Shriekback and Me

I was first introduced to Shriekback in 1985 by my friend Jay. He was handy with a VCR and religiously taped a show called The Cutting Edge, a program devoted to second tier New Wave bands.

“You’ve got to check these guys out,” Jay said.

Between two music geeks like ourselves, the above phrase can have a thousand shades of gray and, depending on nuances in voice inflection and the degree of eye contact, the level of checking requested can vary hugely. Jay had just given me a DEFCON 5 check out, a level not witnessed since Jay had stumbled upon the Art of Noise two years prior.

I sat down on his rec room couch, and Jay threw his big-ass hyper dog, Maggie, out the back door. My first look at Shriekback was, to be honest, a little off-putting. They’d recorded an intro for their first appearance on The Cutting Edge, and the four members were standing there in black leotards, doing some highly effected choreographed movements that looked like space age calisthenics. The lead singer, Barry Andrews, stood at the forefront speaking intermittently. “Hello,” Andrews began, “we are Shriekback,” in an aliens-meet-earthlings kind of way. He then used a lot of words with q’s in them like “unequivocal” and “quintessential,” which I later had to look up later in the dictionary.

My initial disappointment subsided, and a light went on. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “these guys are putting weird above cool. That’s cool.”

That’s when the video for “Nemesis” came on, and I realized to some extent that my life would never be the same again. The visuals of “Nemesis” were insanely ahead of its time — more so considering what the budget must have been. A black dragon-esque figure (the Nemesis, I assume) lurked in the background. There were eels in a basin, boy Satyrs, Greeks and Romans, Andrews’s sinister head spitting verse from a rose bush, and the black-cloaked band members belting out the chorus with arms to the sky. Lots of wind and feathers and leaves and maypoles made clear that gleeful pagan anarchy was the name of the game. (Although I’ve never been able to confirm it, it is clear to me that R.E.M.’s “groundbreaking” video for “Losing My Religion” was essentially a knock-off of the “Nemesis” video.)

The music was seamless to the visuals. While “Nemesis” had some of the signatures of the soon-to-be vogue “industrial” — a wall-of-sound synth and a determinedly thumping beat — the song crafted these elements in an altogether different way. Rather than a drum machine, Nemesis relied upon the real-life, oddly-assorted percussion instruments of Martyn Barker. The overarching synth was blended with the killer combo of Carl Marsh’s lead guitar (a sound like Godzilla wails) and the delicious slap-funk base of Dave Allen. Throw into this heady stew the one-and-only oracle voice of Barry Andrews, and you had something approaching alchemy.

Andrews’s voice was like a deepening whisper that often floated in the ether between singing and speaking, but it could also stop on a dime and switch from a quiet baritone to a disquieting falsetto. The unexpected change of pace served to maximize the payoff in songs like “Nemesis”, where the chorus was a full-on Carmina Burana refrain, with a multitude of voices, including those of the Partridge Sisters (think the Andrews Sisters on helium/acid), belting out: “Big Black Nemesis! Parthenogenesis! No one moves a muscle as the dead come home!” Shriekback had me at hello.

A brief history of the band is in order. Barry Andrews, the lead singer and keyboardist, is and always has been the driving force behind Shriekback. In 1983, Andrews left XTC after a falling out with headman Andy Partridge. (Andrews’s keyboards are front and center on XTC’s best album, 1979’s White Music.) That Andrews is the driving force behind Shriekback is recognized even by those (not me) that think the band lost a part of its backbone when Dave Allen left the band in 1987.

Dave Allen, it should be noted, is a legend himself, a sort of poor man’s Brian Eno as the mastermind producer behind several quintessential ’80s albums by the Cure, Human League, and the Go-Go’s. Allen was also a founding member of the post-punk band Gang of Four, and his staccato bass stylings are a key component to the band’s 1979 release Entertainment, which has been dubbed one of the most influential albums of the last 50 years by many music critics. Bass players from Bootsy Collins to Flea have cited Allen as an influence.

From these pedigrees, Shriekback plowed the creative high roads for many years, starting with 1982’s Tench mini-LP and releasing an impressive number of innovative and challenging albums, including two for the commercially successful label (read: U2) Island Records. There was never a discernable watering down of the Shriekback sound to make it more palatable to the fans of trendier New Wave bands like OMD and Depeche Mode. Of course, the refusal to compromise had consequences. Even when Island made genuine efforts to push “Gunning for the Buddha” as a single off of Shriekback’s fifth album, Big Night Music, including a rather high-budget video, the masses didn’t bite. It was a baffling outcome, really, given that the song’s mix of steel drums, a cockney falsetto, and lounge-lizard keyboards seemed like a can’t-miss combination.

Nonetheless, despite the commercial failure of Big Night Music, Shriekback got a huge break in 1986 when director Michael Mann decided to use several Shriekback songs in his movie Manhunter, a prequel to Silence of the Lambs. (The movie would later be remade in 2002 as Red Dragon with Ralph Fiennes.) The fact that the man who helped define ’80s culture with Miami Vice gave the Shrieks the nod for his movie gave hope that, indeed, maybe the ’80s public was ready to realize its destiny as Shriekback Nation. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. The release of Manhunter didn’t result in significant increases in Shriekback album sales, despite Mann’s prominent use of the song “Faded Flowers” in the movie’s climatic scene. You can lead a horse to water…

The Shrieks gave it one more try in 1988 after Dave Allen left the band, with their sixth album GoBang!, which had a more user-friendly sound, including an unfortunate cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight”. It was, no doubt, the fateful third act in their Behind the Music chronology. Personally, I had no choice but to pay my respects and move on to bands like the Pixies, Ministry, and Nirvana. But whenever the old Shriekback found their way into my listening rotation, they always moved me more than whatever band had top dog status on the alternative scene at the time.

Fast forward to 1992, when I was in my first year of law school. I was at one of my little havens in Durham, North Carolina, a great hole-in-the-wall record store on 8th Street called Pointdexter’s. Thumbing through the CDs filed under “S”, I thought at first my eyes deceived me. I saw the name Shriekback on a layout that was completely unfamiliar to me. Although my heart was skipping a disarming number of beats, the cynic in me made a quick check to make sure it was not one of the many imported Best of Shriekback retreads… but, wait, it was a new Shriekback CD!

Sacred City, Shriekback’s seventh album, was unexpected manna from heaven, a triumphant return to form by a prizefighter who clearly did not want to go out with his face on the mat. The cut “Bastards Sons of Enoch” is a personal favorite of mine, a re-establishing of the Shriek’s unique ability to create a sense of mysticism, a palpable otherworldly-ness, with the stock and trade instruments of pop music — all in three and a half minutes, no less. The album satisfied me to no end. Unfortunately, it was the same old story in terms of record sales. As the album made no apparent overtures to commercial success (and, indeed, proved to be a mainstay in bargain bins of used CD stores far and wide), it was clearly their swan song, a fact that made me cherish it all the more.

But then a funny thing happened. In the late ’90s, a little something called the Internet hit the music scene. Suddenly, along with Plushies and Pez collectors, Shriekback fans found each other, and the band found their fans and a totally free means of communicating with them. As it turned out, headman Barry Andrews hadn’t actually thrown in the towel, but had been trying (unsuccessfully) for years to procure another record deal for Shriekback. Then the gifted one had another stroke of genius. Shriekback requested each of its fans donate $50 towards the studio time needed to complete an album. In return, each donor would receive a signed copy of the album. In fact, Shriekback’s idea actually made a blip on the mainstream music scene, as Rolling Stone and other outlets noted this pioneering method of funding albums — albeit usually in an unnecessarily snide tone.

Unfortunately, logistical nightmares made progress slow. Andrews impeccably documented the difficulties on the band’s website, but there were occasional causes for hope when Andrews announced that yet another track was nearing completion. In 2003, perhaps to satiate restless investors who began to wonder whether they would ever get a tangible return, Andrews put out a self-distributed solo record that included a couple of tracks promised to be on the new Shriekback CD. The CD was just Andrews and a piano, each song the product of one uninterrupted take. I learned of the new release while trolling Shriekback’s website. At the same time, I also learned that Andrews was planning a “US tour” — actually four nights in three cities on the eastern seaboard. As kind providence would have it, one of those cities was Washington, DC, where I lived, at my favorite venue — Dave Grohl’s the Black Cat — where Andrews was scheduled to play in just two days!

I managed to convince my friend, Brent — who, like everyone else, had never heard of the band — to come with me. The show was on the Black Cat’s smaller “back stage”, an odd-shaped room that maxed out at about 50-60 people. That night, we walked in and quickly found out that the warm-up band, like all self respecting warm-up bands, totally sucked, and so we hung out in the bar waiting for them to finish.

About five minutes later, a man in a black leather jacket and worn boots entered the bar and flung open a City Paper as he sat down on a sofa. I was about 95% sure it was Andrews.

Andrews, I should note, is the coolest looking dude on the planet. He shaves his head, a look that accentuates his slightly pointy ears and opaque English complexion. If you watch Sex and the City, he is a dead ringer for Charlotte’s bald geeky husband. However, while Charlotte’s husband looks like a total dork, Andrews could not look more studly (an observation that seems to suggest that inner gravitas affects one’s outer appearance to an alarming degree). I ‘d seen dozens of images of Andrews from videos, album covers, and websites, and yet I could not approach him because something inside me was not completely sure it was him.

A skinny guy in a Chameleons t-shirt (my second favorite group) was sitting at a table close by, and I asked him if he was here to see Andrews. When he said yes, I asked him if that was Andrews sitting over in the corner. “Maybe,” he said, clearly not wanting to start a conversation.

I knew it was Andrews. But maybe not. After all, the dude in the Chameleons t-shirt couldn’t confirm it. There could certainly be another explanation. Maybe the actor playing Charlotte’s dorky bald husband had been told he had a doppleganger named Barry Andrews from a band called Shriekback, had then sought out Shriekback’s music, and by this accidental exposure became a superfan and had decided to attend this rare appearance.

“Why don’t you just go up and talk to him?” Brent asked.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m just not sure it’s him, and even if it is him, he may not want to talk to anyone before a performance.”

“This isn’t exactly Carnegie Hall,” Brent said.

“Look, I suck at talking to authority figures, and for me this guy is the authority on everything cool. I just can’t go up to him without some kind of preparation. I need a good opener and get some questions thought out,” I said.

“Well, I’m going over to talk to him, and you should come with me,” Brent said.

“Please don’t,” I begged. This would be the cruelest joke of all. A person who had not heard of Andrews before walking over and talking to him, while a fan of 20 years watched helpless from afar.

Mercifully, “Andrews” got up and went into the room where Andrews was to perform. We followed him in and the warm-up group ended their set. “Andrews” walked onto the stage and sat down in front of the keyboard. Okay, it was looking more and more like it was him. There were 16 people in the room, including Andrews, the warm-up band (who thankfully stayed), and the bartender. His presence on stage immediately electrified the crowd, and he began to play after quickly informing the crowd that he would stick to songs from his new CD. The small showing did not seem to deter his vigor, and everyone seemed to be engrossed in the set, especially an old hippie couple that did some sort of ad hoc twist that seemed totally disconnected to the mellow piano tunes Andrews was playing.

Immediately behind us, someone began to hum along with the songs in a loud, off-key, and creepily joyous manner. I turned around and saw that the humming was coming from a skinny guy in his mid-40s with fast twitching eyes. He was wearing one of those teepee-shaped Peruvian hats, which I think is called a chullo, and also had on moon boots, the abundantly foamed, high-heeled footwear that was the bane of my junior high existence during winters in Colorado when my mom made me wear them to school. I told Brent to check him out. Brent turned around and apparently made the mistake of making eye contact with him.

Chullo Man approached Brent and asked, “Taking in a bit of the lively spirits?” He pointed to the plastic cup in Brent’s hand.

Brent half-smiled, but didn’t say anything.

Andrews introduced a Shriekback standard, “Faded Flowers”, mentioning that it had been used in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and made a derogatory comment about Ralph Fiennes’s attempt to revive the role in the remake Red Dragon.

A couple songs later, Chullo Man approached Brent again and asked “What song have you liked the best?”

Brent replied, “That Shriekback song.”

“Oh yes, he had that one all lined up.” He drew out the last three words in a loud, knowing manner and laughed in a way that sounded crazy — even if you were in the .001 percent of the population that realized he was referring to an early Shriekback single, “All Lined Up”.

Chullo Man, it turns out, was a close talker, and the worst kind of close talker, the kind that stayed pretty close to your grill even after he finished saying what he had to say. Brent was getting a little edgy, and I began to feel guilty about bringing him to his own one-on-one freak show.

Chullo Man tried a few more times to strike up a conversation with Brent, but when he finally sensed that his prey wasn’t biting, he started to turn it up a notch, now trying to be weird and random: “Do you find his piano work [pause] subtle?… Hey, the chops are there, but I don’t see the cutlets… Now, watch, he’ll play it backwards while standing on his head.”

The show ended amid strong applause, and Andrews said he would stick around to sell and sign his new CD. The strength of the show was demonstrated by the fact that 12 members of the audience (out of 16, mind you) came to buy his CD. As Andrews took the tens and handed out CDs, he looked up and smiled. “My god,” he said, “it’s almost like making money.”

When my turn came, I tried to remain calm and asked, “So how’s the new Shriekback album coming?”

“Bloody awful,” he said. “Dave [Allen] is in the States working for some advertising firm, and can’t find the time to get into the studio. And Carl and Martyn are always on the road with Billy [Bragg]. It’s bleak, mate.”

“Well, I’m sure it will be worth the wait,” I said. (Mate!)

Suddenly, Brent decided to enter the conversation. “So you didn’t like Red Dragon?” he asked.

“Well, just trying to buy in to Ralph Fiennes as some huge force of evil was a little too much for me,” Andrews said.

“Really,” Brent said. “I thought he did a good job. I liked it.”

Wait a minute, I thought. What the hell was going on here? Did the person I was obviously here with just take issue with something that Andrews said? Was this is a dream? Mother of God, this was horrible.

“Ralph Fiennes sucks,” I said quickly. (The English Patient is one of my favorite movies.) “He has a stick so far up his ass that he can taste it.”

“I just thought the original was much better,” Andrews said politely, turning to the next fan in line.

A group of fans circled Andrews, and the talk turned to his next gig, which was in Philadelphia. Inane comments about Philly cheese steak followed.

“What about DC?” he asked. “What should I eat?”

“Hamburger Helper,” I said. Andrews stared at me blankly.

“Crabs,” somebody said. “But they’re not in season. Otherwise we really got nothing special.”

Andrews, clearly not wanting to be a downer on DC, said, “You know, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Washington. It was the first place I ever tried X. A group of girls we met at a gig took us to the Lincoln Memorial and gave us some X. Amazing stuff. I felt like a Roman emperor. I remember we were splayed across the feet of Lincoln, and the girls kept standing up and saying ‘I have a dream, I have a dream…’”

“Well put, Mr. Andrews,” said Chullo Man, who had just emerged from the shadows, “Malcolm X on X. A crackerjack combination.”

With that, Andrews excused himself and slipped out to the bar. Brent and I walked out to our cars, where it was snowing heavily, turning around every once and while to make sure Chullo Man wasn’t following us.

As I drove home, I thought back to another snowy day, a day when I was sixteen and it was 25 below, cold enough to get school canceled. In the early morning, I went outside for a walk, bundled from head to toe and wearing orange-tinted ski goggles. My Walkman played Shriekback’s quiet gem, “This Big Hush”. There weren’t any tracks cut into the snow yet, and everything was completely still. Over a soft harmony that always felt like the slow pulse of energy, Barry Andrews whispered, “Is there a fire in the sky? / Is there a moon up there? / Is there anything alive now? / This darkness is what I hear”. Looking east from the foothills, I could see out over the front range farmlands, the crisscrossing of country roads forty miles away, where everything lay motionless.

As I stumbled through the drifts, a strange sensation came over me. Despite the layering of clothes and seeing everything through the orange tint of my goggles, the immediacy of the outside world came upon me. It was the air hitting my lungs. Each time I inhaled I felt the strength it held and its overriding sense of godlessness. The numbing of my skin and lungs was not a dullness, but a deep and vital sensation. “More than I can hold in my hands / Running through the gaps like water / Aching with a passion inside, as deep as the river”. The lining of my goggles saturated with tears and the wetness leaked out unto my cheeks where it quickly froze. “All desire / The ashes and the fire / Turn in this night inside / And the light from you”. I turned home. You can throw in all the other perfect moments of my life — the birth of my children, my wedding — this one was right up there.

Rett Snotherly is a patent litigator for the U.S. government and is still reveling in the miraculous release of Shriekback’s eleventh album, Glory Bumps, released June 2007 on Malicious Damage Records. Yes, Virginia, they got a record deal.