Toiling Midgets

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Sea Of Unrest (1982), 7/10
Son (1992), 6/10

I Toiling Midgets furono uno dei complessi che nacque a San Francisco dalle ceneri dei Negative Trend e degli Sleepers, due mitici gruppi hardcore della prima ora. I secondi, nati nel 1977, avevano registrato sotto la guida del cantante Ricky Williams (ex batterista dei Crime) un EP di portata storica, Seventh World (Win, 1978), testimonianza di un gruppo che proponeva incalzante rock and roll alla New York Dolls e Heartbreakers con forti accenti glam (Seventh World), tribalismi ipnotici e schitarrate oniriche quasi Siouxsie (No Time) e psicodrammi largamente improvvisati (Linda). Williams are la forza trainante dei loro show, una vera belva incontrollabile.

L'album Painless Night (Adolescent, 1981) attenuo` molto la carica del gruppo, all'insegna di un ballabile melodico decadente alla Alex Gibson (When Can I Fly, Walk Away). I tesori del disco sono i brani piu` fedeli alle loro esibizioni live: il lungo galoppo strumentale di Zenith, infittito di effetti gotici e psichedelici; improvvisazioni psicologiche e recite melodrammatiche come Forever, Theory e Los Gatos. Quei dischi e altro materiale vennero raccolti su The Less An Object (Tim Kerr, 1996), compreso il singolo postumo Holding Back (Mediumistic, 1985), una canzone atmosferica con una melodia lineare e chitarre spaziali.

Perso il chitarrista Michael Belfer, e affiancato Paul Hood con il chitarrista Craig Gray dei Negative Trend, fermi restando soltanto il cantante e il batterista Tim Mooney, il gruppo cambio` nome in Toiling Midgets e registro` Sea Of Unrest (Instant, 1982 - Fistpuppet, 1994), una successione di incubi tribali e dissonanti come Trauma Girl, che lambiscono la follia piu` pura nel collasso nervoso di Wishful Thinking. Il sound oscilla fra folk, psichedelia (la title-track) e heavymetal (lo strumentale All The Girls Cry), lontanissimo dall'hardcore.

L'album strumentale Dead Beats (Thermidor, 1985), con Annie Unger alla chitarra e senza Williams (che morira` nel 1992 dopo una lunga malattia), contiene persino Preludes, in cui l'impeto dell'hardcore sfumava a favore di una drammaturgia piu` contorta.

Rinvigoriti dal cantante degli American Music Club, il grande Mark Eitzel, i Toiling Midgets tentano con Son (Matador, 1992) di resuscitare una carriera morta per inettitudine. L'impronta di Eitzel e` comunque cosi` forte da trasformare l'album in un'appendice degli American Music Club (vedi Golden Frog, Faux Pony, Fabric). Hood e Gray sfogano le loro libidini strumentali in un altro piccolo capolavoro da camera, Slaughter On Sumner St.

Ne' i Toiling Midgets ne' i due gruppi da cui discendono hanno mai sbagliato un disco, e anzi alcuni di questi dischi sono fra i capolavori di quel genere al confine fra hardcore e avanguardia. Forse proprio l'estrema originalita` della loro musica li ha condannati a essere compresi soltanto dalle generazioni future.

If English is your first language and you could translate my old Italian text, please contact me.
Paul Hood writes: I joined the Midgets after moving to SF from Seattle in 1979, having played with the Meyce, and the Enemy and really being among the first "punk" groups to play in Seattle. The Meyce formed in late 1975, after Jim Basnight and I broke up our very first band. The Meyce, Telepaths (Erich Werner, their guitarist later joined the Midgets as bass player in 1992, shortly before Rickey Williams passed away) and Tupperwares (later the Screamers, in LA) played what is recognized as the first punk show in Seattle, on may 1st, 1976.
Check the Toiling Midgets' web page for more details.

When I met Jim Basnight, he was listening to Jimi Hendrix, Grand Funk Railroad, old Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. I showed him my newest lp. purchase, Electric Warrior, by T REX, a band I'd heard about while baby-sitting at my guitar teachers' house. "The audience goes nuts, they haven't seen anything like it since Beatle-Mania" he said. I liked it a lot, but it wasn't the Beatles. (Anyway) From there, Jim discovered the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which hit me alot harder, more the idea of a life-altering band. I'd heard Space Oddity and Changes, and when I heard Mick Ronson's guitar solo in the song MoonAge Daydream, I thought I'd been transported to Mars--brutal yet melodic. My second mystical musical experience became the early and mid '70s Glitter Rock movement where wildly diverse music existed under the same label. Slade presented heavy pop attitude and fashion sensibility. Sparks, Roxy Music, King Crimson, John Cale/Chris Spedding crafted songs featuring complicated musical ideas but the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop pushed the boundaries of pop music into raw, basic rock. Mick Ronson, the guitarist, changed my ideas about the way rock guitarist played. When the Spiders broke up, Ronson put out Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, his first solo album, which to me was the epitome of the rock music form after Sergeant Pepper. In 1974, David Bowie seemed diluted, and when Young Americans came out I was rather neutral about it and Bowie. It was then that Jim and I began playing with other musicians and formed the LuvaBoys, recruiting two guys from South Seattle for their Bowie-esque looks and quality equipment. We covered songs by Alice Cooper, David Bowie, T-Rex, the Dolls, and the Stooges, and played only one show in front of a live audience--nearly causing a riot among the 700 to 1,000 students at the Roosevelt High School talent show. Virtually all of the students were required to attend, and though relatively polite to the acts before us, took the silver satin pants, glitter, makeup, platform shoes, extremely loud volume, and Jim's provocative silver paint job on his body like a huge adrenaline rush and showered us with fruits and other foods from the lunchroom. Their screaming and their threats convinced the Vice Principal that he was about to lose control of the situation. I watched him appear behind my amplifier and I ignored signals that I was too loud. He turned the amp volume down himself and went across the stage to re-enact the scene with Jeff, our bass player. I turned it back up, as did Jeff. After the screaming feedback of my guitar ended Moonage Daydream, we thought we were finished. The sound/stage manager was locked in the control room, where he made sure the Vice-Principal couldn't cut off the power, and encouraged us to play more; we launched into I'm 18 by Alice Cooper. I experienced my first taste of spontaneous creativity, the feeling of an another power in control, and my planned guitar solo was forgotten, as the recording was to prove later. My intuition lead me to better results than did my practiced intellect. The song over, boos and catcalls erupted, and later, Jim was cornered and became the focus of the pent-up energy of confused teenage Jocks and Jerks yelling "FAGGOT!" Hate rules! The schools punishment was experienced fully in Homeroom the next day, when 15 extra disciplinary minutes--"to reflect on bad manners"--was brought to bear on the entire student body. To Jim and I, it was nothing short of triumph. After the LuvaBoys broke up, I heard Jim formed a new band with no bass player, and was asked to play bass. I agreed, and got re-acquainted with drummer Lee Lumsden, who also was editor of a fanzine called CHATTERBOX, which chronicled the local music happenings around the University District and music in general. Our tastes were simpatico, and since he had no experience as a drummer, I figured my zero experience on bass made us equals. Jim's girlfriend, Jenny Skirvin, provided the Meyce a thoughtful and melodic background singer; and between Jim's first ten songs and my two or three, we had enough to play live. Eventually the local press wrote at length of our efforts, calling us "Punks--Taking Control of Local Rock-and-Roll. . .leading an important new trend . . . " Taking our lead from our new heroes, from the Glam rockers to the new individualists--Patty Smith, Tom Verlaine of Television, the Ramones, and the Modern Lovers--we'd decided to rent a hall with two other bands, the Telepaths and the Tupperwares, billing it as the T M T Show, May 1st 1976. I remember Tomato DuPlenty of the Tupperwares introducing me to the "Security" for the evening, one Penelope Houston, from Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. Soon she would move to San Francisco and form the Avengers, and the Tupperwares would move to L.A., where they re-named themselves the Screamers; but all that was still months away. It wasn't long before I graduated from high school and spent the summer in England and Europe, studying drama, and decided that rock music was as much theater as I wanted. So the Meyce rented a house together upon my return, and I moved out of the parent's house, when I was 18 years old. The Meyce began practicing five days a week, four hours a night, after community college music courses and part-time jobs. A year later, with a list of 100 songs, a demo tape, and the legacy of having been one of the three original "punk" bands, we opened for the Ramones on their first Seattle appearance, in front of 800 people in May or June of 1977. For all intents-and-purposes, we represented the changing of the musical guard in Seattle, and at this point Lee and I left the Meyce. Jim Basnight went to New York to search for his muse, before moving to L.A., and then back to Seattle. Mine became the Enemy, a hippie-punk rock group, which formed after Damon Titus and manager Roger Husbands flew to San Francisco to see the Sex Pistols. They immediately all cut their hair, except the bass player (who quit instead). They quickly came up with "I Need an Enemy," which they later released as a single, but to me, became a demo to learn when they made it known they needed a bass player. It was the Enemy that got to San Francisco, and played the Mabuhay Gardens, giving me my first taste of touring with a band. Arriving a day early, we saw Crime play with Negative Trend and UXA. Damon hung out with his ex-girlfriend, Penelope, and this opened the door for the Enemy on S.F.'s punk rock movement. We made connections to stay with "the Trend" on our next trip down, a month later, and invited them, the Dils, and the Avengers to play in Seattle at our rehearsal space/club, the Bird. Negative Trend's place was in the warehouse district, right above a gay S&M club. It was a large space, with five or six bedrooms, where it seemed no one ever slept. This was the first place I'd ever been to where no one was concerned that the only food in the house was a bag of sprouting potatoes and a bottle of cod liver oil. I watched as someone named Suzi Skates actually skate everywhere, inside and out. She was even wearing them while she and her boyfriend fornicated very loudly in the room next door, waking Damon, George and I early one morning. We tried to watch them through the bullet holes in our adjoining room's wall. I made friends with a very pretty girl, who had been in a triple X film, though I didn't know it at the time. The others were all hot and drooling over her, but I was the one enjoying late night conversations with her. She'd been married to Alex Chilton not long before, and was presently going out with Jimmy Avenger. She told me she was haunted by shadows of her father's involvement with the "Intelligence Community" (in New Orleans in the early '60s). Through Penelope I met the other Avengers, the Dils, Will Shatter from Negative Trend (recently transplanted from England), and also the Trend's guitar player, Craig Gray. His girlfriend, Debbie Sue, was a dancer, and she pushed us together; sensing that the "two quiet boys" had much in common. At the time I thought the only thing we had in common was our unshakable passion for the genius of Mick Ronson, and Craig arrived home with a new Slaughter and the Dogs single ("Slaughter"--get it?) produced by Mick Ronson. It sounded like Punk Rock, except for the guitar solo. Both of us just stood without speaking, side-by-side, as we played and replayed the single; then did the same for the Buzzcock's Spiral Scratch ep. When the Enemy got back to Seattle, I quit the band, formed the Little Magnets with Lee Lumsden, and decided to move the band to San Francisco. I felt that the Seattle scene was moving too slowly. Cops were closing down the shows, a point driven home by police batons at the final "Bye-bye Bird" party, which was held the night following their having shut down the club for the last time, while the Dils were on stage. Police brutality I could remember even eight years earlier in Chicago, Kent State, and right home in Seattle. It was hard to rent halls anymore, and things seemed far more interesting in San Francisco--as history proved me wrong, Seattle/San Francisco played out different sides of the same coin. Anyone interested in the "true" history of the Seattle Rock Music Scene can become enlightened by spending time with a book called Loser. (the True Story of the Seattle Rock Scene) by Clark Humphries. The "Scene" did have more and more bands, but they seemed destined for obscurity, thanks in part to the true conservative nature of the club/liquor laws and general attitude of the business community and the police. The Little Magnets played one show in Seattle and then the move was on. Lee and I arrived in San Francisco on May 1st, 1979 and saw ex-Velvet Underground hero John Cale our first night there, over in Berkeley, and my girlfriend ditched me to play groupie with Cale's drummer,--a nasty habit she'd picked up recently--leaving us to find our way back to the City as best we might. (In a story that must be told, there wound up being no way back to the City that night at 3:00 am, so the drummer and Jeri, my girlfriend, borrowed Cale's car and drove the rest of us back to my sister's place in San Francisco.) Lee Lumsden moved back to Seattle a week later and the guitar player followed a month after.

Paul Hood

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