In the first of a new series – Unknown Pleasures – where he writes about worthy but under-recognised albums and artists, Gary Steel puts his case for The Decayes, one of the great unwritten stories of underground rock.
Unknown Pleasures #1
IT AMAZES AND saddens me that the world still hasn’t caught up with The Decayes. But then again, they were ahead of their time. Between 1978 and 1983, the Long Beach, California-based group were willfully obscurantist and contradictory, and back then, there was no grapevine-on-steroids (social media) to pick up on their inherent coolness.
In 2014, hand-drawn, limited edition LPs are highly coveted, but back then, the indie scene hadn’t even really kicked off, and The Decayes weren’t really into scenes, anyway. Sure, they had connections to the now very hip LAFMS (Los Angeles Free Music Society), but that didn’t seem to do much for them, possibly because their music wasn’t formless or totally improvised but actually darted around in the more obscure corners of popular culture.
So, firstly, The Decayes were cool because they released their albums in editions of 100 in handmade covers.
Secondly, The Decayes were cool because they anticipated another trend, lo-fi, by about 15 years, except that their version of lo-fi was unique. What they did was to make lo-res home-recordings on 2-track reel-to-reels, then take those off to a posh studio for mixing and mastering. The result? Lo-res music, hi-res (analogue) hiss.
Thirdly, The Decayes were cool because they were unashamedly the product of their suburban Long Beach environment, writing songs about the kind of things teenage malcontents might think and do, like pissing in rich people’s mailboxes, and breeding in captivity.
“They were unashamedly the product of their suburban Long Beach environment, writing songs about the kind of things teenage malcontents might think and do.”
Fourthly, The Decayes were cool because they espoused all that was genuinely worthwhile about punk, while not subscribing to any of the clichés of that genre. They were very punk, in the sense that they proudly admitted their lack of musical virtuosity. The music and lineup varied over their five albums, but the essence remained true. Their early material could have been a kissing cousin of Faust or Can, but by the turn of the decade they were displaying the influence of the more interesting and oddball post-punk groups; their later work had the cartoonish cadence of We’re Only In It For The Money-era Frank Zappa with a bit of Holgar Czukay’s clever lunacy on the side.
They even released a New Zealand-dedicated album called horNetZ, and their last, Ten Guitars, was released only in NZ through Wellington label Jayrem. But that’s another story, for another time.
With the group’s last album released way back in 1983, it came as a huge surprise that a new album was imminent. It turns out that Aquarium features a very different-sounding version of The Decayes, and really, that’s not surprising. For one, the only original member still in the main lineup is Ron Kane, the group’s driving force from the beginning but now assuming the role of musical director/aesthetic guru, and downplaying his performative/writing attributes. Also, unlike a superstar group, The Decayes have no reason to stick to a tried and true formula, which is a huge relief. In a world that’s increasingly full of comebacks by groups who have purged themselves of 30-or-so years of personal development to pretend to be the same band they were back then, it’s brilliant that The Decayes in 2014 are just who they are in 2014.
“Some of these tracks have an almost porno groove, like the guys in the band have escaped from the nightmare wife to the safety of the den.”
Kane has told me in the past how much he loves stiff old white guys playing funky licks (as do I), and Aquarium sounds to me, on one level, like an ode to those guys; those session guys who turned out library/incidental music that often transcends the more “authentic” music its aping. This instrumental album is so beautifully anonymous, and so empty, so devoid of statement, that it makes perfect sense. Kane and his compatriots have lived out their lives in the suburban Los Angeles diaspora, working in record stores and as film editors, kids who grew up listening to the radical socio-political musings of The Fugs and The Mothers and who maybe thought that revolution was in the air, but soon discovered that all America had to offer was a decade of Reagan and a double brush of Bush. Surrendering to a smaller dream was all that was left. [That’s my take on it; they would probably vehemently disagree].
Here’s what’s left, a record (it’s released in a limited edition on both CD and LP) that could almost be some go-go band from an early ‘70s California budget movie, but somehow, one that anticipates a little of the math-rock of Tortoise. Some of these tracks have an almost porno groove, like the guys in the band have escaped from the nightmare wife to the safety of the den, and permanently fried on too many martinis, can still put down some florid tracks.
Sometimes, I could swear the spirit of the early B52s is trapped in here somewhere, but where that band had to fill every crack with activity, The Decayes let those cracks open right up and swallow you. They do something I really love in a record: they make a sound that’s almost absent, like those strung-out moments on the Stones’ Black & Blue or Captain Beefheart’s great (despite himself) session muso-abandonment on Bluejeans And Moonbeams or the so-wrong-it’s right Californication of the Beach Boys’ Carl & The Passions (So Tough).
“This is moist music for dry humpers, and the first album The Decayes have made that wants you to play it over and over.”
Space is something this record has plenty of: space between those crisp beats and those reverberant bass-lines and the splendid guitar flurries. It’s also a record that has enjoyably toy synth lines, and some of the most curious dub-reggae this side of Japanese group Mutebeat.
There are hints, occasionally, of those lovely, luxuriant Ryuichi Sakamoto and Irmin Schmidt solo records that are filmic and heavily scented, and relentlessly grooved.
‘Ebisu Man’ is one of the most memorable tracks, with its Japanese train station narration and strip-joint going on Kraut rock feel, with some particularly wiggy wah-wah guitar.
Jazzy like a Jacuzzi, oozing like Isaac Hayes’ pants on the last lap of the treadmill, on the surface, Aquarium sounds little like The Decayes of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. But listen again, and you hear Faust and Fripp seeping up through those incessant grooves.
This is moist music for dry humpers, and the first album The Decayes have made that wants you to play it over and over. It’s over-long, could have done with some judicious editing, and a few of the tracks get just a little too guitar-strummy for my liking. But it’s still great.
Aquarium might not put The Decayes on the map, but their thing – inimitably American yet, unlike most American music, soaking in a world of sound – has an internal logic that will find ears to hear it. One way, or another.
Note: The Decayes’ lineup on Aquarium is: Ron Kane (keyboards, melodica), Ken Heaton (guitar), David Zlmelis (drums), Rick Snyder (aka Richard ‘Hatsize’ Snyder from the last Captain Beefheart band, bass). GARY STEEL
Buy the album directly here.
Sound = 4/5
Music = 4/5
For the curious, here’s ‘Dance Hall’, from a cassette issued by the Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS), and also featured on horNetZ.