Part Three: Slouching Toward Ypsilanti
Getting the "band" together. Some twenty years after the fact. Hey, why not?
Nevermind that, back in 1974, it had largely started out as an art-school hijinx, the product of youthful boredom and malaise and surplus energy, designed to befuddle a handful of locals through an infrequent series of "guerilla" (i.e., uninvited) performances around town. Freeform guitar caterwauling, tape loops, a version of "Iron Man" performed with a rhythm section consisting of a coffee can and vacuum cleaner...that sort of thing. As one of the founders, Mike Kelley &mdash, would recall looking back over two decades:
"All of the members of Destroy All Monsters had grown up during the alternative cultural renaissance of the late sixties. We had all been raised on the psychedelic excesses of the MC5 and the Stooges, and the general feeling of that time: that every form could be combined and all excesses were possible. Now we were in the dark ages. Detroit's economy had collapsed and taken with it its radical culture. Detroit was a dead city. And Ann Arbor, once the 'drug capital of the midwest,'...and a thriving radical intellectual scene, was now slipping back into being a sleepy and conservative fraternity-row college town. All of the musicians of the previous generation were trying to adapt to the cleaner hard rock sound of the day. ...This was the milieu that birthed Destroy All Monsters. We were designed to be a 'fuck you' to the prevailing popular culture."
To say nothing of the "shits and giggles" component. At any rate, within a couple of years, two of the main instigators -- Kelley and guitarist Jim Shaw — departed to the west coast to enter grad school, leaving the other two members of Destroy All Monsters to carry on with the enterprise however they saw fit. What soon followed for the outfit is history, or at least a footnote in the annals of the Midwest's contributions to the American "proto-punk" canon. With the Stooges' Ron Asheton and the MC5's Michael Davis in the lineup, it became — according to member Cary Loren — a period of "formalism" mixed with "out-of-control energies and egos." By the 1980s, the group had ceased to be, while Kelley and Shaw were off embarking on what would become highly successful art careers.
Come 1994, the members of DAM found reason to look back to DAM's beginnings as they assembled a collection of the group's early, unreleased recordings. After some discussion, they decided — why the hell not give it another go? The timing was a little ironic, seeing how the early '90s already an orgy of "reunion" tours by acts from the 1960s and '70s getting back together for the sake reliving a few glory days of yore. From the Swingin' Medallions to Three Dog Night, eventually followed by — not too many years later – the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. In doing so, the idea was effectively reset all the gauges to zero — using their original 1974 "art-noise" intentions as their starting point. Sporadic performances, tours and CDs would result in the years that followed. Of these, the album Swamp Gas — recorded in the final years of the decade/century and seeing release in 2001 – perhaps best embodies DAM's initial intent.
As far as historical revisionism is concerned, Swamp Gas retells the latter half of the "American Century" through a haze of lysergic mind-rot, "alternative"/New Age spirituality, UFO cults, "trash" culture, and conspiracy theories; all of it threaded by a free-form racket or free-form jamming, yakkety guitar, droning noise, primitive electronics, vari-speed tape collages, and the occasional cartoon sound effect. An open mystical invocation — reminiscent of bits from Timothy Leary's Turn On, Tune In... LP and attributed to Madame Blavatsky — tells of the "Seven Worlds of Eternity" and urges the listener to "kill all desire." The voice of Sun Ra recurrently drifts through the miasma of noise. At one point, Mike Kelley steps to the mic delivering a 17-minute long ode to the famed UFO sightings over Dexter, MI in March of 1966 as they were recorded by witnesses and law enforcement officials, invoking Sananda and Mark David Chapman and Project Blue Book, while intermittently offering interpretations of the top ten hits of the spring of '66 ("Nowhere Man," "California Dreaming," "Homeward Bound"). All of it coming wrapped in a copy of the Swamp Gas Gazette, a mock newspaper bearing extended Heaven's Gate-styled texts on UFOs and Sananda and whatnot, as well as a couple of articles purporting to reveal "The Truth" about Iron Butterfly and Question Mark & the Mysterians.
It's an extended exercise in mind-fuckery that's sometimes bewildering, and sometimes merely numbing...not unlike hearing Amon Düül's Psychedelic Underground hammered out in an amphetamine blur. It is, admittedly, not an incredible album. Ultimately, it's an artifact — an effort at channeling the aesthetic spirits of a particular bygone time, resuscitating the stillborn potential of a creative em-oh and an era-specific sense of restlessness and disenchantment. Something about the cathartic noisiness of it all probably still felt somehow vital, just as necessary as the whole shits-and-giggles aspect. Which I suppose is what one could expect from a long-delayed transmission from the beginning of the Age of Diminishing Expectations.