Good March to you all –
This month our AotM comes to you courtesy of K Records in Olympia(where they are still exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre) and Bill Rieflin of the long ago The Telepaths.
What we’ve got for you is the Blackouts who were in my opinion the coolest thing in downtown Seattle music in the late 70’s early 80’s. When I say downtown, I really mean the punk/arty scene. Later on Seattle would be split between downtown arty stuff and eastside metal, but right now it was the more pop (and popular) scene of the bands like The Heats (who we will feature as our AotM in the near future) and The Cowboys contrasted with scratchy-noisy bands like the Beakers and the Blackouts. At the time the twain were ridiculously well separated, though theBlackouts and The Heats did one notorious gig at the Showbox which reportedly involved diapers and lots of ketchup.
The Blackouts sprung from the ashes of The Telepaths, one of the first Seattle punk bands to put out a 45 rpm record (I sold ‘em along with The Snots and The Enemy at Everybody’s Records on Aurora). I also had the pleasure of seeing them open for Talking Heads at the Paramount Theater and watch the singer, Curt Werner, roll around on stage in a rubber sweat suit. 100% art! 100% entertainment! Bill Rieflin has been kind enough to let us stream their long out of print single this month Frozen Darlings b/w Must I Perform to accompany the Blackouts tracks.
As The Telepaths went down in flames, Erich Werner, Bill Rieflen, and Mike Davidson along with Roland Barker rose up as the Blackouts. I didn’t know any of these guys. In fact, I don’t think I realized at the time most of them had been inThe Telepaths. They sure didn’t sound like the same band. To me they were just some mysterious people in my own town who put out pretty artsy looking mostly black-covered records that didn’t really sound like anybody else in town, but they did sound Really Great. I bought their first three records and along with theSeattle Syndrome track, loved everything about them, from their sometimes coyote yipping vocals to their scratch and sniff guitars. By ’82 they left town and would go on to bigger and perhaps better, but you can read all about it in Lee Lumsden’s official liner notes below and their Wikipedia entry.
Were they the coolest band in Seattle at that point of time? Yes. They were.
Oh yeah, go buy this today.
Till next month –
Ps. Their K release is called History in Reverse. It is the entire oeuvre presented in reverse chronological order. After I bought the CD I made myself an un-reversed copy. That, along with The Telepths single, is what we present this month. Thanks to all Blackouts and Telepaths and Calvin at K for letting us put this up.
OFFICIAL LINER NOTES!
The Blackouts were the best Seattle band you never heard of. To those of us who bought their records and attended their shows, this is no secret. But for the majority who didn’t, this exciting anthology–long overdue–thankfully now exists.
In 1979, following the breakup of the notorious Telepaths, guitarist Erich Werner, drummer Bill Rieflin, bassist Mike Davidson, and synth/sax player Roland Barker formed a new musical alliance–the Blackouts. Like theTelepaths, they had an implosive intensity and were (along with a growing number of other new groups) the antithesis of the bar bands that dominated Seattle’s anemic and insupportable local music scene.
Erich Werner was the Blackouts‘ lead singer, chief lyricist, and sole guitarist. No longer chained to lead guitar, this engaging 19-year-old with an imposing intellect took full advantage, fronting the group and transforming the way he played. With this lineup, he felt there were no limits.
Werner’s atmospheric palette rapidly evolved, becoming increasingly cinematic. “We don’t play anything we don’t mean,” he said in an interview. Listening to “Happy Hunting Ground,” “Writhing,” or “Chipped Beef,” who could doubt it? His uncanny ability to layer & integrate sounds, to enliven each song with exacting precision, was truly impressive.
Likewise, Werner’s lyrics were revelatory portraits of an American culture under siege–the vacuous & jingoistic Reagan years. His themes were wide-ranging and his writing far from routine. In “Idiot” he sketches the stultifying effects of depression, while in “Young Man” examines the exploitation & hijacking of youth by pontificating elders. This unblinkingly clear (yet highly personalized) scrutiny of the world he inhabits is Werner’s unfailing strong suit. His idiosyncratic vocals–frustratingly unintelligible for the most part–almost always hit their mark. In “Exchange of Goods,” his cold, cynical delivery builds by increments, erupting into an adult temper tantrum of unbridled ferocity, as the lyric’s protagonist (a predator) screams, “Give me what I want!…I’ll get what I want!” Werner’s imperious outburst is riveting, galvanic: frighteningly real.
Intentional, dynamic songs were the Blackouts‘ stock-in-trade. At this they excelled, helped tremendously by the commanding, hypnotic rhythms of Bill Rieflin, generally acknowledged (by peers & press alike) to be “the best drummer in town.” His percussive virtues drive the songs to their prescribed destinations. One cannot conceive of this band without him, so foundational is his drumming. It is the heart & soul of the Blackouts‘ sound.
Roland Barker, all the while, utilized his synthesizer to good effect, injecting whimsical, kinetic keyboard parts into the mix. These playful additions both undergirded & offset the more austere elements that were Erich’s signature. Barker’s role in the Blackouts literally changed overnight when his synthesizer was stolen from Seattle’s Showbox Theatre. Because of this, he switched to saxophone, and the Blackouts‘ sound was changed forever. “The sound became more bare-bones, more tribal,” recalls Bill, “its character…more unique, more condensed.” As Bill sees it, the Blackouts “never really became the Blackouts” until this fateful theft intervened. It was a defining moment.
Another such moment occurred when Mike Davidson, the group’s original stellar bassist, left the Blackouts shortly after their second release, the smartly titled Men in Motion EP. Replacing him was Roland’s brother, Paul “Ion” Barker, summoned from Germany in May 1981. A wonderful asset, Ion’s sinewy & assertive inflections further permutated the Blackouts‘ sound, giving it a harder, darker, more athletic feel.
Live, this incarnation of the Blackouts had an almost shamanistic influence over its audiences. For if the band had any operating credo, it was this: “An alternative to the mundane.” In their creative process and their unconventional performances, this principle was ardently embodied. Intelligent, inventive, uncompromising–this was “alternative music” worthy of the name.
Having released a single and an EP, appeared on the Seattle Syndrome compilation (receiving scant local airplay and mixed reviews), signed with independent English label Situation Two for their “Exchange of Goods” / “Industry” single in late 1982, shot a remarkable video (each member loin-clothed and covered in oil and fireplace ashes) for the song “Idiot,” toured the West Coast, Canada, and wherever their imaginations and finances would take them, theBlackouts concluded that they had run their course in Seattle. They had played just about every viable venue in town. It was time to continue their crusade on the East Coast, making Boston their home base. In August 1982 they played their last Seattle show and headed for Beantown, playing occasional odd gigs along the way.
Once in Boston, they settled in a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment, played few shows and wrote fewer songs. The breakthrough they had hoped for was not to be. They did, however, meet Ministry‘s Al Jourgensen: a propitious encounter that resulted in the Jourgensen-produced Lost Soul‘s Club EP–the Blackouts‘ last.
Far past the point of diminishing returns, the band & company sought relief in San Francisco, taking up residence there in 1984. The change of scenery did them all a world of good, but brewing internal conflicts broke them up in June of ’85. In 1986 Paul began working with Ministry, eventually becoming Jourgensen’s long-term collaborator. Bill soon followed, as did Roland. For Bill and Paul, this signified the first lift for two very successful professional careers. Meanwhile, Erich Werner dealt with the desertion as best he could, immersed himself in academic studies, and in 1992 joined the Toiling Midgets. In this outfit he played bass and guitar–writing, recording & performing until the band’s demise in June 1997.
We (GMR) interrupt Lee Lumsden’s Blackouts CD liner notes. Paul Hood, of the Toiling Midgets, informed us recently, “…well, the Toiling Midgets are definitely not dead, and Erich is refusing to quit. So it looks like there was an unofficial 10 year hiatus before creating yearly mischief up and down the west coast from 2007 thru today…” Paul also tells us that, “Craig Gray (Toiling Midgets) guested with Mike Davidson (Blackouts) and Giorgio Baldi with me on my Feedback Seed project from 1999 -2008.” Toiling Midgets also have a gig March 26, 2011. Sorry we don’t have more info at this point…back to the Blackouts CD liner notes.
Legendary artist/poet/filmmaker Jean Cocteau once said: “A work of art should be ‘an object difficult to pick up’…. It should be made of such a shape that people don’t know which way to hold it… [This] keeps it fresh.” It could easily be argued that the Blackouts were Seattle’s ‘difficult object’: a self-contained force majeure whose admirers were many, but who existed in a time and place that ultimately failed to provide them the nourishment all artists require. Roland Barker, during a radio interview, expressed it this way: “We really feel that if your integrity is high and your intention is concentrated, eventually people will begin to see that something alive and real exists there.”
It is this enduring and numinous “something,” as alive and real today as it was 20 years ago, that you now hold in your hands. May you make contact with it and enjoy the discovery.
LEE LUMSDEN Seattle, WA Spring 2004
Curt Werner – Vocals
Erich Werner – Lead Guitar, Vocals
Homer Spence – Rhythm Guitar
Bill Rieflin – Drums
Alan McNabb – Bass
Recorded 1976 or 1977
The Telepaths existed from 1975 – 1978. The personnel was the same throughout except for the bassists: 1) Geoff Cade; 2) Alan McNabb; 3) Mike Davidson. Early on there was an additional vocalist: Gregor Gayden.
1. Frozen Darling (Rieflin- C. Werner)© Bill Rieflin
2. Must I Perorm (E. Werner – C. Werner)© Bill Rieflin
Paul Barker – Bass
Roland Barker – Sax, Synth, Keyboards, Vocals
Bill Rieflin – Drums
Erich Werner – Vocals, Guitar
Mike Davidson – Bass – tracks 3-8
3. Make No Mistake
4. The Underpass
Recorded September 1979 at Triangle Studio Seattle Released by Modern Records
5. Dead Man’s Curve
7. Being Be
8. Five is 5
Men in Motion EP Recorded July 1980 Released by Engram Records
9. Young Man
Recorded February 1981 Released by Engram Records
10. Exchange of Goods
Recorded October 1981 Released by Situation 2
Recorded August 1981 Released by Situation 2
Recorded April 1983 Released by Wax Trax
15. Happy Hunting Ground
16. It’s Clay Again
17. Chipped Beef
Recorded April 1984 Released by K 2004
Recorded August 1982 Released by K 2004
3-18 written by the Blackouts
3-8 Published by Warner-Tamerline
9 Published by Indelible Music
10 & 11 Published by Mistrial
12-18 Published by Icky Music