The Penetrators: Basement Anthology: 1976-84

Stephen Haag

Syracuse, NY's 'Kings of Basement Rock' finally get their day in the sun... 20 years late, but better late than never.

The Penetrators

Basement Anthology: 1976-84

Label: Swami
US Release Date: 2005-04-26
UK Release Date: 2005-04-25
Amazon affiliate

Living in cold and snowy Syracuse, New York, in the mid-'70s may have been the best thing to cultivate the musical tastes of Eliot Kagan and Jack Lipton. Had they been somewhere hipper, they ran the risk of being exposed to synthesizer-soaked prog opuses (opi?) and glammy boys in eyeliner. As it was -- fortunately for fans of cult-level garage -- Lipton and Kagan were hunkered down in upstate NY with some old soul records and a love of '60s garage. As legend has it, there was little else to do in Syracuse, so the two formed the "basement rock" band the Penetrators and set out to conquer the city's rock scene and have some fun in the process.

Short as it may be, that's the entire story of the Penetrators, and it shines through in the best possible way on the music found on Basement Anthology: 1976-84. The Penetrators never tried their hand at national, or even regional, stardom (though in 1982 they submitted a video of their tune "Shopping Bag" to MTV, which rejected it -- and that's saying something, since MTV played anything in their wildcat days), nor toured anywhere outside of the Syracuse bar circuit. But the recordings on Basement Anthology are so infectious, so fun, and made by guys who cleared loved the music they were making, that the disc can't help but be a winner.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best garage rock is kinda crappy: recorded on old, beat up equipment, full of guitar performances that threaten to collapse like a house of cards, but never do, and an overall tossed-off vibe. The Penetrators meet all those criteria, and their songs are all the better for it. The earliest tunes on the disc, the '60s teen pop homage "Gotta Have Her" and a cover of the Animals' "It's My Life", were recorded in August 1976 at Cheese Studios in Syracuse... a location better known as Kagan's parents' basement. The songs sound like shit and they're absolutely perfect.

Time and again, the band pieces together a song with some scotch tape, popsicle sticks and a rickety guitar lick and every time the tune is a garage classic. Opener "Teenage Lifestyle", as the hilarious liner notes penned by Swami Records honcho Swami John, claim, is a "declaration of confusion and irreverence" and could've been written by the Dictators' Andy Shernoff ("I wanna stay out / At least til 11:00p!"). "Shopping Bag" should've been a hit, with a catchy chorus and a guitar hook that'll wedge in your brain (boy, MTV really blew that one), and "Rock 'n' Roll Face" and "Stop Action" suggest (as the liner notes put it) "the Rolling Stones on Cheetos and beer instead of heroin and blowjobs." If that means something to you, you should go find Basement Anthology immediately.

And as for the soul influence mentioned earlier, check the cover of Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music" and the original tune "The Scandalizer", both recorded live in 1980 with band buddy Curtis Seals on vox. Garage-soul bands like the Dirtbombs and the Detroit Cobras can thank the Penetrators for blazing that genre's trail.

Maybe it's just as well the Penetrators never got big. Their music, catchy and accessible as it is, was never meant for mass consumption -- something special would've been lost if Kagan and Eliot were forced to leave the basement. Fortunately, garage fans have been blessed to receive Basement Anthology, proof that rock is in its purest form when it's loose-limbed and DIY.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.