Not Just the Ticket — #34, Nitzer Ebb, February 27, 1992

Nitzer Ebb, Variety Arts Theatre

Then-current album: Ebbhead

Opening act: Ethyl Meatplow

Back of ticket ad: “50% off developing and printing at Fox Photo 1-hr Labs.” I am guessing this isn’t a popular business model these days.

Once again there are some unusual details here courtesy of the sponsorship. “So supporting a concert with a bunch of topless muscle-bound men in tight shorts will break us big in the LA market?” “Yeah, we’re not sure who has heard of Coke out there.” *strained silence*

So, more of what was considered industrial music at the time. If you squinted a bit.

The thing about Nitzer Ebb, who I only fully learned about back in 1990 with the Showtime album, was that they were in fact pretty much clones of another band entirely, but as with so many acts, it’s often less about who started something than who got the attention at the right time. When I first heard “Lightning Man” courtesy of 120 Minutes or whatever late night MTV show showed it that year for a bit I was pretty quickly taken with the immediacy of the whole approach — Douglas McCarthy’s shout/singing voice and his ear for slogans-as-choruses, Bon Harris’s beat-centered arrangements where basslines and drum hits were just as apt to provide a melody as anything else — and while I more heard than saw their performance opening for Depeche Mode in 1990 at Dodger Stadium I do regret not being near the speaker stacks for that one, must have sounded utterly massive. So I picked up their albums, became a fan, was amused at some of the strained lyrics, never complained about the sonics, looked forward to whatever would be next.

Flash ahead a year and Ebbhead ended up at KLA, getting a review for fellow DJs from resident Wax Trax freak Steve C. — who proceeded to make fun of it quite a bit, beginning, “These guys have sure gotten far completely ripping off DAF.” First time I’d heard of them so when I did finally listen to some of their stuff…I had to admit that Steve was completely right. A song like “Der Mussolini” was essentially the full sonic template for Nitzer Ebb years before the fact, while their shirtless-and-sweaty look wasn’t too far removed from that visually. A classic case of learning a lesson maybe a little too late, but better late than never.

But weirdly enough by this time Nitzer Ebb was actually find their own sound more than ever — the hints of more conventional melodies and orchestration that were starting to creep in at points, perhaps an influence from their early supporters and regular producers Alan Wilder and Flood (a team that knows from arranging, of course, as any relisten to Violator will prove), made Ebbhead their most varied album to date, with the literally wind-and-storm-swept imagery of “I Give to You” matched by a string arrangement that made it sound like McCarthy was singing from a mountaintop and the ‘bring in the guitars’ move of “Godhead” two standouts among many. Also, industrial was still not quite yet perceived as being Trent Reznor’s sandbox first and foremost — though the time was rapidly approaching — and while Nitzer Ebb were much more that than, say, Coil, it was still something different, possessed of its own (borrowed) character.

So I was all up for a show with them and I forget exactly who I went with — a group of about four people all told, but only one I do remember because she was a new station DJ, a big fan of the band and a generally sweet and cute person. Reason enough to go with them, I admit! I actually just recall being picked up outside my apartment and having to squeeze in next to her in the car. Oh darn.

The Variety Arts Theatre had hosted some good shows and would host more in the near future — I still regret missing both Curve and Verve there (separate dates but imagine the combination! LA would still be a wreck after the sonic overload) — and this ended up being the one time I went, at least so far. (I have this dim sense that the building might not exist any more, but am too lazy to check right now. Typical, I know.) All seated venue, at least on the floor, but I had a guess that it wouldn’t exactly be a crowd that would stay in their seats, proven plenty of times throughout the evening but also to some extent with the opening band — and little surprise, given that Ethyl Meatplow were local heroes.

I had heard about Ethyl Meatplow from an article or two already, knowing that they were apparently the LA response to things like Wax Trax and otherwise, and had become firm favorites at the legendary Kontrol Faktory club night. What I didn’t know at the time — who could, until the years had passed — was that it was only the earliest of many musical incarnations for co-lead singer Carla Bozulich, one of LA’s most inspired and creative performers, not to mention varied. I’ve seen and heard her do everything from high-and-lonesome country to aggressive art rock to murky demi-ambient explorations — often but not always with another local legend, Nels Cline — so her own take on percussive-heavy chantalongs was just part of the portrait. Bozulich and the rest of the trio had their own fun onstage and she pretty readily demonstrated her ability to get not merely the crowd going but especially female fans — something that would grow stronger during further shows I saw of theirs over the next couple of years. It was another strong female voice in a year that was proving full of them, in LA and in general, and while only having one studio album and some singles to their name in the end didn’t fully help Ethyl Meatplow’s profile, I do wonder a bit if they’ve been written out of history given their musical approach, where a band like L7 never had to worry about that. C’est la vie.

Next thing I recall is the slow drawing back of the stage curtain to reveal Nitzer Ebb already fully at it, their new live drummer pounding away, Harris doing whatever with a percussion/keyboard setup and McCarthy almost bouncing with energy, ready to let fly. This all became a little more amusing in retrospect when a friend of mine in later years who had done tons of work with bands over the years mentioned dealing with them briefly at a show, concluding they were a bunch of rich-kid poseurs and laughing at their habit of psyching themselves up with screams and attitude before going on stage. Gotta admit that’s not how I would do things — male bonding, truly one of the most outre concepts — but the crowd was happy and screaming and McCarthy and Harris to their credit earned their topless/tight shorts physiques rather than making you wish they would stay fully dressed.

This is another show of fleeting details than specifics — pretty sure they started with “Hearts and Minds,” after that it was about what you would expect such a set to be from that time, Ebbhead-heavy with earlier songs like “Control I’m Here” and “Lightning Man” and “Getting Closer” and “Join in the Chant” and others all making expected bows. In retrospect that would have been a near-greatest hits performance right there so I’m glad I caught it for that reason alone — the band were bigger than ever in the States, charged up for whatever was next, where the next time I would see them the focus was definitely elsewhere and the atmosphere quite different.

I do remember the final song of the encore pretty well though — it was one of those moments where everything came together, helped by the year. Again, keep in mind the early 1992 election campaign undercurrents bubbling under this whole time, plus my bout of environmental paranoia, my still unsure choices after graduation — a classic case of seeing things big and small through a particular lens. “Fun to Be Had,” the final song from Showtime, might be my favorite song of theirs in the end, with McCarthy’s sloganeering finding, at points, a sudden profundity in context. A line like “You are young, they are old/Control is all they’ve got to GIVE!” is standard enough post-“My Generation” lyrical hoohah but in the time, in the moment, it was an almighty punch that summed up a lot in my head. I don’t think age has per se changed my sentiments entirely; my thoughts on the nature of the evolving social contract in American terms have adapted but my sense that there’s always going to be a cadre of people who only think in terms of “I’ve got mine” hasn’t really been changed. (As I write, a variety of GOP fools are proving the point in the House of Representatives, but I think I’ll save that for a separate post.)

It ended with McCarthy taking the core chant a capella — “Whether you be BAD, SAD or GLAD/You’ve got to know that there’s FUN TO BE HAD!” — as everyone chanted and clapped along. It was a nice twist on the utterly tech heavy approach otherwise, just words and claps and nothing more, and it worked — he kept it going for a few rounds, I think even stopping so the crowd could do it on their own, and he ended it with one almighty yell. Sure, it was probably his own particular shtick, but damn if it didn’t work well.

Now if I could only remember that one DJ’s name…