By the sixth number the band were settling into the cavernous, drafty, boomy Russian Center and were pressing ahead louder and louder, with more and more echoing tsunami-like basslines and gut-twisting infra and ultra frequencies. The murky, hideous and terrifying films played out continuously in the background, leaving no escape from this double-pronged assault of audio and visual extremity. At the ripe young age of twenty-one it was my first 'live' noise/industrial band experience and I was eating it up eagerly. Suddenly out of the right corner of my vision I saw in the dark that the crowd was opening, separating rapidly like a parting sea in my direction for something...something. Something which was just as suddenly arcing over my head, a long and menacing tongue of flame, shooting out unbelievably from the stage. I had never seen a group of people that large move like that in a club before. And now I knew why - we were about to be incinerated.
We pick up the tale in late 1981, and the group back in Australia: "As summer ended in the Southern Hemisphere they played two memorable shows in Australia - the first at an abandoned brick works factory which led to a show at a trendy nightclub, where their sound consistantly shattered the glasses on the shelves."(1)
Meanwhile, back in the Santa Cruz mountains, just an hour south of San Francisco, I had yet to own any SPK on vinyl, and had only heard their first single (which I loved, especially "Slogun") and probably bits of their first (Australian) lp Information Overload Unit on the local college radio station KZSC. I was lucky in those days as the current 'noise/experimental/whatever-I-like' show show at the time, 7:30 or is it 225°, was exremely well curated by a Mr. Stuart Schellberg. Living in a rather isolated place in the mountains with no electricity and thus mainly a boom-box for entertainment, local radio was very dear to me and I often called local DJs and made some sort of contact. I struck up a relationship with regular calls and conversations with Schellberg about the various strange musics that he would play, and it was probably from an on-air announcement that I learned about the impending SPK show in San Francisco.
We arranged to meet at the gig, and I would be able to spot him there as he would be "wearing a hat". Rather like a fedora, as I recall. As it turned out, on the night of the show he brought along his friend James Potter, from whom I received an invitation to come and see a group he worked with (Big City Orchestra) next week, which later became the first band I played in 'professionally'. Years after that, I met Rob Wortman, who worked with Kingshouse and other outfits, and was there that night and recorded the tape that we hear in today's post as well as providing the lovely picture of Graeme in action with the flame-thrower. I seem to recall hearing at the time that the Russian Center gig was a substitution-venue for this first SPK US tour gig, they may have been booked somewhere else, and it fell through, putting them on this essentially 'punk/new wave' showbill. In any case, the lineup that night consisted of: (in actual playing order, I believe) Undead, SPK, Minimal Man, The Mutants, and Flipper. This was also memorably the first time I saw Flipper, of course a whole long story to themselves, and they were wonderful that night; punishing the audience relentlessly, even after all of the mad din that had gone before, slowly grinding out their usual dose of pain to wind up the long evening, not letting us get out until 2:10 AM.
Personnel of SPK present that evening would have been: Oblivion / Graeme Revell, NE/H/IL / Neil Hill, Pinker / James Pinker, and another member running the visuals and sound elements. I'm not sure who ran their mix and films and tapes on this evening, there are many names associated with the band at this time and I'm still trying to pin down who the tech person was, behind-the-scenes, who I didn't see onstage but who regularly contributed a lot to each show. Aside from the overall strengths of the show, as a drummer I was impressed with Pinker, who was very hot on this particular night. He really plays the hell out of the songs, compared to some not-so-great renditions on later stops of the tour. Years after the show, I can now hear that the first gig of the tour does have its ragged elements and predictably off-synch moments (playing to taped rhythms often makes it difficult to keep players together), but at the time it was majestically grim and powerful.
I knew at the time about Survival Research Laboratories, and I think had been to at least one of their performances, but didn't know that there was an SPK connection when I went into the Russian Center show. I was about to learn first-hand about one of Mark Pauline and friend's many devices of mischief. Interestingly, the fourth song of the evening was the more musical-sounding and poppier "Metal Field" rhythm, which stuck out at the time as being an oddly danceable number to lurch about to, rather like the catchy taped rhythm tracks that Throbbing Gristle had used to such good effect a few years earlier. As the set moved on it was noted that (as is often, and almost legendarily reported about their gigs) people in the crowd were getting headachey and feeling generally queasy, with SPK being the prime suspect for said sufferations. Many of the arty punk crowd probably retreated to the lobby around this time.
At the midway point, the intensity of the beats and noises growing with each new number, the crowd parted magically as people shrunk in terror from the flames shooting out from onstage. The photo that luckily was caught documents Graeme's look of glee as he hoses us down briefly with a scary but basically harmless jet of fire. My new acquaintance Mr. Schellberg had a small bit of flame briefly lit on his wisely-placed hat, but it missed me. Mark Pauline and company must have had a good laugh indeed. The next track heard on the live document is a brief turn by Graeme on mic, out of 'Oblivion' character, apologetically checking on the audience's condition before moving on.
Then follows (track eight) what I think may be an unreleased song, or at least I've never heard a 'proper' studio version of said piece. The experience flowed on for five more numbers, mostly from the forthcoming Leichenschrei lp, and then the surviving audience collected themselves for the next three acts. During the intermission I met the members of the group in the lobby with their merchandise table, and those nearby got a laugh when some wag of course had to ask Graeme if he "had a light?" for their cigarette. I bought a copy of the first lp and their little pamphlet "Document II" (which it turned out actually came with the lp, tucked inside, so I ended up with two of those goodies). Finally getting the second album when it came out months after, was a long-waited thrill, and did not disappoint. I regret now the feeling of not wanting to look fanboy-like, or some nonsense, plus shyness, I suppose, that prevented me from having them autograph the album while we were standing about. It just didn't seem like the type of band to do such things, even though they were perfectly friendly and approachable.
Let's hear about the 1982 tour from the SPK side, courtesy of the SPK Appreciation Society in Sydney:
"ALL THE WAY WITH S.P.K. / AMERICAN TOUR:
SAN FRANCISCO: 17 / 4 / 82; PLAYED WITH THREE (sic) LOCAL GROUPS; USING FLAME THROWER, ACCIDENTALLY IGNITED ONE OF THE AUDIENCE, FORTUNATELY THEY WERE JUST AS QUICKLY PUT OUT. AUDIENCE RESPONSE GOOD...
LOS ANGELES: 24 / 4; PLAYED AT 'AL'S BAR' WITH LOCAL OUTFIT NERVOUS GENDER. EXCELLENT SETUP AND SHOW, WELL RECEIVED.
PHOENIX, ARIZONA: 25 / 4; PLAYED AT SALTY DOG CLUB, ANOTHER GOOD SHOW TO SMALL CROWD. PUNK REVIVAL VISITORS FROM L.A. TOOK EXCEPTION TO THE PERFORMANCE AND COMMENCED TO ATTACK WITH CHAINS AND OTHER WEAPONS. FORTUNATELY ONLY MINOR INJURIES WERE SUSTAINED.
LAWRENCE, KANSAS: 28 / 4; PLAYED AT 'OFF THE WALL HALL'. BEST PERFORMANCE TO DATE. FLATTENED ENTHUSIASTIC AUDIENCE WITH MASSIVE P.A. AMPLIFICATION OF FX BASS REGENERATION. ( an authorized live recording was mixed from 4-track and released orginally as a cassette by FRESHSOUNDS )
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA: 1 / 5; PLAYED AT WALKER ART CENTER, PROJECTED VIDEO FILM NECROPHILIAQUE ON 20FT SCREEN. CREATED AN ATMOSPHERE OF FEAR TO AN AUDIENCE OF WHICH SOME WERE WHITE COLLAR AND MIDDLE AGE COUPLES.
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA: 2 / 5; AS A RESULT OF ABOVE SHOW INVITED TO PLAY 'SAM'S DISCO'. AUDIENCE OF AROUND 150. COVERED LOCAL MODELS WITH PIECES OF BRAIN AND FLESH.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS: 6 / 5; AT CLUB COD. AUDIENCE AROUND 150 BUT BY ALL REPORTS THEY CONSISTENTLY OUTSELL THE BIRTHDAY PARTY ON THEIR RECENT TOUR.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS: 16 / 5; PLAYED AT MAVERICKS. SOUND SYSTEM BLEW UP AFTER THREE SONGS SO SHOW HAD HEAVY VISUAL ATTENTION. SOME TROUBLE SIMILAR TO PHOENIX.
NEW YORK: 1 / 6; PLAYED AT THE PYRAMID CLUB. DNA DATE CANCELLED AS BAND BROKE UP.
NEW YORK: 7 / 6; PLAYED AT CBGB. BEST NY SHOW. USED PIG HEAD AND BACK SCREEN PROJECTION.
NEW YORK: 13 / 6; PLAYED AT DANCETERIA WITH SOME NEW MATERIAL DONE IN NY. GREAT RESPONSE.
DEPARTED USA 15 / 6 FOR LONDON. PLANNING ON A EUROPEAN TOUR IN JULY. POSSIBLE RETURN TO NEW YORK IN FALL."
Fuzzy and indistinct at times, as audience tapes will be, I'm glad that there is an audio document of the Russian Center gig as it provides a second look at a show that was a nexus point for me as I moved into several new areas of artistic exploration. The band, the event, and the music were a big influence for years after. Just going up to visit the big back room at Rough Trade in San Francisco and dredge their newest noise records was quite a lot of fun back then. This was before I moved to the city and those early shows like SRL and SPK and their extremes of presentation, were very refreshing indeed.
I love this story from the Leichenschrei Wikipedia page, that the locked groove from the end of side two was used a a placeholder for DJs at radio station WMUC who failed to arrive for shows, rather than allow dead air. That must have made a few listeners wonder!
Here's an interesting list of S.P.K. "releases" legit and otherwise (even I'm guilty of buying a grey-market SPK live tape of a 1983 gig at a London flea market in 1985). And below we find the 13 suites of the live cassette, broken up into songs for convenience. A big up and thank you to the Rob Wortman Archive for this audio file. Digital transfer by me, in 2002.
Source: (1) "SPK Primer", included with Fresh Tape 103