Wild & Far-Out Sounds from the South
The Jet Black Factory
Nashville is more than just a music industry city. It’s a music industry spectacle, and the obeisance and fealty paid to its glittery mechanics is quite different from anywhere else. Unlike in, say, Los Angeles, in Nashville even underground rock & roll bands are in wide-eyed thrall to the dull whims of the music industry, thousands of guitar-wrangling, drum-pummeling rock musicians competing for a shekel of sallow grace from know-nothing A&R hacks with fat wallets and egregiously-styled hair.
It probably has to be that way in Nashville—the country music machine seeming to thrive on that dynamic. But within the context of rock music and the whole of its attendant mythology, such groveling and preening at the expense of developing something that might smell or sound like art is at best off-putting.
In the early 1980s, Nashville experienced something like an explosion of rock & roll that was heavily influenced by the punk rock, power-pop, and new-wave sounds coming like thick, frothy wave break out of New York City, Los Angeles, and the UK. Much of the first flowering of that aesthetic was great—The Ratz, Cloverbottom, and Jap Sneakers were all top-shelf bands, all drunk on the liberating angst and promise of self-invention that punk proffered. The insular Nashville scene peaked in 1983 when Jason & The Scorchers released their Fervor EP to rabid critical raving and a nearly religiously fervent hometown audience. After the Scorchers were awarded a major label recording contract, everything went downhill for Nashville’s nascent little scene, and by the mid-1980s there wasn’t much at all interesting happening in Nashville rock; the impulse to make music for the hell of it killed off by the soul-crushing desire to line one’s own pockets with major-label money. There were a few highlights, however—the blazing Raging Fire and the druggy idiosyncratic garage-punk sounds of Shadow 15, in particular. But, for me, maybe the coolest sounds out of Nashville at the time were coming from Jet Black Factory, a band that took its cues from far outside the usual litany of rock and punk influences sported by so many bands at the time.
Jet Black Factory formed in 1985. The lead singer, Dave Willie, had been in the first hardcore-punk band in Nashville, the Committee For Public Safety, though none of the blistering, belligerent Minor Threat-influenced energy of that band remained in Willie’s style or persona by then. Rounded out by a core trio of Bob German on guitar and Jim Dye on drums, what Jet Black Factory was making was a kind of moody, if not saturnine, pop music, a shimmering aural cloak of deep texture that was clearly influenced by UK bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division, and Echo & The Bunnymen. I also hear the studio-polished, new-wave sounds of Modern English and the shattered sonics of Southern Death Cult here, too. The sound was deep-hued and pretentious, and informed just as much by Willie’s preoccupation with French symbolist poetry, European art movements, and American crime-noir novels as anything else. In a way, Jet Black Factory were like some kind of Southern neo-goth group, the dreariness and narcissism of those foregoing British bands replaced with something more like a lonely, teenage-bedroom aesthetic: alienated, blue, and seductive.
“Vinegar Works,” from House Blessing by Jet Black Factory
Part of what’s interesting about Southern underground rock & roll bands of the 1980s is the way they often seem informed by a languid, effortless familiarity that is easily identified as Southern. Think of R.E.M., Guadalcanal Diary, or the great Alabama group, The Primitons. Moreover, despite the best intentions of some Southern rock groups, that cultural memory exerts itself and imprints on the music just as plainly and assuredly as its obvious presence is heard and felt and seen in those bands who traffic in and exploit the archetypal South in a much more overt fashion, sometimes more so, ineffability pleasingly trumping spectacle. In that way, Jet Black Factory sounds more Southern to me than Nashville bands like Jason & The Scorchers or the truly egregious Walk the West. You can hear, too, in the music of Jet Black Factory, echoes of their 1980s Southern contemporaries, most notably R.E.M., but there’s also purplish Appalachian harmony as thick and creepy as fog on the Cumberland.
Jet Black Factory released their first EP, Days Like These, in 1986, followed by the great Duality EP in 1987, notable for the inclusion of the masterful “Van Allen Belt.” The band released only one LP, House Blessing, in 1990. In typical Nashville fashion, the band made some significant concessions in the recording of the LP—the extravagant moody depths of the first two records relinquished and replaced with more crafted, concise songwriting and playing. The band added a second guitarist for the album, Roy Anderson, creating a broader sonic palette, too. In retrospect, so much of the record sounds like it should have been a huge hit. “Shut Up,” “Look Away,” “Vinegar Works,” and “Indigo” all sound like lost hits, drive-time power plays from an alternate universe. Despite their negotiation for wider audience acceptance and more mainstream success, the group never signed to a major label. The LP was released on the Nashville label 391 Records, and, nevertheless, did fairly well, garnering more critical accolades and turning up in the College Music Journal’s Top 100. But the momentum wasn’t to last. A kind of heavy-lidded entropy set in following constant touring, mainly in the South, coupled with ambivalent and jaded audiences and the routine of sad, cheap hotel rooms, the late-night cocaine and whiskey taking its predictable, inevitable psychic toll. Listening to House Blessing now, I get a bit giddy. It’s a lost rock classic of sorts; or a lost moment anyway, a soft-focused frame shot right before the music industry’s commercial shuck-and-jive routine became institutional and de rigueur—that moment when all that was cool and new and alive about underground rock music became, for a time, co-opted and irrelevant.
“Look Away,” from House Blessing by Jet Black Factory
Jet Black Factory broke up, or down as the case may be, in 1991, the year guitarist Roy Anderson was convicted of second-degree murder in the killing of a Mobile nightclub owner.
In the couple decades since Jet Black Factory imploded, singer Dave Willie fronted legendary Nashville lounge act Nine Parts Devil. Bob German abandoned the United States and his name for, you guessed it, Germany, where he writes crime-noir novels under the nom de plume Walter Von Wegen. And Jim Dye still mauls his mighty drum kit around Nashville, the heavy, sticky thump of his battery still heard and felt all around town.
“Van Allen Belt,” from House Blessing by Jet Black Factory