Funny how the most passing, inconsequential mention of a band can inspire the most ferocious curiosity on my part. In 1991 I’d picked up the then-new CD reissue of the first two Suicide albums, and after not being able to listen to anything else for weeks on end decided to play a game: Whenever someone else mentioned Suicide and another band in the same breath, I’d go find out what that other band was. It didn’t take long before someone mentioned “Suicide and Chrome”, and within the week I had Touch ‘n Go’s CD reissue of Chrome’s Half Machine Lip Moves / Alien Soundtracks in my hands.
Actually, the sight of the album alone would probably have prompted me to buy it: its funky hand-lettered cover, vaguely sci-fi photography (I’ve wondered for a long time where that inset photograph on the front is from), and explicitly sci-fi song titles like “March of the Chrome Police”, “Nova Feedback”, “Chromosome Damage” and “All Data Lost” lured me right in. Then I spun the CD up and out came this KKKKKKKKKKRRRRRRRRRRRR of a guitar skronk that sounded like ZZ Top succumbing to Leatherface’s chainsaw massacre. It didn’t take long to understand why Suicide were mentioned in the same breath: like Suicide, they played the most blisteringly crude music I’d ever heard. At a time when “lo-fi” was not a term of musical endearment, they put out records that not only sounded like they had been miked directly into a cheap boombox but would make everything else that you played on your stereo sound like that, too.
If David Bowie’s variety of musical futurism was executed on a Hollywood-level budget, Chrome was putting on high-school musical versions of Dr. Who episodes with sets wrapped in tin foil. Every meter on the mixing desk (all two of them, I bet) was probably pegged into the red the whole time they recorded these things; the guitars sound like distressed machinery; the drums bring to mind someone beating up on a roomful of cardboard cartons; the vocals are a sneering bleat, like Iggy Pop with a cold. But somehow, that’s all exactly why it works. If your favorite movie is in black and white and has scratches on the negative and splice lines here and there, the debris and the damage are probably unavoidable — but that only makes the whole thing all the more grubby and lovable.
It also works because under the mess of noise, ring-modulated voices, tuneless “singing”, gibberish taped off the radio and bizarre tangents, there’s some genuinely terrific songwriting and musicianship taking place, and you don’t even have to dig all that hard for it. The metallic rasp that opens the record is like the aluminum you peel back to reveal a bag of Jiffy-Pop — or, in this case, “TV As Eyes,” the opening cut, half of which is like a horrifically recorded Stooges single played at 78 RPM and the other half of which is in a totally different key and sounds like it’s being played backwards. This sort of Frank Zappa / Todd Rundgren tape experiment lunacy runs through the whole record: in the case of “Half Machine Lip Moves” itself, it sounds like two different songs edited together with a whole bunch of interstitial cut-ups. Imagine a space-rock outfit that tapped into Philip K. Dick instead of J.R.R. Tolkien for its sense of the fantastic, and you might garner a good sense of the Chrome aesthetic.
The core of the band was drummer and singer Damon Edge along with guitarist Helios Creed (supplemented with a revolving crew of other contributors), and they baffled even the most adventurous of the San Francisco music scene with their self-released and self-promoted albums. Alien Soundtracks was the first of their releases to get anything like decent distribution (and even then it scarcely got any attention), and its follow-up Half Machine Lip Moves was equally limited in that respect. But the few who heard knew something was up, and the band eventually acquired a tiny but rabid following. Future iterations of the band featured only Creed and a revolving stable of contributors; most of the releases from that period have been documented on the German label Dossier Records, and sound markedly different from the “golden era” Chrome on the Touch ‘n Go disc. Any chances of a reunion with the original lineup are gone forever at this point, as Edge died of a heart attack in 2000, but Creed continues to record and play under his own name; from what I understand his solo-credit albums are worth the effort to find.
Part of the reason for Chrome’s almost total initial obscurity, I suspect, was because the band never played live in its original incarnation, and preferred instead to hole up in whatever they could call a studio and record their albums. It wasn’t as if they were using tape manipulations and production techniques as substitutes for the kind of energy you’d get in a live performance, though. A lot of bands in the Seventies would try to recreate the ambience of a live performance on record, but more often than not such things just translated into overdubbed audience screaming. Chrome did something of the opposite: they invested their studio recordings with the crazy spontaneity of a live performance. I’ve listed to HMLM I don’t know how many times now, and I still have trouble remembering what follows what: it’s that free-associative. The fact that music doesn’t sound like this in 2007, but instead still sounds like 1979 — the boring 1979 Chrome were trying to transcend — is a sure sign their work is horribly underappreciated.