Saturday, August 6, 2011

Gawd Those Guys Were Good

All bias aside, Lawrence, Kansas in the early 1980s was an awesome place to see live music.  What is now The Bottleneck was then "Off the Wall Hall."  It was essentially one big space with a stage backing up to the street side and a bar at the opposite end.  Ordinarily, the only seating were bleachers on one side.  The admission was nearly as cheap as the beer.  Well known bands like Black Flag would make a stop there and OTWH served as base camp for cadre of local bands like Get Smart, The Clean and the Sin City disciples to name a few.

A little band from Athens, Georgia even stopped by for a gig back in November of 1981.  Admission was two bucks and there were at most maybe 100 of us there to see a band named R.E.M.  They as yet had released only the single "Radio Free Europe" (with "Sitting Still" on the B side).  Local band the Mortal Micronotz, whose lead singer was still in high school, opened.  (If this is the right 'Nautz show I'm recalling, they had only recently formed.  In response to cheers for an encore, they asked if we minded them playing their short set twice because they were out of songs. We didn't.)

But the one band to rule them all, for many of us, was The Embarrassment (the "Embos" to fans).  Formed in Wichita, Kansas in 1979, it's difficult to pigeonhole their sound.  Singer John Nichols peered out from behind horn rimmed glasses, a cigarette in one hand and mic stand in the other. In contrast to R.E.M, Nichols' vocals cut through each song to emphasize the lyrics.  Bill Goffrier's hollow body Gibson cranked like a buzz saw and bassist Ron Klaus often played melody (a style for which Peter Hook of Joy Division is often noted, but Klaus' sound was equally distinctive).  Drummer Brent "Woody" Giessman kept a sometimes frenetic, sometimes loping beat (often in the same song). They weren't punk or post punk.  They weren't pop either. It was hard not to dance at their live show, even if "Don't Choose the Wrong Song" was damn near impossible to dance to.  There are very few songs to which I can't resist dancing (fortunately for us all, since I make Elaine Benes look like Ginger Rogers), but the Embos cover of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" will bring my spastic ass to the dance floor every time.  And "Drive Me to the Park" is another tune during which you should avert your eyes from me, lest you risk permanent damage.

Unlike so many bands of the time, the Embos refused to take themselves too seriously. Their first single, "Sex Drive" displayed the playfulness and sense of humor they became know for in other songs like"Celebrity Art Party" and "Elizabeth Montgomery's Face."

The Embarrassment almost made it big before breaking up in 1983, even touring the East Coast and getting airplay on non-college stations.  But it was not to be.  In the liner notes to the first Embarrassment compilation Retrospective, first issued on cassette in 1984, Drew Wheeler wrote: "Whatever you do, don't lose this tape. It'll probably be quite a spell before a band surfaces with as much humor and reckless creativity as the Embarrassment.  All-American boys, rock'n'roll arhictects, pop primatives, local legends--I never could fight the right thing to say about the Embarrassment besides gawd were those guys good."

Gawd were they.

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