Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Come On Story

Or... Obscurity never sounded so good.


Artists do their purest work in obscurity, with minimum feedback from any kind of audience. With no audience to consider, artists are free to create work that is true to their own vision.

In an attempt to educate my daughter without the benefit of spoken word (because the spoken word is passe these days), I went through a spell several years ago where I wrote mini blurbs on the various musicians I feel important enough to share with her.  Considering I have only gotten her into two point five of the artists featured, I am leaning towards learning Sign Language as means of communication.

I could probably get more across.

R-L: George Elliott, Ralf Mann, Jamie Kaufman, Elena Glasberg, Page Wood

One such blubbering blurb that caught her eyes and ears concerned the '70s No/New Wave band Come On.  Actually, she thought Elena Glasberg cute enough to give them a try.    "She's surrounded by boys!"              "I bet they made her wear that shirt..."

I first became aware of Come On's music in 1987.  A groovy friend had made it his mission to collect as many 'Now Wave' singles as humanly possible - preferably on one well-worn cassette, which he copied for anyone that asked.  Or didn't, as was my case.  He called it 'Now Wave' simply because he was so sick of the New/No Wave arguments that trickled back to us Mid-Western Next Gens.  He was a smart guy.

Buried amidst the 72 variants of Siouxsie and the Banchees, deep on the 'B' side was a single and accompanying flip side (curiously switched) that dealt entirely with kitchens.  That's right:  Kitchens.

As most of those around me were musically ignorant - combined with the fact that Mix Tapes weren't cool unless all songs went unlabeled, it took a couple of years to discover the band's name.  Then another ten years to get my hands on honest-to-God recorded material.  Followed by another five years of preaching their merits while sifting for whatever scraps of information I could find.

But enough about fleas.  We're here to talk about Come On.
Who are these guys? There were five of them, including a female guitarist--neatniks all, favoring white shirts, black pants, and short hair. Half of this belated testament was recorded CBGB 1978, a final track Hurrah 1980. But I'd never heard of them, and when I checked with New York Rocker's Andy Schwartz, he remembered only the name. On the evidence of these 16 homages to first-growth Talking Heads, from long before it was determined that the world moved on a woman's hips, we were missing something: the halting yet propulsive, arty yet catchy ejaculations of the uptight nerd as subversive geek. A five-year-old sex fiend joins suburban tennis players exposing their underthings join two straight songs about kitchens join the incendiary "Old People": "Get out in the streets/Turn over cars/Elbow young people/Set garbage on fire." Not important, obviously. Funny, though. B+

- Robert Gastritis, Dean of Rocks.

Originating from New York City during the Patti Smith v. Lou Reed heroin wars of the mid 1970s, Come On were an art-based punk band in the purest sense; three of the five band members had limited musical experience prior to forming in the third quarter of 1976 - and in their four years of existence, they released two official 7" recordings:


Don't Walk on the Kitchen Floor b/w Kitchen in the Clouds, 1978 - Come On Music, 85XX / 85XY

Housewives Play Tennis b/w Howard After Six, 1980 - Aura Records, AUS 120A / 120B

At least Come On got publishing credit.  Oh, wait...

While that output suggests otherwise, their recording history is a bit more erratically prolific:

Studio/Demo:  (unknown) Leave it to Beaver -- (Lee Stafford Sound, 8 track) See Me, Come On, She's Latent, Kitchen in the Clouds -- (Right Track Studios, 24 track) Mona Lisa, Don't Walk on the Kitchen Floor -- (unknown: Ron Johnsen demo recordings) Disneyland, Old People, Howard After Six, See Me, Housewives Play Tennis -- (Electric Lady Studios, 24 track) I'm Five, Bad Luck with Parents, Pills and Money, Salt and Pepper
 
Live:  (CBGBs) I'm Five, My Neighbor Makes Noise, Businessmen in Space, Pills and Money, Bad Luck with Parents, Physical Ed, Mom and Dad, Salt and Pepper, Nervous Love* -- (Hurrah) Disneyland, Come On*, The House*, My Neighbor Makes Noise*, Do the Welfare* -- (Max's) Bad Luck with Parents*, She's Latent*, See Me/Come On*, Deoxyribonucleic* -- (unknown) Love is a Western*, Get Out of Bed*

* = Unreleased

A chunk of these recordings would later be collected on two Heliocentric releases - the 'Come On: New York City, 1976-80' full length** (1999) and the 'Disneyland +' EP (2002); both highly recommended to those fans of the band during the 1980s that only had 'that Kitchen single' to go by.


** = The compilation is quite the marvel.  Demo cuts on the album came courtesy of a 20 year old cassette copy of the master tapes - and the CBGBs material came from a fan's handheld recorder smuggled into the club.  That this material made light of day is impressive enough.

"Since ‘NYC 1976-80’ came out, other Come On material came to light: an EP of which was released (Disneyland +), and I hope someday some noted label might offer to bring all available material together on a super-definitive Come On collection."

- George Elliott, Interview with Punkdaddy
I hate Disneyland.
Mickey didn't shake my hand.
He was taller than I thought.
He wasn't friendly; wouldn't talk.
Talk!
Mickey Mouse is a Rat!
Mickey Mouse is a Rat!

"Hi, kids!  It's Mickey!
What do you want to do?
Oh, gee... I don't know.
Ah, give me a break...
I need a drink!" 

I hate Disneyland.
Mickey didn't shake my hand.
Mickey Mouse is a Rat!
Mickey Mouse is a Rat!

Eek!  A mouse!

"Hi kids.  Mickey!
What do you want to do?
Oh, gee... I don't know.
Look at Snow White!
They have to pull her off Donald!"
- Disneyland {Live version}

Come On were so punky, they weren't even punks.

Well... not in the Ramones *slash* Darby Derby *slash* 'Kick Out the Jams, Motherfuckers!' sense.  More in the 'I cannot classify this art stuff -- Let's just call it punk rock' sense of musical criticism (circa 1978).  At least until someone coined 'New Wave', God bless them.

Regardless of genre confusion, Come On did play the holy trinity of CBGBs, Max's, and Hurrah when each of those clubs were hip and happening.  According to page 362 of the 'Hipsters Handbook', that makes them punky. 

And Hipsters don't lie.

If you still refuse to believe me, brethren, sift through your punk history books and slide on over to chapter 23: 'The Art of Blaming The Other Guy'.  Remember that big hullabaloo that Flipper raised over Public Image Limited stealing the 'Generic' concept in 1985?  Come On beat them both by five years.  That's punk.

"Gee, It's such a beautiful day.
I want to sit outside
On the park bench
With my pocketbook
And all the pigeons.
Come around
And all my friends die off
One by one.
Don't leave me all alone!"
Slippers, glasses, canes, and hats.
Old people, get out of the house.
Get out in the streets.
Turn over cars.
Elbow young people.
Set garbage on fire.
Bring your slippers.
Got your hats?
Get your glasses.
Don't forget the canes.
Wrap your scarves around your neck.
Roll your money up in your socks.
Don't sit inside.
Don't sip soup.
Old people...
Skateboard!
- Old People
Disneyland + EP insert, Heliocentric Records

Top L-R: Jamie Kaufman (v), Ralf Mann (b), George Elliott (g)
Bot L-R: Page Wood (d), Elena Glasberg (g)

"Vocalist Jamie Kaufman utters deadpan geek haikus… while the group works up a nerdish sweat with angular, choked guitars and 'difficult' rhythms.  On paper they may sound a bit like 'They Might Be Giants' long-lost older brother, but their horn-rimmed quirkiness sounds less mannered and more cutting than that of their distant relations. Come On may have inhabited their own bemused world, but they never left this one behind."
- The Wire, Issue 194, April 2000


Lyrically, Come On would foreshadow the hundreds of U.S. punk bands that would spring up from the late 70s onwards.  Whether it was setting themselves up for a visit from Disney lawyers, portraits of children who smoke and drink in effort to make themselves 'mature', or an ever present angst over parent identity, chief lyricist Jamie Kaufman's minimalist wordplays would serve as great inspiration to the more humorous and literate of the punk scene for years to come.

If those literates were lucky enough to see Come On live - and if they managed to get their hands on the band's two meager singles.  Otherwise, you were up the creek with nothing but a Housewife's Kitchen.  


One of the main downfalls of Come On, at least from this fan's eyes, was the complete failure of those around the band to nurture and promote their work.  Worst of all, the band had more near misses at fame than anyone I know of; misses that the average band would kill for. 

  • Helena Kallianiotes, of Easy Rider fame, raves about Come On, then promises to give demo recordings of the band to ‘Artie’ Garfunkel.  If she didn't add '... on the coast' to that promise, I'm crying foul.
  • David Byrne brings Brian Eno & David Bowie to CBGBs, specifically to see a Come On set.  Bowie cuts out early.  Eno, at the time recruiting for the No New York compilation, claimed the band were ‘too vertical, not horizontal enough’. 
  • A cut recorded for a proposed 'Live at CBGBs 2' LP gets shelved when that project fails to materialize.
  • They were signed by the same production team that was hell-bent on making a new wave idol out of Klaus Nomi 
  • Talking Heads had Seymour Stein and Brian Eno champion them.  Come On had noted producer Ron Johnsen of KISS fame - the same producer that felt the material strong enough to teach it to his own children. 
  • Byrne's recommendation for career improvement: arrange their songs for classical music.  Really, Mr. Byrne?  That was the suggestion made to a group of rocker friends that held you in such esteem?  Classical music... ?

 
It has been suggested that Come On may have appeared too 'ready made' to the local music press and hungry record executives for either camps to lend much of a hand.  Klaus Nomi, it must be remembered, was getting a lot of publicity and recognition during those late 1970s - what with Bowiemania still sweeping the jaded cats.  Being on the same team as those pushing Nomi would surely help out these unsung nervous rockers.  Right?

Not as such.

As far as I am aware, outside of a small number of concert reviews, only one article was written about the band during their lifetime (New York Rocker, Vol. 1, #13, July-August 1978 - by Sally Dricks).

Excerpt:  Come On is something teetering on the Dadaist edge, too stunningly presented as sublime simplicity to be such, so the gears whirl to analyze, intellectualize, create and decipher symbols where none were intended, or else, on the same edge of definition, miss their rather surreal form of levity searching for artistic pretensions. Come On is just fun, quirky sort of lyrics, a strongly unique musical stylization of futuro-rock, and a fabulously high-powered stage show. This ain't no art-rock band, though for lack of a better label they're bound to get known as such; both Eno and Bowie are interested in working with them, after being hyped by David Byrne's tape of two sets at Max's and checking them out in person at CBGB's, but so goes the 1980's rock'n'roll, and who knows what could happen within that collaboration.

Drummer Page Wood and guitarist George Elliott would make names for themselves working with Nomi, but what of the benefits to Come On as a whole?  Or to the other 60%?

In addition to the Team Nomi backing, the ever present tie-in to Talking Heads must have been perceived as a curse and a blessing.  A curse because of the never ending comparisons - and a blessing because David Byrne was a buddy.  He'd help the band out.  Maybe even produce their debut album!  Wouldn't that be something?

You say he'd prefer the B52s?  Not a chance.  He's a buddy...  Wait, classical music?

“The people who made it from the eighties had nothing to sell out in the first place. Jim Jarmusch, David Byrne, Keith Haring—all the bad ones got ahead, all the apple-for-the-teacher lightweights. The ones who are really great have a sense of madness and can’t hold it together.”

- John Lurie, The New Yorker

So why bother?  Why champion a band thirty years beyond their sell by date?  Surely I have read Robert Christgau's 'unimportant' summation and been subject to Google's lack of interest. 

All true.  And all a bunch of B+ graded bullshit.

Talking Heads became darlings because of their initial, stripped down approach to rock 'n' roll in an era where over-produced bloat was becoming more and more common.  Once the Heads started to become cool to those outside the sludge confines of New York, songs about buildings and food were pushed aside for the funkier poly-rhythms of JuJu Rock.    

Come On, being huge fans of Talking Heads before anyone outside that tight-knit circle had heard of them, maintained that stripped down approach in perpetual celebration of the mundane.  A stripped down assault on bloat, I might add, that would take hold across the Atlantic and turn Sid Vicious into Le Clown Héroïne.  And that, good Sir Christgau, is what makes Come On important... to... me.

I like mundane minimalism.
I like dark humor.
I like the angular and disjointed.
I like songs about buildings, food, kitchens, and pencil sharpeners.

Were I pretentious enough, I'd cryptically point out that Come On were the sonic equivalent of Piet Mondrian and Frank Stella in effort to paint them as Significant (with a capital S).  But I am not - so I won't. 

If every song were an observation on transvestite dope pushers (you know... the 'important stuff'), we'd all be wearing sunglasses at night, quoting Chairman Lou... 

... And waiting for someone to honor Mary Hartman by writing tunes about waxy yellow buildup.

Disneyland + EP

To the former members of Come On, I can imagine that the punky-arty-new wavy band experience was a frustrating (and fascinating) bump in their eventual career paths.  After all, we are talking about Professors of Antarctic Studies, accomplished Musicians and Visual Artists, successful Real Estate Developers, and Enigmatic Magnates; hobnobbing with New York's art elite may not have been the end all.

Yet I can not help but feel that each of them has a story to tell; a first-hand account of an important and influential art and musical scene that would spawn disco, punk, new wave, no wave, rap, pseudo-intelligentsia back-stabbers, and the 'Do you really speak like that?' prose of pet panting (wet painting?) music scribes. 


I would like to think that in some bearded Spock universe, Come On became the art darlings hailed by Time Magazine as the new Renaissance, Disney Corp. sued the band for Rat Libel, Elena Glasberg's '69 Fender Swinger made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and an obscure David Byrne is asked by name-droppers what types of shoes Ralf Mann wore.

It is the only way I can make sense of this senseless world.


If Gary Wilson, Daniel Johnston, Talking Heads, Klaus Nomi and the Decline of Western Civilization can have deserved documentaries done on them, perhaps it is time for someone to seek out and deliver 'the Come On Story'.


And this time, perhaps someone will actually finish it!  Lazy slobs...



Links of Interest:

* George Elliott's Youtube Page
* Elliott's latest and greatest:  Holy Contour
* A Village Voice 'Hot Spot' feature on Page Wood 
* Interview with Page Wood & George Elliott (Re: Nomi)

* Disneyland + EP


Note: All song related artwork was created by yours truly using bits and pieces found elsewhere (2012).  Because no one else is stupid enough to take credit for it.

5 comments:

  1. I like the sound of that song. It reminds me of something that would play on the type of show as the Talking Heads. The guitars are good and have a nice groove going on. I would have dug this if I would have heard it at the time...lol. Very cool, Eric.

    More later...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Always a pleasure to {re}introduce hidden gems, Mr. Warren; your comment (as always) is much appreciated.

    But if no one comments on the distasteful artwork, I've failed Advanced Punk. Basic was easy. It came in a blue box, had a Sex Pistols album, and do-it-yourself ear piercers.

    ReplyDelete
  3. LOL...wow! I guess I am numb to the distasteful artwork since I grew up with all those heavy metal album covers. Of course, I was the guy that drew the Grimace - yes, the McDonald's Grimace - Reaper artwork on my wall in Somalia so the Chaplin would bug off. He was an irritating dude so I had to irritate back!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for this nice extended write-up sir!
    Collectors: there remain a few KITCHEN 45s in cardboard sleeve, as well as some original CDs w/ 32 page booklet [amazon is now selling the bookletless generic mp3 version]
    If interested contact Come On guitarist GE via: http://www.youtube.com/user/okeyeye

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks to you for inspiring it!

      If anyone is considering direct dealing with G.E., I highly recommend doing so.

      You simply cannot find the Kitchens single* anywhere these days - and the inner artwork of the CD booklet is fab (for those of us that did not have it previously).

      * = Pictures are included in this here blog post.

      Delete