Half Machine from the Sun: The Lost Tracks from '79-'80 - Chrome (King of Spades Records)
Naming - what we call things - is important. Especially in music, where a few thoughtless letters conjure up a musical dead end, a drab boring vista of endless garbage. I’m sure we all have our favourite term to hate.
Personally, I find ‘prog rock’ and ‘fusion’ particularly repellant. Perhaps there are vibrant, exciting exponents... I have yet to encounter them. The concept of fusion is quite simple, of course. Start with one area of music and start stuffing other things in - sometimes it works brilliantly. But the times when I’ve thought the music a brilliant, wonderful blend of rock-meets-jazz (etc) I couldn’t possibly call The Laughing Clowns ‘fusion’, even now I find the stale taste of vomit rearing up in the back of my throat.
‘Prog rock’. Isn’t that endless self-indulgence? Awful muck. Yet Hendrix was undeniably progressive. Miles Davis. Ed Kuepper probably can’t brush his teeth without being progressive. Wire, ditto.
‘Experimental’; most ‘experimental’ bands experiment when they rehearse, what they present is not an experiment. They think you’ll like it. Think, ooo, the Beach Boys. Sergeant Pepper’s. Tubeway Army. Kraftwerk.
‘Stoner rock’. Ask anyone, only sounds good if you’re stoned. Otherwise, tiresome and dull. All these awful, crippling, imprisoning musical terms.
Take ‘punk’, a term I was once excited by. But come January 1978, with the last Sex Pistols gig, the punk explosion - as described by the UK media - was well and truly over.
Timing is everything. If you were making forward-kinda music (sorry, technical jargon) in 1975 or earlier, you were part of a huge undercurrent, an unflagged riptide on the most boring bastard beach populated by flabby rich swine.
That in 2014 things still seem to resemble the above situation - but, musically speaking the last twenty years have wobbled by on vast white rafts of human blubber. Where’s the revolution? The computer has helped us internalise, develop our cultural xenophobia (despite right-on exhortations to the contrary).
Well, of course I’m fucking opinionated.
Anyway. Naming is important. In 1978 punk was over. Everyone knew it except the punk bands. ‘New Wave’ was the media’s buzzphrase, missing the point entirely as usual. Those of us in the shitty clubs chasing the music like grouchy junkies never called it that either. C’mon. Listen to the first Laughing Clowns ep. Not new wave, is it? Take a listen to, ooh, I don’t know, Romeo Void and you’d instantly identify it as new wave (no, purists, not the new wave from London in 1976 or New York in 1974) in the sense that Devo was a new wave band, Blondie, Talking Heads and (fucking hell) the Cars, but Suicide ... well, we’re getting to where I wanted us to be now.
Never heard of them? Never mind. Be grateful, now you have that incredibly wonderful ‘first time listen’ experience ahead of you where you discover the most amazing...
First heard their fourth lp "Red Exposure" (1980) in 1981. I remember who I was with and where I was. I can take you to the room in the house, which I haven’t visited in 32 years.
By then Chrome was Damon Edge (the band’s founder) and Helios Creed (whose guitar so perfectly jagged against Edge).
I bought "Red Exposure" secondhand the same year. WEA put it out in Australia; you remember WEA, pushed Cold Chisel on us when they also had the Hitmen on their roster. Hmmmmm. I like to think of some Chisel fan putting it on and, horrified, selling it the next day.
The following year something turned up at the Record Factory. Bloke called Turk Nancarrow sold it to me. Cost me $40. An individual lp cost $8. $40 was a fifth of my income, and almost all my food money for the best part of 10 days.
I bought Chrome’s box set. Six LPs. The box looks bloody battered by now.
Remember the sequence in "Monsters, Inc" when you gawp at the huge cavern of moving doors, realising that behind each one is a life, a possibility?
Imagine every time you open a door there are more and more possibilities. Musical, of course. Like the earth got yanked back and all you could see were all those doors in a hangar without end. Chrome Box. I was hooked. Still am.
(Look it up. Got rereleased a couple of times on cd. Hilariously, Amazon call it heavy rock, various internet gits call Chrome (and the last man standing, Helios Creed) ‘space rock’ or ‘sci-fi’ rock. Hanging’s too good etc.)
You know how a load of establishment rockers rather unwisely took to the synth in the early '80s in some deranged attempt to be either more relevant or less old, and sounded like dorks? Damon Edge actually experimented with synths, effects and tapes to produce a nightmarish late-night noir soundtrack to the sort of B/W movies on telly which seemed to imply so much more without the sound on. What else was there to do? Instead of merely being out of it, Chrome went at their music with distinctly sideways slant, and with a determined sense of purpose.
Pigeonholing Chrome is like trying to describe catatonia, or purple to the blind, charity to a bank. Chrome present us with a code. Trying to crack it is endless. You should only listen to Chrome, by the by, never read interviews.
So, to "Half Machine from the Sun".
The title implies that these tracks date from the period between "Half Machine Lip Moves" (1979) and "Third from the Sun" (1982).
Apart from "Red Exposure", it’s easily the most commercial LP of the Edge/Creed period. It’s effectively a double LP, so each side has a certain unity. Despite these tracks bounding about the shared-file world for several years, the mastering and editing have the songs fresh and sparkly.
Bearing in mind that chunks of this and other, earlier Chrome records were partly made when their creators were stoned (on acid and Christ knows what else). Despite this, there’s a solid block of thought and emotive pingpong going on in these songs. On every lp they throw away scraps of music that more established bands would cheerfully kill to have come up with, because there’s whole careers built on those riffs, those perfect little runs. Imagine having the talent to come up with this sort of music, and then imagine the arrogance to toss it aside, secure in the knowledge that more will come, over and over.
Because these tracks span the development and growth of the classic, Edge/Creed lineup, we have an engaging chronological mix. Some I’d swear are from the Alien Soundtracks period, some from Blood on the Moon lp (a personal favourite). Why are they so good?
Listening to Chrome now - all of the LPs - is like hearing a really new, innovative outfit who sound extraordinary and exciting. Sure, there are a few who’ve taken a few of what they do on board. But it’s not like a twenty-something seeing the Dolls and wondering what the fuss was about. Chrome are frankly somewhat scary, like visiting a totally alien planet (ie pre-Ridley Scott), and freaky in the disturbing way that made Meyer try to buy up every copy of (the heavily cut) Todd Browning’s "Freaks".
Chrome fuck with your expectations. The first song on "Alien Soundtracks" seems like about five. The multiple changes and developments within the songs can be abrupt and thrilling. Like the Velvets, or Suicide, or the Silver Apples, I always think Chrome should’ve conquered America. They were harder than most outfits of their time, heavy in the sense that a HM band could only premature about.
Some songs here don’t have Creed’s trademark corrupted vocal, so it’s interesting to just hear what they sound like with a ‘normal’ singer. I hear insight. Doors opening. 18 songs I’ve never heard before. The first dip is a revelation. The second listen is ... well, it’s better. By the third I’m lost, once again.
There is even a political comment or two, "SALT" (which stands for the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty) is a cracker, and Nagasaki is altered to "Fukushima".
The unique blend which makes Chrome so stonking is the perfect balance of Edge’s racket as opposed to Creed’s racket. I mean, there’s so much fucking row on these exquisitely restored tracks that you sometimes wonder what exactly it is that you’re hearing. Guitar? Synth? Voice? An air-conditioner, a squeaky door? What the fuck is that?
And that occasional demonic muttering? The bizarre symbolism of the demon door-knocker on the front of the Chrome box. No, not HM at all. HM, or whatever it calls itself these days, bogeycore or something, is all about glorifying the panto villain (‘Look behind you!’) and eroticising self-slavery. We don’t need HM for that, we get enough of that from the adverts on telly. Chrome were influenced by traditional Arab music (really), LSD, astronomy and black and white TV. "Charlie’s Little Problem" won’t turn up on Rage anytime soon, but since I can’t recall the last time I bothered with Rage, who cares?
Sure, Stooges nuts will be ticking boxes, and I cannot be bothered listing any of the others which flicker here and there like dots of mica on a beach. Chrome are symphonic, savage, deranged and utterly arresting. "The Rain", for example, kinda Jacques Brel via Lou Reed, but ... nowhere near it.
Back in the day, if you played this at a straight party you’d have been beaten to a pulp for being a poofta (that all-purpose term which means someone who doesn’t fit in to the point where they’re a threat).
I can think of few higher accolades.
PS. Damon Edge died years ago after making some records with some French people. Don’t hold it against him.
Helios Creed runs his own band, and sometimes plays as Chrome, which is distinctly different. He’s consistently recorded and toured the States. Chrome, or Creed, I don’t care which, is one band I’d cheerfully cross the country to see. Surely there’s a festival with some guts?