Archive for the ‘The Blackouts’ Category

The Blackouts’ divided songwriting duties between synthesizer player Roland Barker and singer/guitarist Erich Werner.  Werner’s lyrics reflected an intellectual level beyond his years.  An example, from “Chipped Beef”:

He said he spoke for you

“Follow that man—he’ll show

you to separate the seed from the chaff”

And that we did

It took time, but we realize

that leaves cling to trees

that may poison them…

The band’s trajectory suddenly changed when Roland’s synth was swiped at a Showbox gig.  He then switched to sax, and the balance of power shifted to Erich.  The band became darker, less poppy, more sparse.  For drummer Bill Rieflin, that was the moment when “the Blackouts became the Blackouts.”  Shortly thereafter, bassist Mike Davidson left the band, replaced by Roland’s brother Paul, who went by the stage name Ion.  Mike, who never cared for Roland’s poppy synth-driven songs, became a much bigger fan of the Blackouts after he left the band.  “I really loved what they did–they became like my favorite group after that,” says Mike.  “Shamelessly, I admitted, ‘Yeah, I quit that band, but man they’re great now!'”

By 1982, the Blackouts realized their career options were severely limited in Seattle, and so they decided to head to Boston.  Early ’80s Boston had become a vibrant music community.  At the time, avant-postpunkers Mission of Burma ruled the scene, with future Seattle producer Chris Hanzsek attending their shows.  In any event, the Blackouts scheduled their final Seattle gig at the Oddfellows Hall up on Capitol Hill.  Two bands opened: the Horrible Truth, and a fledgling weirdo punk/garage band called the U-Men.  Jim Tillman, who played bass for the Horrible Truth and later the U-Men, remembers the Blackouts fondly.  “Their recordings literally do not do them justice,” says Jim.  “Their live shows were about the most invigorating, visceral, and just wild-eyed experiences.”

Unfortunately for the Blackouts, the Boston venture did not go well.  Two years later, the band relocated to San Francisco, and quickly imploded.  Ion and Bill ended up in Ministry…Bill also later drummed for R.E.M.  Despite the band’s limited national impact, its imprint upon the local scene was incalculable.  “The Blackouts were probably THEE proto-grunge template,” observes Larry Reid, who had hosted the band at his Rosco Louie art gallery.  “It was sort of a thick, heavy sound.”

You talk to enough Seattle people, you listen to enough music, and you begin to figure out the Northwest’s standout bands…those special bands …bands that created something beyond categorization.  Going back to the ’60s, four Seattle groups stand out, in my opinion—four bands that can’t be duplicated: the Sonics, Red Dress, the U-Men, and the Blackouts.

The Sonics basically invented Northwest garage rock, and continue to influence people with their raw, honest, and inherently creative sound.  Red Dress would result if James Brown and Captain Beefheart had a baby…and that baby that was brought up by a nanny named the Band.  I wrote a piece about them on this blog, so check it out.  The U-Men get more mention in my book than any other band, and with good reason.  That band influenced more of the grunge folks than any other local act, but they were far from grunge.

That leaves us with the Blackouts.  In late ’70s Seattle, you had to play covers to get bar gigs.  Punk bands found themselves putting on their own shows, with a few exceptions.  The only newer acts that got regular club shows were of the cleaned up “new wave” variety.  Musical innovation and experimentation were discouraged…which is why the Blackouts become even more remarkable in retrospect.

The Blackouts descended from the Telepaths, one of Seattle’s original “punk” bands.  The Telepaths played Seattle’s first major punk rock show in 1976—the notorious “TMT Show,” alongside the Meyce and Tupperwares.  But they weren’t punk rock, really.  The Telepaths did not subscribe to the less competence is more punk aesthetic.  They were fans of intricate progressive rock.  At that time, liking prog was the worst possible sin for a punk rocker.  “They were like King Crimson and the Stooges kind of mixed together,” says bassist Mike Davidson of the Lewd, who later joined the Telepaths.

The Telepaths featured brothers Curt and Erich Werner, Homer Spence, Davidson, and drummer Bill Rieflin, whose stellar percussion ability has left most Seattleites to anoint him “Seattle’s greatest drummer.”  That means something, given Seattle’s propensity for generating great trapmeisters including Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, Mother Love Bone’s Greg Gilmore, the Melvins’ Dale Crover (originally from Montesano), the Presidents’ Jason Finn, and others.  Rieflin would later bring his drumming talents to Ministry and R.E.M. 

(The pic above, courtesy of the Meyce’s Paul Hood, shows the Telepaths’ Curt Werner singing at the Bird in 1978.)

By 1979, though, the Telepaths had run their course, and a new band emerged: the Blackouts.  Taking a more bare-boned postpunk approach, Erich Werner would soon take center stage, with Roland Barker on synthesizer, Davidson on bass, and Rieflin on drums.  Local promoter Terry Morgan soon took notice of this new “all star” band.  “They just had an aggressive ‘in your face’ kind of [attitude] that wasn’t just punk rock,” he says, “but it was very musical and intellectual.  They as people were just challenging individuals who wanted to go out and do something spectacular.”

That year, the band released its first single, “Make No Mistake”/“The Underpass” on Neil Hubbard’s Engram label.  While Rocket music critic George Romansic* did not believe the single fully captured the band’s live sound, he nevertheless lauded the Blackouts.  “This band is one of the very few in Seattle that transcend the local scene,” he wrote in the Rocket’s May 1980 issue.  “Those who’ve seen one of the shows where their energy, intelligence and deeply felt emotionalism have sparked and fused together, know about the potential of the Blackouts.”

A few months later, Engram released the band’s first EP, Men in Motion, that included four songs: “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Probabilities,” “Being Be,” and a beautiful industrial, yet melodic instrumental called “Five is 5.”  The Rocket’s Danielle Elliott gave it a favorable review, writing “what a classic it is.”

The Blackouts quickly became the kings of Seattle’s underground scene, happily positioning themselves as the antithesis to poppy new wave bands like the Heats.  The Blackouts landed an ironic gig opening for said Heats at a club called Baby O’s.  Feeling like they needed to make an anti-Heats statement, the Blackouts appeared on stage covered in pig’s blood.  The site and smell of the spectacle elicited screams from the shocked crowd.  “Nice statement,” says the Heats’ Steve Pearson.  “[But] I don’t know what it is you’re stating.  You hate the Heats?  You hate the Heats audience?  You don’t like pigs?”

*- note, Romansic drummed for two Seattle postpunk bands: the Beakers and 3 Swimmers.