Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mr. GeeBee's Cassette Tape Trials: Screaming Blue Messiahs "Gun Shy"

ARTIST: Screaming Blue Messiahs
ALBUM: Gun Shy
DESCRIPTION OF MEDIA: Pre-recorded cassette (Elektra Records)

IMPRESSIONS: Back in the mid-'80's I was a faithful viewer of MTV's 120 Minutes, which primarily featured bands that were a little too quirky for the Top 40 but not quirky enough to be 'underground' or 'college rock'. For the most part, the bands featured on the show didn't stray too far from standard notions of song-craft and musicianship (though Gene Loves Jezebel and We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Going To Use It certainly tested the lower limits of the latter). The play-list changed very little (if at all) from week to week, but I tuned in anyhow, hoping I'd find something new and exciting. I rarely did. But when I first saw the video for the Screaming Blue Messiah's "Twin Cadillac Valentine", I knew my patience and endurance had paid off. I think I only saw the video a few times, but the image of a bald man wearing a smart suit and abusing a battered Telecaster was burned into my brain. And the ultra-hooky "ooh ooh ooooh" vocal hook (which I later discovered was stolen 'verbatim' from a Spencer Davis Group song) continued to rattle around in my head. I didn't find a vinyl version of Gun Shy at the time, but soon, when I was working at a record store, I found this (used) cassette version.

I have to admit that it took me a while to really appreciate this album. The sound is a little tamer than I expected, given the highly-charged images from the video. (Yeah, I know that music videos are marketing tools and can't always be trusted to give wholly accurate representations of the band in question. However, the "Twin Cadillac" video seemed gritty in an authentically low-budget manner, and the on-screen energy of this power-trio really didn't seem contrived, at least not to my 17-year old eyes.) Based on the accounts I've read about their live shows (I never had the opportunity to see them), it is apparent that the ferocity that they brought to their concerts was pretty difficult to reproduce in a studio environment.

Still, once I got used to the not-quite-in-your-face production, I really dug what I heard. The best way that I can describe the Messiahs is as a blues-based R&B Bo Diddley-ish punk rock band with a free-associating street-poet singing and shouting above the din. The song structures are pretty simple but there are some interesting layers to the sound mostly due to frontman/guitar-player Bill Carter's unique style. He's definitely not a 'guitar-hero" type player, he tends to be very rhythmic in a choppy, frantic manner (I think one of his idols was original Dr. Feelgood guitar player Wilko Johnson, who himself exhibited a very rhythmic, choppy, but groovin' style). His sound is pretty bare-bones, augmented by some delay, tremolo, and occasional wah-wah. His playing style, as well as the impressionistic/cryptic lyrics, are what elevate the music and songs above conventional, trite rockabilly/blues-rock.

I like most of the songs on this album, favorites being the aforementioned "Twin Cadillac Valentine", "Talking Doll", "Someone To Talk To", "Killer Born Man", and "Let's Go Down to the Woods and Play". Interestingly, all except that last song are on Side Two, and the only songs I really DO NOT like ("Smash the Marketplace", which sounds to 'dancey", and a cover of Hank William's "You're Gonna Change", which is just kinda 'blah') are on Side One. I don't know if this is coincidence or if there were different producers (or engineers, or studios) used on different tracks on the album. Whatever the reason, Side 2 seems to have the most energy and the best songs.

VERDICT: Keep it. It is getting pretty worn out and the sound is deteriorating, but I really like it. I don't think it is even available on CD, but until it is, and I obtain it, I'll keep the cassette.


  1. odd, i posted a response yesterday but it must have been stolen. At any rate, this is a band that barely hit my radar screen. All I recall is that a girl I used to spend a little time with used to dog them. The second I saw that video I started thinking about the amazing Wilko Johnson. You nailed it too. The influence is right on the surface. Good catch on the SDG's I'm A Man reference. I did not catch that and probably would not have.


  2. JBC-15 says:

    love this band and this album!

    All their stuff seems to be out-of-print. 3 albums and 1 EP, plus a few singles sides. Three of the tracks on the U.S. version of 'Gun Shy', including "You're Gonna Change", were added from the debut UK EP 'Good and Gone'.

    And, yes, the Wilko Johnson sound is all over his guitar playing. I believe the second album 'Bikini Red' was produced by Vic Maile who also produced early Dr. Feelgood.

    The third album ,'Totally Religious' , is a bit of a let down, but 'Gun Shy' and 'Bikini Red' are both great. I saw them open for Echo and the Bunnymen in SF in 88'. Unfortunately, the venue was too big and the audience too indifferent for the band to really take off. I remember Wild Bill Carter hanging his Telecaster by the strap from his mic stand, giving it a good spin and stalking off the stage in either an act of defiance or disgust. Wish I had seen a headlining gig at a small club earlier in their career.

    They remain at the top of my wish list for a re-issue program or at least a killer compilation.