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ATLANTA ESOTERICA AND INANITY: ITS ABUSE AND NEGLECT
A Story about Hampton Grease Band
It is the turn of the last decade in Atlanta, Georgia, a center of underground music. Despite Phil Walden’s control panel in Macon, the Allman Brothers Blues Band, as they are known, find greater acceptance in this metropolis, 90 miles north. When they release their first album, they draw 40 people to a free concert at a Mercer University chapel. By contrast, they attract a considerably larger audience in Atlanta, often at Piedmont Park. Regarded as an incredible local band, they often play with Hampton Grease Band, an equally incredible group of lunatics who were the first to play the park.
The band is led on by singer and performer Bruce Hampton, who is a force-fit into the puzzling tradition of Southern madmen: Little Richard, James Brown, Chuck Willis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Except that Bruce is wilder and funnier. Hampton and his boys make their name synonymous with insanity in Atlanta clubs like the Catacombs, where they throw tables and chairs at the stunned crowd, once breaking a water pipe and flooding the club. Guitarist Harold Kelling describes his band as "building such insane energy that we’d just fly off the handle."
The period 1969-70 is marked by California Acid Rock, as well as more restrained Alkali Rock—The Ides of March, the Spiral Staircase, Gary Puckett—and British heavyweights like Led Zeppelin. The Southern Resurgence is in its infancy, and groups like the Allmans have little reputation nationally or even regionally. Southern audiences accept the lesser half of twin-bills featuring the Allmans, Hydra, and Radar (whose rock opera concerning the destruction of civilization by Japanese monsters predates that of apocalyptic rockers like Blue Oyster Cult). But when an unwitting promoter brings on Hampton Grease Band, the results can be nearly lethal.
The musicians are normally deviant with lengthy hair and casual attire. After a couple of spaced instrumentals, Bruce Hampton wanders out in his black narrow lapel suit with white collar and thin tie. His pants are tucked into black army boots, and his plump physique is topped-off by a cadet crewcut. He is the first anti-rock star, and he everything Jim Morrison is not. His voice has a certain appeal despite apparent efforts to make it unpleasant. He wails through a version of "Evans," running in circles on one elbow; he swims during a heavy version of "Wipe Out"; he wheezes out a rendition of "Wolverton Mountain." And all of this is between the Grease Band’s "Nerve-jamming music."*
Atlanta loves them; The University of Alabama nearly riots.
*The Marxist Minstrels: A Handbook on The Communist Subversion of Music, David A. Noebel; Date unknown, available from the American Christian College, Tulsa, Oklahoma 74102. Noebel uses the term in the following manner: "Records disced to nerve-jam tots as young as 2 1/2 years of age."
A few people were astonished that a region producing little of pop importance could produce anything so inventive as the Hampton Grease Band. Difficult to categorize, their "music" brought instant comparison to Beefheart, then in his Trout Mask Replica period. But, said one writer, "These guys make Captain Beefheart look like Top 40." Indeed, Beefheart’s make-sense poetic bent and abstruse sound actually intimated roots. The only roots Hampton Grease Band showed were the one’s they asked the audience to chew on.
Not always endearing, they nevertheless strove ambitiously to interpret the World-At-Large, absorbing a lot from television. They had a rambunctious, complex, and often inane thing that resembled mutated cartoon and commercial strains played to a hard-rock and jazzy beat. Their Columbia album, Music To Eat, is satirical in a more Dali-esque and indirect manner than Frank Zappa’s early work. Totalized, it reflects a "reality" of silliness and occasional violence imposed upon everyone: The Tyranny of Chaos.
Hampton commented early on that "this band has the emotional maturity of a bunch of eight year olds." Eight-year-olds are selfish, and the group would snot nonchalantly upon its audience. Eight-year-olds are likewise innocent, and Hampton Grease Band became in their innocence Rock Casualties. In defiance of geography and time, they were in the end its victims.
Duane Allman recognized some potential in the group, and he took them to enterprising Phil Walden, then building his Macon music machine. Walden secured a contract with Columbia Records "by special arrangement." It looked for awhile like they might blow their way into show biz or at least a footnote in a future version of Charlie Gillet’s Sound of the City.
"Oh, yeah. I went to college for about an hour-and-a-half." Bruce Hampton sat with his Wiemeraner named Mars Duplex in a small house on the wooded, humid Atlanta rim [Mapleton]. He wore an orange yin/yang T-shirt.
"I was in the army for about an hour-and-a-half, too. Think they sent me a notice, so I went on down with 400 pipe cleaners glued to my body. They asked what my favorite hobbies were, and I told them ‘Surgery.’ That was it."
Bruce is a tubby, healthy 27, a rock & roll vet who looks like a cross between Dom DeLouise and the baby on the Gerber’s jar.
"I played guitar back in ’64 with Tommy and The Nightbeats. You must have heard our 45 on the Princess label."
Bruce is fond of appearing in performance in his white satin wrestling robe. He pointed to a picture of Cowboy wrestler Fred Blassie on the wall. "Man, we used to hire him out for gigs so he could talk crazy at the audience. Say, aren’t those interviews great? Awhile back this DJ asked me what I’d been doing since the band broke up, and I told him, ‘Man, just don’t ask where I am on Friday Nights, okay?’"
He speaks with a Georgia accent somewhere between Beatnik and Beetneck. In his backroom, he stacked his scrapbooks and talked while the rain beat hard on the roof.
"Yeah, Underground Bands were big back then. We played Toronto, Louisville, New Orleans, a whole lot of places. At Louisville we drew more people than anybody before us, including the Jefferson Airplane."
The room chuckled.
"And Cincinnati was great at the Ludlow Garage. Did some great gigs with the Tony Williams Lifetime….real bitch of a band. Played with Zappa and Beefheart, too. I like Frank. Don [Captain Beefheart] and Alice Cooper hate him, but he’s always been nice to me. Harold [Kelling] and I were on Lumpy Gravy, made a few animal utterances—things like that." One of Hampton’s scrapbooks contains a piece from an old Down Beat praising Bruce’s "fine vocals."
"However, "the writer continues, "I was for the first time aware of the actual potential of physical damage from loud music."
Playing a Mosrite guitar and alternating faces of mock-pain and ecstasy, Bruce talked about the ill-fated Music To Eat. "It was recorded straight through in just a few days. If we’d been given a little time and good facilities it could have been a really good album. Sold about 15- or 20,000 copies, I think. I tried to them what to do with it, but they wouldn’t listen."
They are Phil Walden and Columbia Records. Somewhere between Columbia, their agency, and middleman Phil Walden, a sum between $25,000 and $50,000 was misplaced or misused. In response to a letter suggesting that he treated the band less than equitably, Phil Walden states in correspondence, "Let me assure you that I have no idea what you are referring to as far as my treating them in an unfair manner." The band would never see this promotional cash, and the poor production and financial failure of their album resulted, despite its striking packaging by cover artists Harold Kelling and Espy Giessler. It met with antithetical response from the critics, when they responded at all.
However, The Fillmore East responded well the night the band rolled in with Zappa on the night that John and Yoko performed. Bruce recalled his favorite gig: "The minute we hit the stage they gave us a standing ovations, and they stood and clapped after every song. For an unknown band! It was just great!" And the reports suggest they stole the show from The Mothers that night. But guitarist Glenn Phillips relates the sad aftermath: "We thought we’d get some work after that, but we came home and sat for seven months."
By this time the Allman Brothers had risen to national prominence and their following down South was fanatical. Colleges and clubs booked high powered bands with the boogie beat, and young Southerners had their very own stars. Though some increase in musical tolerance appeared, it was not the best atmosphere for a band like Hampton Grease Band to flourish.
There was an interesting piece in Bruce Hampton’s scrapbook about the University of Alabama riot. Hampton Grease Band was chosen to warm-up 16,000 Three Dog Night fans. "We came on with a fantastic 20 minute version of "Apache," that song by The Ventures. I mostly danced, you now, the Frug, the Swim. At the end they were hissing and booing, making generally a lot of noise. So naturally we went right into ‘Six.’ They were so glad when we finished that they started cheering. So I came back out and said, ‘Alright, you want an encore?’ The band came back and did another 15 minute version of ‘Apache.’ That’s when they started throwing bottles, cups, anything they could get their hands on. Some of ‘em were beating hairs on the floor. One of ‘em hit the stage. Man, I just frugged right through it all."
Weren’t things like that a little scary?
"I only got scared when those pop bottles started coming at us. I got scared at the Atlanta Pop Festival, too. God, 300,000 idiots who didn’t know whether to run, kill, or what."
"Six," along with "Halifax," is an oddity/masterpiece. They are two of the most intriguing songs ever disced. Both effectively blow through the album’s poor recording quality. Grease Band guitarist Harold Kelling relates:
"Some of the weirdest stuff about the band is the story behind the song 'Six.' It is unbelievable and bizarre in the extreme and far to lengthy to write to you. It began in 6/6/66 to Bruce and I in N.Y.C. The lyrics of the song do not in any way depict the events, but as a tangential symbolic inversion they represent the essence of the feeling evoked by the experience. The nature of the music in the song has more of a direct relationship to the essence of the experience than do the lyrics."
"I watch TV occasionally," Bruce said. "Get a little material from it. I remember a few years back on Huntley-Brinkley the line ‘running amok.' I liked it so much I used it in ‘Six.’"
Hampton sang the words.
"In the year Oted/Cray became Crow/Factories manicured/Stale saw lugs/Utensil lotion prevailed/Then came the Sixes!/The sensitive film/Realized cabbage/And the Six restrained/The Portuguese Invasion/Thereby exalting /Jack Schaffer’s basin/Born on the planet Zendu/We were born into a Jodas/Knowing that was true/We with a fixed oil sign/Heading to earth/Through interstellar conveyance/We arrived early/To perform a keen nutritional experiment/While running amok/We consumed meals on the hoof/With Dill’s Pipe Cleaners/Reaming our nasal passages!"
Currently Bruce has three projects underway. His new group, Hampton Geese Band, has turned in some well received performance around Atlanta. Among the repertoire are "The Battle of Hastings" and the more accessible "Have You Ever Had Sex with Durwood Kirby?" Bruce’s book, The City of Kites (with a main character named Joseph Hell), lies in "various stages of rejection." He is starring in The World’s Worst Rock Band, or The Day Somebody’s Butt Smelled a Monster, a film by Down Beat’s David Moscovitz, who Bruce calls "The man who did the O.A.S. film on Henry Kissinger."
On Bruce’s water heater rest the numerous golf trophies from his younger days. "I once considered turning pro. When I was sixteen Spaulding was gonna sponsor me till they discovered I was gonna hire 14 caddies—one for each club." A recent match with fiddler Doug Kershaw netted $36. "He was drinking Scotch at 11 in the morning, these old ladies begging for his autograph. He’d try to putt 85 yards from the green, just swing it like a driver!"
Next to the water heater trophies is a collection of glossy promotional photos, notable Junior Wells (signed "Best Wish, Jr.") and Buddy Guy. "Now Buddy Guy is really crazy. I saw him up in Canada one time with a 400 foot guitar cord. At the end of his act he walked right out of the club and onto a bus, playing all the way down the street. Crazy!"
Bruce’s favorite musician is Albert Ayler. His favorite recorded piece is Penderecki’s "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima." His favorite albums include an Annette Funicello, Combat Stories and Medical Sounds, featuring "Kidney Malfunction" and "High Blood Pressure." Bruce does not have a favorite color.
The finest picture in Hampton’s scrapbook is a 1965 group called Vomit at a Battle of the Bands.
A number of shocked old ladies surround a stage situated behind an old red brick building. There are three guys up front wearing fake-cowhide who call themselves The Surgeons. Vomit is an assemblage of 11th Grade drunks with Hampton singing, Harold Kelling on guitar, someone with a melodica and one character on a toilet with his pants and underwear at his feet. The Surgeons won the Battle of the Bands.
"Hampton is quite crazy, and you can’t believe a single word he says," says Harold Kelling, a subdued fellow who, except for his mustache, looks much like he did in the Vomit picture. "Oh, back before the Grease Band we had a big old truck we’d fill up with all the junk we could find. All kinds of stuff falling out on the road, causing car wrecks."
Harold left Hampton Grease Band before the successful Fillmore engagement. He played guitar with Quicksilver’s John Cippolino for awhile and then with Billy Joe Royal in Las Vegas. When he returned to Atlanta, he formed The Starving Braineaters, who did well enough to interest John Hammond. Hammond wanted to sign the group, but negotiations ended when he suffered a heart attack. "The name of the group turned a lot of people off," says Harold, "so we changed it to Automatic." Now lead by Harold’s strange, enchanting guitar, the electrified quartet plays jazzy intstrumentals with titles like "Borneo Rhapsody." It’s tough, but along with the other Hampton Grease Band remains like Glenn "Flexo" Phillips and the Plastimatics, they survive with occasional gigs around this predominantly boogie sector.
Following legal action to break the contract with Phil Walden and Columbia, Hampton Grease Band signed with Herb Cohen of Bizarre/Straight. David Walley’s No Commercial Potential shows an ugly side of Cohen, and he treated the band predictably. He "sat" on the band and, at one point, would not pay for the studio time he had promised. A projected tour of the West Coast failed to materialize. It was a less than encouraging situation, and the band split up, still under contract to Cohen. Says Hampton, "I was disappointed with the band’s inability to deal with it."
Glenn Phillips and Jerry Fields formed The Plastimatics. Glenn says, "Jerry and I made some tapes, and Lowell George [of Little Feat] liked them enough to take them to Warner’s. They were really interested until they found out we were still involved with Cohen. Man, the minute they heart that, Warner’s said ‘Forget it.’ They’d already been sued by Cohen for a couple of million on the Alice Cooper thing."
Glenn relaxed in front of The Rifleman; he has seen every episode three times. Chuck Conners is his idol. Conners wandered across the screen as Glenn played the show’s theme on his guitar. Then he played the Andy Griffith theme and the commercial theme that followed, with slight embellishment. He set down the guitar when one of his pet goats sidled in. Glenn’s long blond hair went wild as he chased her out, yelling, "Beulah, get the hell out of here! Always shittin’ on the floor!"
Glenn lives with drawers, bookcases and lockers full of plastic wrapped comics. ("Every Thor, every X-Men except Numbers 143 and 145.") He pointed to a locker next to a metal rack stuffed with records. "You see, I’m trying to sell all the records so I can move the rack, put in a chair and get to my comics better."
Glenn sat once more and played his version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme. "I guess the weirdest thing that ever happened to me wasn’t in the band, but when this pregnant girl smashed every window in the house ten times and then ran out in the front yard naked and screaming until the police came."
Glenn’s girl friend [Lenore Thompson] verified the shocking incident. "Yes, you see, she was carrying Glenn’s second issue."
After Music to Eat, Hampton Grease Band saw no second issue. They have dwindled into a special obscurity reserved for Terry Rileyu, Attila Zollar, and maybe The Blues Project and Major Lance. The new Hamptonian groups begin a courageous reemergence into a cultural and economic clime little different from the age when the Crimson Tide hurled blunt objects and the Allman Brothers were a household word.
The field of "Southern Music" is one of moot progress. Midway through the Seventies, the South is cluttered with hundreds of Rockers in bars and clubs, imitators and pretenders of the Allman patriarchy, much as their predecessors were imitators of The Swinging Medallions and The Tams. It is the mere substitution of one popular sound common denominator for another. The argument for this copy-cat shit is, of course, related to the concept of apprentice/master, which pales in the spotlight of the audience approval/bucks on the barrel concept.
To taper any cynical edge, this region is inhabited by many fine groups and if even the best—Lynard Skynard, Wet Willie, Mose Jones, Grinderswitch and others—sound like the Brothers, well, all those people in Jon Tivens’ Anglomania have a similar sound, too. The rub is that artists on both sides of the Atlantic who perform inventive, exciting, and funny music seem to remain forever submerged. What is perplexing in the South is that such a formidable underground exists unexploited in what is now America’s most powerful (music-wise) pop axis—Macon/New Orleans/Nashville. Of the groups discussed, only Hamton Geese Band will work outside of Atlanta this summer (in New England and Chicago). Truly a shame, for the really Great Music Knows No Provincial Bondage. The rest of the boys sit home, some even waiting for their contracts to die so that their music may once more live.