Rock ‘n’ roll today is a pitiful shadow of its former self. The fact that the group Mumford & Sons somehow managed to become known as a “rock band” is, to use a label applied by Alice Cooper, an “offense.” (That’s putting it politely, Alice.) If you too have had enough of today’s playground melodies with high-school musical arrangements and lyrics with the sophistication of nursery rhymes, then do yourself a favor, step back in time a few years, and follow The Jesus Lizard down into the rabbit hole. There you’ll find a healthy dose of heavy guitars fueled by cheap beer – where good bands often draw blood and banjo-picking yuppies in corduroy are better off staying home. If you’re saying to yourself right now, “Hey, I kinda’ like Mumford & Sons, then don’t bother reading this; go enjoy a nice bowl of lentil soup and put on some of your dad’s Simon and Garfunkel collection on vinyl lest someone hurt your feelings or your ears.
Still, with me? Atta’ boy.
25 years ago, in 1989, The Jesus Lizard released their debut EP Pure. The musical genre the band helped to pioneer has been described as “noise rock” and “industrial” rock and is attributed with being one of the founding bands in what later became described as “Post-punk.” Label- mongering aside, the band was part of one of the least understood yet most influential movements in the evolution (or de-evolution) of rock ‘n’ roll that really defies categorization.
The musicians were capable and skilled but their sound was unrefined and willfully punishing. Their lyrics were somewhere between dark poetry and drunken ranting but they captured something that was right for the times. They were fiercely independent and utterly unconcerned with pandering to commercial interests. At risk of using a cliché, they played what they felt. And in this sense, it could be argued that those from the “noise rock” scene really are the purest form of American folk music from the period in the strictest sense of “folk.”
The Jesus Lizard was originally formed in Austin, Texas by perhaps one of the most innovative guitarists of the era, Duane Denison. As the story goes, Denison approached David Yow of the equally innovative and even noisier Austin band, Scratch Acid, to play bass on several songs he had written. Yow instead recommended that he perform vocals and that Scratch Acid bassist, David Wm. Simms, play bass for the recordings. The trio developed their unique sound in Austin initially using a drum machine and laid the foundations for what would become their initial group of recordings featured on the “Pure” EP.
Yow and Simms travelled to Chicago with Denison following shortly after. The band then linked-up with producer Steve Albini to create “Pure” which was released later that year by Touch & Go Records. The initial release went largely unnoticed in the rock world and those who were tuned-in offered mixed reviews. But in Chicago’s growing hardcore scene, The Jesus Lizard was quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Their first show in Chicago happened on July 1, 1989, at a restaurant called Bangkok Bangkok where they opened for Slint and King Kong. Guitarist Duane Denison’s guitar work was both elegant and searing. David Yow’s vocals often sounded like something that one might hear screaming from the basement in a horror movie but, in spite of his blood-curdling tones, Yow maintained the drawl and swagger of his Texas roots with panache and control. And though the band utilized a drum machine during this period, its cold industrial pounding combined with bass work (and incredible tone) of David Wm. Simms created a unique sound that had more in common with the rhythm and roar of a diesel engine tearing down the highway than a traditional rock rhythm section.
Today, 25 years later, The Jesus Lizard still sounds fresh and unpretentious and while there are moments that blur music and audio assault, their debut EP “Pure” is an essential collection of tracks for anyone who wants to understand the full spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll.