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18 February 2017

Hampton Grease Band - 'Music to Eat' (Columbia)

You probably thought the last Gunter Hampel record was responsible for the months-long bottleneck here at the Underbite (if you thought anything at all) but no, that was written and just not posted for some reason, ages ago. It's the Hampton Grease Band that's kept this from going forward, and I'm not quite sure why. Music to Eat lies somewhere between 'funny thing to play people at parties' and 'something I genuinely love', but I vacillate between the two states, so maybe this is Schroedinger's LP. This is truly one of the stupidest bands to ever get a major label release, and I include the Barenaked Ladies and Green Jellö in that list. But the Hamptons fit into some sort of vision I have about late 60s/early 70s freak music, even if the music isn't particularly visionary. I love the whole lore around this band - that it was somewhere between prog-leaning bar rock and and dadist art experiment, that members of the band would invite their friends up on stage to eat breakfast in their bathrobes during live gigs, and that the drawing of the military tank on the back cover is because they forgot to send any artwork for the back cover and it was just a drawing one of the band members had lying around. But the music is a pretty intense jam. I've worn out side 1, 'Halifax', where the band teaches us all about that Canadian city and establishes their formula: jammy blues-rock, occasionally prog-leaning, and with random nonsense sung over top. Bruce Hampton's pipes are great though, a regular Robert Plant, and his cry of 'Wouldn't you like to come to Halifax?" is an all-time great album opener. Fifteen minute later they are still at it, and there are passages of this song that are totally great. The fast boogie guitar solo about halfway through sounds a bit like the Italian prog band Area if you're reaching, and I think I just always wished this band was just a tad more in the cosmic direction. But 'Halifax' and 'Herndon' (side 4) are perfect, glorious kitchen sink rock jams, embracing the absurdity of the era and probably deconstructing something at the same time. 'Maria' opens side 2, with a much more overtly novelty-learning song, drenched in sexuality and coming off as the alpha-rock counterpoint to the Holy Modal Rounders' 'Griselda', though I think this predates it. And then it goes on and on through a variety of shorter songs, and it's a maddening experience. The sheer ambition and lack of editing here are remarkable but it becomes quickly impossible to sort out the diversions and jams. The resulting mess is a bit too close to Zappa/Mothers from the same era for my tastes, though I'd by lying if I didn't admit the teenage me loved 'Billy the Mountain'. Anyway, there's a LOT of Music to Eat, and side two starts to wear out its welcome. Side three is mostly dominated by the 18 minute suite 'Evans', but there's still room for another nearly 8 minutes of 'Lawton'. Jesus Christ, is this record long. I swear I have triple LPs that feel shorter - Armand Schaubroeck's first one, for example, or that Daphne Oram set. But the endurance test is part of the charm, if ya feel it; the Hampton Grease Band, if anything, are underrated. 'Evans' feels like a blizzard of guitar solos but then the track that follows it up, 'Lawton', is probably the musically most interesting part of the record - a dark, jammy psych instrumental that sounds like the Davis Redford Triad or some murky space-rock outfit from the late 90s, only this is '71. It all builds up to 'Herndon', where Hampton sings the label from a can of spray paint, before it segues into more nonsense. It becomes increasingly hard to pay attention by the end of this record, after one has been listening to it basically all night long. The fortitude is astounding for both self and the artists themselves. Discogs shows some odd post-Hampton Grease Band paths for them. One guitarist put out a solo 7" years later on Hib-Tone, the label famous for releasing R.E.M.'s 'Radio Free Europe' single; another played with Henry Kaiser in a band called Obsequious Cheesecake. As for Colonel Bruce Hampton himself, he seems to have enjoyed quite a long career in various projects I've never heard. This is the infamous record, and maybe part of its infamy is that it's not a slam-dunk - it's no Trout Mask Replica, but it really has some pretty good parts. I feel like I've written this much about Music to Eat now and come nowhere closer to solving my 'is it actually good or is it a party record?' dilemma. But obviously I don't throw parties anymore, anyway.

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