Monday, April 4, 2011

New Wave for the New Week #118

Back in the good old days of New Wave and Punk vinyl, one of the ways that those of us who were into the music discovered new bands was by picking up records released on certain labels.  If you knew the label's "identity" or signature sound, and you liked it, you could safely bet that chancing a couple bucks on a band you never heard but who recorded for that same label would result in the discovery of a band you couldn't wait to tell your friends about.   In Punk circles, labels like Dischord, SST, Dangerhouse and Posh Boy each had very identifiable sounds; in New Wave it was Sire, Mute, and - my personal go-to label when searching for something new, I.R.S.  Originally starting out as Illegal Records in the UK, I.R.S. Records was the creation of Miles Copeland, brother of Stewart Copeland of The Police.  Indeed, the first release in the label's history was The Police's debut single, "Fall Out."  The I.R.S. sound was guitar driven but not without synths.  I.R.S. bands often rode the grey line between New Wave and Punk (The Stranglers and The Dead Kennedys and The Damned all put out records on I.R.S., but so did Wall Of Voodoo and The Alarm and The Go-Go's), but the music was always good, always interesting, and always creative.  And it was through my tendency to pick up anything on I.R.S. that I discovered Skafish.

One of the earliest signings for I.R.S. (in fact, the first non-UK act that Miles brought on board) was an odd fellow by the name of Jim Skafish.  Jim was a strange-looking nasally-voiced performer making some waves in the Chicago underground scene for his infectiously catchy songs and nearly alien physical appearance.  He was actually a classically trained jazz musician, but Skafish and his namesake band made somewhat off-kilter,  jagged rock music using a wide variety of instruments both acoustic and electronic.  The first Skafish release, the 1979 single "Disgracing The Family Name," was a wonderful cacophony of multi-layered instruments so wobbly that the song seems ready to collapse in on itself at any moment, yet so dense as to avoid that fate as it races to its conclusion.  In many ways, it is an almost perfect representative of the I.R.S. label's sound: if like this, you're gonna like just about everything else!

Enough people did like the sound, it seems; Skafish received more column space in a 1980 Rolling Stone Magazine article about a concert where they were the opening act than the headlining (and quite well established) Stranglers received!  I.R.S. wanted to get a full album out while the buzz about Skafish was still going, but Jim was spending a lot of studio time and almost all of his recording budget tinkering and rerecording and perfecting the songs for Skafish (1980).  In the hopes of recouping lost time and money, the label mixed the record rather quickly and rather shoddily, and while the material on it was quite good, it sounded terrible and did not sell.

Skafish got noticed again in 1981 for their performance in the concert film Urgh! A Music War, where they performed the somewhat controversial (for it's time) "Sign Of The Cross."  With renewed interest in the band, I.R.S. took a gamble on a second album.  1983's Conversation flopped even worse than its predecessor, mainly because the music had taken an unfortunate turn toward too-slick dance-pop.  Jim parted ways with I.R.S. and headed back home to Chicago, where he continued to write and perform for many years.

Skafish suddenly resurfaced in 2006, over two decades since their last record, with the surprising Tidings Of Comfort And Joy (A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas), whose title accurately describes its contents.  A pleasant holiday diversion, but who expected it?  Two years later, Skafish released an odds-and-sods compilation of early material called What Is This? (1976 - 1979), which includes early versions of "Disgracing The Family Name," "Sign Of The Cross," and other assorted goodies.  The title here would indicate that perhaps another installment may be planned covering Skafish's post-1979 work, but so far none has appeared.

For this week's NW4NW entry, here is Skafish's classic, "Disgracing The Family Name."  The clip was put together to coincide with the release of What Is This?, and includes footage from throughout Skafish's career. Enjoy!

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