Ian Shirley's Ears Are Repolished By The Metallic Sci-Fi Reflections of Chrome
By: Ian Shirley
Wire Magazine - Issue #209
In October 1992 I
found myself in San Francisco researching a biography I was writing
about the Residents. One day, while one of the group's anonymous
members was talking to me off the record, the conversation turned to
another local cult personality: Damon Edge of Chrome. What was he like?
I asked, curious to hear more about this legendary figure. "He was a
creepy guy," the Resident replied. Talk about the kettle calling the
I have never
understood why Chrome remain locked away in the deepest dungeon of
obscurity. If Faust and Neu! have been let out for a little fresh air
and critical acclaim, why not Chrome? They were studio based explorers
whose early albums sound like templates for Primal Scream's Vanishing Point
and EXTRMNTR. And late in their career, they developed a hardcore sound
that has been acknowledged as an influence by Nine Inch Nails. Indeed,
The Butthole Surfers loved them so much, they invited guitarist Helios
Creed to guest on their 1993 album Independent Worm Saloon.
My introduction to
their music came in November 1979. They were one of three San Francisco
groups featured on the Residents' compilation, Subterranean Modern.
Their two tracks, "Anti Fade" and "Meet You In The Subway" sounded like
an industrial version of The Stooges: a primitive garage rhythm over
which guitars, synthesizers and vocals were treated with a barrage of
effects. I wanted more.
In New Wave's free
market economy, they were available on import outside the U.S. I'd like
to lie and say I rushed out and bought them all the next day, but I
couldn't: money was tight for a schoolboy working part-time stacking
shelves in Tesco. I could only afford one, so I bought Half Machine Lip Moves
(1979), because it had the best cover - Edge and Creed covered head to
foot in surgical bandages. The other two joined my collection over the
next few weeks.
Forget 1977's The Visitation, it's too embryonic, and does not feature Creed. But Half Machine and its predecessor Alien Soundtracks
are brilliant introductions to the gritty lo-fi version of the Chrome
sound, with Damon Edge pounding out a ferocious 4/4 rhythm on the drums
and Helios Creed carving out great slabs of sound on guitar that were
equally inspired by Hendrix, Jimmy Page and the raw power of The
Stooges. Bass, synths and other instruments, even other musicians, were
added, and then the treatments started. As a producer, Edge was the
Brian Wilson of early industrial music, kind of. Working with an
eight-track, he sliced and spliced songs, and mixed in 'found' sounds
such as the chatter of TV, radio and a kitchen sink of mixing desk
effects. Applied to the drums, his trademark heavy phasing shifted
explosive beats from left to right until they sounded like a military
jet swooping between your speakers. More recently, the way Washington
DC post-rock trio Trans Am deployed phasing on last year's Red Line
album sounded like they were paying tribute to Chrome. Edge's lyrical
themes were drenched in sci-fi imagery - war, depersonalization,
interstellar travel and strange hybrid beings - that could have been
torn from the novels of Samuel Delany, Joe Haldeman and Larry Niven.
They were not so much sung as screamed, whispered, flayed or smeared on
top of the tracks.
What made Chrome
fascinating back then was, the more I found out about them the less I
knew. Faraway San Francisco seemed especially exotic to a 17 year old
living in a council block in the East End of London. There were rumours
that Damon Edge composed music for porn films. Was this true, or was it
an embellishment on the real story that the group launched their second
album, Alien Soundtracks, by
playing it as an accompaniment to a live sex show? On the rare
occasions he gave interviews, Edge delighted in disinformation. The
Residents found him creepy because Edge always had an amused smile, as
if he were enjoying a private joke at the world's expense.
I rejoiced when I heard that Chrome had signed to British label Beggars Banquet in 1980. They made a great album, Red Exposure,
and although songs like "Electric Chair" and "Animal" had a strong
commercial edge, their delight in experimentation was still there, with
Edge whacking out the rhythm on "Eyes In The Center" on a 50 gallon oil
Would Chrome find their way into the mainstream, on the back of the rave reviews garnered by Red Exposure? They made promotional videos, indulging themselves by dressing up as Droogs from A Clockwork Orange.
They also recorded "Read Only Memory", the soundtrack to a video film
that was started but never finished. Dominated by backwards hi-hat,
drums and throbbing bass, today it sounds like an early signpost
Red Exposure turned out to be a peak they never bettered. On 1981's Blood On The Moon,
the duo recruited John and Hilary Stench on drums and bass, even as
they stripped their own sound down to something resembling early
hardcore. I hated it when it came out and don't like it much better
now. This line-up only got to play two gigs, a festival in Italy and a
show in San Francisco. They held back from doing a full tour because,
as Helios Creed revealed in 1999, Damon Edge suffered from agoraphobia.
"He had a lot of problems playing live, " Creed told me. "[He feared]
Maybe he'd get overshadowed. He never wanted to play live much. We
really missed out because he didn't want to play live."
As the music became increasingly erratic, wandering close to Goth rock territory, my interest waned.
Chrome split in 1983.
Damon Edge kept the name and continued to release records, much of it
awful (has anyone ever got all the way through the 42 minute narrated
album that was The Clairaudient Syndrome?)
When he died in mysterious circumstances in 1995, he was 45 years old.
In 1996, Creed once again began recording as Chrome and in 1998 took a
group out on the road to play 25 dates across America. OK, people
finally got to hear tracks like "Chromosome Damage", "New Age" and
"Firebomb" played live. But as anyone with a sex manual but no hands on
experience will tell you, it wasn't the same thing.
Images Appearing In This Article:
L To R: Helios Creed & Damon Edge