The weird and the
ordinary jostled for your attention in this Buckeye State
anomaly’s oeuvre.




Lots of very strange bands have come from Ohio – proto-punks like Dead Boys and Pere
Ubu, conceptual new wavers like Devo. Still none was stranger than Tin Huey,
whose baroque conglomeration of jazzy saxophone, abrupt tempo changes, joke-infested
lyrics and funk-punk feral drive outweirded even inspirations like Captain
Beefheart and Frank Zappa.


The band, formed in Akron
in the early 1970s as the Rags, initially included Mark Price on guitar,
Michael Aylward on bass and Stuart Austin on drums. Harvey Gold joined soon
after on organ, and Ralph Carney (future Tom Waits horn player) in 1974. The
last core member, Chris Butler (also of the Numbers Band and the impresario for
The Waitresses), came on in 1978, and somewhere along the line, Price and
Aylward switched instruments.


A new compilation, Before
Obscurity: The Bushflow Tapes
(Smog Veil;
assembles 14 tracks recorded at the height of Tin Huey’s mad creativity, just
before and during the band’s unlikely stab at major label success. (They were briefly
signed to Warner and delivered one record, 1979’s Contents Dislodged During
, before being dropped.) 
There are also four live cuts laid down at an live gig in 1973, apparently
before Ralph Carney joined the band (there’s no saxophone), that give an
inkling of Tin Huey’s earlier, more propulsive punk sound.


None of these tracks have been released before, though some
are alternate versions of album cuts, b-sides and recordings by related bands. (The
best-known versions of “Heat Night” and “The Comb” were recorded by the
Waitresses, and “Hoseanna” by the Swollen Monkeys.)  One cover – a live take of “I Wanna Be Your
Dog” – honors Iggy Pop’s birthday.


Even if you know Tin Huey, then, The Bushflow Tapes are full of unexpected gems. The album includes the first-ever recording of
“The Comb” with Patty Donahue trying out the bratty, pouty girl-punk vocals
that would later define big hits like “I Know What Boys Like” and “Christmas
Rapping”.  There’s an early live take on
“Slide,” twitching with slap and pop bass and diving vertiginously into its
blues-funk chorus. “Heat Night”, with its twining, late night saxophones and
snarls of proggy guitars, sounds almost like a manifesto, with its verse,
“Stop! And reverse the wires, switch the ground, something’s crazy here got
twisted around, what got into that anyway, who threw the rules away? Who tore
the boundaries down?”


Nostalgists for the 1970s will enjoy a spattering of
contemporary references – the Vonnegut nod in “Ice 9 Hop”, a call for ERA
passage in “Pink Berets,” and an aside about long-time Ohio State
football coach Woody Hayes in “Closet Bears.” One of the album’s most
difficult, multi-parted Prog tracks, “Right Now, Betty White” calls out the
perky star of Hollywood Squares and other game shows, in between flights of
Farfisa fancy and tangled time signature shifts. Ordinary signifiers of
American popular culture are framed by musical difficulty – robot keyboards
that sound like Devo, the skronk and squawk of detuned sax, abstract
post-classical spasms of staccato chords.


And that’s not just in the lyrics. Little bits of
conventional music – lite jazz, musical hall strut, even country – get wrapped
into atonal cacophonies. The weird and the ordinary jostle for your attention.


The four closing songs on the disc are, as mentioned
earlier, from a live gig in 1973. Though not very well recorded (the sound
fades out pretty drastically on “Zebra Operation”), they give an intriguing glimpse
of Tin Huey’s infancy. The sound is far more straightforward than in the later
material, following just one rhythm per song and putting the bass and drums to
the front. It’s also a more conventional rock band set up, with no horns,
kazoos, whistles or other instruments. Not as arch or complicated yet, but
still plenty interesting, the band’s early incarnation sounds a bit like
Michael Yonkers in his prime.


The Bushflow Tapes are nicely though not elaborately
packaged, with contemporary photos, decent notes and a long essay by Robert
Christgau and Carola Dibbel. It’s hard to imagine a better way in to Tin Huey,
and if you’re already in, there’s plenty here that you haven’t heard


[Photo via Smog Veil]


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