Photo: Courtesy of Domino Records

Stereolab Debuted with the Fluorescent ‘Peng!’ 30 Years Ago

Three decades ago, the lucid yet obscure (and antiquated yet postmodern) first entry in Stereolab’s superabundant catalog foreshadowed greatness. Peng! is 30.

Too Pure
26 May 1992

Some bands peak with their debut album and become haunted by beginner’s luck for the rest of their careers. That’s not the case with Stereolab. On the contrary, Peng! (1992) prefaced the English/French groop’s golden era. Although there will always be fans who stick like glue to a band’s nascent releases, only a slim sect would inaugurate Stereolab’s scrappy under pup as the masterstroke of their catalog. The dawning organ hum of opener “Super Falling Star” foreshadows something special, though. Experiencing Peng! 30 years later is like looking at a yearbook photo of a sports star who made it to the big leagues. 

Four years before that yearbook photo was snapped, a young Lætitia Sadier watched a band named McCarthy perform at a club in her native France, just outside of Paris. Known for their communist proclivities and jangling guitars, McCarthy’s claim to fame—besides being an early chapter in the history of Stereolab—is that their lo-fi waltz “Celestial City” was featured on NME’s revered C86 compilation tape.

There were two reasons behind Sadier’s decision to follow the band’s guitarist, Tim Gane, back to London. One: they fell in love. Two: as she later explained, “What came out of the UK musically—and to a big degree out of America as well—was always the more interesting, left-field side of the music. In France in the 1980s, trying to form a group was rather difficult.” Auspiciously, one of the most influential bands of the 1990s would form during the first year of the decade. As for the the “stereo” in their name, it referred to both the central twosome that would remain constant until their 2009 hiatus and to the Vanguard Records sub-label.

Stereolab’s back catalog sprawls like a megalopolis, encompassing 13 studio albums, seven compilations (including the fan-favorite Switched On series), and 15 EPs. Among acts filed under indie rock, only Yo La Tengo could claim to rival its breadth and innovative genre-bending. Stereolab’s tentative acquaintances may be familiar with tracks such as “Ping Pong”, a Marxist lounge popper from Mars Audiac Quintet (1994), or the bubbly “Lo Boob Oscillator”, which instigates a meet-cute between John Cusack and Natasha Gregson Wagner in High Fidelity (2000). The apt entry point, though, is undoubtedly the mechanical, polished textures of Dots and Loops (1997). 

Produced by Tortoise‘s John McEntire, with whom Stereolab had a fruitful working relationship, Dots and Loops may be shiny and accessible. However, it’s also musically complex, employing syncopated rhythms and mallet instruments à la the New York minimalists. It marries this template with an Astrud Gilberto-esque bossa nova disposition and the non-pop harmonic movement of cool jazz proponents like Dave Brubeck. These ingredients are evidenced on tracks such as “Diagonals”, with its polyrhythmic marimba wavelets in 5/4 time and multi-part brass clusters. Pitchfork called the album the “rhythm-focused, rock-averse music that they’d long striven toward”. It even kept Pharrell happy, as the rapper dubbed “The Flower Called Nowhere’s” variegated swirls “the best fellatio music there is”. 

Besides their onomatopoeic titles, there is little overlap between Dots and Loops’ aphrodisiac brass arrangements and Peng!’s deluge of shoegazing guitars (a term that slipper-wearing Gane believes he inadvertently inspired). After all, the journey from Peng! to Dots spans five years, three full-length albums, two mini-LPs, and two compilations. Sadier detailed their Henry Ford-like approach in an interview: “Our records were written and recorded very quickly… we didn’t ponder over these for years like, say, Broadcast or My Bloody Valentine would. There was no preciousness around making records. We were just churning them—like, literally, on a conveyor belt.”

This prolificness isn’t the result of dull-eyed obligation but an unquenchable thirst to create and the ingenuity to support it. Stereolab’s sophomore LP, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements (1993), stretched the sonic spectrum farther than Peng! The studio techniques were more advanced. A transcendent 18-minute opus in “Jenny Ondioline” awaited listeners midway through, rewarding those with enough stamina. And, crucially, a young Australian transplant named Mary Hansen joined the band.

Mary Hansen completed the group yearbook photo and would see Stereolab through their prodigious output of albums during the 1990s, beginning with Transient and culminating, tragically, in a bicycling accident not long after Sound-Dust (2001), the last to feature her sanative backing harmonies and slinking guitar counterpoints. 

Peng! was recorded as a four-piece, with the Chills‘ bassist Martin Kean and bassist-turned photographer Joe Dilworth receiving their sole studio album credits. Although the band hadn’t yet stretched its avant-garde impulses to the formidable heights of the four succeeding records, the quintessence of their sound and key sonic touchpoints are present. The pedal-point guitar patterns of Neu!‘s Michael Rother are partially disguised under cascades of bright yellow fuzz that channel American noise-pop acts such as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Paired with the unceasing motorik drum beat—another foundation of krautrock—Gane’s guitar forms the backbone of many songs. “The Seeming and the Meaning”, one of the LP’s ebullient, sugar-coated dins, is emblematic of this, its driving tempo thwarting the languid loops of the preceding “You Little Shits”.

The album’s finest moment is arguably its closing track, “Surrealchemist”. Gane’s guitar remains tethered to one or two occasionally vacillating chords—albeit with an antithetical, wiry lead line on top that strongly evokes the Velvet Underground’s clamorous primitivism. Here, the pace is slowed right down, and the drums are entirely absent. It’s an exercise in space and evolvement rather than propulsion. The track’s undulating coda with its pulsing Moog “seems to trail off into the sunset”, as Gane described it in the liner notes. Indeed, the sample of a rippling creek seems to suggest a movement towards greener pastures. This extended instrumental section is a precursor to luminary back catalog staples such as the aforementioned “Jenny Ondioline” and the opening gambit of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, “Metronomic Underground”.

Peng!’s artwork was just as vibrant and minimalist as its sonics. The rudimentary cartoon of someone—”Cliff”, as the band christened him—firing a gun first appeared in the Swiss magazine HOTCHA! before being employed on the covers of the first two Switched On volumes and the Super 45 EP, in addition to Peng!‘s neon yellow visual. The anti-war comic that birthed Cliff was called “Der tödliche Finger” or “The Deadly Finger”. As Gane puts it: “[Cliff’s] a figure of the establishment who is eventually shot by the forces of the revolution.” In the same interview, Sadier confirms Cliff’s appropriacy for the Stereolab mascot, admitting that if murder were legal, she would shoot “all presidents, bureaucrats, etc.” 

Although Mary Hansen’s absence is felt on Peng!, Sadier’s dual-language lilting is otherworldly, even when drowned by reams of oscillating guitar and organ. She provides her own backing vocals, from the “ba ba’s” of the poppy title track to the counterpointing conversational in “You Little Shits”, her voice acting as both a supportive companion and diverging foil. It was the one element of songwriting over which she had complete control. As she told The Believer, “Tim wanted to control every aspect of the music, but because he couldn’t write lyrics, he left that up to me. So I had to come up with the lyrics to all the songs.” 

Lyrics were the vehicle for Sadier’s socialist articulations and situationist philosophy. In “Perversion”, she denigrates Christian society’s idolatry of repression. “Out of the repression of pleasure / Something logically same into the light / Something much graver than sex, drugs / Perversion could only entail regression,” she sings, the two vocal lines spilling over one another. Elsewhere, on “K-stars”, she turns her focus towards the French surrealists while ostensibly commenting on the group itself: 

They were young
In their mid-twenties
They were intelligent
And some believed
Were geniuses
They were passionate
Wildly in love
Well, they were exuberant

Stereolab – “Perversion”

Although Stereolab operated, to a large extent, within a politically charged space, Peng! was able to amalgamate the band’s activist aims with an almost zen-like appreciation of the world. Or, at the very least, what it could be—as seen in their claustral instrumental sections and Peng!’s solicitous title track. Known amongst the band members as “Across the River”, “Peng! 33” is a forthright statement of hopefulness. As Sadier confides, “Incredible things are happening in the world” while we all “keep on living like monkeys”. In other words, we move through life with our attention locked on vacuous commodities, sustaining amoral corporations and giving little regard to the “magical instruments” idling across the river—the instruments of change and revolution, sure, but too the purity of nature. 

“I don’t care if the fascists have to win,” Sadier admits on “Jenny Ondioline”, “But what is exciting is the challenge and stimulation / That the tensions help keep the creative nerve so taut.” Within this line is the crux of Stereolab’s philosophy. By channeling their detestation of injustice into sound, words, and visuals—and by allowing this energy to pervade and propel their music—Stereolab created something beautiful out of tension and disillusion. They turned to face the river, impassioned and unapologetic and swam great lengths. Peng! was their first stroke. In the end—and, indeed, in the beginning—their curiosity was always far greater than their fear.