by carl wilson

Revivalists Dance the Mutation

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I've neglected (except in the gig guide) to share the news with you all that beyond-legendary Hamilton, Ont., band Simply Saucer is having its first reunion gig ever, 27 years after the band broke up, and a full 30 years since it recorded its sole album, Cyborgs Revisited, a set of demos and live recordings the band never released during its existence. The news has broken elsewhere now that Saucer will be playing the Casbah in Hamilton on Dec. 28. I'm a bit ambivalent about the news: Very much like Rocket from the Tombs (probably the band in the world most similar to Saucer in both sound and stature), or the Beach Boys' original Smile, Simply Saucer is a group whose essence in some ways is that barely anyone ever saw them, their recordings were unavailable for decades, and those bootlegs that existed seemed like only a hint of the full hulking body of strangeness that was the thing itself. When such a group reunites (or such an album is re-recorded), a closely related facsimile comes to stand in the way of the original enigma. When a ghost story is made real, some larger cultural reality is erased; it seems unfaithful to the specificity of time and place. What's more, as with Rocket from the Tombs, the new Saucer is only partly the original band - inevitably in these cases, some members either can't or won't participate, so you get substitutions, which again distort the picture.

But then when the reunion actually happens, sometimes the portion of reality it is able to capture is so powerful in itself that these quibbles fade. Mission of Burma, who put out one of the best rock records of this year, are probably the supreme example. But Rocket from the Tombs are an extraordinary thing live, too - it is as if the bodies of these aging men, David Thomas (of Pere Ubu), Cheetah Chrome (of the Dead Boys), Craig Bell and the rest, are supernaturally possessed by the spirits of their teenage selves. The garbled fury and cultural cross-signals that enabled them to cross an unseen threshold to a previously undreamt-of sound, all of that becomes present and manifest, and in the strangest way the most obvious and right response to the puzzle of their own existence, in a manner you just can't get from decades-old recordings. (And we'll see what happens when the promised new RftT album is completed.)

So two cheers for the Saucer reunion, and you can bet I won't miss it.

In celebration, I'm posting a Globe and Mail column I wrote about Simply Saucer three years ago, when Cyborgs was first reissued on CD (which includes the phrase "Simply Saucer, wisely, has never reformed..."). It's a pretty good one, if I say so myself - having been a kid in the same chunk of Ontario when Saucer was busy burning out its roman candles, the subject goes to my gut. Er, Torontonians will have to pardon the not-quite-warranted optimism in there about the then-new Distillery District. It's after the jump, here. Hope you enjoy.



Vomiting up prophetic punk in Hamilton

SCENE
CARL WILSON
22 May 2003
The Globe and Mail

The scenario is hard to imagine: A hot Saturday afternoon in June, 1975, with shoppers coming out of the Jackson Square mall in Hamilton holding paper bags of polyester pants and living-room-yoga sweats. Over their heads, on the roof, stood a quartet of young men looking like any other gang of jean-jacketed greasers wandering the downtown alleys, but pounding guitars to cosmic death, with outer-space effects from a crude synthesizer, and singing about Hitler's love for Eva Braun: "Ah-hah, ah-hah, I'm cyanide over you."

The band was Simply Saucer, already two years into its Syd-Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground-inspired trip to the dead ends of rock'n'roll and sounding like nobody else in Canada, almost nobody in the world. And the roof of Jackson Square was the greatest height to which they would ever aspire.

As the story is told in long-time supporter Bruce Mowat's liner notes to Sonic Unyon Records' new reissue of Saucer's Cyborgs Revisited, the band led by singer Edgar Breau endured from 1973 to 1979 in a Hamilton that barely acknowledged its existence and a Canadian music industry that actively feared and loathed it.

Punk rock in the later 1970s only confused matters - the group cut its hair and hired Teenage Head guitarist Sparky Park, got a couple of opening-slot gigs in Toronto (notably for Pere Ubu, by all reports blowing the fearsome Cleveland avant-garage band off the Horseshoe stage), and released the only record of its lifetime, the 1978 single She's a Dog. But the band didn't really fit in with punk, either, and was too old to care; a year later, the mothership self-destructed.

It was another decade before Mowat managed to get the songs SS recorded on that rooftop and at the studio of Hamilton boys Daniel and Bob Lanois out on vinyl, feeding a legend that had already, by some channel no one can explain, circulated among unpleasant-rock-noise fanciers around the world. But Cyborgs Revisited, now embellished with outtakes from the band's later years, is pretty obviously one of the best Canadian albums ever.

Like a handful of other bands in Cleveland, New York, Detroit and Munich, Simply Saucer drew together the wisps and wraiths of proto-punk from the sixties. Against 1970s rock machismo and folk-rock sanctimonies, they vomited up a prophetic blend of Velvets, Stooges, MC5, Brian Eno-era Roxy Music, psychedelia and late-adolescent rec-room nihilism, which a quarter-century later still smacks the ear like a squawling newborn with a slight case of demonic possession.

Each band that stumbled on this mix did it in absolute isolation, and yet they sound remarkably alike, the same string-snapping Planet of the Apes guitar chords and embryonic Moog technology underlying similar B-movie poetry and premature millennial panic. ("In the future," Breau tells the crowd on one of the live recordings, "unless you have a metal body, they're not gonna allow you to walk the streets. No kidding.")

Hamilton may have seemed an unlikely wellspring for the songs of a future that was not to be, but so did Cleveland, which eventually had a half-dozen such bands, locked in an incestuous, cannibalistic cluster that nearly made up a scene. These armpits were the only places this music possibly could come from. If the groups had anything in common, they were middle-class delinquents, petty thugs making music because they were nerds at heart, Bigfoot fans and conspiracy-theory bookworms not quite up for actual crime.

I was just 9 when these songs were recorded, but the ambience sounds familiar immediately: Anyone who grew up near the shores of the Great Lakes, where the filthy factories already looked like relics but the info-age commerce to replace them was yet undreamt, would recognize the miasmic stink of despair and dispossession and, its impulsive opposite, the nervous rush of groundless optimism: "We're gonna dance the mutation!" Breau proclaims in one song, in his best Lou Reed-as-hoser drawl. Beauty, eh? Beauty, yeah, in spite of everything.

After the split (and amid struggles with heroin and other elixirs of escape), several Saucer members went on to other groups. Breau plays acoustic-based music now, and on Wednesday he makes his first appearance at the Horseshoe in Toronto since that infamous 1978 gig. But Simply Saucer, wisely, has never reformed, its sound rusted in place like an old silo full of lug nuts and broken gears, solitary as Frankenstein's monster, towering over a wasteland that's long gone.

Most of the real landmarks of the industrial era were torn down, paved, painted over in pastels, but not all. In Toronto, the exciting exception is the distillery complex on the east side, buildings lately rescued by developers as a centre for arts groups. This week's Distillery Jazz Festival, which begins today and runs through June 1, offers the Toronto public its first chance to wander through the rummy caverns of the former Gooderham & Worts, while listening to dozens of the city's most unruly ensembles playing every variety of jazz - music that is itself a knotty little industrial-age holdover.

I confess that the most romantic part of me wishes the distillery still churned out hard liquor, or went on standing deserted, an empty repository for anxieties and wishes real architecture never allows. A city needs its blank spots, back roads, ghosts. But the rest of me has never been more thrilled. If it is creatively run, not overly prettified or tamed, the distillery district can not only make Toronto a richer place, but refute our cultural amnesias, showing that decrepitude isn't ugly, there are no dead ends, and obscurity is only what we've forgotten or don't yet know.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 05 at 6:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson