”
He puts his history down to: “Making pointless records to confuse people that fortunately seem to have become more confusing rather than accessible.”
Their usual method is to “jam endlessly. We jam in a pop context, with three minutes in mind. I tape everything the band does.” Then they listen to it and work on the best things. The lyrics are often an afterthought, sung at the mixing stage.
As for a New Zealand Decayes tour – yes, they’d love to do one. Give them the fare, buy them some drinks when they get here, and you’re on mate!
(Entrepreneurial note… The Decayes harbour a desire to do a South Island-only tour. “Nelson, Timaru, Ashburton, Bluff, Cape Foulwind… staying out of Christchurch and Dunedin and those other smudgepots of the South Island!” says Kane). GARY STEEL