A delicious new 3-LP box set aims to capture the notorious Detroit combo’s duality—experimental art-skronk, hi-nrg punk rock—and through both gnarly sonics and eye-popping visuals, succeeds.
BY FRED MILLS
If you were into punk and new wave back in the late ‘70s it’s likely you were at least aware of Destroy All Monsters, either from seeing photos of pulchritudinous frontwoman Niagara (was there ever a more sultrytrashysexysluttycool-looking rock chick? move over, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett and Courtney Love!) or because you’d heard that erstwhile Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and former MC5 bassist Mike Davis were members (not original members, mind you, but their arrival definitely gave the Detroit combo some major street cred and, in turn, media attention). There’s also a good chance that you heard their more-or-less “hit single” – term used loosely; we’re talking “hit” among punk fanzine editors of the day, sundry record store clerks and the stray college radio deejay—titled, perfect for the Blank Generation milieu, “Bored.”
Beyond, that, though, you would’ve had to really do your homework and be prepared to do some hunting if you wanted to get your hands on much of the band’s music. Described nowadays by such tastemakers as journalist Byron Coley and rocker Thurston Moore as “the first proto-noise band,” Destroy All Monsters initially surfaced circa ’74 at the University of Michigan at the hands of art students Cary Loren (guitar, vocals, “samples”) Jim Shaw (guitar, vocals), Mike Kelley (drums, percussion, “samples,” vocals) and Niagara (main mic duties, posing, teasing). They took their name, of course, from the cheesy Japanese sci-fi/horror flick: American kids loved their cheesy sci-fi/horror flicks, and Destroy All Monsters proudly boasted the likes of Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan, plus B-listers Varan (a lizard-like critter), Kumonga (spider), Manda (sea serpent), King Ghidorah (a three-headed space dragon) and others.
Destroy All Monsters the band, however, existed as an experimental project primarily for the rehearsal room with only sporadic actual gigging. By 1977 first Kelley and then Shaw had quit, leaving Loren to recruit Asheton, at loose ends following the breakup of the Stooges and his own New Order, to play guitar, Asheton in turn coaxed Davis, just out of prison from a drug conviction, to sign up. Veteran drummer Rob King assumed kit duties, Ben Miller contributed sax, and Miller’s brother Larry pitched in on additional guitar. Loren, however, only lasted a short while as he had begun experiencing mental issues and was kicked out of the band. A couple of singles were cut by the new lineup in an Ann Arbor studio in 1978 followed by additional Detroit sessions the following year and the group began gigging regularly, even touring overseas to critical acclaim. Still, by 1984 they were done, having weathered a few more lineup shuffles and the inevitable diminishing artistic returns. Romantic couple Niagara and Asheton went on to form Dark Carnival.
Intriguingly, the original quartet reunited in ’95 for a short string of shows, dubbed the “Silver Anniversary Tour,” with the Sympathy label subsequently releasing a live album and single. The tour was no doubt prompted by the 1994 release of the three-CD Destroy All Monsters 1974-1976, a joint venture from the Father Yod (Byron Coley) and Ecstatic Peace (Thurston Moore) labels that collected a slew of early recordings Kelley and Loren had unearthed. It’s uneasy listening, for sure, but a genuine collector’s item and an essential piece in the musical jigsaw puzzle that is the Motor City. And in November of 2011 a Destroy All Monsters art exhibition, Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters 1973-1977, opened in L.A. featuring works by Loren, Kelley, Shaw and Niagara. (In 1996 Loren wrote a mini-history of the band for Perfect Sound Forever; go HERE to read it. And for a revealing and informative recent interview that Byron Coley conducted with Niagara about the band career arc and her work as a visual artist, go HERE at the Forced Exposure site.)
Which all brings us to Hot Box 1974-1995, issued as a handsome 3-LP box or 2-CD set (sleeve art below) by Spain’s estimable Munster Records, a label that has never shied away from punk artifacts of both the classic and obscure variety. LP #1 focuses on the Niagara-Loren-Kelley-Shaw lineup, with half of it taken from choice material that originally appeared on the ’94 box and half of it from the ’95 reunion. Unremittingly lo-fi but strangely compelling, this early stuff is characterized by semi-melodic/semi-rhythmic meanderings spiked by random noises and, of course, Niagara’s beat poetry-influenced half-spoken/half-sung vocals. “I Love You But You’re Dead” in particular has an avant-space rock vibe, almost Patti Smith-like, although “rock” might be stretching the description a bit; conversely, “You Can’t Kill Kill” (live ’95) definitely rocks in an almost tribal fashion, and if you keep listening until the end you might even get a little Black Sabbath-derived treat.
LP #2 is where the fun begins, zeroing in on the band’s three key 45s originally released in 1979 (the Cherry Red label compiled those singles for the ’91 CD Bored, incidentally). “Bored” is simply a monster, a rifftastic slice of faux-jadedness powered by Niagara’s sassy singing (“I’ll do anything ‘cos I’m bored!” she blurts, with exasperation) and punctuated by fiery Asheton leads. “You’re Gonna Die” is no less exhilarating, a pure slice of Stooges/MC5 hard skronk, while the Davis-penned “Meet the Creeper” is solidly stompin’ garage rawk. Also included are three tracks of “unknown” source but reportedly recorded in 1979, notably a frenetic, rave-up version of Nancy Sinatra’s sex-kitten come-on “Boots” wherein Niagara & Co. utterly transform it into a punk-fetishist’s wet dream.
Then there’s LP #3, comprising ten tracks recorded live in ’81 (Columbus, OH) and ’83 (Ann Arbor). It is appropriately full-on, from the anthemic, almost “Search & Destroy”-esque “Enough Is Enough” and a solid run-through of “Bored” to the gnarly buzzsaw blitz of “Sweet Dreams” and an unexpected, punk-fueled version of “Right Stuff” (written by Robert Calvert, of Hawkind fame). The sound here is just medium-fidelity, but the music’s still hugely entertaining, Niagara occasionally bantering with the audience and playing the provocative frontperson while the band comes across as a surprisingly solid live ensemble, muscular and perfect for its time.
(In the aforementioned interview with Byron Coley, Niagara remarked on a concert the band performed in NYC at Max’s Kansas City, saying, “I don’t remember that show. Maybe it was early enough that the heels were too high and I wasn’t used to them yet. Usually when I was wearing six-inch heels it was easier after I’d had a couple of drinks. I could spin in them. But I think it was probably part of the act — just falling around stage — but then, I was drinking too. I think there was one time I went on the stage sober. I could really not do that. I couldn’t remember any of the songs we’d done forever. I had to make up lyrics. I’d be singing the wrong lyrics to Stooges songs or “November 22nd.” It was a mess. Of course nobody cared or noticed. Even the band didn’t notice.”)
All in all, a crucial overview of an oft-overlooked band, especially considering that rock icons Asheton and Davis are no longer with us, nor is Kelley, who became a celebrated visual artist after leaving Detroit for Los Angeles (one of his most recognizable pieces is the sleeve to Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty). Included in the box is a fat 8½” x 10” full color booklet (see details above) printed on thick stock that’s crammed with juicy photos, eye-popping gig posters, art by Niagara, Loren and Kelley, and even a reproduction of a letter to the band from none other than Lester Bangs. In it, he thanks them for showing him a good time during a recent summit, adding that there are significant gaps in his memory of the evening. “Someday all of us must get together and have a coherent conversation,” writes Bangs. Someday we must also do that interview… maybe if we START drinking the beer at the BEGINNING of the interview and NOT BEFORE…”
Sage advice, indeed. Ladies and germs, we give you—Destroy All Monsters. Rrrooaarrhhhh!
Below: Live in 1983