San Francisco mid-seventies, a dark shadow is hanging over Height Ashbury, hippie burnouts populating the streets – Deadheads, locked in a new nostalgia in the face of the grim reality of 70’s re-consolidation. LSD still pumping in the bloodstream, having been consumed in absurd quantities in the previous decade, but Tim Leary had turned snitch for the state prosecution and had not reinvented himself yet as cyberspace guru and Marlboro rights campaigner as he would in the even grimmer 80’s.
The Weather Underground, who had understood that the solution to Vietnam was not to just stop the war, but to bring the war back home, had been beaten.
After the failed revolutions the Summer of Love had made money for the fashion and culture industries, and the oil crisis, Nixon and Watergate had proven that the revolutionary constellation was now just a faint memory, massacred not only at Kent State, but much more effectively by the mainstream absorbing elements of the ‘counter-culture’.
Of course the right ‘rectified’ what they saw as fatal developments (such as sexual liberation, and other liberal sins) and brought the 50’s back in the 80’s (and brought Vietnam back in the form of El Salvador, but this time they managed it better), before in the 90’s the former liberal left found a way to practise their imperialism under a ‘humanitarian’ banner.
Mumbling acid casualties begging for money, a pain in the ass for the developers hoping to gentrify the area one decade after the Psychedelic revolution, a typical SF phenomenon… the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane… A town that proved too much even for the Sex Pistols, and later for Throbbing Gristle who both gave their last live performances here.
In the meantime however the new generation developed an underground scene that had clearly absorbed both a strong dose of punk nihilism as well as psychedelic heritage. The Residents had demonstrated this from the early seventies onwards with their albums Meet the Residents, and most brutally with Third Reich’n’Roll, released in 1975, an album of ‘semi-phonetic’ cover versions of 60’s hits that clearly drew parallels between what rock’n’roll had become and fascism.
The Residents carefully kept their anonymity, their publicity shots and videos always show them with masks (preferably big eyeballs, sometimes KKK costumes), their company the Cryptic Corp. puzzled many investigators for years, the label Ralph Records published some of the emerging new artist from SF and beyonds, such as Snakefinger (who recorded with the Residents as well as solo-albums) and Yello (from Switzerland). Other groups of this period and persuasion include Tuxedomoon, Romeo Void, MX-80 Sound, Pearl Harbour and the Explosions and others. Also coming up around the same time was the punk scene, most notably the Dead Kennedys and their label Alternative Tentacles, and the label Subterranean.
Chrome originated somewhere in this cultural climate; recorded on a simple four track machine they released their first LP ‘Visitation’ in 1976, an album no one seemed particularly proud of or even mentioned, except the magazine Bomp from L.A. that reviewed it and in which they had placed an ad already announcing the next LP. People started sending their cash, and so eventually the second LP ‘Alien Soundtracks’ was recorded, drawing a bit more attention than its predecessor.
The core of the band were Damon Edge and Helios Creed, and would remain so until Creed left to record his own brand of burnt-out acid punk, and Edge continued under the name Chrome for another dozen or so albums throughout the 80’s. To make things more complicated, Helios Creed recorded a few albums as Chrome in the 90’s. The focus of our attention should be on the few records the two produced together which seems to have been the creative highpoint of their ‘careers’ as far as I can see.
The first case in point is the fantastically titled ‘Half Machine Lip Moves’ LP they produced in 1978, an awkward masterpiece, mainly produces as a duo, the two playing all the instruments and fucking around with studio equipment, tapes and effects. Tracks start in one mould and totally switch halfway through, from all out psychedelic rock with the dodgiest connotations to druggy soundscapes, distorted vocals, backward tapes, plinky drummachines, all mashed up in bizarre arrangements with songtitles such as Zombie Warfare, March of the Chrome Police, You’ve been Dublicated, Mondo Anthem or Abstract Nympho. Obviously intoxicated by large amounts of psychedelic substances they take the listener onto a mindexpanding journey via sometimes crude audio experiences. Even more disturbing, but in a way more contemporary sounding (there is hardly a trace of acid rock here) is their ‘Read Only Memory’ EP, a (fictional?) movie soundtrack that was reportedly recorded under the influence of generous helpings of opium (and sounds like it).
All these records up to then were released on their own label Siren Records, which having started in ‘76 was one of the first independent labels of the new generation. This changed slightly now as they released their next album Red Exposure through Beggar’s Banquet a British pseudo-independent (independently run, but financed/owned by a major, in this case WEA). At the time Red Exposure was seen as a step towards a more ‘commercial’ sound, but then again a more organised sound was not necessarily a surprising step after the previous two albums. What is more revealing is the fact that Creed/Edge are pictured on the cover, always a tell-tale sign for commercial aspiration – or is it pop simulation? There was also a single ‘New Age’ to promote the album for which apparently exist two videos.
Nevertheless Red Exposure – their only major label record – is a good album that fits a little bit more in the contemporary context of bands such as Joy Division or Killing Joke (I mention those two because they are the ones mentioned by Chrome in an interview at the time) – the production is much less ragged than on its predecessor – but some of their nicest tracks are collected here, examples of the most alienated post-punk possible, but in a very different way than the mentioned bands. It is more a case of ‘negative’ psychedelia. If you ever wandered around the Elephant and Castle on acid you know what I mean.
“I’m on the outside looking at the inside
Nobody’s inside looking at the outside
I’m on the inside looking at the outside
looking at the outer zone
I’m not strange nothing’s strange
there’s nothing strange about me
this is the new age”
The theme is repeated throughout the album, even on the cool instrumental pieces such as Night of the Earth. Aspects explored are the Electric Chair, Isolation, Jonestown. Again this always happens in a detached way – “with their feet in prehistory, their heads between foreign planets” – and never full on, sensationalising nor authenticated by anything else but the psychedelic experience.
Clearly the worst moments of Chrome are when they try to adopt a conventional singing style, or pop music poses in general. I think it must have been around this time that rather than using rock/pop elements for their ‘psychic art’ they must have convinced themselves – like so many others – that they could indeed be a rock band, and successful (no doubt the label encouraged this misconception). After Red Exposure two new members joined taking over the rhythm section, turning Chrome into a conventional four-piece combo and therefore live-circuit-compatible. Nevertheless they managed to produce at least one more classic album, ‘3rd from the Sun’ where even the almost embarrassing ‘Firebomb’ has dense layers of feedback, effects and ‘moog liberation’ counteracting the rock cliches in the lyrics. More effective, but not less ‘rock’ are the two epic tracks ‘Armageddon’ and ‘3rd from the Sun’ which was later covered by Prong (shortly before they themselves got signed by a major). I’m not sure about the contractual situation at that period – the copy of ‘3rd’ I have is credited again to their own Siren label.
Functioning much more in a band format since the ‘Blood on the Moon’ LP, these tracks are still dark and demented, with a psychedelic nihilism lurking under the veneer of heavy riffs.
“Take it to the teacher take it to the park
Want to make a million is it Armageddon
Like to hear the voice in got nothing to say
Got nothing left to say to you got nothing to do
Technicians on the moon feel safer than you
Standing like the targets in midst of Armageddon
Standing in the light field ground zero out of reach
Don’t want no pardon – Armageddon”
Their search for a more coherent approach didn’t stop here, Helios Creed and Damon Edge recorded two more albums – No Humans Allowed and Raining Milk – before they parted ways… Their strength together had exactly been the confrontation of differing elements, cuts in the material, aesthetic conflict and unsurmountable otherness. There is a tension between the different creative impulses that is lacking in their (sometimes inspired, sometimes dull) solo efforts.
Damon Edge died of a heart failure last month.
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