For brief moment in the early '80s there seemed to be a musical
upheaval, ready to incinerate the homogenized carcass of rock'n' roll. A
new breed of sonic alchemist sprung up across the country to rebel
against the sad state of music and the lobotomized happiness of the
Reagan years. The bands had names like Swans, Scratch Acid, Sonic Youth,
Pussy Galore and the Butthole Surfers. Village Voice writer Robert
Christgau described the sound of these like-minded bands as "pig fuck."
At the eye of the pig fuck movement was Big Black and the band's
outspoken punk rock advocate and watchdog, Steve Albini.
Over top of a relentless drum machine (the ever present fourth band
member "Roland"), Albini (vocals,guitar), Santiago Durango (guitar) and
Dave Riley (bass) helped update and reinvent the nature of what punk
rock could sound like. Taking cues from forefathers like Wire, Killing
Joke, the Gang of Four and the Birthday Party, Big Black helped not only
define the "Chicago sound" of punk, but in turn become forerunners of
the industrial music scene which became popularized by Netzer Ebb, Nine
Inch Nails and Ministry.
Against standard music industry logic Big Black broke up at the height
of their popularity, leaving the band's final album, 1986's Songs About
Fucking, as the final testament to how far the band had come since
Albini first recorded the Lungs EP in his dorm room alone as a sophomore
Considered a notorious misogynist in many circles, Albini used Big
Black to take very blunt and graphic lyrical content to its natural
conclusion. Though divided into two distinctive sides (Happy Otter/ Sad
Otter), Songs About Fucking deals with the breakdown of the idea of love
and the human ability to become twisted by and obsessed with it. Like
Albini states in the liner notes, "The things people do when they have
nothing to do can be pretty silly. Those same people can become
all-important in each others lives. The things they do increase in
importance and in proportion. Soon a lot of people who do nothing
individually scrutinize the miniscule doings of others. This, in short,
is falling in love."
The album is littered with characters and scenes that come across like
a bizarre southern gothic novel. Spread across fourteen songs are tales
of truck drivers who fuck their way across the country, burning out
mattresses in their cabs ("Power of Independent Trucking"), vindictive
boyfriends who lash out against ex-girlfriends by fucking their friends
("Bad Penny'), girls who sleep their lives away and decide to die
("L.Dopa"), or the equating of the degradation and humiliation of a mob
death to breaking up ("Colombian Necktie").
By the Sad Otter half of the record, the band hits its stride with
"Fish Fry," a shocking but true narrative about a guy who met a girl at
a fish fry, had sex with her and beat her to death with his boot.
"Pavement Saw"s assaultive tone is an almost-too-real account of what
can happen when love turns into hate. Mustering an accurate scorned
boyfriend bark, Albini is all too convincing yelling, "She went through
me like a Pavement saw/ And so sick of her." By the time "Tiny, King of
Jews" comes over the speakers, it's easy to find yourself either a)
completely shocked and outraged, b) completely enamored or c) looking
below the surface to the see the deeper meaning to the music.
Though the title, "Tiny, King of Jews," reeks of racist overtone (and
the same can be said for the name Big Black, which actually comes from
the name of a Japanese comic book), in actuality the song is a mediation
on a racist who who realizes that all he is and believes in is a lie,
and in his mind he has become what he despises the most, a fate he
believes is worse then death. Despite this anger and hate-building, the band ends the album
with a tongue-in-cheek cover of Cheap Trick's "He's a Whore" (and aren't
they?), which serves as the perfect kiss-off to all the naysayers.
After Big Black's farewell tour (documented on the live album Pig
Pile), the band members went their separate ways. Durango went to law
school (one of the factors in the band's breakup) and put out two
records as Arsenal. He is now a respected lawyer in Chicago whose
clients include Albini, Touch & Go founder Corey Rusk and Cynthia
Plaster Caster. Dave Riley put out a record as Bull, and though he
suffered a stroke he has fully recovered and still plays. As for Steve
Albini, well... he's Steve Albini. He formed his next band Rapeman
(another Japanese comic book character) with the former rhythm section
of Scratch Acid, but the band fell apart after two very fine EPs.After
that, Albini concentrated on his duties as a recording engineer, working
with more bands then I can print (chances are good that, no matter who
you are, you own a record he's worked on). His most recent band,
Shellac, has released three records (the most recent 1000 Hurts just
came out last summer) and he runs and operates his own recording
facility, Electrical Audio in Chicago.
Written By: Paul B.