THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT!
Have any of you even once-in-awhile BLOG TO COMM readers ever noticed that, as time goes on and we all get a little more edgy around the gills, more and more of these rock & roll mysteries that have been floating about the fanzine-o-sphere have slowly but surely been getting demystified!?!?!?! I mean it...remember how things were (well, at least for a obsessive/compulsive sort as I) back in the eighties when "we" seemingly all wanted to hear what Rocket From The Tombs' original version of "Sonic Reducer" sounded like? Eventually it got released, even with ten seconds of that pithy bitta organ-drone opening that differentiated the song from all other takes, but man it was NOTHING like the version I heard in a dream back in '84 with the song pounding all distorto-rock-like from the speakers of my old boom box. I could go on about the various occult factors that have surrounded many a group that was considered untouchable or perhaps even unfathomable back in the not-so-distant past and here we are in 2008 taking these once-obscure groups' recordings for granted just like we now take for granted those early Velvet Underground demos that each and every one of us would have murdered for back when all we really had were a few live recordings and that 22-outtakes offering that cost us an arm and a leg even thought the quality was zilch compared to what we would eventually get to hear once this stuff came out legit!
So with great pleasure I take this opportunity to help clear up yet another long-unsolved rock & roll mystery as to just who were these Titfield Thunderbolt guys that I've been hearing about for well over twenty years anyway??? Well, these guys have been a mystery to me ever since I got hold of a copy of JAMZ #5 which had the should-be-by-now infamous Meltzer review of their "Born on the Wrong Planet"/"In The Can" single which certainly got my interests piqued, especially with Meltzer's provocative exclamation that the band considered themselves "the MC5 of Virginia." I've already written about the Thunderbolt's appearance on the ARTIFACTS ten-inch flexi-disc as well as published ex-Thunderbolt Stymie the Hermit's almost three-decades-old reminiscences, and for a guy who has tried so hard to get the hard-core facts on this group for so long things finally fell into place like I hoped they would and voila!, what appears in my mailbox courtesy the Hermit himself is not only the ultra-rare Titfield Thunderbolt single but a booklet on the band that this former Titster published on his lonesome which came out back in the day (1970)! Not only that, but there were also a few compact disques enclosed featuring music by none other than Bomis Prendin, a group I could say sprung forth from the loins of the Thunderbolt but that might be stretching points a little too far. After receiving this 'un I could say that I felt like I had died and gone to Heaven, but I think I'll save that for whenever I get a package of recently unearthed Master Radio Canaries tapes.
OK, by now we all know the spurious nature of Meltzer's MC5 reference (maybe he was led on by the power-salute drawing of the group I've reprinted above), but that doesn't mean that the Titfield Thunderbolt aren't unworthy of your time and effort to track this single down whichever way you can. Too late for PEBBLES and too early for HOMEWORK, the Thunderbolt do their best to survive in a punk-free zone with this single, a double 33-rpm spin that's got such a low-fidelity quality that it makes "Green Fuz" and the Germs' "Forming" sound positively half-speed mastered yet makes up for it with more teen-energy than even Tommy James coulda whipped up at the time. Far from being a "sellout" as Meltzer opined, a-side "Born on the Wrong Planet" just oozes that down-home knotty-pine basement rehearsal feeling perhaps with a touch of garage band pop '69-style here and a tad of the theme song from SCOOBY DOO, WHERE ARE YOU? there as the Hermit himself sings lyrics that wouldn't be too out of place in the Twinkeyz's live repertoire. Come to think of it, the Twinkeyz guys themselves would have been more'n apt to stick "Wrong Planet" into their set as it does have the same sense of teenage alienation re. sci-fi allegory as their opus "Aliens in our Midst" albeit on a totally hetero level. Typical sub-bedroom band approach and playing sure help this number achieve the proper levels of addled teenage dunceness that always makes these platters a lot more tasty than we would have ever given them credit for in the first place.
If you think "Wrong Planet" is typically teenage you'd be right, but just ready yourself for the flipside, mainly the 6:37 "In The Can" which like I said is not the same track as "On The Can" from the flexi but a live workout featuring the Thunderbolt doing their best to violate the hearts and minds of the angry college student clientele with a free-form freakout that not only resembles the "noisy Albert Ayler workout" Meltzer mentioned but an entire AACM-ish attempt to re-do Ornette's FREE JAZZ while the local ROTC firebombs the entire student union building that housed the art show the Thunderbolt were playing at. I can see how Meltzer would get excited over this side as it does predate the whole Smegma/LAFMS scene by a good three or so years, and it would seem as if the Thunderbolt's idea of free rock does rub elbows with some of the other experimental rock work going on in other burghs across the globe even if these bozos didn't know what was going on elsewhere until much later. The music surges and seethes pretty much in a Smegma-esque style, and best of all it still plays itself white which ain't sayin' that playing it black would be bad, but it adds another refreshing dimension to the sound having white college kids attempt the free sound with their own suburban consciousnesses in tow rather'n attempt to sound like urban blacks doing the same soundspew. Doesn't seem kosher having people try to be what they just aren't, y'know?
Good luck finding this single (only 200 pressed!), and even better luck trying to latch onto THE REVENGE OF THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT, a professionally-printed (and on glossy paper too!) booklet detailing the history of the band just chock-fulla wonderful snaps and non-upchucking early-seventies graphix that are sure to clear up certain questions regarding early-seventies garage band activities while creating new ones. Reminding me of everything from a poetry anthology all those sissy geeks used to write for in school to a pretty decent proto-punk fanzine that somehow got lost in the shuffle, THE REVENGE OF THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT is more than just another self-promoting history of a band written "in progress". It was a college project of Stymie the Hermit's making true, yet the resultant shebang doesn't come off anything like what you would consider a college project to be. But nor does the Thunderbolt come off like anybody's idea of "college rock", at least these days. Not that I could see any of those guys with Peter Asher specs who used to pop up on THE G.E. COLLEGE BOWL listening to them. Whaddeva, the story of the band from their formation to the first gig with Key Ring Torch and Stymie the Hermit playing "Go Fish" over the PA system onward and upward (complete with member bios and photos where they get to act all goofy) is sure an inspiring read and I only hope that Stymie got a really high mark for this project considering how some of these college prof guys'll fail you if you forget to dot an "i" or something equally ridiculous. Like I said, just attempt to find this one at the local flea market even though I would suspect that a copy might turn up somewhere between a few old BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS on some old coot's folding table down Richmond way!
Much better known than the Thunderbolt are their more or less physical if not spiritual spawn, Bomis Prendin, a bunch probably best known to the avid "new wave" catalog hustlers of the late-seventies for their two flexidisc releases of the day. You probably remember the PHANTOM LIMB one which seemed to have appeared in more than a few Systematic and Metro Music fliers over the years, although the first, TEST, seemed to vanish without a trace probably because only 500 or so were pressed up. As you'd expect, Bomis Prendin with their free form (some may say ambient) soundstew owe about as much to the Thunderbolt sound as my rockscreeding has to do with Robert Christgau's, but even if these guys ain't the MC5 of Virginia either (or shall I say by now the MC5 of Maryland) their ability to create some rather interesting avant garde (within what was being called the American Underground scene) music sure ranks up there with a number of similar-minded aural crankouts from both here and abroad.
My fave of the three available Bomis Prendin releases has to be the TEST/PHANTOM LIMB reish which slaps both of these now-obscure wobbly platters on one shiny disque capturing the electronic face of late-seventies underground music much better than the lowliest cassette culture upchuck you used to read about with pleasure back in the day. The TRAP D'OR collection, despite the spiffy title, didn't quite light my buttocks the way the flexis did, though an additional disque of goop specifically made for your mp3 player (whatever that is!) might help open up some other doors of perception. I prefer PUT ME DOWN AND SPIN ME AROUND, another smattering of mid-eighties to late-nineties numbuhs that seemed more or less engaging, at least enough not to interrupt any late-night comic reading sessions to the point of mental exhaustion. True it at times does bear a strange resemblance to more of those early-eighties basement recordings that more than a few people with brand-spanking-new casio keyboards were sharing with similar-minded nerks, but at least Bomis Prendin have the good sense to mix a little life and whimsy into the usual cyborg gunch creating a work that is every bit as professional if not as "obscure" as a variety of acts who got signed to the Ralph Records label back in the day. Fine, but frankly I'd prefer hearing more Titfield Thunderbolt...maybe a Cee-Dee reish with the previously-released tracks plus alternate goodies would be in line at this time? Whatever, please don't go and have Titfield Thunderbolt reunion...after all, other'n the Stooges have any of these recent babyboomer get-togethers been successfull even one iota???
Saturday, December 20, 2008
THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT!