Review and photograph by Ross Marvin
The Capital Land Crate Digger brings you reviews of vinyl obscurities found for $10 or under at Capital District record stores, thrift shops, garage sales, and junk emporiums. The vinyl archeologist behind this column is Ross Marvin, an English teacher and music enthusiast who lives in Saratoga County. Ross has over 1,000 pieces of vinyl, is running out of shelf room, and can be found getting his fingers dirty in a box of records near you.
One of the greatest ironies about Feeding Tube Records on King Street in Northampton is its location next to a Subway restaurant. The indescribably hip record store is financially backed by former Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore and run by rock scribe and scenester extraordinaire Byron Coley. Thus, it feels more like the kind of shop that would be located adjacent to a subway stop in Lower Manhattan than a place where you can get a $5 foot-long.
Five dollars won’t go far in Feeding Tube either. Brimming bins of experimental music, free jazz, heavy psychedelic represses, and No Wave music on Feeding Tube’s own label definitely fall into the collectible category, but a smaller selection of used rock, punk and folk records are downright cheap. Because Feeding Tube clearly markets to collectors of underground sounds, some mainstream titles are extremely discounted (several Steppenwolf records for $5 a piece; Jerry Harrison’s Sire solo album for $2). Everything is also in impeccable shape. I couldn’t even get my fingers dusty after a full hour of trying.
In the “Used 1980s-Present Rock” bin, I found my treasure of the afternoon — the Neats’ debut EP, The Monkey’s Head in the Corner of the Room ($8.95). It’s crazy how discoholics like myself obsessively work from a vast genealogy of recording artists. In my last column, I wrote about SST’s Duck and Cover, a fantastic compilation of indie rock covers. One of my favorite tracks on that album was “Ghost” performed by Chris D.
It took a fair amount of research to learn that the original artist of “Ghost” was Boston’s Neats. Ever since, I have been obsessively digging in crates looking for the early Neats work on Ace of Hearts. Though easy to come by on Ebay, I made it my challenge to find the disc on a dig — hence my vinyl tourism to the east. One reason to travel to Western Mass. to hunt records is the possibility of scoring regional records from Boston’s long-thriving music scene. Last year, I cleaned up at Feeding Tube, finding a number of Lyres’ bootleg live recordings, and this Neats EP will sit nicely on my IKEA Expedit shelves nestled next to my Mission of Burma LPs that were also produced by Rick Harte on his legendary Ace of Hearts label.
Perhaps the larger reason I’m willing to travel two hours to Northampton to shop at Feeding Tube is for the chance to talk shop with Byron Coley. Coley is best known for his writing in Forced Exposure magazine during the 1980s and for being one of the first recognizable indie rock writers. He continues to write weekly reviews for Forced Exposure’s excellent mail order service. He also writes for the British experimental music mag The Wire and was a legendary columnist at Spin in the ’90s. (His classic piece on guitarist John Fahey is a must for fans of rock crit.
While I am lucky to live in the YouTube era where classic performances of Mission of Burma, the Lyres, the Del Fuegos and the Neats transport me to back to the Boston scene with the click of a mouse, Coley was actually there and became close with many of the musicians. When I brought Monkey’s Head to the counter, it clearly transported Coley back. “That was their basement,” he said of the double exposed photo of the band. “They used to have parties there, and then some years later the whole place burned down.” According to Coley, the earliest incarnation of the band all lived in one Boston house — lead vocalist and guitarist Eric Martin, guitarist Phil Caruso, bassist Jerry Channell and drummer Terry Hanley.
Coley went on to say that the most striking thing about the Neats was how at the time, they frequently shared bills with their exact contemporaries R.E.M. “They really had the same sound, and I thought the Neats had better songs,” said Coley. “They went to L.A. at one point and tried to get signed to Slash Records [the Warner Brothers imprint], but it didn’t happen. They later tried to get signed to Ruby [home of Dream Syndicate and paisley underground bands], but that didn’t happen either.”
Still, the Neats hold an interesting slot in Boston indie history. Where the Del Fuegos were garagy-roots new-wavers (who actually did release their first full-length on Slash), Mission of Burma were aggressively arty post-punkers, and the Lyres were pure ’60s nostalgia, early Neats were clean-cut dudes on the frontier of the soon-booming brooding college rock sound. Their sound was a veritable recipe for indie college rock success — one part Byrds jangle, one part ’60s garage, one part Velvets guitar-strummery, a dash of Gang of Four and a pinch of punk attitude in the form of Eric Martin’s angsty vocals.
A key aspect of the Neats and other bands of their ilk (most notably, contemporaries like R.E.M., the Feelies and Dream Syndicate) was also the ability to look forward. Like R.E.M., the Neats employ heavy abstraction in the lyrics department, creating feel or mood music in favor of traditional love songs, break-up songs, protest statements, etc. And, like the Feelies and the Velvets, the Neats use a two-guitar jangle-strum attack that incorporates stretched-out swirls of instrumentals that are elevated to the same importance as lyrical verse-chorus passages.
Behind the guitars and vocals, Jerry Channel’s bass playing in Neats takes a vocal approach following the singer instead of the drums. Using a retro-Vox bass, Channel’s work before he left Neats in the mid-’80s, was vital to the early Neats sound. Drummer Terry Hanley follows Channel to create an uptempo drum sound that sounds very close to Stanley Demeski’s later work with the Feelies and Luna. In fact, the early Neats sound is so close to some of the early work of Luna that one can easily imagine a young Dean Wareham listening to Neats while he was a student at Harvard, putting together his own great Boston band, Galaxy 500.
As for The Monkey’s Head EP, it features its best song as the opening track, “Red and Grey.” Eric Martin sings, “Ashes to ashes, black to white, up from the middle if you could leave tonight and think of things that made it day. Blue, green and yellow, red and grey, red and grey.” Like early R.E.M., these lyrics die on the page, but in the emotion of Martin’s voice, his strained cries of “red and grey” are infused with emotion that probably shifts in interpretation depending on the mood of the listener. Unlike R.E.M., the production keeps Martin’s voice up in the mix so that the lyrics are easily understood. Where the mumbling on Murmer may have actually made R.E.M. appear artier than the lacking-confidence, near-amateurs they may actually have been, the easily audible lyrics from Martin, actually hinder some songs on Monkey’s Head.
Lyrics on the second track, “Same,” are an exception to the rule, though. A critique of the boring bourgeoisie and their repetitive, stagnant lives, the rhythmic track, the social criticism and the nearly-spoken lyrics recall early Gang of Four. The song also features a trance-like instrumental rave-up that is highlighted by explosive drumming from Hanley. Then, as if in a nod to the short songs of Wire on Pink Flag, the tune just ends without a seeming resolution.
Third cut “Lies” begins a portion of the record that I have to admit is pretty samey. There are angst-filled lyrics, sixteenth-note bass-playing, propulsive drumming and vocals that sound like Michael Stipe when he decides to actually enunciate his words. Perhaps a good song if it wasn’t preceded by a song that sounded just like it. Maybe my time as a middle school English teacher just makes me hate the bad poetry that sounds like Team Edward poetry: “When your twilight comes alive, what they told you were just lies.”
The last cut on side one “Ring Ring” is notable only for the excellent production. Like the best work of the Feelies, the Neats layer strummed acoustic guitars over single-note electric guitars, and a third strummed electric. This technique is one of the purest sounds of glistening guitar indie rock. From New Zealand’s Flying Nun label to the bars of Boston and New York, this is stuff indie-kids like me can’t get enough of.
Side two kicks off with “Tonight,” which much like “Ring Ring” continues a more clearly ’60s-indebted sound. “This is for you, I swear. It’s all tonight,” sings Martin as the minor chords and simple two-note guitar runs continue to swirl around in an extended, but not improvised jam. The more I listen to this record, I can’t tell if Martin is just an angry dude, or if the urgency in his vocals and lyrics are symptomatic of a young band trying to seize the moment and breakout. Sometimes it feels like they are trying too hard.
Still, “The Monkey’s Head (In the Corner of the Room)” is one of the best tracks on the album. While the tempo and rhythms continue at the same pace as nearly every song on the EP, Martin’s vocals are particularly ragged and heavy on this track. The pounding floor toms and wild tribal guitar riffs, make this sound like a lost Nuggets track that would have sounded amazing if it had been recorded by the lysergic lungs of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators. Plus the lyrics about a voodoo-infused decorative monkey’s head (“he stares at me and smiles”) are the stuff of garage rock dreams. Highly recommended.
The last track “Pop-Cliché” works against its title, by nature of being an instrumental track on an album that includes vocals everywhere else. As dynamics rise and fall, it reminds me that great indie rock bands of the early 1980s like Love Tractor, the Feelies and Neats were true ensembles. It’s also clear that these bands were not only precursors to the blow-up of indie rock, but also post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky who use the rock-band template to create compositions with peaking crescendos and quiet waves.
What’s missing on “The Monkey’s Head” is a truly great chorus, which comes in the form of “Ghost” on their self titled Neats (Ace of Hearts, 1983), a record I am still hunting, and perhaps a better way to introduce yourself to the Neats. If anyone out there in Nippertown has a copy of this LP kicking around, I want it.
Strangely after the departure of bassist Jerry Channell in the mid-’80s, the Neats took a turn from atmospheric guitar strumming to a more garage/blues/sleaze approach. The clean-cut college kids grew their hair, signed with Twin/Tone Coyote Records (also home to the Feelies and their many side projects) and released a couple more full-lengths that could be confused for classic garage rock.
These grittier and grungier albums are still pretty good. I have 1989’s Blues End Blue in my collection, and it’s worth checking out, if only to compare to earlier incarnations of the band. The Neats officially broke up in 1990. Original drummer Terry Hanley died in 1999, but guitarist Phil Caruso and singer Eric Martin (who still lives in the Boston area) put the band back together for some reunion shows in 2009. While largely remembered as a lost regional band that could have been, the Neats should find a place in the collection of any record-head who loves underground, independent guitar rock.
1. Red and Grey
4. Ring Ring
6. The Monkey’s Head (In the Corner of the Room)
7. Pop Cliché
Essential Cuts: Red and Grey, The Monkey’s Head (In the Corner of the Room)
Best Deep Cut: Pop Cliché
Scratch and Skip: Lies