Friday, December 19, 2008

MX-80 Sound

MX-80 Sound
Island Records publicity pic
photo: Kim Torgerson

After reading a review - by Caroline Coon - of their Big Hits e.p. in Melody Maker, I sent the required money to MX-80 Sound in Bloomington, Indiana, for a copy. One duly arrived at the Island Records offices in Hammersmith wrapped in a 'songbook' and enclosed in a customized envelope
The record sounded very different to what was going on in England - anywhere, actually - at the time, so I called Rich Stim, their singer/contact man and after two or three phone calls, got to licence their ‘Hard Attack’ lp for a sum so small that nobody 'upstairs' even asked any questions about the band. Just like that, along with Eddie & The Hot Rods and The Snivelling Shits, they became my 3rd signing. More photos here
MX-80 Sound
Bruce Anderson
, Rich Stim, Jeff Armour, Dave Mahoney, Dale Sophiea

MX had been described by Glenn O’Brien as “either the most Heavy Metal Art Band or the most Arty Heavy Metal Bandso when I found myself working for Bronze Records a year later, I thought a second round with these guys might be worth a trip. Asking my boss David Betteridge if he'd "uh, like to go to to Bloomington?" I was, frankly, a bit surprised when he said "yes". So we found ourselves de-planing in Indianapolis and being driven for roughly an hour to a coffee bar/health-food joint (with ashram attached) in Bloomington called Tao. There, we met up with Rich and his wife Andrea. I'm not lying when I say there's no better hostess. Andrea is many things, some of them to be recounted at a later date, but right now, we're in 1978 and my knowledge of 'health food' was pretty much confined to the stuff they served up at Cranks, a funky but pricey veggie restaurant near Carnaby Street where hippies, Cliff Richard, Hayley Mills, the Beatles and a few Scandinavian chicks chewed on the soups of the day. Aside from that, there was a joint we called the Hare Krishna Curry House on Soho Street where orange-draped baldies scooped rice and lentils onto plates (for free, if you were homeless) and that was IT for healthy eating in London. So being offered “bran muffins”, “rice cakes” or “granola” was mildly confusing. Crumpets and corn flakes, I knew. This stuff...wuh? What the hell was a blueberry, anyway? I knew raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and blackberries. Furthermore, in the UK we had 2 types of coffee...regular or decaf...but at least it was INSTANT! If you lived in the city, you might find a cafe that had a contraption that could (when it wasn't broken) cough out a cappuccino but those places mainly used them to appear more Italian or Continental, which didn’t really cut it in Muswell Hill or Shepherd’s Bush. Anyway, stuff we never saw in the UK was taken for granted here and, best of all, served up by knockouts like Andrea. It didn’t take long to acclimatize and, once again, wish I lived in America.
Despite its relaxed and rather groovy ambience, Bloomington's
general population wasn’t very switched-on, musically speaking. Even local boy, Johnny Cougar was deemed too ‘punk’. 'Proper' gigs were hard to come by, so they’d play wherever they could. Like the Munroe County Public Library, for instance, indelibly preserved on the Gulcher CD “Live At The Library”. David and I had to settle for seeing the band in the basement of (bass player) Dale Sophiea’s house.
It’s all a bit of a blur, but I remember how struck I was with Bruce Anderson's guitar playing. His tone was distinctive. I was already a fan from the tapes Rich had sent me but in a live context
, he was extraordinary. Possessing a beatific presence, he wrung new notes and chords out of his instrument. He was one of the best guitarists I’d seen and there wasn't really anyone you could compare him to. That was something I tried to look for in my potential signings. He made it all seem so effortless.
I have a tendency to not notice bass players unless they’re Lemmy or Ronnie Lane but you couldn’t miss Dale. He has this zen-like, all-encompassing, gentle giant vibe and, without fuss, he anchored the band with an instrument that looked like a balsa-wood toy in his hands, while Dave Mahoney and Jeff Armour gave it plenty of stick in the back. Bands with 2 drummers? I love ‘em. Since I'd seen The Pink Fairies at Hornsey Town Hall and Ginger Baker’s Airforce at the Marquee, I'd always wanted a band with two drummers. MX employed the idea to great effect and on top of all this was Rich, deadpanning his way through the songs and playing his silver sax. Rich was something else. Talk about a sharp wit. He seemed at ease doing several different things at once. He was the ‘obit-man’ for the Bloomington Herald-Telephone where he'd sometimes embellish the facts about a recently deceased person. He was also in charge of its "Hotline", which found him answering random questions from the paper's readers and printing the best ones. He kept the best voicemails and used to edit them together for the amusement of his friends. One featured a lady who'd called in to report a "whole mess of birds" in her yard acting "doped up". She'd called to see if "somebody that's interested in birds..or...dope - or something like that - might like to notice these things, to act on it."
He'd cycle everywhere. He was writing his first novel, "Butterworth" and gave me a manuscript. He was always on top of all the latest technology. This guy just didn't quit. And here's proof.
As always, just as things got warmed up, after 35 minutes or so, the showcase was over. It seemed an awful long way to come for just over half an hour and I could have used a whole lot more, but that's not really how it works. I was very happy to have finally seen them but I could tell this wasn’t really David's cup of tea. It was finished and Andrea, Rich and I walked David back to his hotel in the snow.
At some point, I went to Rich’s house where he and Bruce had painted his wood floor white and, in a Pollock-y style, dripped and splattered black paint over it.
I had been invited to stay an extra day or two for a further taste of the Midwest and was totally up for it. The following morning, I met the band’s friends and wives, several of whom turned up bearing gifts. Mark Bingham, the band's producer seemed to have a huge appetite for 'college hoops' and carrot juice. The Hoosiers were his team, and their coach, Bobby Knight, later became the subject of an MX song, 'White Knight'. There was a sack of carrots in the kitchen so he stuffed a huge bunch of them, tops and all, into something called a 'juicer'. Tasted foul. Still, he was friendly and we connected through music and film. He told me about ‘Eraserhead’, a film he’d just seen in Greenwich Village at Cinema Village on E. 12th Street. He spoke of this new director, David Lynch, and described the film in a way that made it sound like either it was the best film ever made, or possibly the worst. It sounded fascinating and I made a mental note to check it out next time I was in New York. When I finally saw it at Cinema Village on 12th St., it gave me horrific nightmares so I had to go back to see it again the following day only, this time, not high.
Dave and his wife, Kim Torgensen, came over and presented me with a 'clay record' she’d thrown with an MX-80 logo stamped into it. For years, my electric kettle sat on, it's in my office.
MX-80 Sound clay record 'award'
by Kim Torgerson

Jeff stopped by to watch the basketball and hang out. Bruce practiced guitar (unplugged) on the sofa and told me about Lonnie Mack, a guitarist from Dearborn County, Indiana, who'd never made it to England. His 'Wham Of That Memphis man' lp (Fraternity Records) is a classic.
A friend of theirs called Steve Hoy showed up. I never really knew what he did (other than appear in a photo on the front cover of Hard Attack) but he was funny, and easy to talk to. Dale’s wife, Elana, gave me a t-shirt that she’d silk-screened.
Bloomington, IN
photo: Andrea Ross Stim
Bruce and Dale both had jobs at the Von Lee, a local cinema, and I was invited to that night's screening of John Waters’ follow-up to Pink Flamingos, ‘Female Trouble’, a film Dale had booked as part of his midnight movie series. Well, everybody knows about John Waters now, but back then he was a tiny cult figure/underground film director, at best. After the initial shock, I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen. You can make your mind up here. It took a while for (even) Pink Flamingos to make it to the UK but I remember taking a date to see it at The Screen On The Green in Islington. Never saw her again.
That afternoon, I got to meet Gulcher Records owner Bob Richert who loaded me up with Gizmos stuff and Gulcher Magazines. Everywhere I went, people were laidback, generous and extremely friendly. Too bad it wasn't like this where I came from.

Sadly, I never did get to work with the band again.
10 months later, David Betteridge took me with him to CBS, while MX-80 moved en masse to San Francisco/Berkeley where they found a home with Ralph Records. It would appear they retained the rights to most of their releases, so go visit their own Quadruped Media outlet for those, and much much more...
poster for 'Out Of Tunnel' (Ralph Records)


Rich said...

we'd sing & dance 4ever & a day...

Christopher Stigliano said...

Howard, just wanted to tell you that this MX-80 piece is perhaps the most informative and downright engrossing one I've read in quite awhile (also loved your piece on Mark Bingham) and that I've linked NORTH FORK SOUND up on my own blog, namely BLOG TO COMM. By the way, if I didn't say so before, thanks for the Angel Corpus Christi promo you sent my way back in the mid-nineties. Still have it as well as the note you sent with it.-Chris

ht said...

whoa! coming from you, Chris, that's a compliment, indeed. You're linked to me too. Thanks, from a LONG-TIME reader - ht

mxrich said...

wow, I really remember that day you guys showed up from England and it was snowing. That's a strangely wonderful memory. Thanks for making the trip.

Bryan Swirsky said...

i heard a rumor that the mix on the uk version of hard attack is vastly different than that of the dutch version. is this true and if so, how does one purloin a copy of this dutch thing. never seen one on ebay.

ht said...

Bryan - I doubt very much that the mix is different. I remember a band member complaining about the "sound" of the UK version in (I think) Forced Exposure many years later. I don't recall anyone saying anything to me about it at the time. When I have a moment, I'll do a comparison. Maybe the mastering job in Holland differed from the UK one. Otherwise, there are two obvious differences -
1) The cover on the Dutch release is laminated (ie it has a glossy finish)
2) The Dutch record had a printed inner sleeve instead of a card insert. - ht

ht said...

ok, it's the same mix but the UK pressing has more high/mid (in the 8 - 10KHz, I would guess) on it, making Rich's voice a bit more 'present' and the overall sound perhaps a little thinner. One could argue, however, that the guitar has a touch more 'bite' to it and the drums sound crisper. Both sound fantastic on headphones cranked up loud!

Kimsy99 said...

Why Howard, thanks for filling in some details of MX-80 cargo cultness. I remember that snowy visit also; Dave and I had an actual party, which was quite rare for us. I'm touched you still have the Clay Award, which I didn't recognize one single bit. Thank you for sharing with me 4 triple espressos one boggy morning in London in 1987, at a working "person's" bar. I was there to visit paper factories. kim t.

ht said...

hello Kim - how nice to hear from you. I remember your visit to London, but was it really in 87? Can't remember the place we had coffee though...uh, the way you put it, I don't know that I should even ask. That clay piece is virtually indestructible and even has your signature on the back, still. Happy New Year - ht

pinky said...

i am so proud to be the tits on Big Hits.

an MX-80 fan forever.

Chip said...

Was just listening to Out of the Tunnel and Crowd Control yesterday, two albums I've adored for almost 30 years (I am stunned to type that number). So I google MX-80 Sound and am happy to see that I'm not the only person in the world who listens to this brilliant music. And I learn a little history to boot. Thanks for posting this account of what must have been a delightful trip.

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