THE URINALS - Pure Negative Capability
by Dave Lang (November 1999)It's pretty damn rare in this day and age - being in the hopelessly jaded state that I currently am - for myself to hear something and be totally bowled over by it, much less so in the field of rock music. But over the previous six months I have been bowled over by a particular release; indeed, you could say I've become obsessed with it, entranced with it, and just plain ga-ga over it. Sorry to disappoint you - or maybe I'm not - but it's not a contemporary release I'm so excited about (I wish to the devil it was, for various reasons), but rather yet another reissue of long lost treasures from roughly 20 years ago. Of course, I'm talking about the Urinals and a CD anthology of theirs entitled Negative Capability...Check It Out!
Some background is needed here. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the late '70's West Coast punk scene will hopefully similarly appreciate that, in my opinion, it also had the best music scene of the day. All subjective hoo-ha mind you, and whilst I don't wish to downgrade the high achievements of the Sex Pistols, Fall, Ramones, Television, Saints, et al, I still think that ultimately none of the above can compare to the explosions in youth culture that happened in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, with their unique roster that included the likes of the Germs, Avengers, Negative Trend, Flipper, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Screamers, Flesheaters, Weirdos, etc. Not only did all the previously mentioned possess a truly singular and twisted musical vision that aped neither New York nor London's styles, but all were also undeniably a product of the two individualistic cities that spawned them.
Whilst many of the San Francisco acts mentioned were steeped in radical politics and culture, fuelled mainly by SF's beatnik past and many of its longtime Situationist/dada habituates (re: Vale and the Search and Destroy/RE/Search crew), its southern counterparts in L.A. came across like the screaming Hollywood glitter-punk brats they were: a mixture of suburban juvenile outrage, L.A.-style performance art and Bowie-esque glam-trash decadence. Or let's put it this way: the Germs were L.A., just like the Ramones are New York and The Fall are Manchester. But I'm not here to talk about the Germs or the Ramones, because they've been lauded time and time again; I wish to talk about L.A.'s Urinals, whom to my mind come across as neither N.Y., S.F. or L.A.. They came from their own universe.
The Urinals are one weird band to pin down. They claimed L.A. as their home and played regularly with many of the aforementioned acts, though were too consciously intellectual to fit into that scene; yet they possessed the radical/Marxist chic of the San Fran school, the jagged deconstructionism of the NY No Wave set, and the minimalist garage churn of merry ol' England's Wire and The Fall. Add to that the fact that they covered songs by the Soft Machine and the 13th Floor Elevators and you've got a strange combination.
The band were formed in 1978 by three young UCL.A. upstarts: John Talley-Jones, Kevin Barrett and Kjehl Johanson. Inspired by the limitless possibilities of punk and wishing to make their own statement on popular culture, they formed as a 5-piece with two other friends to play as a joke at parties. Quickly realizing their own abilities to rise above mere piss-take, the band paired down to the original trio and got serious, releasing their own self-titled debut 7" EP on the Happy Squid imprint in early 1979. Long considered the holy grail amongst collectors of US punk obscurities of the era (the sole damn reason it took me over ten years to hear the thing!), the four tracks featured might as well have come from Mars than late '70's Californ-eye-ay.
Although I'm prone to dismiss such descriptions as simply lazy writing (even though I'm more than often guilty of doing it myself), the only way to describe the sound is to make comparisons. Imagine a twangy, reverbed guitar, a monotone vocalist with a nasally whine, a drummer that sounds like he's hitting on cardboard boxes and ice cream containers, and a recording that sounds like it was engineered in a toilet block. Or rather, imagine a mix between early Wire, Half Japanese, The Fall, the Shaggs and Black Flag. Somehow the Urinals combine those elements: the two-note/two-line minimalism of Wire and The Fall, the can-barely-play falling-apart qualities of the Shaggs and Half Jap and the primal L.A. crunch and wail of Black Flag. The one stand-out track is also their most uncharacteristic: the surprisingly lengthy (nearly three minutes) instrumental "Surfin' With The Shah," which moves along like a mixture of the Ventures and "Forming"-era Germs. To my ears, their debut EP still comes across as perhaps one of the greatest out-of-nowhere, where-the-hell-did-this-come-from? slabs of wax ever created, matched only by the early recording efforts of the Electric Eels and Half Japanese. I hesitate to consider that anything this magical could actually be accomplished in this day and age, given the secret-society status such bands had in the late '70s and the overwhelming feeling of having been overexposed to just about every esoteric genre of music in the late '90s, but remember: rock'n'roll has a remarkable capacity to reinvent itself just when it looks like all is lost, as this EP ably demonstrates.
Later that year came the follow-up EP, titled (what else?) Another EP. Progressing not one iota in their dictum of keeping things absurdly simple, I've heard many hail this as superior to their debut. Me? I can't decide - they're both on the same level. Once again containing a brew of shambolic punkish minimalism in "Black Hole" and "I'm White and Middle Class" (a title and track that are brilliant for the time, though I get a feeling one would be lynched for titling a song as such in this day and age), the B-side is where things really happen here. "I'm A Bug" is a flat-out garage-rock classic, covered by many a punker over the years, and "Ack Ack Ack Ack" is the perfect demonstration of the Urinals style, and really what made punk so vital in the first place. It plays like a lesson in writing a rock song: here's the drums, then bass, then guitar, then vocals. Play verse, then chorus, then repeat verse and chorus again and finish. Genius. Naturally, it's also been covered 'til it can be covered no more, most notably by the Minutemen on various occasions (a band heavily indebted to the Urinals in both sound and aesthetic, and the band that first got me curious about the Urinals back in the late '80s... 10 years is too long to wait!). Again, your chances of finding the vinyl (or any Urinals vinyl, for that matter) are next to nil unless you plan on buying from a rarities dealer and skipping on next month's rent to mortgage your purchase.
Being the singles band that they were, up next was of course another 7", though this time only a two-track single: "Sex"/"Go Away". I don't want to keep on reiterating the "Urinals style" release upon release, so I'll simply state that it contains two more fantastic songs, the first being a lo-fi surf-style anthem with not a guitar solo to be seen (as there never was), with the B-side not sounding too out of place had it been performed in the DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION flick. And that, I'm sorry to say, is really the bulk of the Urinals discography: three insanely classic 7"s. But there's more...
Also compiled on the CD are many compilation tracks, as well as a hefty dose of well-recorded live stuff. Of the comp tracks, there's some real standouts, namely "I Hate," a screamer I intend on covering once my half-arsed too-lazy-to-live combo leaves the garage one day; "Male Masturbation", which sounds like Pink Flag-era Wire stuck on an L.A. freeway or something; and especially "Orange Anal Sin," an art-rock four-plus minute intrumental that brings to mind a late '70's punk-damaged take on "Interstellar Overdrive." In other fucking words, these ain't no "out-take" drivel that'd be better left on the cutting floor. As noted, there's also a wealth of ace live material, covering some of the tracks mentioned, as well as takes on THE JETSONS theme, Roky's "You're Gonna Miss Me" and the Softs' superb "Why Are We Sleeping?" from their debut of '67. All up that's nearly 50 minutes and not a second of filler to be had.
So, what happened to the band? Well, the times they were a-changing, and just as punk was quickly transforming itself into the louder, faster, nastier scream of the burgeoning hardcore movement, many from the school of '77 felt a bit left out and shut up shop. The Urinals didn't quite do that, but sensing a change in direction and sensibilities, and no longer wishing to play along with the self-imposed one-minute/two-chord style they'd set themselves in, they changed their name to 100 Flowers (taken from Mao Tse Tung's "From 100 flowers will grow...", being the old commies they still were) and released a fine album again on Happy Squid that expanded on the Urinals' sound with a more melodic inflection. After that? I'm not so sure. Kjehl Johanson started up Trotsky Icepick in the mid-80s with Vitus Matare from The Last, and released a slew of great to good to dire LP's on SST (start with Baby from '88), who were stylistically post-punk in a more pronounced late-'70's Anglophilic fashion, though I'm not so clued in as to what eventually became of Kevin Barrett and John Talley-Jones.
So that's it, that's their story. It's taken me over ten years to finally come full circle and get around to actually listening any of their material - having heard them name-dropped incessantly by everyone from Byron Coley (who did the liner notes to the CD) to Al Flipside to Mike Watt - and having heard everyone from Yo La Tengo to Halo of Flies cover their material, but it's been worth it. The Urinals demonstrate what can be done with so little "chops" and so few resources, yet also with so many ideas and a sense of imagination. Now that "punk" and "hardcore" has become a haven for tracksuit-wearing jocks and clueless suburbanites, "indie rock" a collection of bespectacled college-grads dullards, and "industrial" music is more often than not associated with mincing New Romantic nudniks like Nine Inch Nails, god knows we need something like the Urinals. All sense of nostalgia aside, and I do agree that it should be swept aside, this is the best collection of rock songs I've heard in the last twelve months, and whether one likes to party like a punker or not, it gets my vote as some of the most inspirational sounds you've never heard in your life.
For the interested, once again the name of the CD is Negative Capability...Check It Out! (AmRep 045-2), and of all labels for it to be on, the has-been grungeheads at Amphetamine Reptile have done it. For that, and for nothing else, I give them credit where it's due.
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