Return to the Burning Planet

My college friend Robert loved Savage Republic. The path-breaking Los Angeles band’s farewell performance -- until this month -- was a cathartic two hours of massed guitars, pounded scrap-metal percussion, and incendiary devices, held in an outdoor amphitheater at Claremont‘s Pomona College in February 1989. (A semilegendary video also reveals an interpretive dancer anointing himself with oil and flour, but that was just a fan.) In the aftermath, my friend and fellow diehards kept clapping and shouting long after it was clear that no encore was forthcoming. Robert’s explanation: “This is for the last 10 years.”

Well, eight, actually. Founded in 1980 by a cadre of UCLA sculpture students led by guitarist Bruce Licher, Savage Republic cultivated an art-punk hybrid more informed by Can, the Ventures, and the modal drone of Arabic and Greek music than by the glam rock that was the common source of much of L.A.‘s immediately preceding underground music. With a Reagan-era rage at the monoculture around them as a binding agent, the band’s various lineups, some as unstable as a puppet government, fused these elements into something uniquely theirs, and uniquely Californian.

Some of these ideas were simply in the oppressive air of the moment. Guitarist Ethan Port, a fan even before joining the band in 1984, remembers meeting Hamburg industrialists Einsturzende Neubauten two years earlier: “I immediately realized they were going in the exact same direction as [S.R.‘s 1982 debut] Tragic Figures, though they developed in entirely different cultures.” While Licher also recognizes a kinship with such East Coast touring partners as Sonic Youth and Live Skull, he adds: “I think we explored more musical territory than those bands, and that may have reflected our locale. L.A. is more spread out than New York, and our music eventually became more expansive.”

Savage Republic’s contribution isn‘t as well-known as it should be, but that may change after their current spate of activity. This month, they finally take that encore they skipped 13 years ago, headlining San Francisco’s Beyond the Pale festival and clubs in Chicago and New York, after next week‘s Hollywood and (naturally) Claremont homecomings. With the exception of new drummer Joel Connell (Man Is the Bastard) and sometime member Robert Loveless, the participants -- Licher, Port, bassist Thom Furmann and multi-instrumentalist Greg Grunke -- have been the band’s core since the mid-‘80s. The reason given for the reunion depends on whom you ask, but Furmann expresses it best: “We mulled it over for a couple of years, and felt there was some unfinished business.”

These shows follow the recent release of Retrospective, a four-disc set that assembles all the band’s studio albums, singles and compilation tracks. (Eventually, Port‘s Mobilization label will make each available separately.) Gorgeously (and labor-intensively) printed by Licher’s Independent Project Press, the box is less reissue than reconstruction, free of self-congratulatory liner notes, and notably short on recording and biographical information. For example, nothing on Disc 2 indicates that the dated, Michael Gira--inspired vocals have been wiped from 1986‘s Ceremonial since its original vinyl release; here, that album is paired with the all-instrumental Trudge EP.

The artifact’s dropped-out-of-the-sky quality accentuates the music‘s virtues. Highlights of Tragic Figures -- much of which was recorded in a UCLA parking garage -- include the surf-styled “Ivory Coast,” which superimposes Malibu on West Africa, and the jittery art-school anthem “Next to Nothing.” The aforementioned second disc collects the band’s grimmest, densest music, while Customs, the bulk of Disc 3, was an experiment even by their standards, written and recorded on borrowed equipment while Greek officials held up their touring gear.

Savage Republic‘s final release, 1988’s Jamahiriya, consolidates their achievements, with then-drummer Brad Laner (later of Medicine) pinning together the front line‘s layers of detuned and retuned guitars, which are diffuse and violent by turns. (The Arabic title, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s preferred honorific for his government, translates as “republic of the masses.”) This was world music -- from a world in flames. The re-release closes with stunning instrumental remixes of three album tracks, including their version of Alternative TV‘s “Viva la Rock and Roll,” the only cover the band ever recorded.

Not everything Savage Republic released has aged this well, but their pointed use of Middle Eastern iconography and charged political language seems downright prescient. A 1982 lyric by departed member Jeff Long, prominently displayed on the band’s home page, runs: “The crisis of our country is not caused by external forcesThe danger lies within.” In a climate of increasingly tribal posturing (“That man tried to kill my daddy”), it‘s never been more important to wonder out loud if our nation is any more a “republic of the masses” than others. As Port says, “Somehow, beating up a 55-gallon oil drum has a different meaning than it did a few years ago.”

Savage Republic appears at the Knitting Factory with Mike Watt, the Urinals and Human Hands, Wednesday, November 13, and at the Press, Claremont, Monday, November 11.


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