Big Black’s Atomizer – 30 years of an uncompromising, visceral & challenging classic

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Big Black (Credit: Touch and Go Records promotional material)

Big Black (Credit: Touch and Go Records promotional material)

It’s thirty years since Big Black released Atomizer upon the world and Getintothis’ Rick Leach heralds a record that’s still like no other.

Thirty years ago. Nearly half a lifetime away. A very different world. 1986 was memorable for lot of things.

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Out of Africa wins Best Picture at the Oscars.  The assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister, Olaf Palme. Catchphrase with Roy Walker is aired for the first time. Ronald Reagan is President of the USA. Margaret Thatcher is UK Prime Minister. The World Cup takes place in Mexico; Maradona scores against England with the “Hand of God” goal. The Iran-Contra scandal unfolds. Mike Tyson wins his first World Heavyweight title. Unemployment hits a post-war high of 3.2 million in the UK. The Wapping print dispute. 30 million people tune in to watch Eastenders on Christmas Day for the famous Den and Angie divorce episode. John McCarthy is kidnapped in the Lebanon and remained held for over five years. The Chernobyl disaster.

Grim times indeed.

But it was a long time ago. Memories recorded on grainy VHS tapes and fading newsprint. Memories seared in our minds at the time, but fading now and only truly recalled through the airing of those VHS tapes. You know these things happened of course but it all seems so distant and slightly unreal.

Yet something, one thing is not unreal. One thing has not faded away and is still with us, as real as ever.

Big Black’s Atomizer album. Like all those memories, thirty years old, yet sounding like it was recorded yesterday. Or tomorrow.

Forged in Chicago in 1981, Big Black were like no other band, before or since. The next time you hear of any band or artist being described as uncompromising, or visceral, or challenging, or any other of those tired old clichés-and you undoubtedly will, and possibly by this writer-just point them in the direction of Big Black and tell them the errors of their ways.

Uncompromising. Visceral. Challenging. Big Black were all this and more. Uncomfortable. Music that made you think; am I right? Is this right? What is this all about? Music that disturbs- and really isn’t that what the point of all music, and indeed art or any creative process should be about? Disturbing and challenging preconceptions. Something that repels. Something that fascinates.

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Big Black, formed by Steve Albini, did things differently. No record contract, nothing to strap them down to a label, nothing to tie them down. They operated always on a licensing deal, no contracts. ‘Operate as much as possible away from the ‘‘music scene”…take no shit from anyone in the process’ ran the sleeve notes to their live album Pigpile.

They licensed their recordings to a label for a fixed amount of time and that was it. They paid for their own recordings. They were definitely set against signing any contracts; as Albini stated, “… if you don’t have contracts, you don’t have any contracts to worry about…  if you have no tour rider, you don’t have a tour rider to argue about…(and) if you don’t have a booking agent, then you don’t have a booking agent to argue with.” They also had no manager, no agent, no lawyer, no road crew and in a double whammy, no drummer. Having no drummer meant that they could tour without hiring a van, set everything up quickly and cheaply themselves without needing any outside help.

Just the three of them. Two guitarists, Steve Albini and Santiago Durango, and bassist Jeff Pezzati. The latter left Big Black amicably prior to the recording of Atomizer and was replaced by Jeff Riley, a studio engineer who had worked with the likes of Sly Stone and George Clinton.

The fourth member of Big Black was a drum machine, Roland. Besides the distinct advantage when it came to touring and the fact that a drum machine never got tired, it would keep a constant beat irrespective of what chaos was happening and it did exactly what it was told; the sheer sound of the machine, programmed by Albini to accent the first and third accents of a beat, as opposed to the second and fourth in most rock music, gave Big Black something different, something monolithical; an intense inhuman pummelling. What is usually the most human aspect of a rock band, the groove, the heartbeat, the soul, was replaced and taken over by something mechanistic and without any moral judgement, one way or another.

By the time 1986 and the release of Atomizer came around, Big Black had issued a couple of singles and two EP’s (both excellent, by the way), Racer X and Bulldozer. Atomizer was the first of two albums and we should have really known what to expect from it in terms of subject matter based upon the band’s earlier output.

This is where it gets a bit tricky, a tad problematic. This is the point where you find yourself listening to Big Black and thinking ‘…what the fuck?’ Not just on Atomizer, but on everything they did. Everything from their very first EP, Lungs (really a solo Albini effort to be honest), though to their very last recording, the Songs About Fucking album.

On top of, or alongside, or inter-weaved with the most viscous music possible were words, lyrics, songs, titles covering subject matters that weren’t usually the focus in popular music. And if they were – unlikely, but possible it may be supposed – then they weren’t presented in the way that Big Black did.

Try this.

From the Bulldozer EP, Cables is about a bunch of blokes who used to sneak into an abattoir to watch cows being slaughtered. Pigeon Kill was about a town in rural Indiana who took great delight in feeding poisoned corn to pigeon population to kill them. Seth was the story of a dog trained to attack black people (the track opening with the chilling recording of a white supremacist’s rant). On Racer X we were presented with The Ugly American (growling Albini vocals), masochism in Sleep “your foot in my face is what keeps me alive” and a cover of James Brown’s The Big Payback-amended in part with the lyric, “I’ll cut your throat. I’ll make amends.”

Easy listening this was not. The last line from the sleeve notes to Racer X read, ‘The next one’s gonna make you shit your pants.’

The next one was Atomizer.

It covered all bases. All base bases.

Atomizer kicks in with Jordan, Minnesota. When you first hear it, you are staggered by the brutality and power and excitement. This is great, angry, fist-pumping music. Flat out, foot-to the floor, 100 mph, barrelling-down-the-highway music. Yes! But then, to your horror, your utter horror, it slowly dawns on you that this is not some “kick-ass, rock and roll” (sic) tune. This is not something to have blasting out of your car stereo in some adolescent manner to appear big or hard or tough.

This was music to make you shudder. Jordan, Minnesota is the true story-and that what it is, a true story, presented flatly as fact- about a very small American town where 26 people were charged with horrific offences stemming from a massive paedophile ring. The town was so small that that the 26 made up a large proportion of the adult population. ‘This is Jordan, we do what we like…’ incants Albini and that’s the long and short of it. And the horrific thing is that Jordan, Minnesota was not, and still is not atypical. It could be any small town in America. Or England. In 1986 or 2016. That is what is horrific.

Big Black- Atomizer

Big Black- Atomizer

Passing Complexion is a song about how someone can be seen as either white or black, how easier it is if your skin colour is not black black and just light enough to pass off as “white.” How people could be seen as white enough to mix with white company, to pass themselves off, even if they weren’t really “good enough.” A whole third class of outsiders, neither white nor black, but different. Albini based this on a tale about a black woman who would wet nurse both white and black babies and was good enough to do that- yet not good enough to sit in white people’s living rooms. And again, all of this was told without commentary, as documentary. It’s up to ourselves to make our minds up. To think about it.

Big Money is all about a corrupt police officer. ‘We just want, we just need, we just want, we just need big money.’ Some things don’t ever change.

Four tracks in and we hit Kerosene. Possibly the greatest Big Black track (and that’s saying something). Certainly the go-to track when anyone asks “What were they all about?” or “What do they sound like?” Like nothing you’ve ever heard before-or since.

The first verse in Kerosene goes like this…

“I was born in this town, live here all my life
Probably come to die in this town, live here my whole life
Never anything to do in this town, live here my whole life
Never anything to do in this town, live here my whole life
Probably come to die in this town, live here my whole life
Nothing to do, sit around at home
Sit around at home, stare at the walls
Stare at each other and wait till we die
Stare at each other and wait till we die”

And that’s it. The sheer boredom and pointlessness of it all. Big Black were not glossing over anything, making anything sound better than it really was. 1980’s? Young guns? Go for it? What a lot of bollocks. How could you go for it when there was nothing to go for; and more importantly, why bother going for anything? There was no point. This was what it was like in any small town, in America, in England, anywhere. There was nothing.

And just as significantly, Big Black weren’t going for the oh-woe-is-me-doomed-youth-romanticised-garrett-living-Smiths-miserablism nonsense either. Because in those thousands of small towns, when boredom really hits and when there’s nothing to do, really nothing to do, morosely wandering around the cemetery with a bunch of gladioli and a copy of Rimbaud is equally as pointless and useless as doing nothing.

What was the answer? Was there an answer? Was there anything to do?

“There’s kerosene around. Something to do. Set me on fire. Kerosene. Set me on fire.”

That’s what you could do. Immolation.

This was truly unexpected. This was subject matter that didn’t often crop up. When there is nothing, there’s nothing to do, except do unexpected. When boredom hits, what else have you got?

This was something from the outside and from the outer reaches. There was something Lynch-ian about it all- strange things happening in ordinary places.

In Kerosene, Albini managed to meld perfectly something that was more that surface despair or disaffection but something that was deeper than that with a tune (and yes, there was a melody, but not one you’d be whistling while you were cleaning your windows or washing up), that showed distinctly funk-based roots. Whether this was something to do with Riley’s experience with Stone and Clinton, it’s hard to say, but for all the grimness of the subject matter it’s a song that never fails to excite. It’s a strange world indeed.

What else have we got on Atomizer?

Bazooka Joe– the tale of a Vietnam vet who becomes a contract killer. Stinking Drunk– a song about a raging and violent drunk. Fists of Love- sadism; “Feel my hand, feel my hand, feel it.” This was really hard stuff to listen to. Not difficult to hear; quite often this writer listens to the music rather than the lyrics. It is quite easy to divorce the two and to separate them. The music is vital and thrilling and it’s easy to try to miss the words. Maybe it’s a conscious thing; maybe the music is – despite the rawness and the viciousness and mechanistic nature of it all – easy listening after all. In comparison to the lyrics, it is by far the easiest component.        

So what was Atomizer all about and what was it for? Why did Big Black make such music?

It wasn’t typical rock star preaching nor barbed, angry hardcore social commentary. There was nothing even Crass-like in the sheer venom of the words. This was punk rock, but not as we knew it.

In fact Big Black made Crass sound like Dollar. The whole point was to hold up an unflinching mirror, a mirror without commentary and to simply document the way things are. As Albini said, ‘Everybody has goodness and evil within them, everybody was perverted and strange…and this was the way things were.’ Like the other great American songwriter, Randy Newman, who similarly had the gift of being able to write about such uncomfortable topics as racists and rapists without overt commentary, Big Black simply wrote about and sung about what was.

It didn’t matter and it wasn’t important how they felt about it. This was intelligent music and it was for us as to make our minds up about it. Why did we need some rock star to tell us what to think? Why do we still really need some rock star, thirty years later to tell us what to make of it all when they are rambling on about something or other that’s disturbing or challenging or just plain wrong? Words of wisdom from up on high? Tablets of stone? Come on! We are intelligent adults. Surely we can make our own minds up. Maybe things haven’t really changed at all. This was why Big Black were, and still are, unique.

Albums both old and new! Check out our archive of write ups on classic and future classic albums.

It may be said that there was a certain amount of satire in Albini’s lyrics and songs. That’s kind of missing the point and an easy cop-out. You can’t really go for that angle; it’s hard to find any satirical targets in any Big Black songs, whether on Atomizer or on anything else they released.

There are a couple of telling points when thinking about what Big Black wrote about. There was an honesty about it all that if not non-existent, then it was (and still is) rare in popular music. ‘Some people are uncomfortable being confronted with a notion without having that notion explained to them,’ said Albini, ‘We’re more interested in setting out the information was we perceive it and letting people deal with it on their own terms.’

He clarified this point in the liner notes to Pigpile, the live Big Black album. ‘Anyone who thinks we overstepped the playground perimeter of lyrical decency (or that the public has a right to demand ‘social responsibility’ from a goddamn punk rock band) is a pure mental dolt, and should step forward and put his tongue up my ass.’

There you have it. In a nutshell.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to think of another record by any other artist in the past thirty years, since 1986 to 2016, that’s like Atomizer. There would always have to be a certain level of irony or judgement or shock tactic in there; something to qualify it in some way, to justify and to explain.

Thirty years is a long time. And a lot has happened in the world and a lot has changed in music. We have all seen a lot come and go and come back again. But by and large, it’s the same old thing, the same old routines being worked through over and over again. It’s a bit of a game.

Atomizer is beyond that. It just is. And you should really hear it.

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