Hampton Grease Band - Music To Eat

Hampton Grease Band
Music To Eat

Released 1971 on Columbia
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 13/05/2003ce

Side one:
1. Halifax (19:39)

Side two:
2. Maria (5:30)
3. Six (19:29)

Side three:
4. Evans (12:28)
a. Egyptian Beaver
b. Evans
5. Lawton (7:48)

Side four:
6. Hey Old Lady / Bert's Song (3:19)
7. Hendon (20:13)
a. Spray Paint
b. Major Bones
c. Sewell Park
d. Improvisation

Bruce Hampton - vocals, trumpet
Harold Kelling - guitar, vocals
Glenn Philips - guitar, saxophone
Jerry Fields - drums, vocals
Mike Holbrook - bass

SUCKROCK! This is the word HGB uses to define its unique sound. Or perhaps more accurately, the band's decidely punk will-to-fail ethos, for their musicianship does not suck at all. A double album released in 1971 and purported to be the second-worst selling album in the history of Columbia records, "Music To Eat" stands alone in the rock canon, and understandably has become something of a cult favorite. The CD reissue from a couple years back includes some great liner notes compiled from interviews with band members and record company folk from back in the day (theirs is a tale of missed opportunities and spectacular misunderstandings -- perhaps part of their sales problem was due to the fact that their sole album was promoted as a "comedy record!")

The suckrock sound starts with the jazzy guitar freakouts, play-it-like-you-were-being-edited transitions, and self-consciously dada hijinks of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, and of course also encompasses the chinese blues licks and martian field hollers of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band -- but they add a dose of Allman Bros. southern-fried jamology (they were from Atlanta, GA after all) and keep the guitar tones clean and shimmering like the Byrds. Continuing the reference game by looking into the future, what you wind up with is chiming guitar swirls that nearly top those on Televison's "Marquee Moon" LP and some avante-tribal strum-and-drang textures not heard again until the heyday of Sonic Youth, Swans, Band of Susans, et. al. (and these boys don't even use distortion, the guitarists achieve the blurring overtones-n-drones effect just by playing REALLY fast!)

Glen Philips and Harold Kelling are amazing guitar players, and the rhythm section and drummer Jerry Fields in particular are tight as hell -- the only thing that might give one pause is the "hey am I weird or what?" ranting of Bruce Hampton. He sings well enough, like a Beefheart or Roky Erikson (in fact he quit the band in '73 to audition for Zappa -- but lost out to the "Zomby Woof" guy) but it's hard to take his lyrics seriously, I mean it makes Zappa's "oblique trivia lyrics" seem profound. Not "funny ha ha" but more like "funny peculiar." I get the distinct impression part of the reason these guys were such a flop is simply that they were antisocial nerds who didn't play well with other children (or record industry types.) So while the temptation is there to view the Hampton Grease Band as a possible answer to the trivia question "what is the silliest hippy-shit record ever released on a major record label?" in truth it's actually damn near a masterpiece that almost exists outside of history. They certainly didn't fit in to their own time very well, and they weren't ahead of their time either coz no one else has ever played "suckrock" before or since.

The seven songs on the album basically break down into 4 epic pieces (10+ minutes in length) and 3 shorter pieces (under 10 minutes.) "Maria" is a faux-Mexican folk ballad played mostly on acoustic guitars that tells the tale of a 15 year old boy losing his virginity -- vulgar, yet the youthful exuberance of the performance makes it more cute than offensive. "Lawton" is an improvised duet by guitarist Philips and drummer Fields, very unstructured and avante and almost dazzling in that the players never seem to resort to repeating anything or playing canned licks. Finally "Hey Old Lady / Bert's Song" at a marketable 3:19 in length smells like a record company request -- though in typical suckrock style the boys have delivered a song about an old lady and a garbage collector with a demented shriek for a chorus: "WHO'S GONNA LIVE AND DIE? / YER GONNA BE HIGH!!!" Needless to say the radio did not pick this one up.

Epic number one and the leadoff track of the album is "Halifax", the standout song on the LP, and a real unsung gem of the "side long song" genre. Though some sections amount to jazz-inspired blowing sessions, the piece is throroughly composed and played with phenomenal tightness. Indeed, it reminds me of the kind of music Charles Mingus was writing & recording in the late 1950's -- even when cutting loose this band is still telepathically in synch. And normally when a hea-vy band does a 20 minute song about an exotic land with an "X" in its name (like "Syrinx" or "Xanadu") the location is fictional -- the "joke" here is that there actually is a Halifax (Canada), but it is rendered fantastic and unreal by a stream of inspired nonsense lyrical images: sounding like Jon Belushi doing Joe Cocker, Hampton begins with historical notes from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica: "Colonol Edward Cornwalis / brought strength to the English position / he established a civil government . . . " -- then the music shifts and he starts riffing like a travel bureau salesman: "We would like for you to come to Halifax! / Come and breathe some of our air!" A new riff and one of the other singers in the band helpfully interjects: "Six thousand six / hundred and thirty eight / miles of graded road / the local utilities / are owned and operated / by the federal government!" The mood of the piece is upbeat and subtly comedic, full of dynamic changes and whizzing cartoon melodies, a real larf and a harf.

The next epic "Six" demonstrates why HGB is more than just a goof: for all their over-the-top deliberate wackiness, they really do have chops and taste. They know how to put it all together, lyrics married to music to create a context that is more than the sum of it's parts. Where "Halifax" was bouyant and romping, providing the perfect context for it's demented-grin lyrics, here we have "Six" which sounds anxious and even paranoid, coinciding perfectly with its lyrical concerns: mysterious coincidences involving the number 6, and a raving lunatic narrative about aliens from the planet Pajodis coming to earth, performing "nutritional experiments" and "REEMING OUR NASAL PASSAGES!!!" (the delivery on the last line being the most obvious Beefheartism on the LP.)

"Evans" is a relatively concise statement at 12 minutes, and is the most rawkin' tune in the HGB oevre. The lyric is another meaningless in-joke, this time about a friend of the band: "Look at Jim Evans! Look at his hands!" The instrumental passages are fierce and menacing -- this could almost be heavy metal if the guitars weren't so crisp and clean (not a drop of distortion!)

The final track on the album "Hendon" clocks in at just over 20 minutes making it the longest track on an album of longitude -- and according to the liner notes, it was all recorded in one take! Beginning with some lyrics cribbed from the warning label on a can of spray paint ("keep away from flame, AHHHHHH!!!!"), moving on to an anatomy quiz, then a lecture about Sewell Park (where HGB played free concerts in Atlanta), followed by some Magic Band riffing where Hampton repeatedly intones: "I thought I saw a Leo / he made me vomit / driving in his comet" -- then the final "improvisation" section (so-titled): a pastoral passage twice as beautiful and trippy as anything the Dead ever did, almost Ravelesque in parts, building up to a glorious squall of white heat from the buzzing axes of Philips and Kelling.

Reviews Index