More Than a Footnote
Let us talk a bit about canonization and its discontents. The current of popular music is so fast-paced that bands and albums enter the rock pantheon within the span of a decade. The pop music gatekeepers (be they critics, fans, or the musicians themselves) take very little time to decide upon what albums become “essential”, usually based on some combination of inherent quality and their influence on subsequent bands. You’ve read the lists in Rolling Stone and Spin, caught the results of the yearly Village Voice poll, and certainly you’ve noticed the handful of references that all of us rock critics inevitably namecheck in every review (this one being no exception). These all reflect the nebulous and ever-changing entity known as the “rock and roll canon”.
The funny thing is that once any sort of agreement is reached upon what is truly essential in pop music, the anti-canonists come to reexamine the established canon and attempt to add lesser known, often to the point of obscure, artists to the mythical rock and roll pantheon. These anti-canonists are responsible for reshaping the canon. They are the ones who pushed the Velvet Underground past Jimi Hendrix in general rock critic esteem. It is they who rightly championed Arthur Lee over Jim Morrison. They even undo the efforts of the rebels that have come before them. Anti-canonists pushed Moby Grape’s debut album into the canon, and later anti-canonists pushed that album away in favor of Grape drummer Alexander Spence’s eccentric solo album Oar. The work of these anti-canonists has, in effect, started a cottage industry devoted to releasing obscure and forgotten material, which is re-released in the hopes that the anti-canonists will rediscover this particular band or album and promote it from historical footnote to historical milestone.
The new K Records compilation History in Reverse attempts to do the same for early ‘80s post-punk outfit the Blackouts. The Blackouts’ major claim to fame is that Al Jourgensen produced their later work, and enjoyed it so much that he incorporated drummer Bill Rieflin and bassist Paul Barker into Ministry and, in the process, transformed his band from a middling darkwave synth-pop act into the legendary industrial band they were destined to become. (The turning point was The Land of Rape and Honey, which was co-produced by Barker and is, in fact, part of the industrial canon.) The band released a few EPs and a few singles before disbanding, remembered only by diehard Ministry fans and a handful of old-time Seattle hipsters. Now that their input is finally available on one convenient disc, the “revisionist rock historians” can listen to History in Reverse and decide whether this band’s work qualifies as a milestone in the development of industrial music or if History in Reverse is simply a moderately interesting historical document.
The answer, of course, will not appease either the canonists or the anti-canonists. The Blackouts were not industrial’s “missing link”, but they were truly unappreciated at the time. In fact, the most striking thing about this album is how modern it sounds. Sequenced in reverse chronological order, hence the title, this compilation showcases a post-punk band willing to experiment and change their sound from song to song, creating hybrid genres that would only come to gestation long after the band’s demise.
The collection begins with the Jourgensen-produced tracks, which, in fact, owe surprisingly little to Ministry’s earlier synth-pop work or to its seminal industrial output. It is, instead, the work of a confident post-punk band, swaggering and screaming like the bastard child of Bauhaus and PiL. These early tracks, although fine, place the Blackouts in the category of historical footnotes, interesting but not really particularly special on their own merits. (Although they were recorded long before the Jourgensen collaboration, the band’s earliest tracks, “The Underpass” and “Make No Mistakes”, are the ones that sound most like Ministry. Go figure.)
However, the reverse chronology, which at first seems like a gimmick, proves a blessing for the band as these more “conventional” tracks, prepare the listener for the Blackouts’ earlier, more experimental, work. “Everglades”, an atonal horror song about upcoming ecological disaster, shows the band at its most intense and frightening. “Exchange of Goods” and “Young Man” provide a more gothic take on the social criticism of Gang of Four, trying to combine the two different extremes of the early ‘80s post-punk scene (the “goths” vs. the “art students”) and mostly succeeding.
The centerpiece of the album, the tracks that truly elevate the Blackouts from the footnote ghetto, is the one-two-three punch of “Dead Man’s Curve” (not a Jan & Dean cover), “Probabilities”, and “Being Be”. “Dead Man’s Curve” with its angular guitar riffs and driving beat is a perfect example of the genre now labeled, sadly, as “dancepunk”. “Probabilities” is the closest thing to a pop song in the Blackouts catalogue, a should-have-been breakthrough hit that could vie for inclusion on the post-punk version of Pebbles (should it ever come to pass). “Probabilities” is followed by their least accessible song, “Being Be”, a song as awkward as its ungrammatical title. “Being Be” exists almost entirely of false endings, as the song swings into a strange breakdown, stops, and then begins again on a completely different musical path. As the title suggests, “Being Be” exists in the eternal present jumping from possible song to possible song with impunity.
This is the essence of the Blackouts as represented by this backwards collection: they were a band impossible to predict or to categorize. They took risks that few other bands would take at the time, which, ultimately, is why both rock traditionalists and rock revisionists will be disappointed in this release. The canonists will find the band too creative to thoroughly dismiss as just a footnote, but the anti-canonists will find their material too erratic to actually qualify the band as “lost geniuses”. That’s their loss, as History in Reverse is, when all said and done, a pretty good collection from an unjustly forgotten band that contains a handful of really killer tracks. So, what’s wrong with a band or album just being really good?