Liquid Liquid - Biography
A lot has been written about Liquid Liquid since the late 1990’s, when the Beastie Boys-run Grand Royal label reissued most of the band’s output. Many writers quickly go for the words “tribal” and “savage” when describing Liquid Liquid’s sound. Creating a menacing jungle out of New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 70’s and early 80’s is an easy task, a metaphor ripe for the picking. After all, the worlds inhabited by “primitive” artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the nervy noise of No Wave bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and hip-hop culture dripping down from the South Bronx all collided on the mean streets of the LES to create a singular creative environment. That environment was much informed by the bombed-out cityscape in which it came to life… And so we have a million uses of adjectives like “tribal” and “savage,” or even “post-apocalyptic,” to describe the art made in the LES at the time.
In reality, Liquid Liquid’s distinctive sound was well-crafted and thoughtful, not the result of some frighteningly ecstatic tribal rite or the degenerate decay of the city. The band’s music is a genius merger of punk’s raw energy, disco’s endless groove and the hypnotic repetition of minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich. There is certainly a sense of danger and abandon in the sound of Liquid Liquid, a queasy dread heard in the throbbing dub bass and urgent vocals. But there is also an arch sense of structure and form that draws from avant-garde music. It’s in this fusion of the visceral and the cerebral that Liquid Liquid carved its place in post-punk’s history.
Vocalist Salvatore Principato, bassist Richard McGuire, drummer Scott Hartley and marimba player Dennis Young formed Liquid Liquid in 1980. Some of the members previously played together, taking a more traditional punk rock approach, under the name Liquid Idiot in the years before, but it was this lineup that solidified the sound for which Liquid Liquid is still known. Lasting only a frustratingly brief amount of time, from ’80 to ’83, the band managed to make some of the most forward thinking post-punk to come from New York In fact, along with groups like DNA, Suicide, the Contortions and ESG, Liquid Liquid has left an indelible imprint on modern art-rock and dance music. The three EPs the band released during its lifetime remain absolute classics.
The legendary New York label 99 Records, along with ZE Records and Lust/Unlust Music, was one of the key documenters of the No Wave and post-punk/dance scene. 99 Records released all three Liquid Liquid records, as well as music by ESG and fellow punk-funk group Bush Tetras. The first 12” EP, Liquid Liquid (1981 99 Records), along with a growing reputation for intense live shows, immediately established the band as a fixture in the downtown scene. Liquid Liquid straddled the line, playing live in punk clubs while their records were played in dance clubs. Listening to the debut EP, it’s easy to understand why. “Groupmegroup” begins with echoing congas and multi-tracked, tape-delayed vocal yelps before launching into a simple funk groove. The sound is still so fresh, aside from the male vocal, “Groupmegroup” could be a Gang Gang Dance outtake. The three tracks that follow are all recorded live at Hurrahs in New York City and capture the raw energy of the band in ’81. The sound is cavernous, adding to the live use of dub-influenced delay on just about every instrument. Dennis Young’s marimba shines on these recordings, bringing a pseudo-ethnic polyrhythm to the music that David Byrne would have killed for. “Rubbermiro” sees Liquid Liquid back in the studio to close out the EP. It’s one of the band’s best tracks, featuring a rubbery dual bass part, dubbed out melodica and a web of interlocking polyrhythms driven by a constant 4/4 disco pulse. Early Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson lends some watery trumpet to bring the song to a close.
That same year brought the second Liquid Liquid release, Successive Reflexes (1981 99 Records). The first side features two tracks, “Lock Groove (In)” and “Lock Groove (Out).” The music immediately sets a more confident tone than on the debut EP. “Lock Groove (In)” begins with a cyclic funk bass line and more disco drums. Sal Principato’s vocals are louder in the mix and carry a discernable melody, dancing around the shimmering marimba line. “Lock Groove (Out)” continues the same groove with atonal piano and dubby echoes to great effect. The languid sound on these two tracks is perfectly upset by a swirling current of unease achieved through clanking percussion and echo effects.
If the first side foregrounds the band’s queasy ambient leanings, the second begins like an explosion. On “Push” an urgent post-punk bass part and semi-martial funk drums carry the vocals along at a fast clip, dissolving into a finale of tribal tom-toms. The song is the closest the band got to straight ahead post-punk. “Zero Leg” follows sharply, at only slightly slower a tempo, with a fierce chanted vocal and a sexy tom-tom groove to match. Closer “Eyes Sharp” follows the cue with an equally stoned beat and some great marimba lines and squiggly clarinet from downtown mainstay Elliott Sharp. The whole release solidifies the band’s approach; minimal and raw, danceable yet propelled by a sense of disorientation and dread.
Liquid Liquid’s masterstroke came in the form of the last EP released while the band was still active. Optimo (1983 99 Records) fully defines the Liquid Liquid sound. “Optimo” starts with a funky cowbell, spun backward right before the drum and bass groove comes in with a crash. It’s a stomping rhythm, polyrhythmic and 4/4 all at once, with an amazing vocal line, all chants and fast rapping. Massive drum line percussion and echoed roto-toms add to the propulsion of the clicking harmonic bass line. Try to catch your breath and the second track knocks you down. Famously sampled (actually replayed by the Sugar Hill house band) by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel for their early hip-hop hit “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” “Cavern” is certainly Liquid Liquid’s most famous song. While the band received no royalties, even after a famous lawsuit, Principato does admit the exposure raised Liquid Liquid’s profile. “It did put us on another level, not so much with a mass audience, but with the insiders of the dance music scene at the time.” “Scraper” follows the minimal funk of “Cavern” with an even more repetitious pattern featuring a Reichian marimba line and one of Principato’s strongest vocal deliveries. “Out” closes the release with a more angular beat, driving bass and aggressive vocals. Optimo is easily Liquid Liquid’s strongest release, the one where the band has reached the peak of its expression, fully synthesizing its influences into an extremely unique take on post-punk.
One final EP was released after the band split in 1983. Dig We Must (1984 99 Records) features two songs which the band has completely left off its two career-spanning retrospectives in the years since. Take that as commentary.
The first of those retrospectives was released on CD by Grand Royal in 1997 and titled simply Liquid Liquid (1997 Grand Royal). It contains the three original EPs plus four unreleased live versions of tracks from those EPs. It, like the original vinyl releases, has long since gone out of print. The Domino label has done the world a great service by issuing its own compilation, Slip In And Out Of Phenomenon (2008 Domino Recording Company). This release also contains all of the original EPs, plus unreleased tracks from the sessions of each EP as well as newly released early live recordings from 1980. A great package to be sure. The band has also reunited and new live dates, as well as new recordings, are in the works.
The case of Liquid Liquid is that of many bands from the vast history of pop music - that of a band’s influence greatly outweighing its fame or financial success. Liquid Liquid’s influence can be felt on many of today’s bands; LCD Soundsystem, Gang Gang Dance, Tussle, The Rapture and Telepathe all show the strain of dubbed-out minimal punk-funk that Liquid Liquid pioneered in the early 1980’s. The band’s influence cannot be overstated.