One Final Last Chance
by Ryan Settee
Originally, I was just going to do this tribute on Slow, but I figured that as great as the legendary Against The Glass EP is that, aside from the infamous Expo '86 incident and a handful of first-hand account recollections that are floating around out there on the Internet and in underground rock lore, you know, there really ain't a hell of a lot of information that actually exists on Slow. They existed in a bit of an odd time in music history, seeing as that they got their act together enough to release a video in 1986 in the MTV generation in which the "Have Not Been The Same" video serves as being a document that proves that they existed in some capacity other than just playing dive bars and house parties or whatever. I mention that the mid-80's were an odd time for a band like Slow, because they'd made videos (they'd also made one for the "Against The Glass" song), but it's not like MTV would air the video anyways. Although I remember that Canada's version of MTV--Much Music--had specialty shows like Indie Street, City Limits and The New Music that had aired it. I still remember the video's grainy, low budget blue/grey tinted production values. But the band had also burned and then burnt out just right before the whole underground rock thing blew up in the early 90's, acting more as a "proto-grunge" template more than anything else.
The interesting thing is how the band had a few different visual styles within their ranks that had preceded certain trends. Note how guitarist Christian Thorvaldson is playing a Fender Jaguar in the "Have Not Been The Same" video, and this was well before the Jaguar became a bit of a slacker band icon fashion accessory. Christian, as well as bassist Stephen Hamm were both wearing suits and ties. This was well before the garage rock renaissance in the '90's and '00's, where many of those bands (i.e. the Hives) had adopted a similar look. Singer/frontman Tom Anselmi is wearing a plaid shirt there too.
Had Slow came around two to four years later, perhaps they would have caught on, but then again, their successor band, Tankhog, had fared basically the same fate, and Tankhog were all but Slow in name (Slow's Stephen Hamm and Drummer Terry Russell were in the band, and singer Bruce Kane had basically the same vocal style as Slow's Tom Anselmi). And to add further confusion to matters, Tankhog were also offered a lot of the same "breaks" and much like Slow, had also bit the hand that fed, so it is debatable as to whether Slow would have really cared enough and would have just bit a bigger hand in 1990 or 1991. I remember reading an interview with Tom in about 1997 in the magazine Chart, where he'd said that Circle C/Copyright (post-Slow band that were signed to Geffen in which Tom and Christian were in), something along the lines of where--when they'd got their Geffen advance money-- they'd felt that they'd got a lot of money to party in some Hollywood Hills mansion. But even that story varies in accuracy, as Ryan Moore (one time bass player of the Legendary Pink Dots) had said to me that the "mansion" was more like a house or even a run-down dive or something like that. But It was clear that the party was first, and that the music was second.
For many bands, they work hard to pretend that they don't care, but they're really practicing their whole schtick and are too cognizant of what they have to lose. They realize that it's a brand--there's something there to sell, there's maybe a living to be made, etc. The bands have the right haircuts, and even when a band has an anti-image, it still usually feels like it's a statement against something else. It usually starts to feel like a band is in on its own legacy or influence, even if that's one or two albums in.
Despite the self-sabotage, Slow's influence still continues to this day, I think, because they just seemed so adept at creating a template that other bands would obviously want to follow, but they completely burned that template. And no one is ever really sure why any band with this much potential walks away from their own momentum. They still exist as one of the greatest examples of "what if?" in terms of blown potential, at least on a punk/underground level. If you think of it, most of the influential bands had either scraped together enough resources and wherewithal to make a few albums, even if the dream ended after album two or three. Slow were too tough to die, but too young to care about their imminent demise, yet they'd managed to obviously form a band, rehearse songs, play live, record and make videos in a very short time span. It's sort of like if James Dean knew that he was gonna crash, but where he had also made sure that he videotaped his crash, just for good measure.
In the end, Slow really just did not give a damn. Or in their own words, "I've got a handful of pornography, and I'm loaded with vice... I'm ripping you to pieces, mother daughter concubine" (from the title track on the EP). The cover of the album pretty much sums it up, because the band is photographed standing inside what looks to be a dilapidated old warehouse. Even as the music plays while I write this, I'm still wondering what exactly happened--it's a blur of adrenaline. And it is a bit disjointed, at least in that it seems like there's many ideas and riffs and things in the songs all fighting for dominance. Further listens reveal a ton of textures, and unlike the usual punk based albums of the time, there's actual real temperament to the whole delivery. Each of the six songs sounds a little bit different from one another, but you can tell that it's still the same band. There's an obvious Birthday Party influence via the Stooges (Tom Anselmi is obviously a fan of both Nick Cave and Iggy), and there's some definite Wipers influences in there, yet there's other things thrown in there as well that are entirely Slow's own doing. There's the near funk punk of opening track "Have Not Been The Same." There's minor key arpeggio style acoustic guitars starting off "Out Of The Cold" (as well as congas and clavinet) and there's classical guitar playing to start off "In Deep." Fuzz guitars are all over the record, but you can tell that guitarists Ziggy Sigmund and Christian have a good dual texture thing going on--check out the intro to "Bad Man," when it splits off into where the second guitar is playing, and both guitarists seem to continue playing something different, yet sympathetic, until they lock into key riffs at the end of the chorus and later on in the song.
In a lot of ways, those sorts of things probably do help to explain why Slow is a cult band, even among cult bands, because the band obviously had real musical talent and had spent time learning how to play, rather than tossing off three chords. The tempos always shift and the timings and rhythms usually change several times in various songs. I'm not sure what timing "Out Of The Cold" is, but it's something fierce and complicated--weaving in and out is a saxophone, as well, feeling perhaps like a really art damaged James Brown performance with Maceo having listened to a bit too much Miles Davis. That's the thing... the art punk thing manages to surface very heavily, yet the three chord energy always saves it from going too far off the deep end. The songs all manage to cram almost prog-rock like tempo and chord shifts, yet they're all condensed and distilled into 3 minute blasts.
Tom Anselmi is a complete madman, and that's probably the thing that ties it all together. It's pretty ironic when he sings, "I'm just looking for something clean", because everything he sings suggests a schizophrenic wise guy--sniveling, laughing, switching to a bizarre falsetto or a croon on a whim, and then back to bellowing and yelling. On top of that, Tom sometimes sort of sings/speaks the lyrics at times, as well. It reminds me a lot of Roy Loney's style in The Flamin' Groovies, where you almost can't believe that it's the same guy singing, since there seems to be so many personas vying for the microphone, often within the same song or same chorus or verse.
The power, mood and riffing on "Bad Man" is absolutely terrifying. For some reason, it reminds me a bit of a Cramps song (the hiccupping may have something to do with it), kind of an art punk, metallic Cramps, but the difference is that where you felt that Lux was writing the lyrics tongue in cheek, there's something far more sinister here. "Looking For Something Clean" is side 2's cousin to "Have Not Been The Same" (there were three songs on each side of the 12 inch vinyl), a pretty straightforward rocker, again with some saxophone. Album closer and title track "Against The Glass" rounds out the album, and is the fastest song on the record--furious and careening out of control, with Tom singing "this is no accident, look in my eyes."
That lyric may, perhaps, be the most fitting epitaph for them. It was bound to be temporary, and considering the band's modus operandi in existence, it's only fitting that they imploded as quickly and brilliantly as they'd formed. Obviously, the band didn't care enough as a unit to continue on, although the aforementioned Hamm and Russell wanted to finish the task with the mighty Tankhog. While Tankhog didn't quite capture all of the freewheeling recklessness of Slow, they did a very good job of it, and in some ways, carried on with the logical progression that Slow would have evolved into, around '89, '90--more metal, more kind of Mudhoney-ish. Slow were both a peer and influence on Green River. It's difficult to say whether singer Bruce Kane influenced Mark Arm or vice versa (remember that Mark had a very dreary, humorless delivery in Green River and didn't start really finding his style until Mudhoney), but there's likely some sort of influence there. On Slow's first single, "I Broke The Circle"/ "Black Is Black," one could swear that Steve Turner is behind that fuzz wah, and on that debut single that preceded Against The Glass, there's hints of the full power that Slow would have, but the songs sound to be a little more post punk influenced, and didn't yet have the complete full on intensity of Against The Glass.
One of my favorite descriptions of Tankhog's debut (and only full length) release, House Of Beauty, is that it sounds like Viking metal. It really does. It's absolutely thunderous. While Dave Ogilvie (Skinny Puppy, Ministry) put cavernous, dated reverbs on the record, it actually still pretty much works. Itís got the overall thud of a TAD record, but with a bluesier metallic edge--guitar god solos a la Thin Lizzy, slide guitars, etc. Take opening track "Pretty Little Suicide Girl" for example--huge guitar harmony solos in the intro, trombone in the verses, tribal bridge part with bongos, female vocals here and there. There's some detours, like the mellow outro to "Tears" and an overall heaviness, but itís the cover of the Partridge Family's "I Woke Up In Love This Morning" (which is up on YouTube), with a surprisingly melodic vocal from Bruce; changing the vocal melodies up in the choruses a little. Some of the album gets bogged down in the Pacific Northwestern sludge sound, but considering that House Of Beauty was released in 1990, its fair to say that the songs in the couple of years or so leading up to the album's release had both informed and were informed by that whole scene. Itís the overall heavy bluesy feel with harmonicas and things like that that still lifts it out of the wasteland of similar sounding bands. Guitarists Shane Davis (lead) and Dave Mawhinney are a lock together on guitars.
By the time that Tom and Christian had morphed their efforts into Circle C/Copyright for a very original sound (having released the criminally underrated Love Story in 1997, which had combined ambient elements along rock music and itís one of the few albums that I can say is influenced by British shoegaze that still sounds distinctively North American) but alas, they did not catch on either, even when they'd gotten it together enough to finally play the game somewhat. The six years in between Circle C's debut and Love Story was mired in legal battles with Geffen, who likely saw to it that the money that the band thought was to party and get drunk, was actually only forwarded to them under the assumption that they'd actually try to actually sell albums and play the industry game. Contracts can be a deadly game for bands--it's often difficult enough when you're playing by the rules, let alone breaking them.
They'd released The Hidden World in 2001, a solid album, but four years after Love Story, and had a sound that had the unfortunate distinction of sounding too un-Canadian for the local market, and probably too similar to other bands, worldwide, to really distinguish themselves amongst the wider audience that could have awaited them, elsewhere in the world. The Hidden World stands as the end of Slow's legacy (if just in the creative front end of guitars and vocals in Tom and Christian, if not necessarily in sound); one final last chance that had used up the remainder of its nine lives.
It was a helluva run.
I'd asked Al Campbell (aka "Ed Banger"), a promoter in Vancouver that had booked and dealt with a lot of Slow and Tankhog shows in the 80's, about their existence and influences, as well as who they'd influenced in the nearby Seattle scene in the mid '80's.
PSF: Tom Anselmi had said somewhere that Slow were influenced by Green River, but I think that Mark Arm took quite a few cues from Slow and Tankhog, and even bands like the Fluid for the Mudhoney sound. Who was influenced by who?
Al Campbell: I wouldn't say Tankhog was based on Mudhoney at all. Green River were almost glam in their approach as Mark Arm wore makeup, had really long hair and silver pants - he was really playing up the rock star thing then. The Slow guys, in contrast, always looked good - wearing flash '60ís suits with thin lapels that they bought in thrift shops. They were never a T-shirt band, and that look carried over into Tankhog too. Bruce Kane, he just roared into the mike, I don't think he was influenced by Mark Arm - more so Iggy Pop. Bruce had talent, but he just didn't want to work for it. He was more content at playing a rock star before he actually became one- he never made it.
Green River, who also had a couple of the Pearl Jam guys- the bass guy and the guitarist (the two that liked Aerosmith) had actually played in Vancouver at a memorable show around '86, where they backed up Slow at the Town Pump. I think it was their only time there and they got some outrageous amount like $500 at the time. GR broke up shortly after.
PSF: Can you remember any other stories regarding Slow or Tankhog?
AC: The Hog liked pulling pranks and messing about - not as much as Slow - but it was really a tradition to annoy people just to see how far you could push them before they would snap, and they did snap sometimes. The best Hog prank was during the first MusicWest or whatever it was called, maybe in the spring of '90 - Nettwerk records, serious music label and all- were having a label BBQ in the afternoon to welcome the supposedly important music people from the East to Vancouver for this music conference. Anyway, their office at the time was right on West 6th Avenue, a major traffic street in Vancouver across from False Creek. The night before the party, Hamm and a pal went and got a Vancouver waterworks sign and put it up right outside the Nettwerk office. The sign said no parking between 3PM and 6PM - right when the party was going to be cooking - so the party comes around the next day, and in the parking space right in front of where the BBQ is happening with hundreds of people, the Hog got a flatbed truck and an electric generator. They loaded up all the equipment onto the flatbed and got the juice going, and the truck slowly makes its way down the hill to the party, with the band holding onto the equipment for dear life. Then the truck pulls into the parking spot and then rips into an impromptu concert right on this main thoroughfare, blasting away to the party and drowning out whatever wimpy act Nettwerk was promoting at the time. The Nettwerk crowd was fuming, but the crowd enjoyed the gig - it was legendary.
Another memorable Slow gig was the old Outlaws club on Georgia, it became the Metro -it was all poodle-do top 40 acts. I went down to see the booking agent and she told me her daughter liked the band. Christian Thorvaldson phoned me and told me he didn't want me acting on their behalf, I thought, "fine," he was a great guitarist but a dark person. I had gone around with their first single to a few clubs trying to get the band shows (I think I still have 3 or 4 of those mint-condition singles around, must search parent's basement), with not much interest. They did play the Metro eventually - I didn't go - but I heard they turned the sound off on the band after about four songs. Their pals were often a problem, they just got pissed and fucked around and annoying people - they lived for that.
PSF: Do you have any information on the legendary Expo '86 gig? There seems to be varying stories on it. I'm not sure which one is correct!
AC: There was a free stage for local acts and visiting bands of all types. The stage had been going for a few months into the six month expo, so a Vancouver independent celebration was going to be held, and a lot of local bands were going to get a chance to play on a top notch stage with good gear in the outdoors. Slow was one of the first bands to play, they had a stage set up where there was these giant sheets of paper that they were supposed to break through for an entrance. Slow was not down with that. The stands were packed with a couple of thousand people waiting, and the band did come on stage- some were pissed - and it was obvious there had been some friction with the IATSE stage hand people and the band. Then the stage hands knocked either Ziggy's or Chris' amp, with the head crashing to the ground, and Tom was railing to the crowd what assholes the stagehands were or something. So what does Hamm do? Always the sensible one that boy, he flashes his dick at the crowd, and this is with his granny visiting from England in the audience who was sitting with his mom- a classic. The show ends in chaos as expected- cut short. The crowd is pissed about the show's early end and many are loitering around the Expo grounds- the tension is high and BCTV has a live studio for the news on the grounds. It is 11.30PM by now- a bunch of the crowd gathers around the window of the studio while the late news is going out live, banging on the glass, chanting about Slow and down with Expo and all that shit. They cut the news short because the announcers can't be heard very well, so they cut to the late movie- Rock 'n Roll High School, an appropriate choice. The Vancouver independent day festival was eventually cancelled- groups like Skinny Puppy and other big local draws of the day did not get to play Expo, and there was hostility towards Slow among the local music crowd about this. But a few Vancouver bands did get to play Expo towards its close in the late summer I remember.
I actually gave Slow its first headline gig at a local hall. The headliner was a band called the Hot Spit Dancers from California, but they didn't make it, so Slow was moved up to headline. I'd paid them $200, with NG3, Billy Barker and a couple of other bands in support.
PSF: What was the scene like in Vancouver, back then, and why do you think that Slow and Tankhog never really reached a wider audience?
AC: Great musicians Slow were, but nightmare people to deal with. They were really young at the time- only about 20 - but these guys could play and were tight. Slow should have made it, as should have Tankhog, but they didn't want to play the game. It was a different era; pre-Internet, spotty distribution of records, plus, America didn't want to know about Canadian bands. Seattle talks about its isolation, but they didn't have the border to contend with like Vancouver did. Tankhog were a great band happening at the right time- they were just on the wrong side of the border. (Stephen) Hamm and I went down to Seattle when SubPop was breakin' large and Jonathan (Poneman) knew Hamm, so we were ushered into his office. SubPop distributed the Tankhog record in the States, but they didn't move much.
It is weird how an average rock band like 54-40 carved out a recording career and a good living, yet they couldn't hold a candle to Slow and they had little support from the punk crowd from which they started- maybe they were smarter and realized the 'burbs was where all the people were. It is also ironic how Christian Thorvaldson went on to play with the Matthew Good Band- another average lot where the support was in the people from the 'burbs. Perhaps Ziggy got to live out his rock dreams the most when he was in Rockhead (Bob Rock's Led Zep metal tribute) when they backed up Bon Jovi at Wembley Stadium in London in front of thousands. Least he did it- the others are still trying, but too late. It's hard to make it in your forties, at least in the music biz. The market demands youth, regardless of your talent.
The guitars in Tankhog were what really made the band. They were a rock band and nothing more- not punk or metal - but just a good rockin' band with elements from many other influences. They had a great body of work right off the bat when they started. Shane was a very gifted guitarist and superb musician. I loved the guitar sounds of groups like the Smiths, PiL, The Banshee, Cure, the Clash and I would name them and he could mimic all of these sounds. Hippy Dave was solid on rhythm, but he was one of the problems in the band- not particularly bright, a perennial whiner and into hard drugs. And he had a kid too, what a combination. I was a very big fan of Shane- but he has never risen above the Hog. Hamm and I remain friends.
The thing that was unusual about the Slow/Tankhog crowd was they were all from the west side of the city (the rich side of Vancouver), they were the only band I knew from that side of the city. All the other groups were from the suburbs usually, moving into the city (the east side) to play. I don't know if they were rebelling against their upbringing- as I said before, they were always a sharp-dressed band.
PSF: Why do you think that Slow originally called it a day?
The Slow breakup must be another issue. I heard- and I heard it second hand - that there was interest in Slow from labels, but that Tom and Christian broke up the band to get rid of Hamm and Terry. This I don't know- hearsay - but I do know that Copyright was signed to Geffen at the same time as Nirvana, and that David Geffen allegedly said to Tom "Tommy, I hate the name- change it," but Anselmi wouldn't. It proved to be their undoing. I can understand getting rid of Terry, because as great a drummer that he was in the Dimwit/Chuck Biscuits mold, he was a sloth. Hamm, he was part of the attraction and a solid bass player, plus, great to look at. He was an efficient, together character.
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