Not Just the Ticket — a ticketless special on Low at UC Irvine, late 1993

What I thought would be a slowdown in Not Just the Tickets has become a bit of a break, but one without regret – a combination of library work, accelerated writing work and other factors has put me in a place where time spent doing not much is time well earned. This said, given a show I’ll be attending this evening, the timing couldn’t be better for talking about another UCI show without ticket or flyer or anything to hand beyond memory, and one from this very time of year. But what a time, and what a show.

You really do get lucky sometimes when it comes to shows and bands, as I’ve said before. The right time and the right place and someone can knock you flat without your planning on it, a case often where little or no knowledge is exactly what’s needed. It also helps to be in a position where there’s a reason for a band to come out and play somewhere, and as I’ve previously discussed in the series UCI was great for that in the early nineties, KUCI no less so. I haven’t gone into discussion too much about specifically radio-station-only broadcasts and interviews at that time, as they weren’t shows per se, and the performance I do have from this band on air wouldn’t actually be recorded for some months. When I saw Low for the first time – when I first learned that they existed and that they did the music they did – was due to chance, location and a benefit show.

It wasn’t a huge one. I’d be hard pressed to remember the reasons why there was a benefit show to start with, or what was the rationale for holding it when it was. It was located in a lower room of the student center, not one of the ones where shows had been held before to my knowledge; then again I hadn’t attended every one that had happened during my months there to that point. I could probably pick out where it had been if I tried but the room itself is long gone in a later remodeling of the complex; it used to look out over a slight slope down to a walkway into Aldrich Park, the center of the campus.

I’d like to say there were about…forty, maybe, in attendance, but it could easily have been more, though not too much more than that. Whatever had happened had been arranged through friends of friends, and unless my memory is completely shot Steve Cronk, general good guy and representative of the Inland Empire at KUCI (one of several around that time – as folks like Peter Hughes and Franklin Bruno and others could easily confirm), had been the prime booker for the show. I’d like to say there was a set by someone else there that evening, either the Big Breakfast or Diskothi-Q or Refrigerator – two to one say it was someone else entirely, though.

I’m pretty positive this show occurred sometime between fall and winter quarter, even more likely between Christmas and New Year’s. It would have been the last time I spent Christmas in Coronado, California; my parents would move north the following summer, but I can’t say I recall anything memorable about that last Christmas given that soon to come event, as no specific plans had yet been made. I probably just wanted to head back after the holidays itself to chill for a bit before launching into my second quarter as a TA as well as making firmer plans for getting the okay for my MA degree – or maybe I just wanted to go back to where all my music and books and more were, who can say.

At one point I thought this show was the one I later walked a fellow KUCI DJ and newspaper writer home from – she was someone I was rather sweet on at the time – but I think that would have been a later show that academic year (or maybe even earlier?), so there’s no extra air of romance, however unrequited, around this particular evening for me. There was the general camaraderie of friends, and I hope a number of people who I figure were there can confirm it and more details about it, assuming they read it. All I learned about the rest of the show after the fact was that Low had apparently been scheduled to play another show in the LA area that evening or the day before but it had fallen through. Steve had encountered the band somewhere earlier in 1993 – CMJ, most likely – and the promos of I Could Live In Hope were already starting to circulate. So one thing led to another and in a quiet, dimly lit UCI student center room, the trio set up and began to play.

It’s of course important to remember that Low didn’t emerge out of a vacuum and when I first heard them that night, I distinctly remember thinking “Wow – sounds a bit like Galaxie 500.” This was before that debut album came out as noted – with production by Kramer, who had notably worked with that earlier band on pretty much everything they’d ever done. So combine that with the trio lineup, a sense for the carefully deliberate in performance and an evident love of Joy Division, and the tags that the band had to deal with for some time to come were in place. If I was guilty of making associations that were overly reductive, I cannot say I was alone in thinking what I did.

As time has gone on, of course, the differences between the bands became clearer and much more notable, and those elements that I didn’t see properly at first that distinguished the groups stood out even from the start. Low, both live and in studio, were about precision rather than reverb and wash – the latter was certainly present at points, but as element rather than dominant feature. Furthermore, the singing of Al and Mimi Sparhawk was miles beyond Dean Wareham’s higher-pitched keening, drowned in said reverb – there was always something very direct, very starkly beautiful, right from the moment Mimi’s drum brushes kicked in with “Words,” which rightly started the set as much as the song started the album.

It was an understandable anthem of sorts, a statement of purpose, the way that the two of them sang “I can hear them” over and again, a calm mantra. It helped that for all that I thought of Galaxie 500, I had never actually seen them live – they were already legendary and, by the time I got to grips with them a bit, already broken up, if only just. So I couldn’t make any direct comparisons, and there was no burden of previous assumptions to deal with in turn with Low. They were there and they performed and good gracious, was it ever something.

I honestly can’t remember what else they played besides “Words” though it’s very likely “Lullaby” got in there, perhaps “Rope,” perhaps “Drag,” almost certainly “Fear” – it wasn’t the full album by any means, I only remember it being something like a five or six song set. If it was longer, well, no complaints I’m sure. For me it was all about the gentle revelation, the sudden sense of ‘wow who ARE these people and how come I haven’t heard about them?’ They might as well have come from another planet – and I don’t say that to joke about Duluth, just that there was only so many ways to learn about a new band, and even college radio DJs all have a first time encounter with something somewhere along the line, especially self-conscious ones like myself.

It wasn’t like I was at the start of a career or anything – had I been in Duluth in similar circumstances, who knows, but they’d already been playing together and then actually signed to a major label, however relatively far removed from the high level acts that Virgin Records was all about at the time. (I am trying to imagine what a showcase performance with the Smashing Pumpkins would have been like – probably a bit…wrong.) Had the band only done the one album for whatever reason, I might look back on it now as a curiosity more than anything else, and I might think of the show in a much different light than I do now. Nobody knows the future in the end, I just knew there was this great band that I really really liked that had completely knocked my socks off in their own intense, focused way.

Jump ahead seventeen years and here I am, a few hours away from seeing the band on a Christmas tour. They’ll be playing up in LA at Spaceland – possibly the last time I’ll see any show there before that venue changes focus in March – and reports from the road say one should expect a slew of new songs from their forthcoming album, most of their Christmas EP and a clutch of others here and there. They’ve had an incredible, at times breathtaking series of albums over the years, Robert Plant’s just been nominated for a Grammy based on his recent covers of their work, and for all the changes in bass players over time Al and Mimi are still there, the eternal core of it all, through many events and sometimes tough circumstances.

I’ll have more to say about Low in a later entry – but for now, I can’t wait to see this show. In its own way, it will be a kind of personal anniversary.

Not Just the Ticket will be on a slower pace for a bit

Nothing major, it’s just that the time of year — and the time of the quarter! — means other commitments, in this case also including some further writing work for the OC Weekly and elsewhere. I’ll hope to have another entry or two up this week; it’ll probably stay at that rate for much of the rest of the year. (If anything I also want to metaphorically catch my breath — all that work does eventually wear you out some!) Plenty of good/great/strange shows from 1994 to talk about in the next few entries, though…

Not Just the Ticket — #78, NOFX, December 10, 1993

NOFX, Crawford Hall

Then-current album: none, as Punk in Drublic wasn’t released for well over another half-year from this point.

Opening acts: The Muffs, Wax, DI and at least one other one…

Back of ticket ad: AT&T again urging me to ‘spell it out.’ I feel so loved.

Once again the joy of promo tickets to events. Sometimes you can tell by the hole punch but in this case the listed price of no dollars and no cents is all that I need to see. Not surprising given that this was a UCI show and all.

So, the closest I think I ever got to the Warped Tour aesthetic. Even though that didn’t kick off for another two years.

It’s more accurate to say, though, that this was a combination homegrown California punk thing combined with a demi-jockishness I never quite got into. I would have had little reason to, frankly – stepping back a ways, when it came to growing up in the eighties going to high school and all, among the many things I didn’t do was skateboard, surf, seek out local punk shows, get involved in intense discussions taken from Flipside or Maximum Rock and Roll, the list goes on. I don’t say this to criticize those who did, but I know a lot of people my age from around here who did most or all of these things, a kind of direct or indirect rebellion, or even just a matter of identity forming or testing out, which I never ended up pursuing. Whatever conclusions I was eventually reaching were often internal, private and unclear to myself until much later on, and this kind of relative sociability and social context wasn’t my thing.

The music wasn’t either, at least not directly – beyond a lot of truly big names, what knowledge I have of punk has always been more second-hand and on the side, where I’ve grown to know many people who were involved participants in many different ways. In ways, what I’ve done over time is learned to pick out more of the bands who used basic templates as launching points for whatever else they might want to try, and who did so in ways that rejected a straitjacket or else so hot-wired an approach that the results were simply undeniable. But with the generations and newer bands comes the realization that it remains a scene-as-such with such a disconnected, amorphous feeling to how it’s impacted music for me. When I was reading a story about how Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come is now considering a game-changer of a release, I’ve no doubt of it, but it’s not one that affected me at the time or now.

So getting towards NOFX – I can’t recall exactly when or where I heard of them the first time, it might have been at UCLA still but I’m not positive. We’re talking about a band that had originally formed in 1983 and is still going strong with three out of four original members (and the fourth joined back in 1991), so from this vantage point it’s an amazing run of history, really, a life defined by an idea that Fat Mike and Eric Melvin had in high school that they have pursued to the present. Again, it’s not my experience or lack thereof of the culture that they both inherited and then helped constantly define, through their releases, label associations, their own label and everything that’s come along since for them.

Somehow through all the swirl of things like shoegaze and techno and flickers of art metal and whatever else was in my head during those years either the logo or the patch or something started to spark off in my head but I never sought out their records nor knowingly listened to any – it was a case where I would have just thought, “Yeah, they’re this band and they’re punk and a lot of local punk types here like them and I hear they’re a bit…goofy?” The Green Day/Offspring breakthrough wasn’t until the following year, so it wasn’t like there was overwhelming attention paid to this show on any sort of mainstream level. But NOFX were clearly already legends to some, there was a reason why they were playing a spot as big as Crawford Hall, after all.

Jen V. hadn’t booked this show but she had given input and was part of the overall campus bunch overseeing such things so I probably did some sort of preview story and ended up with a complimentary ticket, so I wandered across campus at my own good speed to see the show on the night – it was probably the end of finals week for that quarter as well, thus a very good reason to just go see any kind of show, and why not one that was easy to get to, after all.

Having a lot of bands on the lineup and having none of them be truly huge meant there was a feeling of almost relaxed hysteria – it was packed but it wasn’t a crush, there was excitement but not insanity. It was what I more or less figured was a stereotypical punk show as such in whatever metric I used to calculate such things – and it wasn’t like I hadn’t seen notable bands at this point in venues of this size, thus the Fugazi/Offspring show two years prior to this. I basically showed up, either with Jen or met up with her when I was there, got a backstage pass as well, and started wandering around a bit.

DI I knew a little something about thanks to already being into the Adolescents via Christian Death, but not much more than that – “Johnny’s Got a Problem” was the only song that had stuck with me much but hey, that was one more than some. Casey Royer is as much a punk lifer as NOFX are, with a few years more under his belt to boot, and by that time he’d already been through the stop-start recycle of reunions and hiatuses and all that, so there was already the feeling of veterans at work happening. Not a criticism, more a sense that initial marks having been made, the rest would take of itself. I can’t remember much otherwise beyond the fact that I think Royer had long hair and said a few rude things. I watched from back on the open floor a bit and was all ‘Well hey.’

Wax I remember a little more directly, and given the band’s demi-fame over the moons via the video for “California” and the drummer ending up as a regular Jackass cast member, as well as their own reunion last year, I’m trying to say I remembered even more about the show. They probably performed “California” – the album it came from, 13 Unlucky Numbers, had already been recorded and would get its initial release the following year. I might have heard the first album as well, I think I had some sort of impression of their name from somewhere else. I do remember them doing “Somebody’s Going to Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight,” an early Fleetwood Mac thing that the Rezillos had covered; I’d finally heard said band the previous year so hearing these guys do that song in turn was a nice bit of continuity.

It had been a while since I’d seen the Muffs, when they’d done a slew of shows up in LA on their own or with others that I’d been at, and it was fun to see them again for sure. I couldn’t quite get a read on the crowd’s reaction to them – there were definitely fans there, but on balance it seemed more indifferent than either encouraging or hostile (which given dudes at shows at the time – well, to be fair, in general – was almost a given in turn). It also wasn’t the first time I’d sensed the kind of narcissism of small differences that really defined punk in so many ways, where all it took was a couple of years and one county’s distance to make it seem like everything had changed.

So that left NOFX, and I figured both for my comfort and relative safety – because things were definitely now getting hectic – I would watch from the side and back of the stage, taking great care to stay out of everyone’s way. (Always ALWAYS important – the more so if you only know one or two people out of thirty on said stage.) It almost felt anthropological, like I was observing an experience rather than participating in it in any way – I wasn’t watching the band as much as watching people watch the band, while the band played along at full speed.

It seemed to fit with my experience of punk at large in the end, taking notes of random details rather than being steeped in things to the full. But I liked the end results, and somehow the fact that I mostly saw Fat Mike from the back as the band ripped through a pretty good set seemed right. Even better, though, was when El Hefe – still the ‘new’ guy if a couple of years on from joining – busted out some trumpet solos towards the end. In fact I think he was the last guy on stage or something close to it, alternating between growly singing and playing away. Leave it to be the random moments like that – something that was and wasn’t ‘punk’ in the most stereotypical sense – that sticks most in the brain.

Not Just the Ticket — #77, Curve, November 24, 1993

Curve, Palace

Then-current album: Cuckoo

Opening act: Engines of Aggression

Back of ticket ad: AT&T importuning me for my business. Flattering and all, and yet.

So the show that had an opening act that was utterly totally and terribly atrocious. But one which I lucked out on because of the real opening act in a completely different context that evening. To explain:

As you can see from all the recent entries, I was pretty much living the life of Riley with a slew of these great shows happening one after another, and all not conflicting with each other either (it’s entirely possible I missed a few more shows as a result of all these dates up against each other, granted, but I can’t remember them now if so). So the news that Curve were coming through again was about all I needed to know when it came to attending this show – no Sony/Jen V connection this time around, given Curve were on Virgin instead, but my friend Rich A was more than happy to join me on a trip up to LA to see them.

This wasn’t too surprising at all given, now that I think about it, he had been with me and others at the Rollercoaster touring festival show about the same time the previous year, where the Jesus and Mary Chain had headlined but Curve had put on a pretty sharp set. Both bands weren’t goth as such but they were pretty happily adopted by the tribe, thanks to the preferred all black fashion sense; in the case of Toni Halliday, her own clear inspiration in someone like Siouxsie Sioux didn’t hurt either.

The other connection was the sheer volume and rhythm crunch of Curve live and in studio; there was something about the relentless bass-heavy mechanistic grind and punch of the band that was both unlike a lot of shoegaze per se and much more in line with someone like, say, Nine Inch Nails – which made it no surprise at all that when Curve’s first 1993 single “Missing Link” came out there was a remix on the second part of that single which was a remix done by Trent Reznor. That this ended up getting a slew of attention in its own right gives you a sense of how much people were practically slavering over the possibility of something, anything new from him around that time, but The Downward Spiral was still some time to come.

Cuckoo, meanwhile, was Curve’s own second full album, and as accomplished as the initial EPs had been – and as monolithically powerful as Doppelganger was – this was really their high point up to then, at once a more varied album and more powerful one; at times the bass sounded like it was going to rip my floor out. (Actually I think it was either this or the Cure live albums around that time which caused my downstairs neighbor to pound on his ceiling and completely freak the hell out of me.) Even the one out of nowhere acoustic number “Left of Mother” sounded impossibly rich and bottom heavy in equal measure. If Curve had ended up opening for the Depeche Mode tour around then, say, people might still be talking about it.

1993 had also been a year for me really getting into comics for the first time, I should also note – Peter Bagge’s Hate had me rolling on the floor more than once, and friend Eric R. having just begun his first work for Fantagraphics didn’t hurt when it came to getting earlier issues. Rich A. was more of a traditional superhero type of reader – though as was the case with a lot of people then, the true lodestone was anything with the words ‘Neil’ ‘Gaiman’ and ‘Sandman’ on the cover. Point being, we both had a good reason to actually spend some time at the legendary LA comic store the Golden Apple on Melrose before going over to the Palace to see the show.

As we entered, we noticed that there seemed to have been some sort of signing or something that had finished up, but we weren’t too sure what it was or who for. I was wandering over looking for the most recent issue of Hate and, upon finding it, picked it up with some sort of ‘Hey, great, here it is!’ statement, when I noticed someone else standing nearby – and then I figured out who the signing was for. Because you notice when Matt Groening is nearby.

A quick digression – as with anything once revolutionary and now an institution (and depending on how old you are, whoever might be reading this), it’s at once a cliché and totally true to say that if you weren’t there when The Simpsons first hit and became a thing – and then very rapidly became THE thing over the next few years – then you’ll never quite know. It was such a breath of fresh air, and given I had been a fan of Groening’s work since my high school discovery of Life in Hell back in 1986, all the more cool. So I knew enough about Groening to know who he was and what he looked like, as did Rich, who I’d be willing to bet had noticed him first.

I didn’t go and bug him then and there – he’d just done a signing after all – but I admit I was a touch starstruck. Quite happily for Rich and I, we found ourselves in line with him at the register, and we ended up having a brief conversation with him; I figured I could feel free to name myself a fan and we explained how we’d just swung by by chance. It was a great little talk, actually – he complimented me on my choice in comics, always a nice kick, and I remember the two of us talking about music and artistic inspiration in general with him; he was very personable, very friendly, and I came away feeling pretty jazzed, as did Rich. A chance encounter of the best kind, and it still makes me smile to think about it.

What makes it all the better was that it was the complete opposite to our initial experience at the Palace due to the opening act. As mentioned, waiting to see what Trent Reznor was going to do next was on the mind of more than a few people that year, and even before the breakthrough there were enough ‘industrial’ bandwagon jumpers in existence that, like so many other bands out there, adapt themselves to their surroundings in the hope of getting the brass ring. Stabbing Westward had seemed like that just a few days beforehand in the same venue, but Engines of Aggression were the absolute pits.

I vaguely remember standing somewhere on the main floor – or was it up in the balcony maybe, just so I didn’t have to stay on my feet the whole time? – and seeing the backlit spectacle of shouty guys unfold. More a demi-metal band with vague pretensions towards mechanistic approaches – a less varied and interesting Helmet, if that can be imagined (and after said band’s show earlier that year I wasn’t too highly inclined to them any more), Engines of Aggression were laughably horrible and dull, and while specifics are happily blotted from my brain, I just remember the overwhelming feeling of utter, utter suckiness. Turns out everyone I’ve since talked to who was also at that show thought the same thing – they were just simply that horrible. I suppose there was a vague sense in putting them on the bill with Curve if you squinted but in practice, good god almighty. I just invoked them earlier this year as a punchline in an ILM discussion, that’s how bad the scarring is.

Which made Curve all the more welcome, by default, so maybe that was the plan. As was my usual practice when I could pull it off, I floated up near one set of speaker stacks to the side of the stage and was able to enjoy the show in both relative closeness and comfort. Compared to the previous year’s show seen from the back of the Palladium, this was far more my speed. I also liked the fact that, unless my memory is completely shot, they started with the killer song “On the Wheel,” which had only ended up on the “Missing Link” B-side but had immediately become and remains one of my favorite songs they’d ever done. So seeing them rip into the performance, especially with the actually metallic sounding percussion breaks, was a hell of a treat.

Specifics of the show are again less clear than the feelings here, but the images remain strong – Toni Halliday striking impossibly cool and clean poses while in full voice, Dean Garcia absolutely into his guitar playing with obsessive focus, Debbie Smith right along for the ride, a rigorous rhythm section crunch at full volume…pretty damn monstrous. That songs like “Missing Link” and “Superblaster” got played was unsurprising, while older numbers got the nod as well – it was like a perfect summary of everything they had to offer at that point, three full years of viciously perfect and astoundingly beautiful songs.

Which made the breakup the following year such a bummer, and while the reunion and second phase of the band was no less compelling, Butch Vig took the time to whip up Garbage in the interim and they walked off with the headlines and sales, but more on that at a later date. At least I did get to see this stellar show – and meet Matt Groening at that.

And, happily, never saw nor heard from Engines of Aggression ever again. Sometimes it’s the small things.

Not Just the Ticket — a ticketless special on Stereolab, Unrest and Idaho, fall 1993

Much like the previous academic year, 1993 through to 1994 was also a time of random shows here and there around UCI in what was the continuing good run of booking done by ASUCI at that time. Jen V.’s influence continued to be strongly felt while my friend Mackro also had his part to play in helping with sound mixing on a number of shows. This included a hilarious — in retrospect — noontime show shortly after fall quarter began, so to tell this one as a bit of a prologue:

They were unknown, one of many unknown bands at that time, and I barely remember their appearance. I hadn’t done any sort of promo piece on them for the student newspaper, probably because I was busy gearing up for my teaching work right at the start of the school year, so the appearance of some pseudoalternative band on a major label wasn’t going to thrill me all that much. Sure, I was dealing in stereotypes given what I was thinking about them but even so, they sure couldn’t seem more pseudo than they were. I had also already seen enough examples of the type to be heartily sick of them. (Does anyone remember, say, Animal Bag? Do the band members themselves remember Animal Bag? Although having written that I see that there’s both a fan site and the fact that one of the band members died earlier this year due to an ulcer so I shouldn’t be so glib…)

I think about all I saw of them was a quick glance in between classes as I went to grab lunch — I might have spoken quickly with Mackro en route but not much more than that — and otherwise I just saw a bunch of ill-dressed people on stage doing groovy bullshit of the kind which I never really had much time for. The lead guy had these dreadlocks that he sort of shook around and there was a lot of whining. Thus informed — that is to say ill-informed — I departed the scene with barely any more thought. Mackro told me later that the band themselves were all right enough people, reasonably low key and just out to play to a totally indifferent crowd of people eating their lunches and ignoring them, so at least they soldiered on. Whoever their manager or road manager was, though, was apparently a piece of work, prone to screaming and wondering why things weren’t as ‘professional’ as they should be. (It might not have been the exact wording — I defer to Mackro on this point, should he read this — but it was something close to it.) So he was a pain but Mackro dealt with it all, the band played their noontime set and went off to whatever promo event or fate would take them.

About three or so weeks later, KROQ suddenly started playing the hell out of a song called “Mr. Jones” and MTV soon followed. And thus Counting Crows went on to their rather misbegotten career. But at least we can say in that brief pre-fame window we encountered them in that they weren’t horrifically awful per se, just sorta there. And that they weren’t like their manager.

Dealing with self-consciously groovy dudes aside, fall 1993 must have had more of its share of pub shows and other local events than I can immediately remember, but without tickets or fliers I can’t say for sure exactly what all occurred back then. Perhaps I’ll do a scrounge of the student newspaper archives one of these days and see if I can find anything more detailed but as it stands there was only one show which really made an impact on me that quarter which falls into that category, one which I still can’t believe I caught to this day. But it happened, Jen V. had a lot if not everything to do with it, and I’ve told enough people about the show over time who wish they were there that I guess it was sorta monumental in its own quiet way. Not that it was quiet at the time.

Unrest were one of the bands involved, and that would be a repeat – I’d already seen them up in the pub the previous year and was looking forward to catching them again given how much I had enjoyed the Perfect Teeth album, which had come out in the interim. But around the time I was learning about Unrest in early 1992 I was also reading a lot of stuff in Melody Maker about a newish band called Stereolab. I knew jack about the band McCarthy which had partially spawned them, and when I was reading about Stereolab for the first time I was doing so learning about their drummer Joe Dilworth who was also spending time with th’ Faith Healers as well as photographing bands for Melody Maker. I should have figured out a little sooner that a lot of coverage in MM was defined by who knew who in London itself. (I met Dilworth and th’ Faith Healers at KUCI earlier in 1993 — friendly folks but the tape turned out terribly so I still regret that.) It all sounded good and I’m pretty sure I heard a song on a compilation at some point in 1992 but it wasn’t until the American release of Switched On that I got a chance to hear more and go “Hmm, I like it.” Then in summer of 1993 a friend of Mackro’s and mine at KUCI, John Lewis, played us a tape with the first two Neu! albums on it and we went “What the hell!” Better to learn sooner rather than later when it came to inspirations, at least.

As fall of 1993 approached Unrest had released their Perfect Teeth album earlier in the year along with more singles, while Stereolab had started sending out promo copies of what was already their fourth album and/or long EP, Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements (or rather Elektra had sent them out, having become their American label). Exactly how busy the band would be in studio wouldn’t be fully clear until much later down the road but I was still pretty astonished about the discography that seemed to appear from nowhere. Somehow this all led to me asking for an interview with someone in Stereolab once I learned that Unrest and Stereolab were going to be on tour together and actually be playing on campus — and not a noontime show, but an honest to god evening show which, unlike the Green Day show that wasn’t, was probably going to actually go off.

So this meant I got to talk on the phone with Laetitia Sadier for a while there on some October afternoon asking about things like her supposed million dollar deal with Elektra (to quote her in response: “No fucking way!” with a laugh in her voice) and how things were going coming over to America and all. The interview’s around somewhere, no tape of it to hand, but I wrote it up for a story and looked forward to the forthcoming show, the more so because it would have as an opening act Idaho, who I’d had on my radio show earlier in the year and who I thought were all right folks – LA’s own entry into the putative slowcore genre-as-such that was half being dreamed up around then (Red House Painters, Codeine and others were named – and one other band soon after, but more on them in a later entry).

The night of the show itself is a mix of clarity and unsure moments. The show was held in the UCI Student Center on the lower level, a bit of a strange if well lit warren of halls and conference rooms. The exact order of events I’m not sure about but I was manning the ticket table at one point and Mark E. Robinson appeared and started asking questions. I recall he was polite but also brisk, which I kinda admire – you got a sense he had done this enough that he didn’t want to waste too much time, and he was interested in where to put his equipment, set up merch and so forth. I hadn’t met him at all the previous year and I can’t say it was much of a meeting per se now but I hope I got everything clear for him then.

Around that time Stereolab or part of them appeared and through a series of events I really can’t remember the details of I ended up being a bit of a guide for Laetitia and at least one other member – it might well have been Mary Hansen, rest her soul, but I’m not sure – plus another UCI person over from campus to get some pizza. So that was kinda fun, I have to admit, and I told a few tales about how curious a place Irvine was in general as we ate. Hopefully I didn’t talk their ears off but who knows – Laetitia herself was polite as well but quietly friendly, and if anything probably seemed curious about the place in general as well as the country as a whole, and who could blame her if it was her first time through?

When it comes to the show itself my memory is a bit dimmer. The room the show was in wasn’t a performance venue as such, merely a converted conference room with a low portable stage, but it did have a mixing booth tucked in the back so I guess the room was always designed for the possibility. It wasn’t a packed house by any means but there was a good turnout and Idaho kicked things off pleasantly enough – for all that I had a lot of their albums their music really doesn’t stick with me much now, but it was still an okay if moody listen in the sort-of dark, as I sat on the floor about halfway back, untroubled by moshers or crummy floors.

Stereolab’s set, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a barnburner. I remember some friends being a bit indifferent afterwards – one of them (it might have been Eric R.) saying it all sounded like one Velvet Underground jam after another. I admit it did seem monochromatic at points – every other time I saw them afterwards it was much more varied – but as a statement of purpose it was a hell of a show, rapturously received. I just remember both Laetitia and Mary standing side by side at the center of the stage while everything swirled and blasted around them – Tim Gane’s soon to be instantly recognizable head-nod back and forth was in full effect, as well as Andy Ramsay’s gregarious way around motorik drumming. If there would be even more memorable shows in the future, it was still a hell of a way to start in terms of their American presence, and at the time not knowing if I’d ever see them again it was just pretty darn cool.

Which left Unrest, and as it turned out the last time I did see them, as well as a lot of people. What was played wasn’t clear to me but like the previous year’s show they had their fans and damn if they weren’t vocal, even more so than that time. “Make Out Club” somehow sticks in the brain from this show for that reason, certainly partially due to the eventual website with its name, but also because I can just see Mark really getting into the singing, not in a flailing way but in an immediate, present way that’s hard to easily describe. The whole band was like that, Bridget, Phil, and it was pretty fun. It was like in the middle of a time of fuzzed out grunge overload there was this clean crispness that wasn’t giving up.

After the show I remember hearing but not seeing Mark do a quick acoustic number in the hallway that was sort of a dressing room for them, given all the fans who had besieged him and wanted to hear more. It’s now 2010 and there were Unrest reunion shows this year and Laetitia Sadier’s released her first solo album and Mary’s now long since gone due to the horrible accident that claimed her life. Time does change things, but at that time I was just having a blast with friends and strangers, hunkered down in a student center, wondering what might come next.

Not Just the Ticket — #76, Front 242, November 21, 1993

Front 242, Hollywood Palace

Then-current album: 05:22:09:12 Off

Opening acts: Ethyl Meatplow, Stabbing Westward

Back of ticket ad: …hmm, forgot to check. I fear Fox Photo return.

I like the occasional strategies employed by Ticketmaster to gussy up tickets for bands with short names. Too much empty area on the ticket? Asterisks are the answer! Except they were never consistently applied, so.

So, the show that consisted of two ends and one beginning. A negative trend in all three cases.

It was kinda funny, though – and weirdly telling, this show. It was probably the last ‘industrial’ show I attended, by any stretch of the term, prior to Trent Reznor finally taking everything over the commercial top the following year with The Downward Spiral. But the shift was already in the wind – as I muttered at one point on the DVD I did on Nine Inch Nails, he went from new figure to poster boy at a hell of a pace. But that’s to talk about someone who wasn’t at this show, and from retrospection. At the time…well, who knew what to expect?

But this was a show that was already something containing familiarity all around, or at least for the most part. Front 242 I’d already seen earlier that year at Lollapalooza, playing a hell of a set in the sunshine thanks to well placed speaker stacks and staging providing shade and said speaker stacks meaning their rigorous, bass and beat heavy approach pretty much pounded skulls more relentlessly than a lot of bands at the time could ever manage. So I was already primed for more there. And Ethyl Meatplow had also performed there and I was coming up on my third show overall with them, so that was a fine thing.

And then there was Stabbing Westward, of whom I knew nothing – but more on them in a bit. I wish I didn’t have to talk about them but there you go.

The season this show was part of, fall 1993, had been going reasonably well enough for me, though it was definitely a case of learning curves all around. My new apartmentmate Wayne was a great fellow, an amiable computer geek who was and remains the height of personableness; we last chatted a few years back and he was doing well. So that was the easy part – the less easy part was everything else, in a way, from getting to grips with teaching to bearing down a little more on my studies after the initial rough year to the huge Laguna fire that kicked in one hot day, and which I could see cresting a not too distant hill from my apartment. (Friend Mackro remembers seeing Mary Lou Lord do a noontime show out on the plaza, then noticing her looking off in the distance and going “Gee that doesn’t look good” or something similar. He turns around, there’s a massive black wall of smoke rising in the distance, and the rest of the day went from there.)

So all the shows I was going to at this point consisted of one needed break after another – and one of those shows, another ticketless special I’ll be talking about next time, remains an absolute high point of everything I saw during my UCI grad school years. But there were the touring stops up in LA that I was getting to as I could, thus Depeche, thus Suede and thus this show. Another case of Sony connections coming in handy for me, I figure, though ultimately I’m not entirely sure with some of these performances if I just went ahead and bought a ticket or not to be on the safe side. (Trust me, I can’t thank Jen V. enough for all the times she did get me in to see something but I can’t believe she was able to do so each time.)

I do remember Jen V. doing some promo for this show on my computer, though. Which may sound either quaint or nondescript, but a little context here: having fully gotten to grips with the net for the first time earlier that calendar year, fall 1993 was when I first really figured out what Usenet and discussion groups were all about, thanks to Mackro. I then introduced it to Jen, who figured out it was a handy way to send around news about upcoming Sony releases or tours or the like – which included Front 242 and Stabbing Westward. It was the future but we didn’t fully understand it, or rather figure out that’s how it would all go – she reported passing this on to her bosses but they didn’t quite get what was going on. Par for the course for everyone then, though.

So all this was going on and this show was announced and it was the second tour for Front 242 that year counting Lollapalooza but then again they also had their second album coming out. A good approach, really, in that they didn’t do the Use Your Illusion route or anything – Evil Off, to give the simpler name of the second album, was part remix collection, part collection of other tracks, part experiments. These days that too is much more par for the course so like some of the promotion stuff Jen was considering they found the future maybe just a touch too quickly, who can say.

All I can say is that I ended up at my friend and fellow UCLA-era show vet Jason B.’s house at some point that evening before the show. He’d gone on to grad school like I had, in this case in history and still at UCLA, and I dimly remember a housemate hanging around briefly or something that night…all kinda unclear, maybe we all had dinner there with Jen. It’s a bit confused, but we all ended up over at the Palace for the show. To say that everyone there had almost certainly been at Lollapalooza as well for both Front 242 and Ethyl Meatplow was probably an understatement; everyone was probably wearing close to the same outfits.

For this show I hung out nearer to the bar throughout – I had a feeling that upfront might be a little hectic, based on past experience. But when it came to the first band on the bill, I think the general reaction among most folks was a big fat “What the hell?” Not entirely, but Stabbing Westward were at that time utterly unknown and not doing a good job at making themselves less known. I think their album Ungod had either come out or was about to, but I hadn’t heard it before the show, though I’m sure Jen had mentioned them as they were on Sony.

What they were, though, was pretty bad. Not as bad as another industrial rock band I would see later that month in the same spot also in an opening role – more on that later – but pretty damn dull and horrible. Lead guy was either wearing a cowboy hat or a bad beard or both – given the group’s Chicago provenance the whole ‘If only we were Al Jourgensen’ feeling was palpable, but there was also the inevitable wannabe Reznor effect. After they left I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with them again…how wrong I was.

Ethyl Meatplow, a much different situation. Either I’d heard they were about to break up or were soon on the verge of doing so, but there was a sense of semi-valediction at this show – also, as my friend Jason said, “Most of their fans here are hardcore Latina lesbians!” Which did seem pretty accurate and damn if they didn’t know every word. The topless cowgirls from the Lollapalooza set were back and they were even more…forthright with each other, for lack of a better term. A lot of the set is a blur but “Suck” got a hell of a performance, everyone shouting along, and as a farewell performance without it necessarily being one (it certainly was my last time seeing them) it was a monstrous way to bow out. Carla Bozulich was really only just getting started in many ways, though.

Which left 242 to wrap it all up, though compared to the Lollapalooza show this one was good if not specifically the greatest thing ever – crowd was into it from the get-go, no question, and old hits and new songs got everyone going and so forth, but in the memory it just doesn’t sink in as much for me as that Lollapalooza set did, perhaps just by default thanks to the sheer scope of their set and performance. Here it was ‘just’ the Palace and everything felt a little less defiant somehow, expectations met rather than being, slightly, challenged.

Still, had I known that the group was about to go on hiatus for a while I might have paid a little more attention. And in a way it was a perfect transitional show – ‘industrial’ as conceived in the broad sense of electronic power rigor and pansexual disruption was being winnowed down to angsty dudes shouting plus guitars when it came to the mass market. Not that everything was a paradise beforehand nor would it be a wasteland after but somehow the rise of Stabbing Westward confirmed that a sound which I had thrilled to, however faced with its own limits and biases, was about to become a hell of a lot more boring.

Of course, at least I could complain about it on the Internet at that point. Which wasn’t exactly progress…

Not Just the Ticket — #75, Depeche Mode, November 20, 1993

Depeche Mode, the Forum

Then-current album: Songs of Faith and Devotion

Opening act: The The

Back of ticket ad: nothing. How nice, really.

A different ticket color scheme! At last a change! Though this was just for this show and I think it was something picked up at the box office at the Forum itself, as I’ll explain later. Still, I’ll take it just to break up the visual monotony.

So, the biggest band in terms of LA shows in 1993. Hands down.

1993 seemed to be about grunge hangover on the face of it and probably still is in the general memory, at least in terms of rock or alternative or what have you. (In terms of the general music culture, it was probably much more about the run up to Snoop’s debut album than anything else.) Nirvana’s final US tour included a stop at the Forum, while Pearl Jam, then starting to ratchet up their anti-Ticketmaster rhetoric with equivalent action, played their area show that fall out in the Inland Empire or beyond, I forget where, and got their own huge crowd.

But then Depeche Mode announced their shows for the Songs of Faith and Devotion tour and sold out five nights at the Forum almost immediately, and probably could have played more if they hadn’t already had the rest of the tour booked to continue further. So much for Seattle ruling everything.

Of course, that was always a stereotype, and Los Angeles and Depeche were their own self-contained loop of positive reinforcement. (Kinda.) The odd thing about this show was just thinking how much three years had seemed to change so much about…everything? Not really true but I can’t but think how vast the divide was between that Dodger Stadium show from 1990, the ultimate world-conquering ‘you can’t ignore us now, people’ mark of success, and the Forum shows – less so in terms of amount of people performed for or even the change in location, more simply because of the sense of reset expectations, old versus new, generational divides…it was all as if all the rhetoric about what was ‘new’ suddenly actually was put into sharp relief.

Part of it was of course sartorial. When the first pictures of Dave Gahan emerged earlier in the year in the run up to the release of the album I think actually laughed out loud. Now, far be it from me to tell someone how to wear their hair and all, but some people look much, much better with short hair, and Gahan’s one of them. With the long hair and the beard and the general appearance of a scrubbed up Al Jourgensen…no. Very bad idea, very VERY bad idea.

But then there was a lot of talk about how Depeche had gone grunge in general and I was all “Hmm…I have to doubt that.” Years upon years later it’s much easier to see the album as what it is, yet another example of Depeche looking around at what was around and going, “Hmm, why not this?” Of course, it was also the most fractured album they’d yet made, the whole thing is and remains a stitch-up job and everyone admits it now. But what matters most is the end result, and said end-result’s a stunner at its best, a huge gothic sprawl of an album that sounds monumental as hell. If it’s Depeche wanting to rock it’s also Depeche doing things most rock bands in their position wouldn’t be able to do (certainly not when it came to bass, rhythms, Alan Wilder’s arrangements, I could go on).

Then again this is me wearing my music critic hat as well as my slavering Depeche fan hat – at the time I just remember thinking “Whoa…but it’s good! I love it!” And as the months passed in the buildup to seeing them again I just waited patiently and played the album into the ground. If things didn’t feel as honestly huge and anticipatory for me as it did three years ago, well, changes had a lot to do with it – from undergrad to grad life, a new location, a lot more experienced, different foci coming to the fore, a classic example of quick acceleration. And hell, I was still only twenty-two years old so there was much more to come, and my own ideas about things were as chaotically formed as they ever were.

The slight bonus this time came courtesy of how I got into the show – the opening band, at least for this leg of the tour, was The The, who I’d just seen some months prior at the KROQ Weenie Roast. This meant another Sony connection and once again Jen V. was able to finesse a seat. (I admit I never ever minded this.) It wasn’t the best per se but I didn’t need that, I just wanted to get in there, and I knew it had to be at least somewhat better than the up-and-away Dodger Stadium location I’d been in three years prior.

No big memories of getting up to the show and/or stopping at the Sony offices or anything though I assume we did – for me part of the attraction of the evening was going to see a show at the Forum for the first time ever. There had been shows I could have easily seen there that caught my interest – Morrissey’s first solo show in LA two years previous had been there, and I can only imagine what that was like, especially since Bowie joined him on a T. Rex cover. But otherwise it’d just been this building I heard about, and given I wasn’t much of a basketball fan I had no deep feelings about the Lakers or anything. I’d seen it from a distance a few times, though, and had hung about in the parking lot en route to the Tin Machine promo show at LAX, so finally ending up in the building itself was just one of those things I had to do at some point – and why not Depeche as the reason for the first time visit?

So seeing the scope of the place was a treat – I’d been in relatively few enclosed sports arenas like it over time, so it was a bit of a novelty to me still, and I ended up perched in a seat to the side of the stage about a quarter of the way along from it, an angled view but not a bad one. No memory of seatmates or others to chat with around me, just fellow fans. Jen must have been elsewhere doing what work needed doing – at least I think!

The The’s set was at best tepidly received but I did find it a curious mismatch; for all that Matt Johnson and Depeche had started out around the same time in the UK they were hardly the type of acts normally grouped together, unless you stretched and allowed for Johnny Marr’s appearance in The The prior to joining Electronic, who had done the honors back in 1990. Again, a stretch. Compared to the Weenie Roast show there was only one song rather than two that stood out, and again it was “Love is Stronger Than Death,” though lacking that slightly spooked edge from the outdoor surroundings and almost headlining spot on the bill that June evening. Here it was just, well, an opening act’s number.

Depeche’s show that evening – not specifically, but in terms of basic set list, staging and more – is preserved on the Devotional film, which is well worth watching to see what Anton Corbijn was up to then. The whole design of the set, how it was filmed, everything was this amazingly over-saturated and shadowed and red-light-heavy experience, and if the film intensifies it my own experience watching it was still one of feeling a bit overwhelmed, in the best way. Hearing the low electronic growls and thunder effects on “Higher Love” as the place went dark, seeing only the shadows of the band being projected onto the curtains as they performed, made for fantastic theater in any sense.

Of course talking about that whole time now is suffused with the knowledge of just how badly the entire band was suffering through what was the tour that apparently broke everybody involved – Gahan’s near complete drug addiction, Martin Gore’s increasing drinking, Andrew Fletcher on the road to a nervous breakdown, Alan Wilder becoming disenchanted with everything and starting to look towards his departure from the group. And that’s just the bandmembers; apparently most of the support crew had their own issues.

Importantly, of course, none of us saw that or could see that, the whole point in any live show – especially one of this size – is how much the gulf between ‘reality’ and what’s being seen/heard is at any time, and this was not a show of running confessions about how fucked up everyone was becoming. It was about Gahan whipping the crowd up, about all those amazing songs by Gore getting sung along with note for note – everything I’d experienced at the Dodger Stadium show but here somehow intensified and certainly moodier, possibly because of the enclosed space, possibly due to the staging as mentioned, who can say? Maybe that’s what was meant by them going ‘grunge’ given how heavily the storm clouds were gathering over those seen to be leading the way there over the next few months.

So even if there wasn’t anything as moving and amazing as Gore singing “Here is the House” with everyone singing along, it was still Depeche and I was still very glad to be there. But yeah, Dave really should have chopped off that hair. All the sweat made it look really awful by the end.