Sunday, December 1, 2013

Awake with The Sleepers

Even in the anything-goes world of early California Punk, The Sleepers were aliens in a sea of misfits.

Perpetually stuck between the cerebral and the incendiary, The Sleepers (1977-1981) were fueled by the crooner-on-codeine charm of singer Ricky Williams, whose musical exploits included a stint as drummer for West Coast Punk legends Crime. Boasting an incomparable style somewhere between Mick Jagger and Scott Walker (and driven by more than a few pharmaceuticals amidst rumors of mental hospital stays), Williams (who launched the earliest version of the band with bassist and fellow Mountain View resident Paul Draper) owned a truly odd voice that often clashed with the band’s music to the point where most of their songs sounded like disparate worlds colliding. At Williams’ side stood guitarist Michael Belfer, one of the most wildly inventive players of his era. Aided by a consistently revolving door of musicians, the duo worked together long enough to unleash an EP, a single and a full-length album that still sound as otherworldly today as they did more than three decades ago. 

With Williams’ slurred “Two-three-faw!” The Sleepers kick off 1978’s Seventh World EP with a title track that immediately makes it clear that this crew has no interest in convention. The vocals sound like they are for a completely different song, while the music’s tempo changes three times before even reaching the one-minute mark. The song eventually concludes with an epic finale that leaves the experiencer (listener is such a trite term in this context) to wonder what just happened. The next track, “No Time,” is a bit closer to planet Earth, pounding forward with a steady beat as Williams rambles on about “a chick with a problem” before collapsing with a scream and an ugh! Track three, “Flying,” is the first true showcase of Belfer’s trademark distorted and disturbed guitar work, ably supported on this track by Draper’s sterling bass playing.   

The next number, “She’s Fun,” features one of Belfer’s most blistering riffs at 0:45, while the song succeeds in spotlighting Williams’ penchant for lyrical misogyny (“Sometimes she’s fun to fuck/That’s all she’s meant for”) before descending into utter chaos at the 2:09 mark.

The EP closes with perhaps the band’s finest composition, “Linda.” Showcasing a (mostly) subdued Williams, “Linda” offered a relatively mellow feel highlighted by a mesmerizing guitar solo by Belfer at 2:41. As sinister as it is soothing, Belfer’s performance on this number sets the foundation for the sort of lowbrow elegance that made The Birthday Party or These Immortal Souls so captivating in the decade to come. While Belfer casually raises the bar for the entire San Francisco Punk scene in the span of a 38-second solo, Draper and drummer Tim Mooney display their own brand of impressive, Jazz-tinged interplay in the background. It’s difficult to name another band from this scene/era that displayed such sophisticated musicianship.

Sonically, the entire EP sounds like it was recorded in a cavernous basement club full of the type of black-clad people you only see through clouds of cigarette smoke at 1am – just as your drugs kick in. It is impossible to not feel the darkness and instability in the grooves. A flawless record.

Like several bands from the era, this early incarnation of The Sleepers celebrated their grand entrance into the world of vinyl by promptly disbanding. Williams soon found himself as the short-lived frontman of the original Flipper, while Belfer brought his sonic arsenal to an early incarnation of the esoteric and exhilarating Tuxedomoon. Mooney joined up with fellow San Francisco nihilists Negative Trend (who had recently added former F-World! singer Rik L Rik to their ranks) to drum on a handful of tracks that later appeared on the legendary Tooth And Nail and Beach Blvd. compilation albums. 

Thankfully, Belfer and Williams eventually began working together again. Utilizing a drum machine, Tuxedomoon saxophonist Steven Brown and Pink Section bassist Stephen Wymore, The Sleepers’ 1980 single “Mirror”/”Theory” couldn’t be any less like its predecessor. Driven by echoing vocals and colorful guitar work that painted pictures rather than struck chords, the single offered brilliant mood music that would have easily felt right at home in the Factory Records stable. “Theory” is especially impressive, with Wymore’s urgent bass joining forces with Williams’ ever-warped voice and Belfer’s peerless guitar to create something that could be described as Joy Division underwater.

Naturally, the next Sleepers release was another leap in a new direction. By the time of 1981’s Painless Nights LP, the band’s lineup had grown to include second guitarist Mike White, bassist Ron MacLeod and drummer Brian MacLeod. Anchored by an absolutely stellar rhythm section, Painless Nights adds a Gothic twist to The Sleepers’ repertoire. Again singing from an entirely different world from the rest of his bandmates, Williams launches the LP with “When Can I Fly?,” which details a “backstreet junkie” who (naturally) is “a little girl.” The track is followed by the stiff, almost robotic feel of “Walk Away,” which features the BPeople rhythm section of Alex Gibson and Tom Recchion and recalls Bauhaus’ more playful moments. “The Mind” (again with Gibson on bass) flows into (somewhat) more conservative territory, presenting a Boomtown Ratsy number and the closest the band ever came to anything resembling a Pop tune. But just when you think you have the song figured out, in comes an entirely new section at 2:22 driven by rolling drums and a bulletproof guitar riff straight out of Peter Gunn. The hypnotic noise of “Intro” reminds one of the then-active original incarnation of Throbbing Gristle, while the sly lounge band groove of “Forever” offers a map for future Bad Seeds and Bunnymen as the track builds in intensity before quieting down with a shimmering farewell.

Composed by guitarist Mike White, “Zenith” is four minutes of Marquee Moon-quality guitar work that offers a dreamlike, almost cinematic feel akin to driving down a desolate strip of highway in the middle of the night. The track bleeds into a remarkable full-band rendition of “Theory.” Taken in as one piece, the 10-minute “Zenith/Theory” showcases just how much the band evolved in the three short years that followed the release of their first EP. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the dirgy “B-Side” is how many other bands sound like it. There’s definitely some Sisters of Mercy, trio-era Cure and post-Wobble PiL in there. That’s not to say that these groups pilfered The Sleepers; it’s just that the Sleepers were already there by 1981. (Imagine taking a huge fan of Metal Box and making him or her listen to early Can or ’77-era Hawkwind for the first time. That’s what it’s like listening to Painless Nights after years of The Sisters’ First And Last And Always or The Cure’s Pornography.) The album’s concluding cut, “Los Gatos,” is the band’s most undeniably Death Rock moment, right down to the spooky sounds effects and bass-driven song structure that the early Christian Death was hard at work developing at the same time a few hundred miles south in Los Angeles. 

Painless Nights is disturbed, desperate, suave, shambolic, sophisticated and utterly perfect. Just like the combination of personalities that created it. It would also prove to be band’s final proper release as a living entity. 

The Sleepers ended their run in April 1981 following a disastrous show in New York City. Video of that evening (easily found on YouTube) clearly demonstrate the band’s impossible-to-ignore eternal dilemma: Belfer and the rest of the band pound out their unconventional songs with precision as a completely fried Williams moans and stammers with incoherent abandon. The damn thing sounds like a band chugging away at 45rpm with a singer stuck at 33 1/3. Sadly, this would be the last time The Sleepers would ever grace the stage.

Mooney and Williams would later play together again in the brilliant post-Negative Trend band Toiling Midgets, most notably on 1982’s arresting Sea Of Unrest LP. Last September, Ektro Records in Finland issued the bulletproof Toiling Midgets: Live at the Old Waldorf, July 21, 1982 LP featuring the Williams/Mooney lineup. Last month, the LP was made available in the US in a limited edition of only 25 copies. (Act now, kids). Additionally, some pretty amazing live recordings of Williams and Mooney with Toiling Midgets can be found HERE.

A 1996 Sleepers compilation called The Less An Object collects the band’s complete discography and is relatively easy to purchase online. The CD features two Painless Nights-era bonus tracks: “Step Back” (which sounds like “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” on 78 speed) and “Let Me Free.

The Less An Object also includes “Holding Back,” a 1981 recording not released until 1994, when it was paired with “B-Side” for a posthumous single. Williams’ obvious straining during “Holding Back”’s chorus adds to the track’s urgency and emotion, making it (at least in this writer’s opinion) the man’s greatest recorded vocal performance.

After years of self abuse, Williams died in 1992 at the age of 36. Belfer’s later career included a stint with Black Lab, while Mooney found a fair amount of success as a member of the critically acclaimed American Music Club. Sadly, the timekeeper died of a heart attack in June 2012 at the age of 53.

The Sleepers left an indelible impact on those fortunate enough to see them live during the band’s short career.

“I remember when The Sleepers came down to LA for the ‘Mabuhay Night’ at the Whisky in 1978,” recalls David Murphy, guitarist for The Vidiots and the late Rik L Rik. “Negative Trend, The Offs and The Nuns were also on the bill. The Sleepers were amazing, just an ecstatic blur. They were doing their cover of The Chambers Brothers’ ‘Time Has Come Today,’ and Ricky kept yelling to the sound guy, ‘More echo, more echo!’”                                       

Murphy and L Rik later recorded a version of “She’s Fun” (released on the 1991 Rik L Rik anthology The Lost Album) and performed a cover of “Linda” live. 

“There was a certain hypnotic vibe that The Sleepers had - just lurching, swirling, deliberate,” Murphy says. “Those songs were fun to play. Rik really liked paring songs back to their essential elements, using single-string riffs. I think there were these minimalist influences that he got from The Sleepers and Negative Trend in those early days that he always carried with him.”
Earlier this year, the amazing San Francisco-based label Superior Viaduct reissued Seventh World and Painless Nights on vinyl. These deserve a place in any serious music collection. (In related news, Superior Viaduct reissued Negative Trend’s classic 1978 EP on November 26 and is set to release vinyl reissues of two 12-inch EPs by Tuxedomoon on December 10. Bless them.)

If you’re looking for a band to explore on a rainy night when the bottles are empty and the ashtray is full, go HERE for more information on the Sleepers vinyl reissues.


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