Subterranean Modern: The Residents, Chrome, MX-80 Sound and Tuxedomoon

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Subterranean Modern (1979). Sleeve art by Gary Panter.

As often happens, one post leads to another, and the next thing you know there’s a themed week happening, so here’s something more about Tuxedomoon. Subterranean Modern was a compilation album released by The Residents on their Ralph Records label in 1979. The idea was to showcase The Residents along with three other groups from contemporary San Francisco, all of whom were underground acts, hence the “subterranean” title. Three of those groups—Chrome, Tuxedomoon, The Residents themselves—have since developed cult followings; hard-rock outfit MX-80 Sound seem a little ordinary and out-of-place in this unique company but then that’s the nature of the compilation album. The Residents wanted each group to provide an interpretation of I Left My Heart In San Francisco but none of the others were very interested; Chrome’s offering, which lasts all of 27 seconds, is hilariously contemptuous of the idea, a squall of riff and vocals that fades in then quickly fades away. Cartoonist Gary Panter illustrated the cover which is also given the Rozz Tox seal of approval. For more about Rozz Tox, whose enigmatic presence can be found on other Ralph Records releases, see this.

I’d already heard Chrome and The Residents when I bought Subterranean Modern but this was first place I encountered Tuxedomoon’s music. Chrome, who appear on the back cover wearing their Clockwork Orange droog outfits, contribute two tracks that are as good as anything on their early records, Anti-Fade and the chugging Meet You In The Subway for which they made a video filmed on the city’s BART platforms. I listened to those tracks, and the Tuxedomoon ones, much more than the rest of the album. With the exception of the pieces by MX-80 Sound, everything on the album has since been reissued on other compilations (Tuxedomoon’s tracks are on the Pinheads On The Move collection).

The following is a two-page feature about the album and the four bands from the NME for 17th November, 1979. I don’t know whether this was Tuxedomoon’s first UK interview but it says it’s the first interview given by Chrome which gives it some vague contemporary relevance. Helios Creed recently re-formed Chrome, and played a show in London earlier this month. There’s also a new Chrome album, although for me Chrome proper requires Damon Edge, and he died in 1995. (Thanks to Gav for saving the pages!)

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I LEFT MY ART IN SAN FRANCISCO

Checking out the West Coast’s Avant Garde by Michael Goldberg

ralph.jpgSAN FRANCISCO—The true avant-garde is never accepted, barely tolerated. The public has no use for ideas which challenge society’s preconceptions.

Certainly the outright hatred which was heaped on The New York Dolls and, later, The Ramones and Sex Pistols—all groups who spat on the status quo of their times—attests to the difficulty of pushing a radical concept on the public. And those groups were merely returning to the basic, raw values which great rock and roll has always maintained.

So imagine the difficulty of developing and maintaining a style of music which has little, if any, solid tradition to fall back on. In San Francisco, a city where the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship and Steve Miller can sell out the largest of stadiums, an avant-garde underground has been hanging on, etching out the meagrest of niches so that it can continue a dogged pursuit of rock experimentation.

Carrying the torch for “outre” music is San Francisco’s Residents and their parent companies, Ralph Records and the nebulous Cryptic Corporation. For nine long years, the Residents have relentlessly persisted, bowing to no one as they explore a sonic universe of their own devising.

In the wake of The Residents’ relative success—though the group is still practically unknown in their hometown, they have been received by a rather large cult spread out across the U.S. and Europe—other equally unique and esoteric groups have been attracted to San Francisco.

Realising that there is strength in numbers, Ralph Records gathered together three of the most uncompromising bands in San Francisco (and possibly on the West Coast): Chrome (with roots in L.A.), MX-80 Sound (who migrated from Bloomington, Indiana, last year), and Tuxedomoon (whose core members came from Denver, Colorado and Chicago, Illinois), and convinced them to join The Residents (originally from Shreveport, Louisiana) in a joint project. The project is a compilation album, Subterranean Modern (Ralph).

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Tuxedomoon designs by Patrick Roques

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Scream With A View 12″ EP (1979) by Tuxedomoon. Design credited to Belfer/Roques.

I’m pursuing a Tuxedomoon obsession at the moment so this gives me the opportunity to examine some of the group’s early record sleeves, all of which are designed by Patrick Roques. Tuxedomoon are an American group, and their early releases were on The Residents’ Ralph Records label which is where they first encountered Roques. When the group later decamped to Europe and began releasing material on a variety of European labels they still commissioned Roques for their cover designs.

Many of the independent labels of the late 70s and early 80s have been over-examined when it comes to graphic design but I’ve yet to see anything written about Ralph Records. On the Residents albums in particular the label established their own very distinctive brand of bold graphics and cartoony illustration (Gary Panter worked on some of the sleeves). Patrick Roques’ designs are less eccentric than those on The Residents’ covers, such an approach wouldn’t have suited Tuxedomoon’s music. His designs for the group are closer to the styles seen among the independent labels in the UK which is one reason I find them attractive. The following represents a small and very selective fraction of Roques’ work as a designer.

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Half-Mute (1980) by Tuxedomoon.

The first Tuxedomoon album.

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Dark Companion / 59 To 1 Remix (1980) by Tuxedomoon. Photography by Mark Sangerman.

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What Use? (front, 1980) by Tuxedomoon.

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What Use? (back, 1980) by Tuxedomoon.

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