“…this is the sort of action that more artists should fight for…”
First of three reissues by this forgotten New Zealand punk trio out on Siltbreeze this year, opening up the world to their scarcely-heard ‘80s material.
The record of theirs I have, Derry Legend, is just as irreverent, but still sounds far more refined than the cassette release Big Cheap Motel. It’s chaos, pretty much, of the Fall or Country Teasers variety; some guys who’d gotten their way into a big public concert, sponsored by the Big M dairy conglomerate, chomp on the corporate hand with a set of ten songs, all written the day of the show, condemning the company and its use of scantily-clad women to advertise its wares (“Can’t Stand Up For 40-Inch Busts,” “Our Sponsor Today,” “The Pornographic Milk Drink”).
Tinny, handheld recording paints a lack of means, but a surplus of defiant attitude by those who would kick sand in the face of big business looking to increase its profile on the backs of the downtrodden.
In a modern era where several prominent countercultural press outlets have their own fucking record labels, where bands fight for the right to shill for Scion or Pepsi or RJ Reynolds, this is the sort of action that more artists should fight for.
Their reasons could have been purely political, or just done for a laugh; both evoke satisfying reactions. (www.siltbreeze.com)
“…Built around a thick guitar line that is distorted until it becomes a fluid conveyer belt of sound… ”
“…hermetic tribes… ”
“… The Pornographic Milk Drink contains rotating metal spoke on a ferris wheel guitar… ”
“…Pleasantly skewed junkyard Buddy Holly rhythm lines played atop walls of distorted uber-rock riffs that contain the weight and force of a Flipper-like death dirge and the occasional saxophone blurt frame the basic vehicle for the band’s Brautiganian lyrical worldview... ”
Outside of a few ardent music fans, hipsters and record collectors, how many Americans ever heard of the Axemen before the Siltbreeze reissue campaign? I’m guessing not many of us had the pleasure and, yet, the band steadily released albums throughout the last two-and-a-half decades. At face value, it seems like the band just wishes to entertain themselves and devotees by performing and recording their take on the music they enjoy. These hermetic tribes usually end up being the most effective musical acts because their mission really cannot fail. If the mind’s creation gears continually turn and you possess the unique ability to, at once, channel and transform the music that inspires you, not much could go wrong. Such is the case with the Axemen.
So, TJ Lax provides the public with a vital service and a history lesson by releasing not one but two Axemen reissues in 2009. The first installment, 1984’s Big Cheap Motel, proves why this band deserves the reissue treatment and the attention it will likely receive by bearing the Siltbreeze tag. Like a more cohesive version of their UK brothers from other mothers on the Street Level Records roster, the Axemen kick grimy, postmodern, crooked punk-jazz sermons filtered through a boombox haze and serious subject matter that is littered with in-jokes. Milk, sexism and breasts all factor into a biting take on UK anarcho-punk lyrics soundtracked by a serious defacto homage to the aforementioned Street Level sounds.
In fact, the second tune on the album—billed as a rehash of album-opener “Big Fat ‘M’”— sounds like a looser a Good Missionaries outtake tracked on top of a Danny and the Dressmakers tune. A dense, plodding rhythm line lays the grounds for a strange, possible anti-sexism rant wherein the singer exhibits the same off-kilter, slurred sing-speak vocals as Mark Perry. Interrupted by chatter and greasy guitar-driven sound experimentation, the song detours into a shapeless pile of intersecting ideas before briefly rising back into its initial structure. The results of the expedition on the second rendition of “Big Fat ‘M’” could be disastrous and annoying if its slant on song construction continued for an entire album.
But the Axemen duck this possible pitfall and keep Big Cheap Motel fresh and exciting by providing a home base of sound to which they can return after their journey into a foreign territory commences. Songs like the title track and “The Pornographic Milk Drink” showcase this sound without sacrificing the variety of execution techniques that runs through the album. Pleasantly skewed junkyard Buddy Holly rhythm lines played atop walls of distorted uber-rock riffs that contain the weight and force of a Flipper-like death dirge and the occasional saxophone blurt frame the basic vehicle for the band’s Brautiganian lyrical worldview. “The Pornographic Milk Drink” contains rotating metal spoke on a ferris wheel guitar leading into a sludgy sewage drain of a riff. Lead guitar lays the groundwork for a boogie-infused take on the band’s sound, as big ‘70s hard rock sounds collide with the band’s surrealist take on Crass Records political sloganeering.
Built around a thick guitar line that is distorted until it becomes a fluid conveyer belt of sound, the title track reaps the benefits of its relative simplicity. The mantra of “Big cheap motel/ Big Tamla motel” pairs with the lava guitar flow to form a song that would work fine with guitar and vocals. But each time the Axemen run through things, a slight variation on the initial theme seems to arise on the next go-round—an off-rhythm guitar line, extra guitar fractures, a more minimal drum beat. The initial riff melts into small, blurry guitar bridges. A faux-Dick Dale guitar construction spackled in the cracks of “Big Cheap Motel” wanders to whatever rhythmic variation that the guitarist feels best compliments the tune. All the slight variations keep the sense of adventure that Big Cheap Motel showcases intact.
Big Cheap Motel is one of those records where you can imagine the band’s thought process as they delve into any musical alleyway that pleases them. Though the names and age range of the band members are hard to discern from the liner notes (the insert contains poorly Xeroxed photos of the band and each band member’s name printed in black magic marker with an arrow pointed to his place in the photo), Big Cheap Motel contains the wide-eyed looseness of a bunch of kids in a garage trying to mimic the music they enjoy. Let’s do a hardcore tune. Let’s try inserting a drill sound on this one. The refreshing results vary wildly from the artists’ that may or may not have inspired the Axemen but the band’s affinity for the challenge and reward of artistic creation shines through.
It’s understandable that Australia and New Zealand have a contentious relationship. I used to live in Cleveland, don’t anymore, but still cringe whenever I see a Stealers logo anywhere. The fact, though, that the Aussies recently claimed that New Zealanders are hermits, or some such, seems a bit beyond me. Anyway, New Zealand, as much Australia, has a pretty rich and important musical history. The Tall Dwarfs (sic) and Chris Knox have impacted current indie musical trends in a pretty noticeable way. You’d be able to hear it even if Jay Reatard didn’t tell us straight out.
But a less lauded band – the Axemen – in the early ‘80s mined similar territory to Knox. They were a bit more noisey. Ok. A lot more noisey. The trio comprised some scene veterans and when Bob Brannigan, Little Stevie McCabe and Stu Kawowski came together, a more twisted vision of what pop should be was spat from speakers. Perhaps their most enduring – and time specific – document comes in the form of Big Cheap Motel (it’s there, but you gotta look for it).
At a time when British punk bands wrote songs about Maggie being some body part and American punkers criticized Reagan on a daily basis, the Axemen took a more localized view of politics. Being slated to perform at a festival early in 1984 at a public park, the band was prepared to run through a set of their previously written material, but sponsorship of a milk company – Big M – prompted the trio to compose eleven new songs to comment upon the perceived problem.
Supposedly, the band took issue with the sexist imagery displayed at the festival. Although, there aren’t any specifics to be found in the interwebs as to what, exactly, the problem was. Either way, it inspired some stripped down, rock thudding. Most frequently, the Flying Nun label and its stable of acts are in some way checked in relationship to the sound found on this disc. But the Axemen sound way more furious than anything else that I’ve come across on that label.
The occasional inclusion of a sax, as on the anthemic “Stupid Symbol of Woman Hate,” points to the breadth of work that these folks were listening to. It isn’t quite Funhouse from the Stooges, but that track does ratchet up repetitive punk tropes along with the bleated chorus. And for some reason, this track sounds a bit better recorded than a few others.
A few other tracks leap out of the pile, which, for a great deal of the long player suffers from less than desirable sound. But even if you can’t understand the words to “Pornographic Milk Drink,” you can sense the band’s dedication to what they have to say as the disheveled punk track plays out. The inclusion of an extended Stones cover – “We Love You” – is a bit confusing since this performance, in part, was meant to defy corporate shenanigans. But if you’ve heard the Cock Sparrer version, you may have already heard the best rendition of the track.
If the historic and political perspective of this work was removed, I don’t know that we’d still be talking about this disc twenty some years after it was recorded. But it’s an artifact. And it’s one that fits into the linear narrative of rock history.
Fantastic vinyl issue of what was originally a cassette from a group that were an anomaly even within the relatively eclectic environs of the original Flying Nun catalogue. This New Zealand group released a bunch of vinyl and cassettes, all of which took the basic Kiwi-pop blueprint and exploded it with classic UK art/damage moves, crude free jazz skronk, radical prole violence and punk primitive avant garde smarts. Big Cheap Motel was recorded live at Hagley Park Ritual and Peterboro Studios and was conceived as an anti-corporate/sexist action aimed at the sponsorship of a Christchurch Summer Rock festival by a milk company: “Stoopid Symbol Of Women Hate/The Pornographic Milk Drink”. Still, the sonics are nowhere near the kinda ‘worthy’ protest music that have sunk so many student duds, this kinda rallying owes more to the blunt, subversive style of the early Fall or the art-punk aggression of the Swell Maps/Steve Treatment cultus, referencing classic rock/roll yucks like Steve Mackay’s signature saxophone sound or the tantrums of Half Japanese while maintaining the kinda dazed topographical haze that defines alla the best NZ/FN action. This sits perfectly on the Siltbreeze label, joining the dots between early avant garage moves and the label’s own deeply-embedded crude-fi aesthetic and if you’re into classic outsider modes in the hands of musical Neanderthals but dig ’songs’ more than ‘noise’ then this is the white stuff: highly recommended.
On 29 Jan 2009, the Axemen fulfilled one of their lifelong dreams, meeting and playing as humble support to legendary musicologist, Shockabilly geezer, generally dexterous solo artist and fellow mayhem cohort Dr Eugene Chadbourne. The Axemen played a short sharp set as a 3 piece, the first time in 16 years Stu Kawowski, Bob Brannigan and Steve McCabe had publicly aired their particular brand of rock’n’roll as a cohesive unit, and sounded as if they had never put down their instruments.
On the verge of the worldwide re-release on new vinyl of their legendary 1984 protest album “Big Cheap Motel”, the lads whisked through a timewarp of tracks covering many crucial aspects of their long, speckled and bespectacled career – the Dunedin years, the Christchurch years, the Frisbee sessions, the Auckland wilderness years – all encapsulated in their electrifying 20 minute set.
After complimenting the boys, (“Wild set guys!”), Dr Chad proceeded to perform a chilling fingerpopping solo banjo set before taking a quick break, during which time McCabe stumbled across the stage to pick up his guitar and inadvertantly stepped on Eugene’s infamous electric rake, inflicting horrifying facial injuries which doctors say will likely scar him forever (“that’s rock’n’roll!” McCabe shrugged to the waiting papparazi).
After playing a blistering set with the Vitamin-S guys on bass, drums/percussion, stratocaster-slide and vibraphone the Chad-meister, obviously fired up and hepped out on steroids, pushed his way across the bar to Bob Brannigan and proceeded to arbitrarily pick a fight with him, deliriously warbling about being the best pummeler in the land of the long white cloud… Brannigan, in a foul mood after missing his evening insulin shot, stepped up to the plate, accepted the challenge and proceeded to take the pounding of his life.