Red Crayola/Red Krayola
Photo by Chris Strong; courtesy of Drag City
by David NicholsAs Drag City reissues Soldier Talk now, I won't care a bit because I have known and loved this album since about 1981, which was when I bought my first copy (a Canadian pressing on I think the Bomb label) hot on the heels of enjoying the follow-up album Kangaroo? from that same year. Already back then Soldier Talk seemed rare. And even in those creepy days of the early '80's, it had ten things going for it that most other records didn't – some of these were that it was abrasive without being predictable or even, strangely, raucous. I've had 25 years with Soldier Talk now, and it has been officially My Favourite Album all this time – and I guess I feel that it's only because this album exists that I'm not afraid to have a My Favourite Album (I don't have a second favourite). Radar records put it out with Warner Brothers' clout and then went out of business and Warners, it would seem, sat on most of the old Radar catalogue ever since. The Red Crayola that produced Soldier Talk in 1979 was basically a two-piece group. Texan Mayo Thompson – then in his early thirties – and New Yorker Jesse Chamberlain, who I suspect was in his early to mid-20s, had declared themselves the Red Crayola in Britain in the mid-70s and made a record with the conceptual art collective Art & Language, called Corrected Slogans, an odd and amusing piece of work which often sounds a little music hall. At this stage original Red Krayola members Steve Cunningham and Tommy Smith were tentatively suggesting that though they were 'currently involved in other activities outside the musical spectrum' they might rejoin the band. This didn't happen.
Another band I really love is the Red Krayola. They put out a beautiful album last year called Introduction and a superlative EP a few months ago (also last year) called Red Gold. Introduction and Red Gold sound a bit like the Red Crayola circa Soldier Talk – certainly more than Red Crayola circa Black Snakes did or for that matter Red Krayola circa "Father Abraham" or Live 1967. There is still that willingness to push any button, that spirit of enquiry, and also a keen sense of humour, too, and just a general adventurousness that kind of makes me want to conjure up other bands' names and talk about how they don't have it, but then again, that's too easy and also off-topic. Red Gold and Introduction have the splendid and atmospheric accordion playing of Charlie Abel, whereas Soldier Talk had saxophones and trumpets from Lora Logic and Dick Cuthell. Soldier Talk has angry young-ish Mayo Thompson trying to pick a fight. Red Gold has snarky old-ish Mayo Thompson acting kind of drunk and pissed off in some songs and saying some very... well... take for instance 'I like cards with faces,' that whole routine (on "Oh I was Bad") which is outrageously fine and evocative of all kinds of primal fears, but I don't quite get it, and that keeps me coming back.
If you are stumbling along here – which I'm sure you're not – looking for the story of the band, you came to the wrong place. I have read a lot of articles about the Red Crayola and the Red Krayola and they all run the same reference points by you in a Year Zero kind of way that none of us need to see again. I mean if you don't know the story, you're a lucky person because there is now this thing called the Internet. There is even a Red Krayola group on Yahoo, who very, very, very, occasionally have things to say to each other. Via this group I now know for a fact there are at least two other people in the world who actually adore the Red K/Crayola as much as I do (though not the same records, which keeps it interesting). Will Soderbergh, who initiated that group, has also done a magnificent bibliography, which pretty much tells the story too. And there is a film being made.
In '86, there were two Red Crayolas (he had two groups playing under the same name - one in Britain and one in Germany) but really, there weren't any. Thompson was working at Rough Trade (with the Smiths). I had headed to the UK for a holiday going through the U.S. to get there, and I liked the Pacific Northwest and Calvin Johnson so much that I hung round longer than I thought I would. Because of that, I missed the opportunity – maybe I should be glad judging by the negative response it got – to see a new line-up of the Red Crayola playing in London and in fact I have never seen the Red Crayola play at all. It was, as far as I'm aware, the one and only show by this version, though I believe it was roughly the same time that the track on Derek Jarman's Last of England film soundtrack was released under the name Mayo Thompson, perhaps with some of the same people. I think, unless my memory is bullshit, that he was moving slowly to Germany around that time and at the time, or soon after, formed a German Red Crayola as well. They had already recorded the Black Snakes album and the Ludwig's Law album which came out under the names Moebius/Plank/Thompson. I was so pleased, with myself and the world, that I had the chance to meet this man who was my absolute musical hero, had made the greatest records on earth as far as I was concerned and who (isn't this always the way!? Well, with me it is) was kind of my enthusiasm, and no-one else really seemed to care, particularly in London 1986. But guess what, the British are flighty and changeable.
Mayo Thompson recently told me, when I asked him about his various uses of the Red K/Crayola name and how it distinguished from his solo material, which is limited pretty much to the outrageously good 1970 album Corky's Debt to His Father:The Red Krayola is who plays in it, unless otherwise specified. In the 1970's the original logic was applied to making Corrected Slogans, and 9 Gross & Conspicuous Errors [an unreleased video] with Art & Language. Jesse Chamberlain and I worked with them as a band, as the band. Our approach and method with "Wives in Orbit," "Yik Yak" and Soldier Talk also extended the original logic, rather than that for example of Corky's Debt To His Father, which was pointedly 'showcase.'Twenty years ago, it was the same kind of story. In '86 he said:I'm always expected to run things and I do my best but at the level of production and arrangement of material the music is the Red Crayola's. [Chamberlain] is a great drummer, when we played together, we could think together and more in various directions... nothing ever happened that could really disturb him in any way. When Steve Cunningham and I played together, he could turn any accident into something significant – he could capitalise on these things. But it's been my band and at various times, there's been problems about it because people have wanted to have more of a say in what they're doing. And I don't necessarily resist it; they have to fight for what they believe in. and I fight for the band, I fight for the ideas I believe in, because I think the band has to go in a certain direction. I fight for those ideas because that's where truth lies, that's the productive truth, so, if there are gonna be arguments about it, let's go. I don't care.The 1970's decision to reassemble the group under the old name or a version thereof (I think he discusses the whole thing on the song "Yik Yak," but I can't be certain) was not, apparently, that controversial but it was interesting, to a degree that has probably detracted from the various groupings tagged with the name. The point often missed is that the various Red K/Crayolas are collaborative, probably in the way Mike Leigh films are collaborative (Leigh workshops with the cast, but as director has final say, blame, and praise). Mary Lass Stewart, who sang on some Red Krayola recordings in the mid-90s, told Bill Meyer (in an interview for Magnet in 1996) that:Nobody who wanted to exert full control over everything would send tapes around to other people in the band and say, ‘We need some guitar parts. Put stuff down over what's done thus far.' So the work's collaborative in a very thorough sense. Part of the point of Mayo collaborating with so many different people over the years seems to be that he WANTS to be affected by them. It's very brave, I think.In 1979, Thompson was interviewed by the NME journalist Andy Gill. He told Gill that he was ‘not just the Red Crayola. I live in the world, and The Red Crayola's a very small part of what I do. It's not my only public practice, by any means.' By the late '70's, Thompson and Chamberlain had decided to get in amongst the punk bands and make music that suited it– and why not, since the original Red Krayola records, especially God Bless the RK, sounded so proto-postpunk anyway. Radar Records had already acquired the license to reissue the first two Red Krayola albums; Thompson had no input into this decision, but the Red Crayola struck up some kind of relationship with Radar and made a single, "Wives in Orbit"/"Yik Yak," and the album. Radar had a policy of complete artistic control by artists over their records. Thompson suggested in '86 that the Soldier Talk album effectively broke up the duo version with Chamberlain:Jesse – there wasn't much for him to do, in a way, I think he wanted to say what he felt about the record, and he wanted it closer in the direction of pop, because Jesse, that's always been one of his gifts, and I was determined to make the record work, and thought that it could, and should, and working with Geoff Travis, using his insights into the way music works, there was no other way it could be… because those songs, they're all very schematic, not all of them, but... they don't have choruses all the way, maybe a motif is repeated but it's not repeated in exactly the same way... it's changed in terms of the time signatures, it's a complicated work.When I first invested in Soldier Talk, I was very suspicious of old men, such as people in their early 30's, trying to be punky or new wave. But Soldier Talk was clearly the work of intelligent people saying deep political intellectual things, though most of the time, the vocals weren't that audible (classic phrases like 'hits wreck statistical claims' came through loud and clear). And more importantly perhaps, the guitar sound was unprecedented, and the drums were absolutely unpredictable, wild but it was like the drum patterns were being read out of a book called How to play drums impossibly which is not to say in any way that the drums were shambolic. And the guitar-drum-vocal interplay was colossal, like on "Uh, Knowledge Dance" which starts off like some kind of tribal trance music (slightly reminiscent of "Small Was Fast" on Pere Ubu's New Picnic Time, which was its predecessor) and then goes into this rant then a sort of thoughtful bit as the ideas unfold in the Red Crayola's head. Then it gets faster again and… well, when the album comes out again, you'll just have to hear it.
The album is often described as Thompson and Chamberlain backed by Pere Ubu; but when you listen to the recently issued album of a live show from Paris in '78, you realise pretty fast that, basically Pere Ubu provided some classy augmentation, but everything was there. And this description does a disservice to both Chamberlain and Scott Krauss, who was the Pere Ubu drummer in those days. They are totally different, and if I may allow myself an aside and no disrespect to the amazing Krauss, the late Jesse Chamberlain is one of the great unsung drummers of the 20th century, a fact I truly came to appreciate when I heard his playing on the Necessaries' album – so straight compared to the shifty, cataclysmic drums he did on Soldier Talk and the singles from that time, and another truly tremendous Red Crayola record from a few years later, Three Songs on a Trip to America. Phew! But, I mean George Hurley – superb, Epic Soundtracks – a true master, John McEntire brilliant, and so on. Mayo doesn't play with shitty drummers, but Jesse Chamberlain: genuinely a genius.
Soldier Talk is a concept album, about militarism and the cold war. I guess the pictures on the front might be supposed to be spy pictures, though largely they seem to be photographic ‘grabs' from various cold European freeways, etc – so it might just be a comment on the realities of touring. After this version of the band ended, there was the line-up that recorded singles like "Micro-Chips and Fish," which fits much better with Soldier Talk RC, and "Born in Flames," which is much more the early '80's RC, very pop and starring Lora Logic (to the extent that it appears on the Essential Logic CD released by Kill Rock Stars a few years ago as though it was a Lora Logic record!). Also, the album Kangaroo? which these days I have fairly ambivalent feelings about (if Corrected Slogans is music hall, Kangaroo? is kind of mid-'70's rock theatre). By the early 1980's, Thompson was working at the British label/distributor Rough Trade – he'd previously been an artist on the label and a producer for it, but was now in A&R – often seen as king of the indie labels of that time. As Thompson told Bill Meyer in the 1996 Magnet interview:When the [Smiths' album] Queen Is Dead came out, I worked that record as they say in the industry, and there I learned a lot about how the business was done and exactly what it means to say somebody's a major, in what sense could you construe someone as an independent, you know independent of what. Meaning that, independent came to be defined as not distributed by the majors and that's a very slender distinction.It appears to have been a matter of diminishing returns for the Red Crayola from Kangaroo? onwards, both financially and in terms of audience and critical interest. The albums which followed were released in small quantities on smallish labels and were hard to find. It was not really until the mid-1990s, when Thompson became associated with the Drag City label, that a Red Crayola (as Krayola) revival really came back into being. In 1995, Thompson told Andrea Feldman and Susan Curran, of the magazine Warped Reality, that "everything is up for grabs again. Nobody knows for sure what anything is worth... particularly on this turf that we're on... I had the luck to work with Drag City, who... decided “This is music we want to hear and nobody's doing it. Let's do it.'" There have been fairly regular releases ever since, usually through (the excellent) Drag City label.
Through the recent DC releases – via which he almost certainly rubs shoulders with younger people and releases records to an even younger audience (? I'd love to know those demographics) – Thompson has had cause to address his, and America's, past. In 2000, he told me that ‘The joke is not the examination of the past, the joke is the past and present sound exactly alike!'
Like some kind of video magic, let's whirl ourselves to the present day with that quote, the reverb turned up, still ringing in our ears. If you were to get around looking, the most available Red Krayola record of the moment is probably Red Gold, which is a hoot. It's much more diverse than many of the previous records, and may have kind of grown out of the sessions for Introduction. It's as accessible as any RK record, which is to say, the music's incredibly catchy once you've listened to it five times. The cover and the title of the EP are one of those funny, pushy concepts that the Red Krayola often come up with a la Soldier Talk: while it's of course a reference to oil, it's also a bit of a joke (I'm sure) about the way that greatest hits, legends and memories are packaged. You know, Creedence Gold. Although it's not a greatest hits record. But primarily – as the cover art shows, with its various jokey uses for the Eiffel Tower (including as a stylus; as a geyser, etc), it's really basically topical comment. Thompson says:The title, so the cover, is obviously a play on ‘black gold,' ‘Texas tea,' you know, what made Jed Clampett a Beverly Hillbilly, the stuff President Bush says he wants to wean America of its addiction to and dependency on. As for the Tower joke, if the French discovered oil under Paris, you can bet they'd drill. When we were recording oil and gas prices were through the roof. As for arrogance, the cynicism of the owning classes may be turned back on them from time to time, all in good spirit and in best form of course."Paris" is reggae; "Easy Street" sounds a hell of a lot like one of those prog-rock instrumentals you used to get on Swell Maps albums; it's got to be a tribute, only John McEntire plays like Chamberlain as much as he plays like Soundtracks. "The Essence of Life" is a peculiar thing. "Oh I Was Bad" seems – can this be? – to at least start out like a personal confession; when asked about the references to parents on the two last mentioned, Thompson will only say "We've all got a couple," which is definitely true, but could be teased in all kinds of wrong directions/implications. "The Essence of Life" concludes like some kind of sermon, or children's television show hype, so… who knows. This kind of thing went back as far as Soldier Talk if not before, appropriating ideas, stories and characters from the wider culture to tap into a wider framework. This takes us all the way up to Red Gold where some if not all of the songs on the EP are inhabited by narrators. Thompson says:Representation being one of our main interests and concerns, there is some characterization involved. And speaking generally just is in tongues. Where an indexical is generated and caught, it communicates directly. For better or worse, that referential aspect informs sense of presence, and the Devil takes the hindmost.In many ways, rock is far too easy for Thompson and the Red Krayola; they keep coming up against the same mild objections and unthinking questions over their career and they keep being able to knock ‘em all into the proverbial cocked hat. I really like that. And when Soldier Talk finally makes the mainstream again (that is to say, the .0001% of the world who's interested will be able to buy it on CD) we'll see how an amazing little seam of brilliant rock music was made, ignored (except by Minutemen, and maybe a few others) and will now rise again for a second bout. And in the meantime, waiting for that, your world is not complete without the greatness of Red Gold. I don't know if anyone gets better with age, at least in the long term, but some people stay as brilliant over decades, and that's rare, and to be celebrated.
- Susan Curran and Andrea Feldman, ‘Red Krayola,' Warped Reality #3 Summer/ Fall 1995 pp. 6-8
- Andy Gill, ‘The ideological features of any work as a function...' New Musical Express 21 July 1979 pp. 27-8
- Mike McDowell, ‘Radar' Blitz! #29 November-December 1978 pp. 10-14
- Bill Meyer transcripts of interviews with Mary Lass Stewart and Mayo Thompson 1996 used by kind permission of B. Meyer
- David Nichols interviews with Mayo Thompson 1986, 2000, 2006
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