137. IF’N – fIREHOSE (1987)

Greatest Records

IF’N – FIREHOSE (1987)

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“Utter fizzle” was the sniffy dismissal of If’n which appeared in the 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, with a rating of one and a half stars out of five appended. It mainly referred to the sound of the record and, ok, its production is of a plain, brown paper bag variety but, at a time when what were purportedly drums were actually often the sound of doors being slammed, its understatement verged on a political declaration and was the only way fIREHOSE could have sounded without ceasing to be fIREHOSE.

It’s also the sound of a band taking its own shape but, of course, this comes with a vast caveat – if things were as they should be, fIREHOSE would not have existed at all. They came into being in the wake of the fearfully abrupt end of the Minutemen, when Dennes ‘D’ Boon, their guitarist, singer and torrential political conscience, died in a road accident. Everyone seeks to cope with bereavement in their own way; in music, bands who irrevocably lose key members have the – equally entirely valid – options of ceasing or continuing. Led Zeppelin and Nirvana chose the former; Joy Division/New Order, the Who and AC/DC decided on the latter.

The remaining Minutemen ultimately carried on but not as the Minutemen and D Boon’s colleagues required some persuading. Bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley had lost a bandmate, a friend, a kindred spirit like few others; D Boon was irreplacable and, even after fIREHOSE were established as a captivating band and pyrotechnic live act, no one ever claimed otherwise. Just as Joy Division and New Order have always been rightly seen as different bands, the Minutemen and fIREHOSE had, inevitably, significant elements in common but Ed ‘FromOhio’ Crawford in no way resembled D Boon; as a performer and lyricist, he didn’t share his predecessor’s explicit political ire but anything resembling a direct imitation would have been not only pointless and contrived but in questionable taste – a charge which could never be levelled at either the Minutemen or fIREHOSE.

With the likes of Double Nickels On The Dime and Three Way Tie For Last in contention, there’s a strong likelihood we’ll return to the Minutemen (for now, their story is comprehensively covered in their chapter in Michael Azarrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life – the title copped from Minutemen song History Lesson Part II – and in Tim Irwin’s definitive band documentary We Jam Econo.)

If’n’s title derives, depending on who you believe, from an arresting turn of phrase in the opening verse of Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right or from a hippy pastiche sung by Samantha in a 1968 episode of Bewitched; the former is the story told at the time of release and is the one my money’s on (either way, a song with the same title showed up on 1989’s fROMOHIO). It may be stoury in its presentation and production but this links to the philosophy which gave Irwin’s film its title. And in any case, like every Minutemen album – and fIREHOSE’s debut, Ragin’ Full On – it combusts with ideas, the notion of limitations to a guitar-bass-drums trio scrunched up and tossed in the bin like so many empty crisp packets. The limitations, naturally, are imposed not by the instruments themselves but by the minds and ambition of those who brandish them.

Take Anger, side one’s closer and a joint composition between Watt and his then partner, Kira. It does a fine job of imitating the eponymous emotion – ebbing, flowing, simmering and unleashing – but is all the more potent for never quite reaching an outright eruption. It’s a particular showcase for Hurley as a Terpsichore of the traps – a bit like the unwavering focus on Nick Mason during One Of These Days in Pink Floyd at Pompeii – but overall, the Minutemen’s legendary tightness didn’t slacken one degree in fIREHOSE. It wouldn’t have been demanded by the hardcore crowds both bands were often in front of – let’s face it, it would have sent quite a few less than open minds scurrying – but it was what set them apart. It came over less as the product of musicians rehearsed to destruction than, as some have observed, intuitive, jazz-oriented performers taking leaps together like synchronised divers.

It’s there again on Honey, Please, a straightforward enough title which gives little indication of the lyrical pandemonium Watt unleashes: “Meter reading, facts a-feeding/ Got a place in book o’ mason/ ‘Pert near hahd koa, almoat nearly more/I’m embarassed for showing you the other door.” Later, “Watch the watching men watching Washington” is a reminder that, however improbable things may have got in the District of Columbia over the past couple of years, it’s not actually all that far removed from certain past eras, and that fIREHOSE were still well disposed to flinging the odd political ball bearing. All to the fingerest, snappingest rhythm and a guest appearance from the most Jerry Lee of pianos.

Watt’s penchant for holding both rock music and the English language in painless halfnelsons recurs throughout If’n’. Try Making The Freeway, which hitches fIREHOSE’s distillation of funk – James Brown mashed in Gang of Four and fermented in Bad Brains – to hip-hop’s by then Mach speed juggernaut. Watt’s rhyming follows the Rapper’s Delight meter, which, in the face of advancements by Public Enemy and Rakim, was already becoming outmoded and can now sound somewhat quaint even on pioneering rap records, but how about the lines he volleys out: “Pounds, let’s say pounds is the weight of the town/Coming down all around, grinding me into round/Like the noun that’s found when you’re looking straight down/A handgun barrel firing off a round, yo!” This is bleak stuff – repression, drudgery, threat, fear – yet Watt’s delivery has a timbre of wit and swagger offsetting, but never disguising, the grimness.

Little grim, though, about Me And You Remembering. A year before Watt’s literally phoned-in appearance on Sonic Youth’s Providence, he recounts a conversation with Thurston “You” Moore about (sorry, ’bout) Richard ‘Dick’ Hell, repeatedly entreating his illustrious pal”‘member?” before it somehow reaches the sudden punchline of “You and me singing songs ’bout…Madonna!” while the not too material boys’ chattering funk and Watt’s gruffly droll delivery place it at the exact midpoint between a hip-hop skit and a Tom Waits monologue. He veers into Marlowe/Mike Hammer gumshoe territory on Operation Solitaire, a curious, twilit study of solitude written by Minutemen associates Dirk Vandenberg and John Rocknowski, where instrumentation which would dissolve if it became more muted gives way halfway through to the gentlest feedback you’ll ever hear. The meaning of “men’s machines wake ma” is pretty ambiguous – perhaps just as well – but “Showers of morning rinse away nightmares” has a good deal more unfortunate clarity. And you’d be hard put to find a couplet which evokes the gulf between the have and have not, the ostentatious and the ordinary, the getting on and the getting by more eloquently than: “Some lives cause some to stare/Others try to win operation solitaire.” Not the only game in town but how often must it seem like it for many.

The variety and the plethora of forms that fIREHOSE hewed from a traditional palette while recording If’n (over a total of 85 hours, according to the characteristically detailed sleevenotes) is even more apparent with Crawford and Hurley’s contributions. The latter raises the curtain with the album’s single, Sometimes, which is concocted from a reliably momma-used-to-make recipe – the slightest tweak to the venerable Gloria riff, a slender twist to the time-honoured tale of going on tour (“Now I’m up and on my way/Rolling night and day/Highway’s been calling my name” but also “You know sometimes, almost always/ I remain”) but Hurley’s drums, drilled to Marine standard, smuggle in an extra ingredient of a lurching rollercoaster around the toms which turns on a farthing and gives way in the chorus to the kind of tightly pinched military tattoo that general’s son Chris Frantz brought now and again to Talking Heads (Tentative Decisions, Thank You For Sending Me An Angel and, most famously, Road To Nowhere).

He has a couple more showcases before the day is done. Closer Thunder Child could legitimately be called fIREHOSE’s Toad, their Moby Dick – I’m afraid so, it’s mainly a drum solo – but, at 100 seconds of a four and a half minute songs, it’s concise as these things go and its jazz-wristed dexterity at least as close to Blakey and Krupa as Bonham and Baker, possibly closer. After all, few rock rhythm sections have ever swung like Hurley and Watt and if an economical drum solo seems like an oxymoron, it harks back, of course, to that Minutemen maxim once more. Then he contributes Backroads, a sleepy stroll which could have slipped drowsily from the pen of JJ Cale – an unlikely influence, it might seem, but, again, it carries on from the Minutemen’s variegated palette of covers; while they reinterpreted the Meat Puppets and Roky Erickson, they did the same with Van Halen and Blue Oyster Cult, not to mention Creedence; an autograph from John Fogerty to Crawford adorned the label of Ifn’s side two.

Back with Mr FromOhio, he has the loud-quiet dynamic going, firstly loud on Soon, which revolves on a recurring volcanic harmony of power chords and tom-tom detonations; the resulting thud resembles one huge rock smashed downwards on to another and Crawford’s breathless strumming in between resembles the water spring it uncovers. All of which makes it completely worthy of joining in the Namesake Series alongside the carnival of sweet noise that My Bloody Valentine unleashed a couple of years later. Then quiet on In Memory Of Elizabeth Cotton (sic), an unexpected but heartfelt eulogy for folk singer Elizabeth Cotten, who died at the age of 94 a couple of months before If’n was recorded. Crawford is sincere in his homage, admitting “I couldn’t shed a tear, I never knew you well” but, as so often happens, goes back to the music of the departed: “I am listening and it makes me grin.” When Phranc takes the notes high on a chorus which explicitly nods to Freight Train, Cotten’s best known song, it’s almost certainly the most beautiful moment ever to have appeared under the SST banner.

And so For The Singer Of REM. Possibly If’n’s most conventional song, certainly one of its strongest and probably its most discussed by virtue of its title alone, which continued a Minutemen tradition of songs – Under The Influence Of The Meat Puppets, Bob Dylan Wrote Protest Songs, Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing – which were neither ostentatious namedrop nor unctuous homage but simply a door to another room in their house of a hundred possibilities. Once the title was chosen, the question: “so what does Michael Stipe think of it?” would be asked as surely as Justin Vernon will be asked about wintering in a log cabin. It’s not all that clear how he reacted but Watt is quoted as saying the Minutemen had heard of, but not heard, REM when the invitation came to tour with them and, while flattered, couldn’t fathom what Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe saw in them. He then proceeded to tell a lengthy and extremely odd yarn about Stipe offering him treatment for burns sustained from an exploding Volkswagen and following it up with a, seemingly unfulfilled, offer to collaborate on songwriting. But Watt came up with this song for starters and while it’s something of a mystery how all this translates into “First you dream next you’re scheming, searching through your drawer/For an oar for your trip bound for a yet uncharted shore,” the song’s locomotive pace, teeter-totter melody and battle to disentangle itself before verses make it fit to pull up a seat alongside REM’s finest moments. Some saw it as a dig; it isn’t but it’s also not so much pastiche as a proud and visceral wink of kinship. And, as we learn from We Jam Econo and Our Band…, REM were, not for the first or last time, adamant on their choice of support; the last of these gigs turned out to be the Minutemen’s last, ending with both bands together covering Television’s See No Evil.

And so that’s If’n, fIREHOSE’ “second wailer” as billed on the back cover. It’s a dripping roast of invention, gusto and, if I might be so bold, fun. That fun multiplied deliriously when they were caught live; the first time I did so, they were supporting Sonic Youth at Glasgow Rooftops (see Sister, review no 18). As well as filling us in on the highpoints of their formidable debut, Ragin’ Full On, they expressed undisguised glee at visiting Alex Harvey’s home city and the headliners were required to be on Olympic form to avoid being blown offstage; they achieved it on this occasion, though they fell short when supported by Teenage Fanclub at the Barrowlands three years later.

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The return visit by fIREHOSE, though, at Glasgow Tech in 1989, gave even more reason for their namesake apparatus to be deployed. For the Singer of REM singed; Operation Solitaire smoked; a cover of Public Enemy’s Sophisticated Bitch scalded. Watt sealed it all as he clasped his fists together and declared: “Glasgow – San Pedro – it’s a BOND!” He may have said that to all the towns but his sincerity ran through everything like a solo, not on his bass but his thunder broom.

That bond had been cemented earlier in the day, during a signing session at the long-vanished Rat Records in Buchanan Street; my request to have my Husker Du album signed (confusingly, fIREHOSE placed a picture of their mighty peers on the cover of If’n; fast imploding at the time of release, gone forever by the time of autographing) resulted in ‘Ed FromOhio’ being scrawled on the front and “Beads are now missing: Mike Watt” on the back. He’d circled the picture of himself, bass slightly askew, with a set of blue beads around his neck plotting an escape route which, he told me, they would soon find after one agitated flight too many. Truly, this man was a future Stooge (oddly, the picture of Hurley shows him similarly in the thick of performance and wearing identical-looking beads with a similar urge for freedom).

Perhaps even more than the Minutemen, fIREHOSE were a new kind of power trio, relying less on brute force and (apologies for the first and last time to Def Leppard) bludgeon riffola than on agility and fleet-footedness – but still capable of sticking it about when required. If Cream were a heavyweight boxing champion then fIREHOSE were a seventh dan in judo, casting up flicks and throws when least expected and ever alert to pounce. Fizzing? Definitely. Fizzle? Not a chance (PG).

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