Friday, September 24, 2010

Late to the Party: Debris' [1976]

The pre-history of punk rock is usually based around hip, cosmopolitan urban areas. The Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, and The Dictators were based out of New York City; the MC5 and The Stooges in Ann Arbor, Michigan (just outside of Detroit); Pere Ubu, Devo, and Rocket from the Tombs out of Cleveland; and The Modern Lovers in Boston. These groups, who were far from popular during their own time (with the exception of Devo), have subsequently been elevated into the realm of the legendary thanks to a perceptive group of rock historians and cultural critics who were heavily influenced by these vibrant, perceptive, and prophetic artists. Thanks in part to texts like Lester Bangs' posthumously published anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1988) and Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me (1997), these otherwise obscure groups have been unwittingly canonized and are now casually mentioned by some rock n' roll aficionados in the same company as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. One group, however, that you will not read about in these histories is Chickasha, Oklahoma's Debris' (yes, there is an intentional apostrophe after the "s" in their name). Their self-titled debut, released in a private pressing of 1,000 copies in 1976, makes the argument that they should.

For those that don't know, Chickasha, Oklahoma is a small city located about forty miles southwest of Oklahoma City. Prior to the success of The Flaming Lips, the pride of Oklahoma City, in the early 1990s, the city was not exactly known for its punk rock bona fides. With this in mind, the mere existence of a group like Debris' should seem like some sort of proto-punk rock miracle. Helping advance this thesis is the relatively high quality of the music and just how many similarities it shares with the more legendary acts of that time period. Consisting of Charles ("Chuck Poison") Ivey, O. (Oliver) Powers (both assuming various duties on guitar, bass, and synthesizer), and drummer Johnny Gregg, the trio--with help from a session saxophonist, drummer, and female background vocalist--reportedly, as per the boast on the album's back cover, pumped out this well-rehearsed material in "Six hours and 59 minutes." In this relatively short period of time, spread across two different sessions in December 1975 and January 1976, they incorporate their influences (which the group notes on their myspace page include "The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, and English glam rock") and produce sounds vocal yelps comparable to Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Alan Vega of Suicide (both of whom had yet to release anything), and David Thomas of Pere Ubu. The stuttering rhythms of their guitar playing, the free jazz textures of session musician Richard Davis's saxophone, and the sharp bursts of noise that emanate from their synthesizers draw immediate comparisons to the aforementioned Pere Ubu, Robert Quine of the Voidoids, early "hardcore" Devo, and The Silver Apples. Thanks to record collector Karl Ikola, the founder of Anopheles Records, Debris' was re-issued (and re-christened Static Disposal, the name of the group's short-lived record label) for the first time in 1999 on CD (with numerous bonus tracks) and again on vinyl in 2008.

As exciting as this all sounds, let us not confuse the historical importance of this album's anomalous existence with the quality of the material on it. As an album, it is more often than not good, sometimes great. It often meanders, especially on the longer tracks. Similarly, some of the material is just not that strong ("Witness" and "Boy Friend," for instance). That being said, there is plenty to like here. The opener, "One Way Spit," begins with Charles Ivey retching into the microphone as he counts off the track. This is a fitting introduction to the album, foreshadowing the spastic sounds that would follow, insuring their obscurity, especially as an Oklahoman rock act, in 1976. Another highlight is the sludgy "Tricia," as desperate a love song one is likely to hear, complete with a power tool to create added texture (and long before Eddie Van Halen, it's worth noting!). Side One ends with another favorite, "Leisurely Waiting," which features a pulsating two chord sequence that is rendered all the more unsettling by Ivey's vocals. Side Two begins with the most accessible track on the album in "New Smooth Lunch/Manhattan," a fun romp that foreshadows something like "Gut Feeling" from Devo's debut LP, and manages to stay surprisingly catchy despite spazz-skronk guitar runs worthy of inclusion on Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. After two decent cuts in "Tell Me" and "Flight Taken," the album unfortunately ends with its weakest number in "Blue Girls," which is also, not surprisingly, the slowest number on the album. Ultimately, Debris' may come across as a novelty to those listeners with an inflexible conception of proto-punk. However, it is more than just a curio. It is an interesting piece of outside-outsider music that is refreshingly relevant, far more so than it was for the Oklahomans who were (un-)lucky enough to hear it back in '76.


Listen to Debris' on their myspace page.

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