Off the Map and Into Space
The first time I was stirred by the odd and wonderful Huntsville, Alabama, group, Sex Clark Five, it was through a mixtape meant to stir someone else.
You see, back in the Jurassic, people who dug obscure music clung together using the primitive tools of the day. Many months work at menial occupations (or a few minutes spent wheedling tolerant relations) provided the funds for vinyl, special songs from which were then transferred onto magnetic tape, their careful disorganization conveying secret languages of friendship, romantic yearning, or simple curatorial snobbery. These tapes were named and given baroque cover art, and they came—I am not making this up—in the mail.
The Sex Clark Five song on this particular mixtape was "Modern Fix," the bouncy one that pleads ridiculously, urgently, "Why don't we take our gimmicks, put 'em all in one box/Then trade 'em for a bag of tube socks"—though it could just as easily have been "Red Shift," or "Neita Grew Up Last Night," or "Streamers."
The tape came from Bobby Lee Yardley, an intense, gender-bending friend of my sweetheart Steve Watson. Bobby Lee, then living as a man but who would in time identify as a woman, lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and had a very attentive ear for pop arcana. She had somehow not only discovered Sex Clark Five, and their self-released music, but knew exactly how to frame their songs for maximum emotional impact. "Modern Fix" came curling around the door jamb, utterly out of context and irresistible, and before it was over (all 1:38 minutes of it), I had to know more.
Tracking down the (then-only) album Strum & Drum! was tricky, but not impossible. A scarce, early EP arrived through the kindness of a fellow record raccoon who was not as enraptured as I (fool!). And from there, I began to proselytize, slipping magnificent SC5 songs into my own mixtapes, and blowing visitors' minds by putting their records on with no warning, delighting in the predictably effusive reactions that followed. In time, I'd include them in a book devoted to great lost albums, play a role in making their reissues available, and spend a couple years pestering The OA's editor to include them in this issue.
Here is what typically transpires when a pop-music obsessive hears Sex Clark Five for the first time: 1) The listener is instantly infatuated; 2) expresses shock at having never heard of the band before, and asks their name several times, marveling over how dumb it is; 3) wonders out loud that SC5 is not famous and expresses suspicion that the dumb name has something to do with it; 4) refuses to change the subject until promised a copy of the record; 5) insists on knowing the band's back story.
But where their 1980s' indie-rock peers cultivated musical mythologies through fanzine interviews, videos, photo shoots, tours, and like mundanities, Sex Clark Five was mysterious and almost anonymous, the product of a seemingly hermetic creative development, off the map and off the charts.
As I made my own initial, small, ultimately fruitless effort to build the cult—through a mail interview conducted circa 1991 for Unhinged, a British fanzine that stopped publishing before the piece ran—I began to suspect that SC5's obscurity might not be an accident.
For starters, they were so secretive, or maybe merely shy, filtering communications through a manager called Harper Payne, who they eventually confessed was imaginary. Their interview answers were more funny than frank, revealing a rich inner life with little space for outsiders to venture close. If you asked them, and I did, they'd tell you they came from a strange land where unexpected rocket tests shook the ground, and bands were made up from musicians who met after crucifying themselves on music-store bulletin boards, where girls at their concerts tossed tube socks to show devotion, and ex-Nazi rocket scientists slunk around being brainy. They pointedly inhabited a mythic, literary South, filled with clichés easy to hide inside. It was as if they didn't want anyone to notice them. But why would anyone make such marvelous records in a vacuum?
Of course, they did have champions more influential than mixtape makers like Bobby Lee. In England, John Peel took a shine that he'd polish to a fine glow over years of BBC spins and radio sessions. He was their prophet, often a lone voice spreading the gospel, delighting as their excellence inspired bursts of hyperbolic praise from listeners who couldn't believe something so good was so obscure. Peel helped keep the embers of the SC5 cult burning, but it's never been much of a cult—certainly not one worthy of their gifts. Over my twenty years of fandom, it's been rare to get any reaction when mentioning their name, even among collectors—and, more than once, an enthusiastic response has proved, several minutes into the conversation, and to our mutual embarrassment, to have hinged upon a predictable misapprehension of their name as The Dave Clark Five.
The songs, so delicious to any pop fiend coming to them with the proper reference points, really were too self-deprecating, too short, too insular, and too weird to ever reach a wide audience.
But oh, how welcoming those perfect, tiny tunes! How smart and surprising, their odes to high-school lust and cosmological flukes, military history (you'll never again get tripped up about the origins of World War I), and Yoko Ono. And how very beautiful and reverent they can be, dropping the arch pose with such emanations as "Your black dress could stop a peach in mid-slice." Put that on a mixtape to a crush and watch them crumble!
Take the ineffable "Red Shift," which leader James Butler identifies as quintessentially a song of Huntsville, with origins in an experimental NASA engine test that he heard and felt across the miles:
An engine test of itself not being enough to make a song, it must be transfigured into something mythological (or something semi-otherworldly, or else why would anyone be interested? Unless the song is about girls and that's fine, too). So, it's something like a rocket-engine test becomes God (or a goddess) firing atoms through space. Of course, the song is also about a real girl (why else would it exist?), she being the goddess/interplanetary immortal beloved. (Intimacy revealed in the act of washing the cosmos clean and what certain eyes have seen.) The whole thing could fly off into celestial chaos, but the planets and the moons serve as anchors to remind the "listener" that all is not lost, but her "love is a gift...," etc.
And here we are. It's 2010 and nobody really makes mixtapes anymore—at least not on magnetic tape. Most any record can be quickly found and downloaded onto your hard drive. If you're eager to read about a band, you don't need to send cash wrapped in fliers to P.O. boxes in distant cities, for fanzines you hope will be literate. It's all right there waiting for you to take it, and if it's too easy, and some of the magic is gone, you'll just have to find the magic elsewhere, since science tells us there's always the same exact amount of magic in the world.
Bobby Lee Yardley, the transsexual cartoonist from Michigan who put "Modern Fix" on the mixtape I heard, is dead (though you can consult her archives in the anarchist Labadie Collection at University of Michigan). John Peel is dead. The Sex Clark Five lives on in some uncertain capacity, as does their irresistible discography. Rumors out of Huntsville say there's a new album in the works, and it could be the time that the world catches up to SC5's rocket.
Psst, listen. I want to play you a song I love by a mad little band from Rocket City that might just change your life.
Because you, gentle reader, are part of the largest group of people ever to be brought into the fold. With this issue, more people are hearing and thinking about and falling in love with SC5 than ever have before. Maybe it will be enough to launch them into orbit at last.
So reach out and catch hold of that non-conductive handle on the side, and you can get there before the crowd. It's easy today to discover something you'll love, but there's no shame in that. Come stand on the shoulders of crate-digging weirdos of yore and make this little band your own. Then tell friends, and watch them fall.