An Introduction to Chrome and San Francisco's 1970s Art Punk Scene
By: Ashley Naftule
Phoenix New Times
March 20, 2018 - 5:00AM
When Chrome founder
Damon Edge was shopping around the band's debut album, a Warner
Brothers A&R rep dismissed it as a "messed-up Doors album." For
most musicians, this kind of snide hand-wave would be a crushing blow
to the ego. Edge took it as a sign that he was on the right path.
"Messed up" is a
great way to describe the body of work Edge and Helios Creed made
together as Chrome. The group formed in San Francisco in 1975, and
gained notoriety for their chaotic and sprawling sound. They took punk
music to the outer fringes, drenching riffs in layers of distortion, TV
samples, and weird tape manipulations.
Listening to a Chrome
album is an unsettling experience. Songs fade in and out of the mix at
random, drums clatter and bang like they're pounded out on trash can
lids, and guitar parts sound beamed down from an alien planet that
learned to play by listening to Chuck Berry shred on Voyager I.
On album like Alien
Soundtracks and Half Machine Lip Moves, the band sound like they're
trying to escape the confines of rock music — and Earth.
Edge and Creed
drifted apart in the late 1980s. Edge continued touring under the
Chrome name until his death in 1995. Creed began working again under
the Chrome name in 2014.
version of the band is coming to Arizona this month. So we're taking a
look back at the forces that helped shape Chrome's music: the bands and
artists that inspired them, as well as their San Francisco art-punk
Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs
The two writers’
experiments with the cut-up technique inspired avant-garde groups to
play around with sound and lyrics in the studio. Burroughs and Gysin
also helped popularize the music of North Africa with their writings
and interest in the Master Musicians of Joujouka. Edge founded Chrome
after taking a trip to Morocco in the early '70s that was inspired by
the pair's work. Gysin and Burroughs' work became particularly
well-known in San Francisco, thanks to industrial musician Monte
Cazazza, a pen-pal and occasional collaborator with Burroughs
fans/noise pioneers Throbbing Gristle in the U.K.
Where to start:
RE/Search #4/5 (1982) goes in depth about their philosophies and
working methods. Burroughs' The Job (1969) and his book with Gysin, The
Third Mind (1978), delve deep into the cut-up experiments.
More than enough ink
has been spilled about The Stooges' impact on punk music. What makes
them important in the context of Chrome and other art-punk bands in the
late '70s was how many of them took their cues from The Stooges' second
LP. Fun House was the record where the band expanded their sound,
bringing in saxophonist Steve Mackay to blow some sick and wild licks
on the back half of their album. It's no accident that so many
art-punks ended up adding some unhinged sax honking to their sound —
they learned from the best.
Where to start:
Classic-era Stooges only released three albums, and they're all
essential. But the most relevant to the art-damaged sound of San
Francisco groups like Chrome is Fun House (1970). A gleefully trashy
one-night stand between garage rock and free-jazz, it's 36 minutes of
This band might seem
like the "hippie shit" punks railed against. Hawkwind made long albums
about sci-fi stories and outer space. But here's the thing: No matter
how much they sound like prog-hippie trash on paper, they rocked. This
is the band Lemmy was in before Motorhead. So you know they've got to
have some bite to their sound.
interstellar sound of Hawkwind would prove vastly influential to
Chrome's lyrics and songs. Creed was such a huge Hawkwind fan that he
ended up touring as part of ex-Hawkwind mastermind Nik Turner's band.
Where to start: In Search Of Space (1971), Space Ritual (1973), and Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974).
Still shrouded in
mystery, the playful and anonymous members of The Residents were a huge
influence on the San Francisco art-punk scene. Originally from
Shreveport, Louisiana, the eyeball gang relocated in 1972. Releasing a
string of influential records in the '70s, The Residents were known for
bizarre concept albums, experiments with sampling and tape edits, and
an overall who-gives-a-fuck irreverence that grandfathered them into
the punk scene.
The Residents also
had a label, Ralph Records, that helped local weirdos get their records
out into the world. Although they never released a proper full-length
through Ralph Records, Chrome did contribute three tracks to Ralph's
1979 Subterranean Modern compilation (which also included cuts by
Tuxedomoon and MX-80 Sound).
Where to start: Meet The Residents (1974), Duck Stab (1978), Eskimo (1979), and The Commercial Album (1980)
One of the most
stylistically diverse groups that came up around Chrome's era was
Tuxedomoon. Formed in 1977 by multi-instrumentalists Blaine Reininger
and Steven Brown, the collective made music focused on electronic
sounds. Synthesizers, violin, and saxophone were the cornerstones of
the music, which often had a theatrical, otherwordly quality. Opening
for Devo and signing with Ralph Records, Tuxedomoon built a big enough
following with their avant-garde synth music that it seemed like they
were going to cross over and find success as New Wave became ascendant.
Plagued with lineup
changes and the feeling that Europe was a better environment and market
for their music, Tuxedomoon relocated to Rotterdam in 1981. While their
1985 album Holy Wars achieved some measure of commercial success, they
never quite shook their status as a cult band.
Where to start: Half-Mute (1980), Desire (1981), and Holy Wars (1985).
The snottiest and
sloppiest of the art punks, Flipper galvanized audiences with their
antagonistic live shows and slothful sound. While most punk bands were
built for speed, Flipper sounded seconds away from nodding off —
bass-driven, slow, and distorted, with punch-drunk vocals from Will
Shatter and Bruce Loose. A band full of smart and clever musicians,
they made gleefully moronic music. The seven-minute "Sex Bomb" is their
greatest contribution to Western civilization: a punk "Louie Louie," it
bludgeons listeners with music that sounds like it's being recorded by
a frat party house band in Hell.
Where to start: Album – Generic Flipper (1982) is a stone-cold masterpiece.
Bloomington, Indiana, MX-80 Sound occupied a position similar to the
one Talking Heads had in the NYC punk scene — as the odd men out.
Despite playing many of the same clubs as the rest of the punks in the
scene, they were sonic square pegs. In an era where instrumental
virtuosity was suspect, MX-80 frontman Bruce Anderson's shit-hot guitar
skills raised a few pierced eyebrows.
But MX-80 were still
weird enough to get signed by Ralph Records, who put out their killer
second album, Out Of The Tunnel, in 1980. The album is full of classic
rock riffs and blistering solos, but it also features oodles of
distortion, weird spoken passages, and even some sax.
Where to start: Pick up a copy of Out Of The Tunnel (1980) and file it in between your Television and Husker Du records.
Joseph T. Jacobs,
Carlo McCormick, and Bond Bergland formed Factrix in 1978. While they
weren't as prolific as Chrome or The Residents, Factrix crafted a
unique and influential sound. Pioneers of industrial music, the trio
threw sound-poetry, drones, tape manipulations, and sinister
atmospherics into a blender to create a chilling sound that crawls over
the listener like a swarm of spiders. In many ways, they sound like
Chrome on cough syrup. Factrix took a similar set of influences and
studio techniques, but chose to slow them down and let them rot instead
of charging out of the garage like Chrome.
Factrix also had
connections with the cut-up traditions that inspired Chrome. Their 1982
live LP California Babylon is a collaboration with Monte Cazazza, and
it features a musical "cover" of Gysin's cut-up poem "Kick That Habit
Where to start: Scheintot (1981) is some real slick, spooky stuff. A must-have for any lover of post-punk, goth, and creepy psychedelia.
Images appearing in this article:
(photo by: Bridget Louise)