Social Climbers – Social Climbers

January 01, 1970



latest act in Drag City’s series of underground reissues, Social
Climbers existed as a tangential strand of the first run of New York no wave bands. However, they might
not have been remembered in the same breath as DNA and Teenage Jesus & the
Jerks because they don’t fit the sound profile. The group had more musical
ability and quality in their songs than those more infamous noise racketeers.
And with some songs that lasted as long as six minutes, the trio had no regard
for shorter-is-better thinking either.


Mark Bingham had already been playing for years in hometown Bloomington, Indiana,
working with folkie Caroline Peyton prior to this band. These songs sound like
something of a 180-degree turn towards more of a tense, artsy new wave
direction, but he never forsakes his command of his instrument. The repetitive
guitar lick of instrumental “Palm
Springs” could only have been dreamed up by someone
who knows how to noodle. (His future solo career would include appearances on
Hal Willner’s tributes to Thelonious Monk and Walt Disney, and Allen Ginsburg’s
The Lion in Winter.)


with Bingham, the band consisted of Jean Seton Shaw on bass and A. Leroy on
Farfisa Organ and Korg drum machine, the latter instrument giving the band its
distinct personality. They didn’t exploit the freaky nature of the rhythm
machine, a la Suicide, nor did they
merely use it for tepid tempos like a dance group. In fact, each song used a
different rhythm, which was doctored with a bit of echo or tremolo which made a
good complement to Bingham’s talk-sung vocals. Subject matter veered toward
typical punk disenchantment, like suburban homelife (“Domestic”) or the world
in general (“Western World”). “Chris and Debbie” seems like a snarky take on
the leaders of Blondie, though it’s hard to really tell since the vocals were
mixed below the jazzy guitar and organ.


And in
a sign of the times, the lyric sheet featured only a few lines for most of the
songs, with “et cetera” following them. It’s unfortunate because Bingham, who
wrote the bulk of the songs, displayed a sense of humor that was neither too
goofy nor wry, and half the time, it feels like you’re missing out on
something. “Type A” (also listed as “Taipei”
on the cover) offered a good example as it spoofs that kind of personality,
with Shaw singing lead in an almost operatic soprano. The vocals in the coda
prove the band was ahead of their time with recording tricks that sound like
modern sampling effects. 


reissue adds two live songs to the original album, which was originally
released as a three-7″ set (also available are three download-only bonus
tracks). “Tickhead,” where Bingham joins Shaw on bass, shows the band could
kick out some no wave abrasiveness if they felt like it. Future producer
Wharton Tiers (Sonic Youth, Helmet) joined the band on drums and extra
keyboards and appears on a garage-y version of the theme from The Day the Earth Stood Still, perhaps
as testament to their eclectic choice of covers. (They once staged a five-hour
World Pop Classics show which included everything from Terry Riley’s “In C” to
Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel.”)


might not qualify as a lost classic, but Social Climbers’ sole output does
celebrate a band who played what they felt, even if it meant being ostracized
by both the sub-underground and the masses. Three decades later, everyone else
can catch up.


DOWNLOAD: “Chicken 80,” “Hello Texas.” MIKE SHANLEY

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