Ever since the first groove was inscribed on a wax cylinder, there were conscious efforts to improve sound, to increase the "fidelity" of the recording to the originating sonic material. And things did improve rather rapidly, with excellent sound becoming a common possibility in the 1940's, leading to the HiFi movement of the 50's, which saw a barrage of albums released strictly on the merits of how well they exploited the possibilities of the modern stereo system.
For sure, there were still lousy sounding records released, mainly in the realm of burgeoning rock & roll, which got by on the charm, passion and energy of the performers and the indelible nature of the songs. But that was not for lack of trying, simply the result of substandard equipment and low investment in technology. By the early 60's, however, good and even great sound was to be expected, from the crystal clarity of EMI's Abbey Road Studios heard on The Beatles albums to the punchy but crisp Motown Sound.
That all changed with White Light/White Heat by The Velvet Underground, which sounded "bad" on purpose and had some record buyers returning to the store to exchange their "defective" purchase. From then on, all bets were off as producers and bands realized that murk, muffle and distortion could actually be an asset, giving their songs weight, depth and mystery. Low fidelity was also a way to grab on to the slipstream of past masters from the realms of country, blues, etc.
One band that sits at the nexus of all this is Hi Sheriffs Of Blue which had an incandescent, elusive existence in the early 80's. They arose from the ashes of Girls, the Boston band whose sole released output was the extraordinary single, Jeffery, I Hear You, produced by Pere Ubu's David Thomas. Due to the provincialism of pre-Internet society, I was completely unaware of this backstory when I stumbled on the Sheriffs in either Tier 3 or the Mudd Club and was smitten with Mark Dagley and co.'s almost ridiculously discordant and angular take on blues and country. Years later, when "country punk" became a thing, I talked up the Sheriffs till I was hoarse, but to no avail.
This was partly due to their spare catalog, traversing three labels and consisting of merely three 45's (one split with John Miller) and a 12". Ain't But Sweet 16 was their first single, a semi-rockabilly number with a thin sound that made the record sound like it was already used. My Big Vacation was on the flip, an even odder song that slotted in with some of the No Wave stuff that was bubbling up. The third held Cold Chills, one song split on both sides like an early James Brown single, a malevolent grind that might have given Howlin' Wolf pause.
I saw them any time I could and even talked to Dagley around the time of what would be their final release, the 12" EP, which contained the incendiary 19-80 Now! and three other songs. While still unmistakeably the Sheriffs in all their lurching glory, the sound was a little cleaner and richer, filling my head with visions of an underground favorite poking its head aboveground. Dagley seemed to indicate that they were ready to ride the wave wherever it took them and that there were imminent plans for a full-length follow up. It was not to be, however. By the time I started investigating why their fairly regular gigs had evaporated, word came down (might've been Ed Bahlman at 99 Records who told me) that Dagley had broken up the band and moved to an ashram.
I tried not to take it personally, but if you were a Sheriffs fan, it was a personal thing in the first place. So last year when I saw that the eminent Byron Coley was releasing something called NYC 1980 my music fan heart went pitta-pat and I ordered the thing with only a minimum of info. I figured it would be a collection of all their releases with maybe a live track or two. Turns out that Coley dredged up seven cuts of live and rehearsal room tape, all from before that first Sheriffs single. Even better, he hopes that NYC 1980, released in a limited edition of 500 LP's (download code included), is the start of a series.
It's all rougher than raw, cassette-deck, single-mic stuff and I wouldn't have it any other way. The first track is 11 minutes of live mayhem, comprised of five songs, including My Big Vacation. The hi-hat sizzles like static, the guitar hacks out chords, the bass throbs, the vocals howl and you are there: NYC 1980. But this is not pure nostalgia (although it is a little) because the Sheriffs were so on the edge of what was going on back then. Dust My Blues is a gritty take on the Elmore James classic that makes the Black Keys sound like Journey, while Big Duke is a nasty, spectral little boogie that barely grips the rails for 1:39. Blue Door, Black Door is a skronk western swing that's even shorter, a perfect overture to the real find of the collection.
White Street Shuffle, maybe part of a longer jam, fades in, and like your eyes adjusting to the dark, gradually takes shape in your ears as an improvisatory workout of the type only true masters ever achieve. Moments of it sound like Miles Davis in 1973, the Velvets in 1969, or Fela in 1977. In short, it swings, in a fractured way of course, and makes me feel fully vindicated in my assesment that the Sheriffs were one of the great bands. The dry, unfiltered sound means that the playing has to stand on its own, with no help from reverb or any other sweetening. Where Were You When The Lights Went Out comes next, a below-Fi avant jazz blast that barely holds together - even the tape sounds near the breaking point.
The album closes out with a live take of Cold Chills that staggers along, steady but almost enervated, until it just stops. While the Sheriffs were great players in their way, I realize now that one of the radical things about the project was the removal of virtuoso instrumentalists from the blues, and studio slickness from country. In the decades that followed the demise of Hi Sheriffs Of Blue, countless artists have gone back to that well in an effort to revitalize rock music from the ground up. But no one did it like them.
For a while I was monitoring Feeding Tube Records losing a little more faith in Western Civ every time I found they still had unsold copies of NYC 1980. So when I saw Byron Coley at the WFMU Record Fair recently, the first thing I said to him was, "Did you sell out those Hi Sheriffs albums yet?" I tried not to make it sound like an accusation. He assured me that they had and that he was still talking to Dagley, who's mostly a painter these days, about further releases. Whew.
Even if you can't get NYC 1980, Feeding Tube has much to explore "on the fringe of obscurity," as their motto would have it. Coley pointed me in the direction of a couple of gems you might want to jump on.
Owen Maercks is a cutting-edge guitarist who put together a band of Bay Area heavyweights, including Henry Kaiser, and made an album of left-field rock in 1978 called Teenage Sex Therapist. All the copies they pressed went for promotion and when that marketing plan failed, the album sank without a trace. No longer. Coley has resurrected the record, on gorgeous red vinyl (digital download w/extra tracks included) and it's almost impossibly great. Fans of Pere Ubu, early Talking Heads, Captain Beefheart, etc. will find it essential, but anyone who digs avant-pop or post-punk sounds will be on the edge of their seats. Thrilling guitar, quirky vocals, and angles everywhere await the intrepid purchaser - why not let it be you?
The other winner Coley handed me was a 40th anniversary reissue of Lost At Sea by Glenn Phillips, the guitarist for the legendary Hampton Grease Band. Part of their legend is for having the second-worst-selling album in Columbia Records history, a music-biz nightmare that led Phillips down a path of total independence.
Lost At Sea was self-recorded and self-released but is only slightly self-absorbed. Phillips is a great proponent of the high-technique, high-emotion style that devotees of Carlos Santana and Duane Allman will find instantly appealing. The songs on this instrumental album are alternately pastoral and ferocious and have an open-air feel that is truly lovely. This is a record made by someone who cares and I can't help caring about him in response.
The reissue comes with a second album of previously unreleased material, a side of studio jams that presaged Lost At Sea, and a side of live takes played in its aftermath. The first side is especially wonderful but both are welcome additions to what I hope will finally take its place as an American guitar classic - at least in the 500 lucky homes that get to own one.
No fear if you get sold out of Phillips, though. Byron Coley and Feeding Tube will sure to have something else to fill the gaps in your collection - even the gaps you didn't know existed.