Social Climbers was a part of the no-wave movement in New York in 1980. But even for that marginalized genre — from which bands like Teenage Jesus and Suicide grew — they were very much on the outside of things. Their sound maybe broke down our expectations of music, and was unpredictable, but it was also very much interested in melody and lacked, in some ways, the reactionary post-punk-rock edge much of no-wave got bogged down in.
Their one eponymous album was originally issued as a triple 7-inch, but now it has become the latest in Drag City’s increasingly scattered and exciting series of obscure reissues. Given a chance to hear this again, what’s perhaps most interesting about Social Climbers is not how it’s aged but that it really hasn’t. Instead, having been cut loose from its cultural context, the music feels timeless, stubbornly different in a way music from any time period could be. It’s still an outlier, still on the fringe, but hearing it now, it becomes more than just a glimpse into a fleeting moment in the underbelly of New York’s rich musical history.
There is plenty to admire in the sound Social Climbers crafted as well. With just guitar, bass, organ, and a drum machine, they create a surprising amount of layers and shifts in tone on this record. “Domestic” is trudging and skronky, the kind of thing you might hear from a mean-spirited version of David Byrne. “Western World” is closer to chilling electro-pop — though it shifts in small moments to oddball singer-songwriter crooning. “Hello Texas” is a dyspeptic swirl of spaced-out sounds, with the guitar basically forgotten in the unmoored atmosphere of the song. “Chris and Debbie”, though, is the most surprising and rewarding turn, as it’s expansive dub sound echoes out in a way few songs do here. It feels bigger than its meager parts, stretching instead of coiling in on the hard-staring tension of the record.
So Social Climbers proved themselves unique by experimenting with different sound, as opposed to experimenting with different ways to deconstruct sound, as many no-wavers did. But they didn’t completely escape the genre’s pretentions. This is still pretty high-minded stuff, mocking in its delivery and self-important in its intentions. “Western World” is the kind of broad condemnation that never gets specific enough to make a point. It actually hints at an underlying sadness — singer Mark Bingham misses friends who have moved away — but never fleshes it out. What we get instead is the defensive complaints that mask it. Of course, that could work, except that when Bingham whines about “strangers walking down the street, staring down at the side walk / They never look up, just look away”, it lacks a certain self-awareness. His arch, sneering vocals throughout the record paint him as one of those strangers, the kind who’d dismiss you out of hand rather than tip his cap to you on the street.
This defensiveness bleeds into the structure of the songs. As sweet as the music itself can be — and it is, even at its most chunked-up — vocal melodies are avoided in favor of shapeless rants and deadpan mumblings. The exceptions to this come in “Chicken 80”, which is as eccentric as anything but includes a super-catchy chorus, and the smoldering “Taipei”, where bassist Jean Shaw gets to cut Bingham’s sneer with her own sweet voice.
Mostly, though, Social Climbers get in their own way. The music here is innovative, often arresting, if occasionally overdone. But the songwriting and the vocals wear out their welcome quickly. The snotty voices that inhabit this music reduce its sonic peccadilloes to background noise for their seemingly droll, usually meandering ideas. Social Climbers is, in one way, a document of musicians willing to work out on the farthest fringe, pushing the limits of the ultimately narrow constraints of no-wave. In another way, though, the words lack that confidence the music conveys, so instead of luring you in with a convincing musical world, it more often ends up throwing a fit for attention.