Saturday, May 13, 2006

Big Black: Racer-X


Homestead EP, 1985

In my younger and formative years, the fascination with things like the limited edition Headache/Heartbeat autopsy picture (don't click on that) would have had me running to the record store to be the first kid on my block, etc. Now, having seen and tasted the world, I find I have a more retiring nature. In other words, I've grown as lame as the people I once decried. Violence, gore... eh, so what?

While I accept (per Girard) that violence may indeed be the heart and secret soul of the sacred, I can no longer bring myself to care. It's enough to get up in the morning or enjoy those occasional rewards of joy or pain or both without wallowing in it. But let's meditate on violence and song for at least a paragraph. After all the two have been intertwined since Orpheus got his rotten bitch head lopped off. Troubadors were the pre-modern equivalent of media ultraviolence. Marrying loud noisy electric guitars with songs about violence comes as a no-brainer. Most of the other peer bands to Big Black were doing it -- Sonic Youth took a more literary bent, Killdozer went for the joke, Live Skull went for the abstract and Rifle Sport, well, copied what everyone else was doing. Big Black just took it all, mixed it up with an industrial, faux-funk blend and turned it up real real loud. It's no wonder that Steve Albini and Santiago Durango's guitars are labelled "the knife" and "the hammer," respectively. Of the six songs here, four seem explicitly about violence -- about being killed ("Sleep"), revenge killing ("The Big Payback"), someone thinking about random killing ("Shotgun") or someone who would like to kill ("Deep Six"). They are the Reagan year equivalent of the broadside ballads -- subversive, at times funny and you would probably get arrested or drug tested if you admitted to listening to them.

But screw all that songmeaning crap -- it's the three guitar attack and the recording itself that brings me back again and again and again. Listen to, for instance, "Deep Six" where the horror of the regular truck driver guy - or Albini says in the liner notes "the whole of man's experience: sex, hate, pain, money, liquor, food, pride, humility, ambition, weapons, waylon jennings, dick size -- everything" is encapsulated into the dichotomy of the "knife" and the "hammer" doing a grimy call-response over a pumped up bass (Naked Raygun's Jeff "gigantor" Pezzatti), Albini's "neck knotted" vocals, a multi-voice chorus (!) and a hard shuffle-stomp beat. Pure magazine, indeed.

For what was reportedly a fairly lo-fi set-up, the engineering of this music is near flawless to my mind -- or at least, eminently appropriate to the songs. The only thing that holds the band back, for good or ill, is the limitations of the drum machine (a borrowed Roland Mach V). Later, the recording and programming (and I think the model) of the machine would significantly upgrade. I also think the six song EP was probably the best format for the band. It's only in Atomizer (the follow-up that the band rightly predicted would "make you shit yourself" in the Racer-X liner notes) that they put together a collection of songs that could withstand the length of the format.

I'm probably in the majority by saying it's the title track that I most love to death and holds up the best (I dare any DJ to throw it on and see if it doesn't get a big reaction). "Racer-X" starts with a pounding rhythm, Pezatti's "gigantor" bass slap and Albini's narcotic haze mumble and then explodes into a tornado of guitar noise. Those ensuring that "racism" is not present in any shape or form in modern music will likely object to Albini's reference to "cartoon Nips" and I'm not here to defend it but as a kid, that goody two-boots Speed Racer and his menagerie of synchophantic dullards annoyed me to no end - I would have called them cartoon nerds but I guess it loses some bite. All my moron "friends" watched the stupid show after school -- while I preferred Dark Shadows. In retrospect, not sure which is lamer.

In the song, the "hero" is Speed's villian brother - Rex - who is reimagined as "just a regular guy...doing his goddamn job." Rex also has a little drug problem (his speed comes from a "little glass jar") and Daddy issues ("Shut up Pop") that are only magnified by his asswipe race winning perfect brother. Rex is the perennial loser, but he's got way more cool than the blank-eyed Speed Racer can ever hope to muster in his most vivid four color cartoon dreams. Kiddies, everything they told you was wrong.. QUESTION ALL even imported anime characters that play on cable channels at 4:30PM in the afternoon. How fucking subversive is that?

Credits:
Albini / Durango - Guitar
Pezzati: bass
Iain Burgess: engineering

Songs:

"Racer-X" - Big Black
"Deep Six" - Big Black

Links:
Liner notes, fanzine reviews available at the Dementlieu Big Black site. I also stole the cover photo from them.

Big Black on Myspace


BUY:
All these songs are available on the Hammer Party CD. Life is pathetic for you if you don't have this in your collection in some shape or form. T&G Hammer Party

3 comments:

Pete said...

Love the blog.... i was wondering if you wouldn't mind updating the "Ickmusic" link on your sidebar. That's my old one that someone sabotaged and turned into some creepy pseudo porn site. My updated and permanent link for Ickmusic is http://ickmusic.com. Thanks! And sorry I had to correspond in a comment. I couldn't find yer contact info. Cheers... keep up the good work.

Eric said...

Probably my favorite of the Big Black 12" EP's - maybe my favorite of all of their records. "Racer X" is the tops

Jon said...

One of my all-time faves.

To my mind, Big Black were about showing the most repulsive possibilities of human behavior--racism, rape, incest, child abuse. The songs were powerful because they didn't come from a critical or ironic point of view--they drew you into the mind and world of the worst kinds of scumfucks on the planet--which meant you got a taste of their sadistic thrills and fantasies of power. That was unsettling.