Perfect Sound Forever

The Electric Eels

(photo courtesy of Electric Eels site)

A profile of subterranean Cleveland's art-terrorists
By Daniel DiMaggio (May 2001)

The Electric Eels were the most anti-social badass motherfuckers to ever avoid killing someone. They formed a band whose legacy has been well documented in this day and age, but who still don't get the credit they deserve as the complete epitome of anti-everything noise, true punk music because it dispelled with politics or messages and only concerned itself with dadaistic aggression. An article in CLE magazine compared three of the original Cleveland underground bands (the Electric Eels, Pere Ubu, and the Mirrors) to the Three Stooges, and said that the Eels were like Moe, the really violent one. Illogical, dangerous, but above all, completely genius. Totally accurate.

 From what I hear, early and mid '70's Ohio was apparently not very interesting or accepting of new music- if a group wanted a gig, they had to play covers. This led to a fertile underground scene, 'cause fans of the vanguard rock music of the day had to form bands and practice in their basements if they wanted to play original material. Since the musicians had little or no commercial concerns, but still had venerable pop sensibilities, the music was usually pretty dead-on. The variety of groups in the incestuous '70's Cleveland underground scene essentially all started from the basic proto-punk points of reference (Velvets/Stooges/garage/etc.), but also digested and processed these various influences in a way that only residents of Ohio's industrial wastelands could. The results were extremely varied. The Mirrors accentuated the Lou Reed angle with starry-eyed almost love songs. The Styrenes were more influenced by 60s psychedelia and the like. Rocket From The Tombs combined Stooges/MC5 glam rock with free noise and overblown theatrics, and this group later spawned Pere Ubu, who would emphasize characteristics of the Beefheartian avant garde. But of all these groups, the Electric Eels seemed to show the least outside influence. Their precedent was the entire history of anti-social noise up to that point, but the acted like they were unaware of anything but their own self-destructive boredom.

 But the Electric Eels sure as hell weren't dumb. Any "punk" band that sings lines like "Wake up you miracle dumbbell! It's time to fall out the window with me" (from "Spin Age Blasters"), clearly has something more complicated lurking below the surface. This becomes evident through the band's flirtations with avant garde free improv, both in their more structured songs and in free form noise jams like "Jazz Is" (from The Beast 999 Presents...) and "Now" (from Those Were Different Times). When run through the Electric Eels' artistic continuum, free jazz was stripped of its political, cultural, and even musical baggage, and became just grinding, abrasive noise, serving as another vehicle for the Eels' all encompassing nihilism. For once, punk's sonic backdrop matched its social sentiment.

 Their sound is sometimes compared to the Sex Pistols, but in reality the Eels were much rawer and represented a more distinct break from the rock tradition. They were capable of ramshackle noise attacks as well as "songs," often both at the same time. I don't buy the theory that the Eels, or most other punk bands, for that matter, were completely inept and just made great music by default. The Electric Eels were obviously competent musicians, and had to be to create an entirely unique style of avant-rock-n-roll. Their music has lots more in common with that of the New York no-wave groups from the later '70's than it does with '77 punk rock.

 Their singer and occasional clarinetist was named Dave E (ne McManus), covered in tin foil and rat traps, radiating pure obnoxiousness, a grating and slurring and undeniably cool voice. He embodied the wasted lean that frontmen like Stiv Bators aspired to, only that Dave seemed to be out of his mind on violence and boredom, as opposed to hard drugs. Then there was the double guitar noise attack of John Morton and Brian McMahon (not the guy from Slint). 'The Electric Eels' seems like a pretty weak band name, but nothing else so accurately describes the prickly, needling sound of pure electricity that they got, one soloing and the other playing chords disguised as crashing slabs of distortion.

 But, y'know, they were chords, which brings me to my next point: that the Eels, like all the best rock bands, could write great tunes, and did. The words aren't just bizarre, they're catchy. Case in point is "Jaguar Ride." It's poppy, with a bridge and a 1-4-5 chord progression (albeit with lyrics purported to be about Dave E beating up his girlfriend): "I got no words to describe my Jaguar ride, I don't know if it's wrong or right, all I got is some plans I made today for tonight."

 Potential turn-offs include the band's use of homophobia ("You crummy fags, I'd blow your head off for a dollar, I'd rip your heart out just for fun") and neo-Nazi propaganda ("Spinach Blasters" on Those Were Different Times). But it's likely that, despite being working class toughs, they were just doing all this to be assholes, and not to support any kind of intolerance or fascist points of view. As sometimes Eels guitarist Paul Marotta said in the liner notes for Those Were Different Times, "Individually and collectively, we were neither homophobic or racist. We just used hate language as commentary, as rock and roll agit-prop."

 The band played out only seven or so times, and concerts usually ended in disastrous fiascos, band members getting arrested for drunken disorderliness, bringing lawnmowers on stage. Their first release was a posthumous single on Rough Trade records ("Agitated"/"Cyclotron"), issued several years after the band's 1975 dissolution. The group's members went on to other, and possibly more lucrative, careers. Drummer Nick Knox joined the Cramps, Brian McMahon became a solo artist, Dave E went on to play saxophone in a Laundromat. But for the few years that they existed, the Electric Eels were the ultimate. At that time and place, underground Cleveland was one of the cultural hearts of America. Black and fuzzed out industrial grind, but with the nihilistic yet triumphant post-adolescent spirit of true rock n' roll bleeding thru. Different times indeed.


 There are three collections of Electric Eels material: Having A Philosophical Conversation With The Electric Eels, God Says Fuck You, and The Beast 999 Presents The Electric Eels In Their Organic Majesty's Request. The Beast 999 Presents... is the most complete of the three. Everything on the disc is amazing, but standout tracks include "Cyclotron" and "Agitated," the two best known Eels songs, the aforementioned "Jaguar Ride", and "Bunnies", one of the most demented and bizarre recordings I've ever heard.

 In 1997, Scat Records released Those Were Different Times, a compilation of unreleased work by the Eels, the Mirrors, and the Styrenes. This disc is chock full of no-fi pop-noise masterpieces and collects some of the Electric Eels' most simultaneously abrasive and accessible material, including some live recordings.

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