Sunday, April 10, 2005

Speed Trials

Various Artists
Homestead Records (HMS-011), 1984

The Speed Trials compilation featured music from The Fall, Beastie Boys, Live Skull, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Carbon (Elliot Sharp), Swans and Toy Killers (Arto Lindsay).

From the slightly pretentious liner notes:
SPEED TRIALS was a 5-day festival of music and performance held May 4-8 at White Columns gallery in New York City. Over 100 musicians, dancers and artists were featured, encompassing a wide range of styles, attitudes and ideas. This record does not attempt to document the whole scope of SPEED TRIALS ... but focuses instead on a few specific bands and the music they were making that time:


Recorded by Mark Roule at White Columns, NYC May 4-8 1983 Mixed by Wharton Tiers and the bands at Wharton's Studio, NYC Executive Producers: Tom Paine and Peter Wright.
In his typical bombastic style, The Fall's Mark E. Smith spoke about 1983's NYC Speed Trials festival in a 1989 interview:
That band [1983 incarnation of The Fall] inspired all those what I call Fall rip-offs, like Sonic Youth; we did the Speed Trials and all that. It spawned a whole movement. I'm only realizing this now. You talk to people like Live Skull, a band I admire a lot. They said, "where can we get you (sic) tape?" I was shocked at how many groups were following us from New York. About 10 of the groups at the Speed Trials were really into the Fall. But for the previous year or two nobody was talking about us much.
Alas, listening to some of the bands here gives not only credence to Smith's claims but documents that a lot of them weren't doing it very well. Sonic Youth's contribution to this record- "Dig This!" - is an unlistenable collage of Confusion is Sex era songs and "essential to collectors only." I'm putting it nicely but in their defense, they were in their formative state and learning how to play live (the cover photo of Speed Trials is obviously Thurston Moore's guitar). At any rate, you can understand why a lot of people dismissed them in the early '80s.

Less forgivable is Lydia Lunch and members of Swans doing an apparent improv interpretation of one of her plays ("Me and Main Kelly on a Bender" - written with Nick Cave). A two-chord dirge interrupted by a reading of the play by Gira in which Lunch can't help giggling throughout is disappointing to say the least. AS for Swans, they prove here that the only thing holding them back was the guy who wrote their music. I'll say it out loud, as a front man, Michael Gira always struck me as a big fucking pretentious bore who couldn't sing for shit. "Weakling," the cut included here is no exception. That said, I praise him for the work he's done of late with his record label and how he has nurtured Devendra Banhart. He's much better as a behind the scenes guy (the graphical design of Swans' records only rivaled Big Black at the time).

Of historical interest is a pre-rap Beastie Boys doing "Egg Raid on Mojo" - silly hardcore was their forte at the time - the studio version later showed up on Same Old Bullshit EP. Kate Schellenbach (Luscious Jackson) is on drums here. She was later eased out by Rick Rubin because I guess she didn't look cool in a track suit and gold chains. Also of historical note also is a cut from the jazzbo percussion centered Toy Killers minus founder Mark Miller but fronted by Arto Lindsay. There's probably a story here but Charles Noyes does an admirable job picking up the slack.

Besides the Fall, the high notes are the cuts by Live Skull and Elliot Sharp. Skull prove here that they had one of the best live bands bar none at the time. On the other hand, perhaps their forte were compilation albums as their ideas and sound didn't always expand well onto full blown LP releases. Sharp's Carbon was really a name for the musicians he was playing with today (here he borrows Jonathan Zane from Swans and Rick Brown from Fish and Roses). Prior to this, he had been kicking around the NYC and Euro avant-jazz scene for a few years - along with John Zorn and a few others, he eventually crossed over into the indie-punk scene several years later with a series of still stunning albums on SST. This was merely an augur.

The real thrill, though, of this album is hearing The Fall as they sounded in 1983 with the mighty Steve Hanley's bass and double drummers (Paul Hanley and Karl Burns) to boot. They perform two songs which would later appear on Perverted by Language. The version of "Tempo House", a song that will be attempted to be deciphered by fans for next 1000 years is agreed to be better than the album version (well, at least if 'agreed' is defined as what some punter said on The Fall's messageboard). "Smile" suggests that Smith is not far off-base in saying that the NYC bands of the era were mere imitators of The Fall. The song has been said to be an exhortation of his audience to not look so dour -- something I'm sure all the NYC hipsters took to heart as they closed their gaping jaws.

The Songs:

"Tempo House" (93 kbps VBR) - The Fall
"I Was Wrong" - (131 kbps VBR) - Live Skull
"YTYKYO" - (147 kbps VBR) - Carbon

  • The Speed Trials poster was lifted off The Fall's official website as was the fanzine interview with MES.
  • A discussion on the meaning of the lyrics of "Tempo House"
  • This was The Fall's third US tour. Only a few days prior to Speed Trials, Mark met Brix in Chicago. She would later join the band and marry Smith.
  • Someone has found and scanned in the entire set of the Lydia Lunch - Nick Cave plays
  • Kate Schellenbach's role in The Beastie Boys via Beastiemania
  • Jonathan Kane on leaving the Swans after Speed Trials gig
  • The Sonic Youth song database entry on "Dig This!"
  • Where is the Live Skull fan tribute site? Thank Blog for Trouser Press
  • Elliot Sharp discography
  • The liner notes also say: "Special thanks to all participating bands and artists NO THANKS to Studio 54" - why? Did 54 originally agree to host the closing Tuesday night party with Flipper and back out?
  • White Columns, who hosted Speed Trials is still in operation as a non-profit outlet for artists. Pay them a visit next time you are in Manhattan.
  • Another curious liner note says that a complete video-documentation of Speed Trials was made. Richard Dallett is listed as the point of contact. The stills on the back cover (available at the Sonic Youth database here) were taken from this video. To date, I've heard hide nor hare of this potential goldmine. Sonic Youth's discographer asks the same question. It would seem to me, in this age of DVD and online video, to be time to get this out of the closet.


Anonymous said...

Huh... what does "self-baiting" mean?

Jakob said...

That was a very enjoyabale post...thanks.

Mike said...

I'd love to hear Virge Piersol's (ex-Y Pants!) contribution to this thing.

Jim H said...

I was amazed that 3 Teens Kill 4 got a headlining spot. But then I guess all the critics love U in New York.

Eric said...

LiveSkull... I haven't listened to them in years. I remember enjoying "Bringing Home The Bait" and "Dusted". This is a nice and noisy one here, slow and kinda evil sounding.

Jim H said...

There's a whiff of garage in there too Eric, I think. As for "self-baiting", maybe Tom Paine threw that in given the later title for his album.

Anonymous said...

You are mistaken. That's not Mike Gira talking on "Main Kelly." You can blame Swans guitarist Norman Westberg for the vocal action. Gira just plays metal percussion on that track. He does not open his mouth. And I think Foetus plays on it, too, credited as "Frankie." I agree that it's a miserable tune.

But I think that the version of Swans' "Weakling" on Speed Trials (and early Swans in general) is quite powerful. Worth it for the drumming alone . . .

Jim H said...

Thanks anon - it's good that someone knew the details of what went on (where you there?). As for early Swans, I keep on listening to the Raping a Slave / I Crawled EP and I stick by my original assessment. Great band, good songs and lyrics - poor frontman. So yeah, great drumming.

Anonymous said...

Been enjoying your Blog for quite a while now, by the way . . .

I was not at the Speed Trials, and I, too, have wondered about the video document for a number of years. I was 8 or 9 when that LP was recorded but I bought a copy when I was an impressionable teen in 1989.

Early Swans: Just depends on how much Gira you can take, I suppose. I personally like his voice. I can see how someone else might not. Note: The vocals on Filth and first Swans EP are more "angry" and "punk" and less "painful" and "gloomy" than the Raping a Slave-era stuff and what followed.

How did the Toy Killers end up playing w/o Mark Miller anyway? That always seemed odd to me

Jim H said...

It's not so much Gira's voice as his delivery.

As for Miller, his current project is called Collisionville and is now based out of the SF Bay area. I like this song...

Tom said...

EARLY SWANS. Brutal, brutal music. I just got done listening to Filth. THIS ISN'T REAL!!!!. I know a few "industrial" kids who would probably junk their pants if they heard songs like "Stay Here", "Your Property", "Cop" or "Young God". Bunch of bloody posers those kids are.

Anonymous said...


if you're still around – would you mind, posting both Fall songs and the one by Live skull again, the're not downloadable anymore

– you'd make me really happy with this!

Thanks Gustav Bade (who used to own this LP some 20 years ago)

Anonymous said...

Hey, I WAS later in Fish & Roses (among other stuff...) but at the time of Speed Trials, I was in V-Effect. We also played the festival but didn't show on the record. thanks,

Rick Brown