Perfect Sound Forever

11 Postcards From
The History of Providence Rock

Lightning Bolt photos by Jason Carlisle, special thanks to Laser Beast

by Mike Wood
(September 2006)

1. In 2004, there was a parade in downtown Providence, and The Big Nazo Band, with its killer horn section, drums, puppet masks and ghouls on stilts, made a detour down Union Street, then home to a homeless referral center and a gay S/M bar. Junkies freaked out at the sight, winos threw down bottles in revulsion at the latest and worst of visions, and a guy in a wheelchair followed the band up the street, mumbling, "Now how's a crippled black man gonna make it in a goddamn world like this?"

2. That Providence has been called the new Detroit or Cleveland, and it has, and not the new Athens or Seattle, means something. Since the mid-1970's, there has not exactly been so much a scene, but a sound. And not exactly a sound, but an openness to Sound. Punk rock began here in the 17th century, when Roger Williams was kicked out of Massachusetts for his political and religious views, setting the stage for the state's openness to radical ideas. Remember that Poe, Lovecraft, early Splatterpunk, The Mad Peck Studios and Mr. Potato Head lived here, along with l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets, magic realists, dadaists, and some of the best white blues. Abbie Hoffman pissed here, driving through on his way to his wedding, the first ever for a new synagogue in Warwick. Mix in Trout Mask Replica as an unofficial sonic foundation, and you have Providence rock.

3. Here is a potentially legendary, though sadly incomplete, Providence list that rips off the basic idea of the legendary List of Influences put together by Nurse With Wound (including on their first album):

That'll Learn Ya, Rash of Stabbings, The Words, Probers, Verbal Assault, Blue Ruins, Mumbling Skulls, Neutral Nation, Schemers, Young Adults, Ritual All 770, Lightning Bolt, Amazing Royal Crowns, Arab on Radar, Velvet Crush, Six Finger Satellite, Christmas, Prurient, small factory, Medicine Ball, Suffering Bastard, Roomful of Blues, Duke Belaire Orchestra, White Mice, Black Dice, ZZ Pot, Acid/DC, Fort Thunder, Shithaus, Throwing Muses, EBN, Olneyville Sound System, Kites, Purple Ivy Shadows, Chinese Stars, Mahi Mahi, Daughters, the Fabulous Motels, Neo-90's Dance Band, The Meatballs Fluxus, This is Providence, Not Boston compilation,. the Terrastock festival, Landed, Get Him Eat Him, Urdog, Area C, mudboy, Black Forest/Black Sea, Vincebus Eruptum, Mr. Apocalypse Now, Honeybunch, The Chinese Stars, Daughters, Gruvis Malt, The Haldols, Identity Show, Japanese Karoke Afterlife Experiment, I, Destroyer, Mindflayer, Overfiend, Pleasurehorse, The Set of Red Things, V for Vendetta, work/death, Windup Birds, XfilesX, M-80, String Builder, Straight to Hell, Purple Ivy Shadows, Midnight Creeps, As The Sun Sets, What Feeds the Fire, Dig Dat Hole, Citizens Unrest, The Amazing Crowns, Vital Remains, 25 Suaves, Amps For Christ, Born Against, Boss Fuel, Brainbombs, Cone of Light, Daughters, Dead Raven Choir, Sons of Bark, Entropy, Eyesores, Free Radicals, Friends Forever, Geraldo Made Me Kill, Glazed Baby, God Willing, Group B, The Halo Bit, Hard To Swallow, Facial Defecation, Frank Difficult, Holy Cow, The Hospitals, Khanate, Kung Fools, LA Machine, The L.U.V.'s, Late night Prayers, LSD March, Lucky Dragons, Made in Canada, Men's Recovery Project, Midnight Creeps, Metalux, Miminokoto, Chei Mukai, My Cat is an Alien, Necronomicon, My Other Face, Nautical Almanac, Neon Hunk, Noxagt, Paindriver, Pines of Rome, Pink and Brown, Rah Bras, Railsplitter, Saturday Night Palsey, Sin of Angels, The Sleazies, Sweet Thieves, The Big Huge, Thee Hydrogen Terrors, This Robot Kills, Tiny Hawks, Immaculate: Grotesque, When Joy Becomes Sadness, Blue Movie, The Smoking Jackets, Two Guys and Another Guy, Knitting By Twilight.

The common element here is punk, no matter the genre: DIY, self-deprecating, deeply daring and willing to fail. Willing greatness, too.

4. We'll take David Byrne too. Talking Heads began at Rhode Island School of Design (aka RISD), and Byrne worked the wieners at the New York system restaurant on Smith Street. The jagged move in their "Once in a Lifetime" video, him running one arm up his stiff other arm, is nothing more than a memory of him holding five rolls in the crook of his arm, loading secret sauce onto the dogs.

5. AS220 is the best venue outside of the Knitting Factory and the performance spaces in Richmond, Virginia for hearing adventurous, unjuried music. If they have a date open, you will have a chance to say your piece. Its joyous embrace of risk is best remembered by a performance before a band gig in the early '90's. Kevin Sullivan (symphonic composer, Satie-Scholar, Albert Ayler vessel) plays a Benjamin Britten clarinet solo piece in front of a crowd waiting for noise. He stuns them into silence, and takes them into the sublime. His risk-taking, humor, raw invention and the demands on the mystic represent Providence and its embracing of sound.

6. Not exactly a scene, but a sound. Not exactly a sound, but an openness to Sound. Providence has always embraced the radical first, then the general. That has made for corruption in politics, acceptance of most religions, and bands that leaped to embrace Punk and New Wave, Hardcore, Industrial, and Noise, as well as Jump Blues and Free Jazz, sometimes before Boston or New York, sometimes better than them. Its ear has always been set to listen to the fringes, and to develop what it finds there. That taste for the radical has shown itself outside music as well. It best comedy is improv (the Improv Jones), its best theatre built off Fluxus and Dada (the late, great troupe Frodus). Noney, the form of art-barter currency gaining hold in other cities and by other names, started here. So did the Andre the Giant Posse, with its stickers and wisdom covering almost every telephone pole on the East Coast. In the art galleries of Providence, those not beholden to the official chain of command that flows from Brown to RISD, the local artists display what can be done when absurdity, Manga, Surrealism and Ash Can are starting points. The eyes at work in Providence, like the ears, pick up on what is useful, daring, and fun, and place the results square in your face.

7. Some major clubs have included AS220, Living Room, The Met Café, Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, Club Babyhead, Club Hell, The Last Call Saloon. Providence, like the rest of Rhode Island, measures its distances by giving directions using the names of places that no longer exist. To tell someone to find a bar by going to where Lupo's used to be and turning left, for example, or to avoid a new restaurant because the last few businesses at that spot went under, is to keep memory alive as the most reliable of guides. It is also to hold on even to failures as part of the current route.

8. Even in an atmosphere of comfort with extremes, Providence still retains some of the Puritan past, and the not so distant Irish Catholic guilt. We love mocking Hip, but some people try to horde it, only wanting themselves or their buddies to be Zoot Horn Rollo, to laugh at convention like Duchamp. There is still a little fear even among the daring, or maybe especially with them.

9. One of the greatest moments in Providence rock did not happen in Providence, but it was caught on film. In Lightning Bolt's tour DVD The Power of Salad, the band is playing in the kitchen of a fan in Texas. Surrounded by a bunch of drunken kids, Lightning Bolt, with their regular club gear, unleashes what must have been a ridiculously loud, assaulting jam, even for them. It is the in the faces of the audience that makes it legendary: bliss, joy, invincibility. Lightning Bolt took them into the mystic, right in front of the refrigerator.

10.Two RI bands that never quite made it to Providence, or beyond, deserve small mention: Stoned Cross, the closest a metal band came to being the Replacements. Most of their gigs were mid-state keg parties in the early '90's that they threw themselves, called Mega-Kegga. By Megga-Kegga IV, they had a few gigs opening for friend's bands who were showcasing for agents; they blew them away, lost friendships, and fell off the stage, wasting a chance to steal the spotlight by stealing the spotlight. They were known for their covers of Metallica and for originals such as "Chump-Chump" and "Fuck You."

The New Fugs were a both a suburban tribute to Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg and crew from the 1960's. They were not poets, but they were offensive, pathetic musically, and used a suitcase for drums. Classics like "Gangrenous Penis" and "Semen Man" live on only in dusty demo cassettes and in the minds of aging members who remember what it was like to be grounded for months for speaking the truth.

11. Appendix
Start digging on your own:


Load Records:
Corleone Records:
Last Visible Dog:
Secret Eye:
Trash Art!:
Free Matter For The Blind:
Force of Nature:
Yuggoth Records:

Other websites:

Armageddon Record shop:
Providence Attacks!:

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER