Lydia - a lover's guide

There is a new Lydia Lunch record released any day now. God knows what it will be like. This news does, however, allow me the opportunity to prey upon any imaginations stirred by the Teenage Jesus and the Queen of Siam songs featured on the essential NY No Wave Ze set. Incidentally I would urge fans to petition Ze for a full reissue of Queen of Siam, with the original artwork. In the meantime this is a brief guide to some of the earlier Lydia records that are currently available in one form or another, and remain absolute musts.

In case you don't know, Lydia Lunch is one of the great pop figures. In terms of American icons she is right up there with Debbie Harry and Kim Gordon. Lydia has done most everything in her time, but I love her because she has created some of the most beautiful, contrary, and confrontational pop music ever.

At the height of the punk explosion she shook up NYC with Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, for whom Mark E Smith may have written: 'I still believe in the r'n'r dream, r'n'r as primal scream'. Atavistic, a label that has salvaged a lot of Lydia's works, has collated just about everything Teenage Jesus and the Jerks ever did. The CD lasts less than 20 minutes, and there are twelve songs. Live they would play for less than 10 minutes. Now that's what I call pop! Remember that bloke from the Grateful Dead getting all worked up about the Fire Engines playing 15 minute sets, and fretting that one of his guitar solos lasted longer? Well the Fire Engines learnt a lot from the No Wave noise of Teenage Jesus and compadres the Contortions. Lydia and co made a glorious racket, and she played guitar in a way that makes your hair stand on end. Her singing makes your hair stand on end even more. It's beautiful. And don't forget the greatest pop writer Dave McCullough said Teenage Jesus and the Jerks were The Jam turned upside down, with the same three-piece tension.

Of course after what Julian Cope in a memorable passage from Head On called Teenage Jesus' open wound music the only possible revolution for Lydia was to put together a set of twisted sophisticated torch songs. Our tiny holy terror became a sultry, aloof, sneering diva in the nightclub of your dreams. The big band arrangements were boosted by some Robert Quine (Voidoid) guitar breaks, and the Queen of Siam set had one of the best sleeve covers ever.

After the Queen of Siam Lydia put together the back-to-basics garage punk/soul outfit Eight Eyed Spy, with Pat Irwin (who was behind the arrangements on Queen of Siam), ex-Contortion George Scott, and long term ally (and sometime Panther Burn/Bad Seed) Jim Sclavunos. A contemporaneous piece Lester Bangs wrote for Musician magazine in 1979 on free jazz/ punk rock (go seek it out on the internet) refers to Eight Eyed Spy playing a contemptuously short set of originals and carefully chosen covers like Nancy Sinatra's Lightning Girl.

Eight Eyed Spy released product on the ROIR tape label and Fetish, one of the great UK underground pop labels. Atavistic again have collated material on a beautiful CD which shows off the punk/soul howl as Lydia's moptops come on like the Standells having a go at Miles' On The Corner or Jack Johnson. Great stuff!

Some may argue Lydia lost her way after this. Personal prejudice may have baulked at her involvement with the Birthday Party in the early 80s, but time passed finds me more kindly disposed to the Cave's men. Yet the material she recorded with them as Honeymoon In Red in 1982-ish (and which Jim Thirlwell or Foetus or Clint Ruin remixed in 1987) sounds wonderful. Thurston Moore and Immortal Soul Genevieve McGuckin are also featured, and the sombre pace and barbed guitars are a treat. The Atavistic CD also features her hit cover of (again appropriately) Nancy Sinatra's Some Velvet Morning, with soulmate Rowland S Howard taking on the Lee Hazlewood role. This was from around the time when the cultural significance of Nancy and Lee was being really realised.

Talking of Lydia's hits, the closest she really came was her collaboration with NYC fellow explorers Sonic Youth on the Death Valley '69 rollercoaster ride, which can now be heard on their Bad Moon Rising set. Lydia worked with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore on the In Limbo set, where the phenomenal swamp rock Lunch pack featured Thurston on bass, the great (Contortion/Bush Tetra) Pat Place on guitar, and the versatile Sclavunos on sax this time around. The pace is even slower and the sound murkier than ever, and Lydia's intonations can break your heart as they are stalked by the shards of guitar. Atavistic have salvaged this set and paired it with The Drowning of Lucy Hamilton, an eerie minimal soundtrack from the same early 80s period.

The recordings from the late 80s I would recommend are Stinkfist and The Crumb, which Atavistic have again collated on one essential CD. Here we are talking about an era when journalists like Jonh Wilde and Simon Reynolds were getting very excited about the possibilities of industrial beat. Names like Swans, Young Gods, Einsturzende Neubauten and Big Black were thrown around with relish. I strangely have a feeling I saw a show in Ladbroke Grove that threw together the Young Gods, the Happy Mondays, and Bid of the Monochrome Set, but I could be wrong. I hope I am not!

Anyway the Stinkfist set has that startling cover of Lydia and Clint Ruin, and the noise is just as startling. 15 years on the percussive metal symphony sounds like it should be absorbed into a hip hop experiment, and it's quite lovely. The Crumb collaboration between Lydia, Clint, and Thurston Moore again, explore similar ground and it is similarly startling, disturbing, and sweet. It's hard to escape from the feeling this is the sort of stuff Company Flow could have come close to, and hopefully some I have yet to hear have played with similar madness.

So, there you are. Again, sadly the noise Lydia produced with Kim Gordon as Harry Crews (what a name! I love it!) is also unavailable, but we live in hope. But there should be enough here for you to be getting on with. Add some Lydia to your day!

© 2003John Carney


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