2 fried amps, a drummer playing lead, and brains full of boo: The Dead C.'s Harsh 70s Reality turns 20
October 23, 2012 9:39 AM   Subscribe

One of New Zealand's greatest-ever exports of experimental music, The Dead C. have built a huge catalog of challenging "rock" music over the last 25 years that offers massively dosed psychedelic excess, improvised all-night flights, blistering free noise and deconstruction of blazing garage punk for adventurous listeners. They've cheekily called themselves "The AMM of punk rock" and it's not far from the truth. Their high-water mark -- the double-LP Harsh 70s Reality -- has reached twentieth anniversary status and has just been reissued on vinyl by legendary US imprint Siltbreeze, restoring a few cuts that didn't make it to the late 1990s CD re-release and offering this fearless free music to a new generation of fans.

A trio featuring guitarists Bruce Russell, Michael Morley (also vocalist) and drummer Robbie Yeats, The Dead C. formed in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1986. After a few small-run cassettes on Bruce Russell's Xpressway label and an LP on Flying Nun (DR503, 1988), their music -- at this time, a hall-of-mirrors take on downer songcraft a la The Fall's Dragnet and Grotesque and This Heat's Deceit -- began circulating amongst North American tastemakers. Flying Nun released their second LP Eusa Kills in 1990, and their first American release hit the streets when Siltbreeze released the Helen Said This 12" EP, which showed off the band's love of the extended techniques of Sonic Youth's EVOL/Sister period (the Xpressway label derives its namesake from SY's "Xpressway To Yr Skull")

After several years of gestation, their "desire to really push what we were doing beyond any nice idea of a formula of song" produced Harsh 70s Reality. Opening with the sidelong improvisation of "Driver UFO" and wrapping up with somewhat more conventional song structures ("Constellation," "Baseheart" and "Hope") where the muffled emotional weight of Morley's mumble hotwires affecting songcraft to the group's free rock, it was with this LP where the group made their greatest impact with United States audiences. In the next 2 years, Siltbreeze pushed out a CD reissue of the 1990 Trapdoor Fucking Exit cassette (originally released in an edition of 50), featuring DC favorites like "Sky" and "Mighty" -- blasted garage punk like you've never quite heard it -- along with a pseudo-live LP (Clyma est Mort, a canny reimaging of The Fall's Totale's Turns) and the zonked drone/psych of the Operation of the Sonne LP.

Since the mid-1990s, they've pushed out a release every few years, and the 2006 compilation Vain, Erudite and Stupid compiles tracks from all major releases. Still an active group, although the three members live in separate cities, they will be playing at All Tomorrow's Parties in Melbourne, Australia in February 2013. Michael Morley's solo project Gate has released a small stack of LPs and cassettes since the very early 1990s, while Bruce Russell has several solo albums and collaborations to his name, as well as his duo with Alastair Galbraith, A Handful of Dust.
posted by porn in the woods (24 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Hay! I was in a band (the In Out) that opened for them and Harry Pussy about 17 years ago. One of my favorite shows ever; I was really blown away by both bands.
posted by not_on_display at 9:50 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

A bad band massively overrated by indie elitists. It's almost comical how underwhelming the music actually is compared to the hype they've always received in the press. The emperor truly has no clothes.
posted by dydecker at 10:10 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hay! I was in a band (the In Out) that opened for them

Small world. I saw you guys open for Cibo Matto and Pulsars at the Middle East Downstairs in 1997.
posted by mykescipark at 10:28 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dydecker, show me on this doll where the band touched you. It's ok, you're safe here.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 10:29 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

dydecker: I've never heard them, but agree with you based on the content of the post.
posted by thylacine at 10:32 AM on October 23, 2012

This music does not appeal to me in any way. That said, I have to respect a band that has a semblance of a following all the way from the mid 80s.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:34 AM on October 23, 2012

People whose opinions I respect totally revere this band, and though they generally don't really work for me*, I'd save any emperor/clothes analogies for the evil bands that do real harm by their very existence, not a couple dedicated serious NZ noiseniks with no penetration into popular consciousness.

Harsh 70s Reality is one of the best album titles in the world (and Trapdoor Fucking Exit isn't far behind).

*though I did really like them when I saw them at an ATP 10 years ago or so
posted by anazgnos at 10:42 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think I remember this band being revered something fierce in issues of Forced Exposure, back in the mid-80s or so, but never did get to hear them, there were so many bands back then I wanted to hear but I had limited funds for vinyl to go around, but I would snap these guys up on vinyl if I could find them. From that footage of Sky I bet they were a really fun trip to see play on stage.

And a note for those who would dismiss this genre of noisecore, art-core, noise-damage type bands so flippantly. A lot of them never really transferred really well recording wise. The extreme volume and tones, and extreme low and high frequencies were an experience unto themselves and could be an incredible high. Even the oppressive ordeal-type aspects of it could be an incredible buzz when it worked, although sometimes, most times, I admit, it was simply oppressive.

I think Sonic Youth recognized that if they were going to broaden their appeal on record and beyond their live shows they'd need to adopt more conventional song structures beginning with the album's EVOL, and progressing with that through Sister and Daydream Nation (Although that really played with the idea of a concept album structure) and finally taking full bloom, (might be the word), once they signed to DGC and Goo and onward, they even began to incorporate more stereotypical guitar sounds and leads and whatnot...

But, yeah, some of the phantom tones these early to mid 80s noise-damage bands could produce live were heady and beautiful things. No joke...I'm talking whole new vistas of aural illumination and knowledge...bands like Barbotomagus, Live Skull, UT, Early SY, Early Swans, Rat at Rat R, Unwound, Early Big Black, Early Einsturzende Neubaten, Birthday Party, Early Fall, Early Lydia Lunch, DNA and Arto Lindsay. I may be forgetting a whole other bunch I think.
posted by Skygazer at 11:54 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel like there was a reason the Dead C's were last on this list.

Not that they're crap, but, not that good either, or rather, not that high in the list of good/influential kiwi bands.
posted by Elysum at 2:16 PM on October 23, 2012

Most New Zealanders really hate the Dead C. who are far more popular in America and Europe.

Back in the early 1990s, music writer Byron Coley was speaking to an NZ resident, who said "I hear an American label is going to put out a record from the Dead C. Are they out of their mind? It's just a great big fuckin' noise!" to which Byron replied "Yeah, it's great, isn't it?"
posted by porn in the woods at 2:50 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of them never really transferred really well recording wise.

I think thats a good point. Especially with bands like this where I think the experience was more visceral. I went to a Einsturzende Neubaten show in Denver in 1985(?) totally expecting to hate it and it moved me to another time and space. On vinyl or tape, especially the shitty quality, not so much.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 2:52 PM on October 23, 2012

Listening to the "psychedelic excess" link, I'm guessing that the Flaming Lips listened to this band a lot in the early days.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:11 PM on October 23, 2012

A lot of them never really transferred really well recording wise.

recording is a different art than performance - the two tracks i've heard sound like they were recorded live on cassette - maybe that's all they could afford, but they're not really addressing the possibilities halfway here

pity, because on "outside" i'm hearing stuff that could really shine if it was better recorded

anyone ever hear that mercury rev side project cd "harmony rockets - paralyzed mind of the archangel void"? - you can do stuff like this live and make it work as a recording

ok, the last half of "outside" pretty much works, anyway, but it could have been awesome with better equipment
posted by pyramid termite at 5:03 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Robbie Yeats or Yates was also in the Verlaines (at the same time?). Two very different bands.
posted by rodii at 9:23 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Porn in the Woods, I guess you realize Byron Coley was head critic honcho at Forced Exposure. It's pretty funny that he went to NZ and was basically told he had cack for ears on his all out reverence for the Dead C. ha ha...

Some of Coley's obsessions seemed really arbitrary. Everything really came down to a Detroit avant grunge cave rock obsession via MC%, Stooges, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Sonics, Celibate Rifles, (from Australia), who I saw live and were fucking great, Same goes with The Scientists, (also form Austrialia), who's Blood Red River EP, I loved..that sort of thing was Coley's schtick along with Barbotomagus who Thurston Moore did a record with....it's name escapes me at the moment.

posted by Skygazer at 9:48 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ever since I discovered them at the age of 14, I was a massive, massive Sonic Youth fan. Even that is a poor way of putting it; I was an OVERWHELMING Sonic Youth fan. I was an all-encompassing, terrifying Sonic Youth fan. In the same scratching-a-mosquito-bite way that most straight 14 year old boys would think about the girls in their class, I thought about distortion and feedback and ironic pop-music structures; I would say things like, 'hearing Sonic Youth for the first time literally changed my life', which was more or less true but also held as much weight as most 14 year old proclamations. I also thought about those girls, who were generally not into feedback and irony, and so I had a very lonely adolescence.

This was in the early days of the Internet and also of another time that will forever be lost: a time when loving an unpopular artform was an exercise in isolation rather than a rallying call. This is a time when Husker Du was setting my brain on fire (even though they had been broken up for years and years and years) and I didn't have anyone to turn to with this new passion, so I had to basically reinvent punk rock in my head, by myself. It was a sad, lonely, but ultimately empowering phase to go through, and while I won't say it was GOOD, I will say that there is a certain romance to it now.

So anyway, I was obsessed with Sonic Youth and I would trawl the nascent Internet for whatever scraps I could find: small, battered outcroppings in what was otherwise a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Message boards and listservs: these were my torchfires, my beacons in the darkness. I was a sad, lonely kid and I didn't know what to do with my sadness or my loneliness, and these message boards, mostly populated by other sad, lonely kids, were always talking abou the Dead C. They LOVED the Dead C, and these voices in the wilderness, well, I just loved that they were there, so I loved everything they ever said.

The Dead C achieved legendary status in my mind, they truly did, because I would read, just, pages and pages of overflowing praise about how great this weird New Zealand band were. Words like, 'intensity', 'deconstruction', 'fearless', and the phrase 'barely controlled chaos' were thrown about. It sounded THRILLING. People would write about how they had heard 'the White House' and it sounded like they had uncovered pieces of the true grail.

But I was never able to track down any of their albums. **

I spent a few years basically imagining what the Dead C sounded like --- FANTASIZING about this music.

And then I completely forgot about them until this post.

The first thing I did is, I listened to 'Outside' (the 'harsh psychedelic' link) and was really underwhelmed for maybe the first 7 minutes - it sounded like every mediocre indie band from that era that I bought on the Internet's say-so - but then, I don't know, something opened up and the noise happened and it suddenly became beautiful. It reminded me of the wild abandon that excited me about experimental rock, way back in those lonely days.

And so I immediately went out and bought 'Harsh 70s Reality' because those lonely days could not be more over. Where buying a long sought after album once felt like an archaeological discovery, now, is just a vague regret that one feels come the credit card statement.

And here is the crazy thing, that is really bothering me, because 'Harsh 70s Reality' is terrible. Utterly, utterly terrible. I am about halfway through and it just TERRIBLE. I feel bad even typing this, given my weird pseudo-relationship with the band, but time has not been kind to this album.

It starts off with a vaguely interesting noise piece of a kind which is really not that interesting anymore, but is not out and out awful. If you would like to sit around your house and feedback guitars and occasionally scrape a pick above the neck to make that distinctive 90s chiming sound, you are more than welcome. I doubt you could do it as darkly or engagingly as this - as far as 90s style guitar noise goes, this is top notch stuff - but you could probably do it. We live in an age where nearly every single underground band, and quite a few famous ones, record at home because it's too expensive to go into a proper studio because of the Internet, basically. (also because of the RIAA and how information wants to be free and also, censorship? and how if you want to buy an album the money goes to the corporations anyway? Also, something about copyright law.)(No one has been able to explain it too good to me, at least.)

And then the rest of the album happens, and it is just utterly terrible. Not even INTERESTINGLY terrible. Calling it a 'deconstruction of garage rock' is much too kind, though I can kind of hear where that is coming from. It sounds, almost literally, like a poor quality recording of a semi-competent cover band's sound check. There is certainly nothing interesting musically going on except the amazement that somebody bothered to commit this to tape.

I won't even bother describing it more: it literally sounds like a really shitty rock band warming up when they didn't know the tape was running.

When I started this (what has turned out to be) essay, I wasn't sure how the beginning would fit in, but now I realize that this music belongs to an earlier age. It seems naive, now, but back then the mere act of recording something like this was a statement in and of itself, just as listening, seeking, finding music like this was an exercise in monastic purity. The obscurity itself only contributed; there was a weird sort of purity to it, that you were making music so artful that it couldn't even be heard. The point of it was the obscurity; it didn't matter what it sounded like, as long as nobody heard it.

Nowadays, absolutely anybody in the world who is capable of recording anything can make her music instantly available. 'There is no talent to obscurity', as the saying goes.

So what of the lonely kid I was, who placed a fetishistic importance on music like this, unheard by the slobbering masses (or whatever horrible epithet he might have used)? I don't know what to tell him, except that great music takes effort, takes craft, and that it survives beyond its context?

How good are Sonic Youth, honestly? How good are Husker Du and Mission of Burma and Sleater-Kinney and the Fall; and any of the other bands that I idolized during those dark few years of my life? There is a depth and intricacy to their music that goes beyond obscurity and circumstance and that still speaks to me, even though it no longer sounds like a holy beacon from some forgotten Eden.

The Dead C just sound like a very decent noise band that was nearly forgotten by time --- and had they come about 20 years later, would have been. Actually, not forgotten, not entirely; rather, in a weird way, they would live on forever, commemorated eternally on some lonely, unmanned MySpace page.
posted by Tiresias at 10:05 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

**A weird journalistic side note, but I just realized that NONE OF THIS was the early days of the Internet. I mean, at the very least, Napster was around for every part of this story, so why did I feel like I couldn't find their music? I was very much a purist and a snob in those high school days, so maybe I felt like if it wasn't on vinyl it wasn't worth hearing? Still not sure about this part of my personal history. I guess the point is, in my mind, for whatever reason, this was GREAT-BUT-LOST-MUSIC.)
posted by Tiresias at 10:06 PM on October 23, 2012

Porn In The Woods: You left out TUSK, which is one of TDC's best "failures". Thanks for the post.

I'm not hating, I'm just not relating. To the harshness. In this thread.
posted by Minus215Cee at 11:39 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tiresias, if A Holy Beacon From Some Forgotten Eden, isn't the name for a difficult, self-indulgent, psychedelic meltdown of an album, or the title of a book about one dude's search for the ultimate rock Godhead experience, I don't know what is...

I'm actually listening to Outside, as I write this, and at the 12 minute mark, and finding it pretty righteous with a goodly amount of the low end turned up to make it sound less tinny and I have to say it's sounding pretty righteous, but only because I've already experienced the repetitive beginning, and this noodling part is making sense, and I guess there's a lesson right there. Sometime we just need to go on the whole trip and give it time before we understand anything about an experience...musical or otherwise, and there was a time people lived inside an album worth of music for a while, put up there feet got comfortable and really came to know the landscape of it, but these days everything's got to instantly deliver or it's considered a waste of time...and the internet encourages that idea of self-gratification just by the nature of music downloads and the overwhelming staggering amount of content, musical and otherwise that seeks to be consumed and forgotten. And Sonic Youth knew that from the moment they made themselves a corporate band they had to adopt a more conventional song, structure and song approach and be more readily consumable, and I think it was smart, as they achieved a whole new audience and were able to go back to the more epic long playing peices with stuff for example on Washing Machine, the Dead C. though are obviously never ever going to be able to be that sort of pre-contrived thing for better or worse, because they are going for something more pure, more profound both for the players and the listeners, and that in itself is something that, as you suggest, is a fetish, and a code, and a necessary thing...

But honestly, I can't imagine SY remaining in their Bad Moon Rising stage forever or Husker Du attempting to remake Land Speed Record or Zen Arcade again and again, it would've be a disservice, even to themselves, no matter how pure and uncompromising that might've been and both of those bands had real pop-chops at the end of the day that they were able to mesh with their unique sounds, and I'm glad they evolved, even if, as in the case of HD, it meant they had to break up ultimately.

Anyway looks like I'm going to have to pick up Harsh 70s Reality as well...at some point, and there are lots of points in life we need to just slow the fuck down and stop zapping ourselves with instant shots of adrenaline from an internet link and live inside out heads and skin, for a while and enjoy the noise in our heads if we can, I mean it's actually crucial if you want to know thyself.

Purity is a good place to visit frequently and perhaps even stay a while, but not a good long term situation...
posted by Skygazer at 9:01 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I guess you realize Byron Coley was head critic honcho at Forced Exposure.

Indeed. FE were one of their earliest supporters. Editor Jimmy Johnson reviewed DR503 right when it came out (Byron wrote entries on Helen Said This, Harsh 70s Reality and Clyma Est Mort.) They also put out a Dead C. 7" single in 1992 with some tracks ("Power" and "Mighty") pulled from the Trapdoor Fucking Exit cassette.

Forced Exposure was my favorite music magazine ever. For them to go silent after the 1993 issue (Chris Knox cover) was a tragedy. I still have issues remaining on my subscription!
posted by porn in the woods at 9:14 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was obsessed with FE from the first issue I found in a fanzine store (the famous See/Hear in NYC and it was the issue with the green cover with Sonic Youth on the cover from I think '85) to that final Chris Knox issue. I was pretty much in awe of Both Jimmy Johnson and Byron Coley's just absurd knowledge of all things underground, music, books and movie wise...and blown away by Coley's writing.
posted by Skygazer at 9:40 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

For those who dig Byron Coley's writing, you could do much, much worse than subscribing to The Wire, the UK music magazine where Coley contributes a page of reviews of singles and cassettes each month. His great book from last year, C'est La Guerre, compiles his late '70s writings. I'd kill a thick book of Coley's work, something along the lines of rockcrit Richard Meltzer's A Whore Just Like The Rest.

And if you're in need of a good Chuck Norris biography, Byron's got you covered.
posted by porn in the woods at 10:14 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Forgot to mention in the post, there's a new book out - Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand, edited by Bruce Russell.
posted by porn in the woods at 10:18 AM on October 24, 2012

Note to self: Add "the remaining issues on my Forced Exposure subscription" to the Will.
posted by whuppy at 11:33 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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