Your Essential Guide To The Jesus Lizard
The Jesus Lizard. What a fucking band. Forming in Austin, Texas in 1987 and relocated to Chicago two years later, The Jesus Lizard created a sometimes obnoxious, always compelling strain of noise rock; an unhinged cocktail of The Birthday Party and The Stooges shot through with jazzy interludes.
Over the course of 12 years, they released six studio albums and quickly earned a reputation for being a formidable live band. They boasted one of the greatest rhythm sections in rock history – David Wm Sims and Mac McNeilly – a mind-bogglingly inventive guitarist Duane Denison, and in David Yow, a frontman who could be described as a true wildcard; a unique vocalist who often grunts, snarls and yelps his abstract, yet unnerving lyrics while writhing across any audience brave enough to hold his sweaty, half-naked torso aloft.
The quartet – whose final studio album Blue was released on April 23, 1998 – have just announced another batch of U.S. reunion shows later this year. Pray to whoever that they see fit to jump on a plane and cross the Atlantic at least one more time.
Unfamiliar with the band? Then read our guide to their studio and live albums and prime that credit card.
Head saw the addition of Mac McNeilly – a real drummer who replaced the drum machine which kept some semblance of order on their 1989 EP Pure – who, alongside bassist David Wm. Sims, made a formidable rhythm section on this full-length debut. Although some of the songs were written while Sims was still in Scratch Acid and Rapeman, the highlights are numerous: Duane Denison’s arpeggio-heavy guitar work is exemplary on the deliberate My Own Urine. Yow’s usual vocal style – part-yelp, part-snarl – is replaced by a gentle croon on the creepy Pastoral; in The Jesus Lizard’s Book, Sims reveals that the frontman was so drunk when he recorded it that he had no recollection of recording it the next day. The urgent, spiralling Killer McHann remains an integral part of their set and was included during their brief tour of the U.S. in December 2017. While Head may be occasionally overlooked by fans when nominating their favourite Jesus Lizard albums, it is the closest recording that captures the wildly chaotic nature of their live performances.
Recorded over the period of several weekends at the Chicago Recording Company, Goat sounds far, far superior to their debut. Steve Albini’s recording allows the components to breathe; Sims’ bass sounds meatier and benefits from being higher in the mix, Denison’s guitars are crisp and McNeilly’s drums absolutely pummel your ears. Yow’s vocals are clearer and his twisted lyrics on the likes of the woozy, slide-heavy ode to amputation Nub – ‘So since the surgery, how’s that ghost limb? Hey man, say man, have you been rubbin’ your nub?’ – give the album a surreal, nightmarish feel. There’s the swinging, disoriented Seasick which swells and explodes as Yow shouts ‘I can swim, I can’t swim’. Sim’s pounding bass line on Monkey Trick – Yow’s personal favourite – provides a sturdy bed for Denison’s intricate guitar lines which gradually build into a frantic, stabbing riff. A damn near perfect album.
Opening song Boilermaker is a hefty slap in the chops from the get-go when Yow grunts ‘UH!’ as his bandmates crash in behind him. On this release, Yow continues to baffle and unsettle with his lyrics; The Art Of Self-Defense is about a “sad, sad pygmy” murderer, while the ominous, lurching Slave Ship paints an utterly miserable picture: ‘Well, fuck this rain… my finger nails have got torn off’. The hellish rockabilly of Rope details a solo sex adventure gone awry: ‘he lay beneath a broken branch face down in the grass, no mason or bricklayer he, a trowel was in his ass’. “It’s a disgusting story, based on a true story,” Yow told Magnet magazine. “Some guy was dating this girl, and he was over at her house; she lives with her parents. She and her parents left to run errands or go shopping or whatever, but when they came back he had accidentally auto-erotically asphyxiated himself. I think he had a trowel in his ass.” Despited being described by frontman David Yow as a “step sideways” from their 1991 album Goat, Liar remains one of their finest hours.
Show was recorded at New York’s legendary CBGBs on December 19, 1993 when the band supported The Damned and released just a couple of months before their fourth studio album Down. It captures The Jesus Lizard at their chaotic best and worth checking out for hearing Yow’s retorts to the headliner’s fans heckling throughout the set.
Sims says that the songs “weren’t ready” when they went into record their last album for Touch & Go and were beginning to feel the strain from an endless cycle of touring and recording. It was also to be their last recording with Steve Albini, after relations between the band and engineer began to sour. “We released a poorly recorded document of insufficiently developed songs. Down is, by far, the worst album the Jesus Lizard album ever made,” says Sims. It’s not a terrible album by any stretch. Although it may lack the wallop of their first three albums, simmering opener Fly On The Wall and Destroy Before Reading stand up almost quarter of a century later.
Their first album for major label Capitol featured GGGarth Richardson (Rage Against The Machine, Biffy Clyro, Melvins) at the production console and has a vitality and crunch that was missing from Down. Opener Thumper bears all the hallmarks of classic Jesus Lizard, while Thumbscrews is utterly ferocious – a vicious diatribe directed at Yow’s former landlord who he wishes to torture for being “such a cock”. Shot features Sims’ best bass playing; listen out for the spiralling flourish at 2:37 on Skull Of A German; a true story about someone who broke into the band’s dressing room at Lollapalooza, stole the bassist’s clothes and was found cowering in a portable toilet. Following the release of Shot, some fans shunned The Jesus Lizard for signing to a major label but they’re fools for not even giving this album the attention it deserves.
After Shot, Mac McNeilly quit the band to focus on raising his family, so the band recruited Jim Kimball, who was already playing with Denison in the Denison/Kimball Trio. With Gang Of Four guitarist Andy Gill at the production desk, Blue sees the band adding more experimental touches to their sound. Strident opener I Can Learn is bathed with effects, while Eucalyptus aches with regret, a feeling bolstered by Denison’s shimmering, ambient guitar and ominous washes of synth. Cold Water, on the other hand, is a frantic sub three-minute knockabout where Yow recounts a dream where he’s in a wheelchair and drowning in a slowly flooding basement. After the sales of Shot and Blue failed to satisfy their major label bosses, they were dropped and it was to be their last-ever studio album. Sales or not, Blue was one hell of a swan song.
A year following their split, their former label Touch & Go released a compilation of their singles and rarities, with some live tracks thrown in for good measure. Highlights include Chrome, Gladiator and their take on The Dicks’ surging Wheelchair Epidemic. There’s also covers of Sunday You Need Love and Anna by Großenkneten new wavers Trio, who had a hit in Germany with Da Da Da ich lieb dich nicht du liebst mich nicht aha aha aha. Yeah, that one. One for the completists.
Their first show in over a decade, Club was recorded at Nasheville’s Exit/In in 2009 and released on DVD and very limited numbers of double vinyl by the mighty Chunklet label. Over the course of 22 tracks, The Jesus Lizard are at their belligerent best and this release manages to capture the spirit of their thrilling live performances.
Words: Simon Young