Memphians have come to embrace it like a change of season: Every year in the first full week of fall, the Australians appear. And the Kiwis, the Italians, and the Japanese. It's as reliable as Death Week, which is fitting: These are all Goners, and like Elvis they want to "get real gone for a change," though not quite in the way intended by the King. There will be screaming, riffs galore, and chants, but the direction of any band in particular is unpredictable. Thanks to the curation of Goner Records' head honchos Zac Ives and Eric Friedl, unpredictability is guaranteed.
Anyone thinking the Goner worldview can be reduced to a formula need only explore the wildly diverse releases they've promoted, from Harlan T. Bobo to the Barbaras to BÊNNÍ. Better yet, check out two of the headliners of this week's Gonerfest, John D. Morton of X__X and Derv Gordon of the Equals, both in their own way representative of a certain pioneering spirit more than any genre tag.
John D. Morton
Having grown up in a backwater, I can appreciate the bleak feeling of a typical Midwestern existence in the early '70s. In Cleveland and Akron, artists were beginning to chafe at this zeitgeist, and, perhaps because of their isolation from cultural centers like New York or London, things got very weird. Weirdness, the unheimlich, the unsettling, was really the point. Later, the rising stars of the scene like Devo or Pere Ubu would be considered founding fathers of punk, but, as Morton says, "the whole term 'proto-punk' is like — how can there be proto-punk if there isn't punk? But that's how it works, it's a backward appellation. We were just doing the music we wanted to do and what we thought we should do."
In fact, just as those bigger names were emerging from Cleveland, Morton's own group, the electric eels (no caps), was no more. But by then the eels had staked out a sonic territory wedding anger to semi-chaotic noise rock. "Agitated," one of their biggest "hits," captured the electric eels at their peak in 1975, with rhythmic blasts of noise guitar topped with grunts, a sneering vocal ("the whole world stinks!"), and clanging lead guitar lines, but it wasn't released on a single until three years after the group's demise.
By 1978, Morton had moved on to the more conceptual X__X, which took the absurdism to new heights. One song consisted only of the band striking a pose for a few minutes. Another, "Tool Jazz," involved the musical, rhythmic use of power tools, echoing a similarly inspired use of such tools by the embryonic "art damaged" Tav Falco that same year in Memphis. But after five gigs and a handful of recordings, even that group was kaput, and Morton had moved to New York to explore visual art and more hedonistic pursuits.
The decades flew by, with respect for the nascent Cleveland scene only growing, until a compilation of their '70s recordings was released in 2014. This prompted the formation of a new X__X configuration, with Morton joined by Craig Willis Bell, an alum of Rocket from the Tombs, the band which spawned both Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys. Since then, they've recorded new material, and Morton, as an artist using the tools at hand, is running with it. For him, it's all a continuation of his original impulse to disrupt complacency. "How I ended up a professional musician I'll never know," he says. "But, you know, go up and do the work. Everything that's gone on in my life in the interim, and you know I've done some music and art, did a lot of other things, and it's like, 'So this is what we're doing today.' It's a continuum."
"We wanted to be a blues band," says Derv Gordon of his first days as lead singer with 1960s beat boom group the Equals, which also included Eddy Grant. "We were big fans of B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, and so on. But then we realized that we weren't going to be a very good blues band. And if I'm gonna stand on stage, I need to be the best at what I'm doing. After that, we wrote all our own stuff. Because the thing is, if you write your own stuff, no one can say that you're playing it badly. It's yours. When you write it yourself, you are the original."
The Equals were never huge in the U.S., charting mainly in the U.K. and continental Europe. With recordings of "Police on My Back" by the Clash, "Baby Come Back" by UB40, and "Rough Rider" by the English Beat (which the Equals released as the Four Gees), it was mainly covers of their distinctive sound that led music fans to dig into their back catalog.
Born in Jamaica, Gordon moved to London at an early age. By chance, his family settled near the famed Finsbury Park Astoria Theatre. "They had some great artists there," says Gordon. "Stax Revue was there, the Ronettes, the Crystals. As kids we used to sneak in through the side door because we couldn't afford the entry fee, and we would watch all these great performers. When I saw Chuck Berry, that's when I decided, this is the life for me. This is what I want."
Eventually, he and his brother Lincoln fell in with Guyanese expat Grant and London natives Pat Lloyd and John Hall, and the Equals plied the club circuit as one of the only interracial bands of the era. "We performed in a soul club in London. Artists like Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, and Rufus Thomas would perform there, and we would be the resident support band and back them up. So we picked up a lot of stuff from these artists."
The group didn't fit easily into any one genre, however. Not wholly soul, rock-and-roll, or the rock steady/ska of Gordon's homeland, it was a beguiling blend of all that. Nowadays Gordon is honoring that catalog with a new band from San Francisco, So What. "They really do know their stuff. But the idea wasn't to do it exactly like the records anyway. It's a different take on the songs. Their style is more modern, but the foundation is there."
Gonerfest 14 begins with an art exhibition on Wednesday, Sept. 27th at Crosstown Arts, with performances from September 28th-October 1st. X__X performs Saturday, Sept. 30th at Murphy's, 6:30 p.m. Derv Gordon performs that night at the Hi-Tone, 1 a.m. For a full schedule, go to www.goner-records.com/gonerfest/