Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Big Black: It's a Heartache

There is a rarer version of this e.p. the cover features a picture of a suicide victim.
The poor unfortunate had split his head in half with a shotgun blast.
I've never seen it.
Perhaps, it's a myth...
But if you know the work of Steve Albini, and particularly the work of his eighties' band Big Black, the possibility of that deeply unsettling image being used as cover art for this recording is not incomprehensible: it is well believable.
And that says quite a lot about this Chicago based, post-hardcore band.

Touch and Go Records, an independent label also based in Chicago, took-on the band after they fell out with their previous label.
The Headache e.p. (1987) was the only release Touch and Go put out while the band were still together and active (Songs About Fucking came out a little later, after the band had retired due to Santiago Durango's academic commitments).

Albini was not happy with Headache, apparently, and that is maybe why the British edition, put out on Blast First Records, included a free give away of the excellent 7" single 'Heartbeat'.

For my money, Headache, along with 'Heartbeat', captures the energy and anger that was so indicative of the Big Black sound.

The opener 'My Disco' contains one of the weirdest audio inserts I have ever heard.
Essentially, a group of guys who fire a home-made mortar bomb: Ba-Boom!
Followed by lots of giggling.
Those responsible are credited:
'field recording of mortar shell July 4 1986 [I guess if you're going to fire a mortar in the States, the 4th of July is a pretty good time to do it], roof of the graystone, detroit, by chris gordon for gnec: during the six-man zeus god of thunder [!] tournament'

It's wicked, listen out for it: slap bang in the middle of the track.

The heaviest track on the e.p. is undoubtedly 'Ready Men'.
Misleading in its slow, slightly progy opening, it soon morphs into a metallic, thrashy jam, at about 320 beats per minute; typified by the archetypal Big Black guitar sounds - just what kind of 'strings' did they use?

Coarse and abrasive, as metallic and mechanical as possible (the band never did have a drummer, preferring the beats generated by Roland; that's Roland the drum machine), 'Pete, King of all Detectives' is misanthropic, misogynistic and offensive, but one-hell-of-a-noise!
It is also funny - I'm not sure why, but Albini screaming 'I'm Pete: Yeah Pete' at the top of his voice just amuses me.
And as for that wonderfully thugish bass-line...

The almost Burroughs-like delivered preamble sets the song up perfectly:

'I'm tough as dirt
I'm mean as blood
Where I blow out come spiders
Where I step a weed dies
No smokes with diapers for Pete, King of all detectives
Fall down on your knees
Fall down and worship King Dick'

Big Black were ever so good at covers.
Their most recognised song is without doubt their version of Kraftwerk's 'The Model'; but their take on Wire's 'Heartbeat' is even better.
Adapting Colin Newman's mechanical, vacant delivery, Albini transformed the track into a bombastic scream: crystallizing perfectly the fear associated with body-paranoia and mortality.

'Things To Do' is right mean and nasty, with the refrain 'Kill the Dog' aiding its spiteful malice.

The final track, 'I Can't Believe', all one minute of it, is one of my favourite Big Black tunes.
Just turn it up as loud as you dare, and see if you don't start bouncing yourself off the walls.
Go on! Go for it!

According to Albini, the track originally had lyrics: 'something about the American political system, but Sant hated them. Thus are all great instrumentals born'.
And a great instrumental it is.

Albini, as a musician, lives on through his current band Shellac (I will be posting a taste of their excellent catalogue in the near future), although for many he may well be known more as a producer (Nirvana, Polly Harvey, Pixies, et al.) than he is a musician.

Big Black created a sound that has been much emulated over the years; but very few did it as well, and very, very few did it better.
I believe it was Albini's skill in the studio that allowed the band to shine: to stand out from so many of their contemporaries and later imitators.

An awful lot of noise and hardcore music can come across as lifeless and stilted when recorded in a studio; recordings totally unable to capture the energy associated with live performance.
Big Black did not suffer from this; their recorded music was always dynamic, vibrant, and brimming with vital energy; so much so that of all the hardcore style bands, Big Black sound as good, if not better, on record as they did live.

Big Black - Headache e.p.

Tracks:
My Disco
Grinder
Ready Men
Pete, King of all Detectives

Big Black - Heartbeat 7"

Tracks:
Heartbeat
Things To Do
I Can't Believe

Both these are ripped from vinyl @256kbs

Get them both here

10 comments:

Lope de Aguirre said...

Thanks, good addition to the regular LPs! I do remember Rema Rema by Big Black, but never found that one again.

michaelDUSTdevil said...

i have the split head artwork... i could email it to you if wanted... i doubt i could find anywhere to host it!

Anonymous said...

You'll find the suicide pics here-
http://petdance.com/actionpark/bigblack/discography/
In particular-
http://petdance.com/actionpark/bigblack/discography/pix/shotgun-suicide-1.jpg
http://petdance.com/actionpark/bigblack/discography/pix/shotgun-suicide-2.jpg
Enjoy

robp said...

Heartbeat was the first Big Black song I ever heard; I bought it instantly, didn't know it was a Wire song until a couple years ago.

Rema Rema was a cover, original by the band Rema Rema; I have the 45s of both, I think Michael does as well.

And from the first time I heard Atomizer I thought of Big Black as the Burroughs of music - always good when other people feel similar connections. Of course, some of it's the lyrical content, and I got into them just before they broke up, so I missed what was writ about them whilst they was extant.

michaelDUSTdevil said...

from Albinis' last tor diary, the night DUSTdevils opened for Big Black at Leeds Poly 26 July 1987(?):

"The gig tonight is in a college, but thankfully not a college-sponsored students-only jive. At least nobody will get turned away. We're playing with a lousy mess of a band, the Unbelievables, and a Velvet Undergroundish band called the Dustmice or Dustballs or Dustweasels or something. They have a real dish for a guitar player. She's got that emaciated no-tits, near-dead look I go for in a big way. Using the patented Nate Kato five-step tit measurement scheme (tots, tits, boobs, jugs and dugs), she has tits, I would say. Definitely not tots, as you could see a quite active wiggling going on when she played guitar, but there was no real heft to them, so they wouldn't qualify as boobs. That bizarre leather nazi bitch in Hamburg, however, she had dugs. One of them had a pimple on it the size of a regular person's boob. We're talking "D" for "droopy", "U" for "ogly", "G" for "giant", "S" for "squeaks like a balloon" -- DUGS. While I was trying to avoid talking to her, her thumbnail-sized bra cup gave up the ghost and this whole, complete, drug- addled, blue-plate special-sized nipple jounced out into the world. She was oblivious, and became fodder for much ribaldry. The Arliss of Hamburg."

DUSTmice indeed!

robp said...

She was fucking gorgeous though, right? One thing you guys had over both Big Black and the Velvets.

Not to knock the beauty of Roland.

michaelDUSTdevil said...

she tended to put most things & people into the pale... wasn't just her looks though...

Anonymous said...

Heartbeat was and still is awesome. Unfortunately the story about the rarer cover is true. Dean who I knew at the time in Birmingham had it. It was hideous.

roy rocket said...

And can now be seen in all its bloody hideousness over at YoungMossTongue; if you wanna...

Anonymous said...

(anonymous = wrighty for the purpose of this discussion)

re: 'that cover', it was sold in the UK in a plain (apart from the circle logo you can see on the Headache cover here, which was embossed in) vinyl 'sheath' which was completely sealed around all four sides so you had to cut it open to get the discs out.....with good reason! Heartbeat, things to do today (to give it its full title) and I can't believe were on a separate 7" in its own sleeve inside the 12".

Great site man, love it.....oot