The Red Krayola - Biography
By Oliver Hall
The contrarian body of work of the Red Crayola—sometimes spelled “Krayola”—contains some of the richest and most interesting stuff in the experimental rock tradition. Mayo Thompson and writer Frederick (or “Rick”) Barthelme, the brother of Donald Barthelme, formed the Red Crayola in the summer of 1966. Fellow undergraduate Steve Cunningham joined the band later that year, as did early members Bonnie Emerson and Danny Schact. Lelan Rogers—the promo man of International Artists, the label that released the 13th Floor Elevators’ records—went to Houston’s Gulfgate shopping mall one day to buy a new parakeet, and he happened to see the Red Crayola playing there in a battle of the bands sponsored by a local FM station. Rogers got the band a recording contract with IA in December 1966.
The Parable of Arable Land (International Artists 1967) was credited to The Red Crayola with the Familiar Ugly, the first of many times the band has shared credit on a release. The Familiar Ugly was an “auxiliary group” that contributed the “Free-Form Freak Out”s sequenced between the album’s songs, and according to the Red Crayola’s 2005 Drag City bio, at the time of the sessions for Arable Land the Familiar Ugly consisted of more than 50 people. Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators played the keyboard on “Hurricane Fighter Plane” and the harmonica on “Transparent Radiation.” Among Arable Land’s other timeless classics, “War Sucks” also deserves mention. IA rejected the band’s proposed second album Coconut Hotel (Drag City 1995), which includes a series of “One-Second Pieces.” The band met the legendary musician and music scholar John Fahey at a West Coast festival and subsequently played with him in concert. Fahey and the Red Crayola recorded enough material for a double album in Berkeley in 1967, but incredibly, the label lost the tapes.
The second album the band actually released was God Bless The Red Krayola and all who sail with it (International Artists 1968)—the change in spelling apparently reflected the exercise of legal pressure by the crayon manufacturers—and was recorded with drummer Tommy Smith in place of Barthelme, who had moved to New York.
Thompson recorded the lovely solo album Corky’s Debt to His Father (Glass 1988) in 1970 for the Texas Revolution label, but the label folded before releasing it. However, a single by Saddlesore, Thompson’s new collaboration with Barthelme, was released: “Old Tom Clark” b/w “Pig Ankle Strut” (Texas Revolution 1970). During the next few years, Thompson’s interests drove him away from the rock world and into the art world, and in 1973 he began collaborating with the conceptual art group Art & Language.
Credited to Art & Language and the Red Crayola, Corrected Slogans (Music Language 1976), recorded between 1973 and 1976, sets Marxian critical theory to minimal melodies and accompaniment. Thompson moved to London in 1977 and revived the Red Crayola with drummer Jesse Chamberlain, who had played on Corrected Slogans. They re-recorded the songs from a prophetic live single they had planned to release in 1976, resulting in “Wives in Orbit” b/w “Yik Yak” (Radar 1978). During this time, Thompson also played an important role in the development of the adventurous Rough Trade label. With Rough Trade owner Geoff Travis, Thompson co-produced now classic records by Stiff Little Fingers, the Raincoats, Cabaret Voltaire, the Fall, and many others, and he worked as A&R man and press representative for the label.
The classic example of the Red Crayola’s English post-punk period is Soldier-Talk (Radar 1979), recorded with Lora Logic and all of Pere Ubu. Logic and Epic Soundtracks of Swell Maps contributed to “Micro-chips & Fish” (Rough Trade 1979) and Kangaroo? (Rough Trade 1981), another collaborative album with Art & Language. Logic’s bassist Ben Annesley also joined, as did Pere Ubu’s synth pioneer Allen Ravenstine. Thompson, in turn, joined Pere Ubu from 1980 to 1982 and played on The Art of Walking (Rough Trade 1980), which includes Ubu’s version of “Horses” from Corky’s Debt to His Father, and Song of the Bailing Man (Rough Trade 1982). The Red Crayola recorded the single “Born in Flames” (Rough Trade 1981), featuring one of Lora Logic’s best vocal performances, for Lizzie Borden’s feminist-socialist sci-fi film of the same name. The Red Crayola with Art & Language released a single in West Germany with lyrics in German: “Rattenmensch: Gewichtswächter” (Konkurrenz 1981).
A hiatus followed Black Snakes (Recommended 1983), again with Art & Language, and the album Bismarckstrasse 50/Three Songs on a Trip to the United States (Recommended 1983). After a brief period as Rough Trade’s label manager in the mid-80s, Thompson moved to Germany and began collaborating on a new version of the Red Crayola with painter Albert Oehlen; this version of the band eventually appeared on Malefactor, Ade (Glass 1989), followed by a few more years without vinyl production. The band resurfaced on the German single “The Red Crayola on Forty-Five (Think, Our Guitars Are Hot, Money)” (Leiterwagen 1993), followed by the “4teen” single and The Red Krayola album (both Drag City 1994).
The Red Krayola featured Jim O’Rourke and a number of Chicago sidemen who have continued to collaborate with Thompson; from the West Coast, Tom Watson of Slovenly and George Hurley of the Minutemen have also been members of the Red Krayola during this period. This band’s main releases so far are “Amor and Language” (Drag City 1995), Hazel (Drag City 1998), Fingerpainting (Drag City 1999), Blues, Hollers and Hellos (Drag City 2000) and Introduction (Drag City 2006). Singles (Drag City 2004) collects most of the band’s non-LP singles tracks to date. The Red Krayola resumed its collaboration with Art & Language on Sighs Trapped by Liars (Drag City 2007) and Five American Portraits (Drag City 2010).