HOT BOX - Destroy All Monsters/Dark Carnival (featuring Niagara & Ron Asheton) (Lost Patrol Records)
Murmurs about this box set had been around for some time but then silence, so it was a surprise to stumble across copies at Niagara's recent art exhibition opening in Sydney, Australia. Detroit's punk diva doesn't do things by halves, and the set comprises five CDs and a live DVD.
Shame if you have to ask 'cos you should know that Destroy All Monsters was the first post-Stooges band of guitar Gruppenfuhrer Ron Asheton's to make any real impression outside the practice room. After a few lost years in Los Angeles trying to land a deal for its predecessor, The New Order, and back living at his mother's home in Ann Arbor, Ron was paid a six-pack to sit in with a local band. They were Destroy All Monsters, named for a very cool Japanese movie about men in rubber monster costumes who lay waste to scale model cities. Like the best Jap sci-fi, it's played out against a background of crappy special effects and even worse actors with bad lip-synching. Ron had similar feelings about elements of that rehearsal.
One person who did pass master was budding graphic artist and Stooges fan Niagara, a singer (term used under advisement) with a startling presence and an atonal, disembodied voice that made Nico sound like a choir girl on ecstasy. Sharp-eyed Ron saw potential in Niagara, not only as a vocalist but also as a girlfriend. He quickly replaced a couple of band members with out-on-parole ex-MC5 bassist Michael Davis and drummer Rob King, and a barely musical collective became a formidable and very rocking art punk band.
You might know their songs, even if you haven't heard the band: "November 22nd, 1963" was covered by New Race and the Exploding White Mice tackled "Meet the Creeper". The singles, on Cherry Red out of the UK, were big sellers in Aussie indie shops in the '80s, partly on the strength of the R. Asheton credit but also because they were great. A string of those singles, a UK tour and countless bottles of pills and gallons of alcohol later, DAM died a disappointed death on the very crowded altar of unfulfilled promise.
Enter Dark Carnival, a floating cast of Detroit underground muso's with Niagara and Asheton at its core and her future husband, Colonel Galaxy, in the role of ringmaster and master of ceremonies. Cheetah Chrome and Scott Asheton were among the cast of players, and the band were a great local draw, but came onto a scene besotted with flannellete shirts and a bastard child of punk and heavy metal called grunge. Rock chops with trash-glamourous street corner divas weren't on the wider critical agenda. A stripped-down (and incredibly powerful) Dark Carnival made it to Australia in '91, played more than 30 shows - and we loved 'em. (Personal aside: I got engaged to the Barmaid at one of the gigs, but I'm sure it wasn't just the music that made me do it). How the rest of the world didn't catch on is a mystery.
Dark Carnival wound down as Niagara's art career took off, and her grimly humourous and colourful pop artworks now command big dollars. That's great for the art world but a loss to rock and roll. Ron Asheton went on to the re-born Stooges, so that more than balances the books. Sporadic live appearances by Niagara haven't been out of the question, however, and we almost jagged a couple of shows with local bands on her 2006 visit to Melbourne and Sydney but for some skittishness about visas being in order.
Artlessness is a big part of punk but for a while I was convinced by ex-Barfly Ken Shimamoto's argument that Niagara's deadpan delivery was a drawback in these bands. What might be considered a weakness in conventional terms is, in fact, a fantastic asset. It's heard to great effect over the course of this box set, as is the distinctive attack of Ron Asheton. The guy invented the sound of the (first era) Stooges, and if he hasn't changed too many things since then it's because he doesn't have to.
What "Hot Box" isn't is the three-disc set of (pre-Asheton) DAM recordings brought out by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore last century. Here's the rundown:
- Disc one compiles all the DAM singles, including the inestimably great cover of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walking". Listen to Ron's guitar on "Nobody Knows" and say it's not godhead. There's a couple of post DAM cuts thrown in as bonuses, the spooky "Ghost on the Highway" (with the Demolition Dollrods on backing) and Dark Carnival's "The Night That Never Ends".
- Disc two delivers 15 live cuts of variable sonic quality, but most are essential listening for any fan, especially the likes of obscurities like "Fast City", "Little Boyfriend" and "I Just Wanna Be Sleepy". There was a live release on Fan Club years ago, and these tracks are of similar quality.
- Disc three is a searing 1997 Halloween show by the Carnival in Manhattan, recorded by their then-label Sympathy for the Record Industry but never released. Some molten Asheton guitarwork and crazed Niagara vocals should have you reaching for the repeat button. It's where you'll best hear the oft-quoted but rarely sighted DAM cut, "I Love You But You're Dead". Really well-recorded, great playing. The intro rave from Colonel Galaxy rivals some of the banter on "Metallic KO".
- Disc four is a re-mastered version of their Sympathy album, "The Last Great Ride". This was the band's first proper studio full-length (the self-titled and worthy Australia-only '91 CD was mostly live cuts), and I can't say I loved it the first time round, which was mainly down to some minor things in the production and a couple of weak tunes. The aural tweaking is probably minor but the album sounds like it has better presence this time out. Some of these songs are killer ("Good Morning Headache", "Cop's Eyes" and the Hendrix-like title track) with stunning guitar from Ron and the underrated Greasy Carlisi. Even the lesser tunes have grown in time.
- Disc five is another Dark Carnival gig from 1995 that's a sonic step down from the Halloween show disc, suffering by comparison to the Halloween show on disc three. That's Rock Action behind the traps (he's uncredited in the liners) and as much as it pains me to say it, it must have been an off night 'cos he doesn't do justice to the mostly DAM and Stooges songs, taking a backseat instead of driving. The take on the Syndicate of Sound's "Hey Little Girl" staggers around on downers and just doesn't stack up against the Dead Boys version.
- Disc six is the DVD and it's a multi-camera pro-shoot of the Dark Carnival set at the February 1992 Rob Tyner Tribute in Detroit. Dontcha hate it when people bang on about a band being "at the peak of its powers"? Well be pissed off at me because they are. Niagara is fantastic and the band are on fire throughout the all-too-short 25-minute set. Can't say I'm crazy about the vision mixer's insistence on repeated wide shots of the stage, but I can live with that. This is one hot show.
The whole shebang is nicely packaged with lots of pictures and enigmatic smatterings of liner notes. It comes in a chunky jewel case of the size that used to be standard for double disc packages. The ingenuity behind squeezing in half-a-dozen of the little silver suckers is an engineering feat in itself. The only criticism is that a single page track listing on the back wouldn't have gone astray. If you want to know what's next, you need to consult the printing on the discs themselves.
It looks good and sounds great. All that remains is to tell you where you can procure it (I scored mine at the aforementioned exhibition opening). Ron Asheton has a webshop with a Shop icon, or drop Niagara and The Colonel a line at her site.– The Barman
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