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The Scenics live; Photo Credit: Mike Young
The Scenics: Live at WFMU’s Monty Hall
By Peter Aaron
In the early days of Toronto punk, it was the retro-rocking of Teenage Head and the over-the-top antics of the Viletones that grabbed most of the attention. Yet as fine as those bands were, equally important to the Toronto underground were the Scenics. Formed by guitar-and-bass-swapping singer-songwriters Andy Meyers and Ken Badger, the band had an intellectual approach that drew from the Velvet Underground and the avant-garde instead of the locally predominant New York Dolls and Stooges templates, making them the odd men out during their 1976-1982 existence.
But sometimes in rock ’n’ roll time has a way of vindicating those upstream swimmers who matter: Thanks to a run of archival releases and an ongoing reunion featuring 1980 drummer Mark Perkell that began in 2008, it seems the Scenics are at last getting their due (the reformation even resulted in Dead Man Walks Down Bayview, a 2012 album of newly recorded material). And in 2016 who better to host the trio on their first U.S. tour than the perpetually hip WFMU, for a live session in the Jersey City radio station’s cozy Monty Hall performance space? Captured by WFMU’s intrepid, multi-cam crew, the set makes its exclusive streaming debut right here and right now at The Big Takeover.
The threesome throws out their art-punk calling card with the stuttering “O Boy,” an early staple first heard on their rare 1980 debut, Underneath the Door, and revisited on Dead Man Walks Down Bayview. Badger’s wobbly warble draws frequent comparisons to that of David Thomas of Pere Ubu, another key Scenics influence, but his clipped guitar attack and Cubist lyrics feel entirely idiosyncratic; indeed, it’s impossible to name another band who does the Dada-punk deal quite like this one.
Two more early nuggets follow and further find this time-defying band somehow sounding better than they did in their supposed heyday. The chiming, melodic “In the Summer,” punctuated by the bare-chested Perkell’s hard cymbal washes at the coda, is delivered with an elan that eclipses even the magnificent live version from the 1978 documentary The Last Pogo and its accompanying soundtrack. “I Killed Marx” sees Badger and Meyers switching instruments, with the latter taking the lead vocal to snarl its surreally red-baiting refrain (“I see the Stalinists die”) above his slashing Telecaster.
“So Fine” is heard on the CD Sunshine World (2009; Dream Tower) and its vinyl counterpart In the Summer (2015; Rave Up /dist. Light in the Attic), which unearth lost 1977-78 studio tracks. A sinister-riffed waltz, it’s perhaps the most brazenly Beefheart ian item in the Scenics canon. Introducing it, Meyers mentions the lyrics’ being inspired by a Fred Astaire film, but to these ears its weird, barked couplets (“If you wanted the stars above, they would have to be cleansed by me / To match your purity”) wonderfully redefine the art of Trout Mask replication.
The group’s open VU admiration (see their 2007 full-length tribute How Does It Feel to Be Loved) comes to the fore next for a pair of Velvets covers, both with lead vocals by Badger: a skeletal, movingly tender “Candy Says” and a muscular version of “I’m Set Free.” The latter is a total high point: Deconstructing the song, the band takes it places Lou Reed and company never did as Badger burns with Byrds y, sitar-like lines and Perkell percolates loosely somewhere between free jazz and rock.
The looseness increases with “Younger Version,” a long-shelved gem sung by Meyers that the group recently revived. “That was a funny one,” recalls Meyers. “I came up with the dub-inspired bass riff and we just started jamming it out and I began improvising the lyrics. We did it live a few times in the last quarter of ’77, but I think I felt a bit of ‘responsibility’ to not get too ‘out there’.” In 2016, however, with the confidence of evolved musicianship and their being untethered from the potential repercussions of giving the bottle-throwing Sid Vicious clones of yore too much to process, the band roams freely through the ebbing-and-flowing, largely stream-of-consciousness piece, reveling in its open space. The, er, younger version of the Scenics would be most impressed by the older and bolder one heard here.
Meyers also sings “Do the Wait,” the outfit’s signature anthem, which sees him and Badger alternating axes once again. While the Velvet love is once again utterly undeniable—both the title and music unapologetically reference “I’m Waiting for the Man”—the infectious fervor of this true punk classic transcends mere copyist critiques; it’s even inspired cover versions by younger bands. Instead of slamming right back in after the song’s extended pause a la the studio rendition, Meyers coaxes the ensemble at the break with a quietly strummed, building tease, setting it up for Badger to sing a verse as it crashes to a close.
But the big blowout is yet to come: “I’m Hurt,” another winner slid out from Underneath the Door, and one of that disc’s most aggressive, Ubu-ish cuts. Meyers and Badger trade shouted verses and power through this barely contained blast, making way for Perkell’s falling-down-the-stairs drums before the whole thing implodes in a glorious squall of feedback and fuzz.
Take note: These self-described “punk hosers” are back. Smarter, louder, and even more daring than before. Man, what’s in the water up there?
Peter Aaron is the music editor of Chronogram magazine, the author of If You Like the Ramones… and The Band FAQ, and a member of the Chrome Cranks, Young Skulls, Peter Aaron/Brian Chase Duo, and other bands.
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