Big Black - Biography
At a time when most “underground,” post-hardcore indie bands were moving towards stripped-down, guitar-centric tunes ala the Replacements, Big Black emerged in the ‘80s as a daring experiment in bombast, noise, and yes, even drum machines. Even though they were noisy, Big Black often erroneously gets placed in the formal “noise” category, but they really owe more of their sound to MX-80, PIL, and Wire, than to any purely “experimental” composers.
Frontman Steve Albini asserts that his band was a punk rock band, and, unlike most musicians who try to define their own sound and often get it wrong, in Big Black’s case, he was right. If punk can be defined as a musical dose of angry shock delivered in new ways, then Big Black was indeed punk. Their records were loud and visceral. But if punk can also be said to try and “offend” certain listeners, then they definitely had that quality, too. Most early punk bands could achieve this by just being different from the norm. Albini took it one step further by turning his back on the more hippie elements of hardcore, ala Minor Threat’s PC messages of unity and leftist politics. Big Black sang about rape, slaughterhouses, and serial killers without, seemingly, any obvious irony. At face, they seemed to try hard to be sexist, homophobic, and even racist, which were in fact all a big middle finger to holier-than-thou indie hipsters and their various “sacred cows” of political correctness.
Michael Azzerad’s post-punk history Our Band Could Be Your Life describes Albini’s philosophy perfectly: “Like Randy Newman before him, who also profiled rapists and racists without overt comment, Albini was an intelligent social misfit who liked to test the tolerance of the white liberal crowd that made up most of his audience. After all, pissing off the squares was like shooting fish in a barrel-- it was a lot more interesting to piss off the hipsters.”
Albini was a misfit “nerd,” plain and simple. His family moved around a lot as a child, but his formative years were spent in Montana. As soon as he could, he moved to Chicago to go to journalism school at Northwestern. There he honed his outsider vitriol as a writer for zines like Matter and Forced Exposure. He seemed to take glee in disparaging bands, and this was the beginning of his long combative relationship with what he saw as an independent music cabal of shallow hipsterism and mediocrity. Some people hailed his “honesty,” others simply thought he was a dick.
Yet for all his outspokenness, he was never afraid to turn the criticism on himself. In 1982, Albini recorded the first Big Black EP Lungs in his dormroom (Ruthless). He performed everything on it solo, and what emerged, to some, was an amateurish mish-mash of drum machine, guitar, and awkward vocals. The original records included various items shoved into the liner-- condoms, razors, even blood-soaked gauze bandages-- whatever he could find. Lungs lacked the intensity of Big Black’s later work, and Albini has said that it is the worst thing that he has ever put out. Yet, the EP holds a respected place in most fans’ collections, nonetheless.
The EP did succeed in one thing, and that was garnering the attention of other musicians who would eventually round out Big Black’s lineup. Jeff Pizzati and Santiago Durango joined in ’83, adding bass and guitar to Albini’s guitar and drum machine. Pat Byrne from Urge Overkill also contributed the occasional live drums, when “Roland” (Albini’s affectionate name for his drum machine, a Roland 606) wasn’t in use.
The trio recorded and released Bulldozer (1983 Ruthless) which had the beginnings of Albini’s signature steely industrial guitar sound that would become the band’s signature. It was also riddled with a seemingly mismatched dose of lyrics about things as divergent as slaughterhouses and small-town ennui. The easily offended were, well, offended. “Seth,” a song about a dog trained to attack black people, begins with the natterings of a white supremacist. “I’m A Mess” included the lines “Aw, honey you're a bitch/ What a useless set of legs,” which lent some listeners to call the band misogynist. Albini even wanted to call the record “Hey, Nigger” with a picture of a fat redneck on the cover. “An offensive term used by an offensive person is only offensive if you allow that person’s commentary to have some weight or value,” he told Michael Azerrad.
It’s hard to tell how much of Albini’s approach was from his heart and how much of it was contrived. Pictures of him at the time show him at his scrawniest and nerdiest. Was Big Black simply his way of saying “Look at me! Look at me!”, or was it a real middle finger in the face of the established, hipper than thou underground zeitgeist?
In 1983 the band released the EP Racer-X on New York’s Homestead. The record tried to kick up the aural onslaught even further. “Your little boys sleep with their sisters,” screeches Albini. “I am the ugly American.” Again, disturbing images were juxtaposed with something as cutesy as a cartoon character (Racer-X being Speed Racer’s mysterious brother).
Purists could argue back and forth about just what the hell this band was trying to say and do, but what really mattered was that Big Black was simply a great band. No other act shared its intensity and energy; it was a panacea for kids well over hardcore, and an introduction to all the other post-hardcore bands that would take Big Black’s lead and run with it.
Though not many people were showing up to see them in their hometown of Chicago in the early ‘80s, Big Black toured parts of the US, and the buzz began to spread. By 1984, even a handful of Illinoians began to take notice. Still, Pezzati, who was also in Naked Raygun at the time, decided to leave Big Black and concentrate on his other band. Detroit transplant Dave Riley stepped in on bass the week that Racer-X was released.
In 1986 they released what many call their greatest record, Atomizer (Homestead). It sounded like Gang of Four being boiled in lead, then slowly sliced up with a chainsaw. At the time, no other band sounded like Big Black; their music can only be described as a glorious assault. The opening song, “Kerosene,” is probably the band’s opus: “Set me on fire/Kerosene/Set me on fire/Kerosene.” “Jordan, Minnesota” a little ditty about child rape, is another stand out song on the album.
So many different things were going on to make Big Black stand out from the rest-- firstly, drum machines were associated with dance acts, not punk rock. Big Black’s macho use of them was revolutionary. Secondly, Albini’s controversial lyrics continued to be both evocative or misunderstood, depending on the listener. Finally there was Albini himself, banned from pretty much all Chicago clubs for ragging on them in print; outspoken and obnoxious, but a real original. Atomizer sold 3000 copies out of the gate, which was quite a feat for a band that heretofore could barely fill a room. Sales grew steadily even after that, due to fawning reviews and word of mouth.
Though Albini had an antagonistic reputation, he was, and is, at heart a music loyalist with strong ethics. To his friends and peers he is even considered somewhat of a mensch. When Homestead began using what he described as unscrupulous musical practices, the band switched to Chicago’s seminal label Touch & Go.
The first release on Touch & Go was the EP Headache (1987). People who were still enamored with Atomizer had their hopes slightly dashed with Headache, which seemed like a sampling of Big Black remainders. Albini even put a sticker on the album that read, “Not as good as Atomizer, so don’t get your hopes up, cheese!” Still, not-so-great-Big Black was better than most other bands’ output at the time.
The group’s final album was released in 1987, Songs About Fucking. Durango had decided to leave the band to go to law school, and everyone decided that Songs would be Big Black’s coda. Though not as strong as Atomizer, more people are familiar with Songs, and it holds a worthy place in the bands catalog.
Today Big Black is widely considered one of the best post-punk bands of their generation, and Steve Albini has become a household name for his production skills. Some people know him more for engineering the Pixies Surfer Rosa and Nirvana’s In Utero than for his work with Big Black. He remains outspoken and principled, which is quite feat in itself, considering that most punkers seem to abandon their beliefs after they put away their instruments. And as for Big Black itself, it still sounds ahead of its time. And that, gentle reader, is the mark of a great band.