Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Grundies, 1991 - 92

Does anyone remember the Grundies?

The four faces looking out at you from another decade are those of a long-forgotten Memphis band called The Grundies, in their second incarnation. From left to right: Bob "Slyce" Fordyce (drums, vocals), Trey Harrison (guitar, vocals), James Enck (tenor sax, guitar, bass, vocals), and Jeff Green (bass, guitar, vocals). The picture was taken on a very cold night in the winter of 1991/92, in the backyard of Jeff's house on Rembert Street in Midtown Memphis. I lived just down the road at the intersection with Poplar, and the street was also at the time the home of now-eminent music writers Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams, and the uber-talented chef John Pearson. Jeff Buckley also lived on Rembert Street when he made his move to Memphis to record "My Sweetheart the Drunk," in a house that was just a stone's throw from my apartment, though I was already in London by that time. Trey, a very talented and enthusiastic photographer, had brought his camera and some lights over to Jeff's house, and we set up in the backyard to take some band photos. The photo was actually snapped by Bob, which is why he is so far forward in the frame.

The Grundies began as a trio of Bob, Jeff and Trey, sometime in 1990, I think, and by the time I encountered them, they had written and recorded a number of songs at the new Easley Recording studio, two of which ("McLemore Avenue" and "Eyepatch") I later added horns to. I began sitting in with them on tenor sax (which I had acquired from Jim Duckworth and played primitively and often painfully - my primary obvious influence being the squeakier output of Pharoah Sanders), and eventually joined as a fully-fledged member. We had, however, all known one another for many years. I first met Jeff in 1980, when I started working at the barftastic Steak and Ale on Poplar, where he trained me on my first night on the dishwasher. It was also through Jeff that I would meet his classmate, Kurt Ruleman, drummer in my first band Pseudobop with Linda Heck, who now plays with Linda once again. I met Bob sometime in 1982 or so, and I don't remember where or how, but I suspect it might have been because he was the drummer for the great and all-too-short-lived band Shagnasty, which also included Mark Harrison of Snakehips. Trey I knew of, but didn't actually properly meet until 1986, ironically on a trip to see my former Pseudobop band mates Mark Edwards and Richard Young in Berkeley, California.

The Grundies were an interesting musical collision between the primitive and the refined, which generated occasional moments of brilliance and beauty, but was forever on the verge of spinning out of control and crossing the line into The Unlistenable - territory we unfortunately spent a lot of time probing during our live sets. Bob was an exceptionally talented drummer, with formal training gained through participation in his high school's drum corps, and lengthy experience in a number of bands. I was a reasonably proficient guitarist, and had played with a number of bands. Jeff and Trey were much less experienced. Trey had been an occasional member of the Odd Jobs, probably one of Memphis' best, bravest and most challenging bands of the 1980s, but I think he might have only played slide guitar then, and Jeff had never played in a band before as far as I am aware. But Trey and Jeff were both naturally talented and charismatic vocalists, with a highly developed appreciation of the absurd, and this force of personality had instant appeal for almost anyone who saw them play - well, it certainly did for me.

In the first incarnation of the band, sans moi, this tension between experience and raw enthusiasm created an interesting dynamic, with the drums really providing the focal point for the listener in search of movement and accent, because most of what was going on with the bass and guitar was very stripped down indeed. I have a tape of the original Grundies sessions at Easley, which contains some fantastic performances, which I hope to obtain in digital format at some point.

For my money, the definitive Grundies song comes from these sessions, and it is called "Fire in the Driveway." The performance is fast-paced, with the guitar recorded very hot, and Trey's characteristically powerful vocal dry and right up front, with fantastic drum fills from Bob during the frequent stops. It is a concise and irresistible encapsulation of The Grundies' proposition - simple, hard-rocking, and absurd:

Well, there's a fire in the driveway (Jeff on backing vocals, "Yea-uh, yea-uh"),
And I can't quite figure it out,

Well, there's a fire in the driveway,

And everybody's rushing about,

Is it the carburetor?

He said, "No!"
Is it the radiator?
He said, "No!"

Is it the potentator?

He said, "No!"
Is it the lickulater?
He said, "No, no, no, no!"

This early recording contains many other gems:

"McLemore Avenue" (for those not aware, this is the South Memphis street which was home to Stax Records, as well as the name of the fine Booker T. & the MGs album covering "Abbey Road"), on which I appear as a sort of zombified version of the Memphis Horns, is a funky instrumental featuring what we described as the "pyramid of entertainment" - in which Jeff's funky bass riff opens and is later joined by Trey's guitar, then Bob's drums, and lastly my horns. The suspense is almost unbearable!

"Go-Kart Track" is another defining piece of Grundiania. We used to rehearse at Jeff's family business, a landscape architecture company with a complex of nurseries and buildings on Summer Avenue, right next to the go-kart track at the Putt Putt miniature golf site. Before I joined, I guess on the 4th of July, the guys emerged from the rehearsal space to note that there was no one left at the go-kart track. This would probably account for the only lyrics of the song, which were:

There's nobody left at the go-kart track (x3),
And it's the 4th of July.

Another great song from that first session is "Pyroflatulence," which has a very delicate and understated instrumental opening, with vocal to match. Things gradually build to a crescendo and eventual disintegration.

Feeling like a fool,
In a brand new school,
Thought I was hip,
I had a pocket full of French Dip.

Hey, what's your name?
I am a human flame (x3).


My personal favorite from this session was "Cinco de Mayo," alternatively known as "Cinco de Mayonnaise." As the name suggests, it is an instrumental in 5/8 time signature, with the amazing Bob playing drum rolls throughout, while the bass and guitar (and sax in subsequent live performances) play an E chord in a 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5 rhythmic pattern, punctuated by a bluesy refrain in between. It's difficult to describe, and I'm not sure that my description does the piece any justice, but I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking that it was totally infectious. Robert Gordon shot a music video of this song in Jeff's backyard, which I used to have a copy of, and would love to see again.

While the group was musically fairly erratic, the strong graphic arts background and sensibility of most the members meant that we excelled at non-musical representations of the group. At some point, I found a couple of painted gourds in a thrift (charity) shop on Summer Avenue, one of which had an unusual shape and the word "Jim" written on it. This became the de facto icon for The Grundies, which featured on numerous fliers and a T-shirt which I wish I still had (I think I gave it to a girlfriend). There was also a limited edition of pennants, one of which I still have and is pictured later in this post.


The Grundies played a few highly unusual shows during the short life of the band. We played in a soybean field next to a tenant farmer's shack near Horseshoe Lake in Arkansas, which was a very odd experience. The day was sunny and beautiful, and a large part of it was captured on video by Robert Gordon, though I have never seen any of the footage. The locals, all poor black tenant farmers, were very welcoming, and we found ourselves the guests of honor at a fish fry that night, where the music on offer consisted entirely of a peculiar mix of Michael Jackson's Bad, NWA, and Z.Z. Hill.

We also played a gig with legendary Memphis hard rockers Neighborhood Texture Jam (NTJ) and the unintentionally hilarious epic metal band False Facade, at a stock car racing track (dirt) north of Memphis - I think it was in Woodstock. Jeff had organized this show around some event his Ultimate Frisbee team was involved in, but unfortunately it hadn't been given adequate publicity, so virtually no one turned up. Normally we wouldn't have cared, except that he had given the NTJ guys a guarantee. I had to leave after our set to play a show with Linda Heck back in town, but everyone else stayed at the race track and drove their cars around the circuit, which was apparently part of the package for hiring the venue.

A few weeks later, we played another gig with NTJ on the 5th of July at the New Daisy Theater on Beale Street. The night before, there had been a professional boxing match held in the venue, and NTJ had somehow convinced the management to leave the ring set up for the bands to play in. I wore some suitable gym shorts and a robe, and bounced off the ropes like a professional wrestler as we played our set, which I recall was one of our best ever, and certainly the most fun. By this time I was mostly playing guitar, and I had forced the other members in the band to learn NTJ's signature piece "Borax Factory," which we played very convincingly as our last song, both as a genuine tribute to their musical genius, but also because they had insisted on being paid their guarantee at the racetrack despite the obvious failure of the event and the fact that we all believed we were friends up to that point. I left that night before the fireworks started, but apparently Jeff and Trey were involved in some backstage slanging with some NTJ members around the issues of money and ethics, the outcome of which I'm still not sure about.

Throughout the life of the group, we had played a couple of times in Memphis with the Chicago band Shrimp Boat, which contained former Memphians Eric and Ian Schneller, the latter of whom had been in the Odd Jobs and was still close to Trey and Bob. In August, 1992, we traveled to Chicago to play a gig with them. I recall that when we left Memphis, it was about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, but we arrived in Chicago the next morning to find that it was rainy and 45 or so. Jeff, who had come up in shorts, a tank top and flip-flops, was taken immediately to a local thrift store to buy some more substantive clothing. Our show in Chicago was a failure on the whole, as the recording of the event validates. I think our self-deprecating, absurdist Southern humor and primitivist musical approach was lost on the audience, who were really there to see the far more sophisticated Shrimp Boat. We probably also didn't help our case by playing an atonal version of "Beer Barrel Polka" as a tribute to the citizens of Chicago. By this point in the band's evolution, we were overindulging in atonal free-form stuff, which did not show us at our best. Shrimp Boat themselves were wonderful hosts, and I enjoyed the few days we spent hanging out at their warehouse space. Ian and Eric were great fun, and I recall that Sam was deeply into the jazz thing, as was I, and had a fantastic vinyl collection. But, alas, I had a new job to return to in Memphis and realized that the wild and wacky life of touring penury was not for me.


It was the new job, my growing fatigue with loud music (we were very loud), as well as a general sense that we had pretty much exhausted our potential and were not particularly enjoying one another's company that much anymore, which led me to exit in September, 1992. The band pretty much ended then, though we did a recording session at Easley - McCain Studios after our return from Chicago, which sounds great in retrospect and yielded a single on Ed Porter's Loverly Records, and can be found on the fine double CD compilation "The Singles: 1993 - 1994". I have seen it available on the net for as little as 89 cents, which is ludicrously good value. The single was "San Antonio"/"You Look Good," on both of which I played bass, and horns on "You Look Good". "San Antonio" has one of the best opening lines of any Grundies song: "I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, I read a book, I didn't know what it was about, down in San Antonio." If you have a vinyl copy of this single, you are part of a very small club, because I don't think any effort was ever mounted to distribute or promote it. The real gems of the session, however, were both obscure covers, "I Found My Love in Memphis" and "Lawman."

"I Found My Love in Memphis" was a song I discovered in a thrift store in Binghampton when I was living briefly on Forrest Street near East Parkway and Summer Avenue after my return from Japan in 1990. This thrift store had multiple copies of what looked like vanity singles from obscure local labels with names like "Pretty Girl," all of which seemed to be connected in some way. I bought several of them one day, most of which were terrible in an unremarkable way, but "I Found My Love in Memphis," written and sung by a long-forgotten man named George Clappes, was terrible in a really special way. I went back to the shop the next day and bought several more copies, which I gave to friends whom I thought would appreciate it. It feels more like a song poem than a song, I suppose, but the musical structure is so peculiar, and the lyrics so daftly charming, that it was screaming to be covered. It was recorded as a mid-tempo country song, but The Grundies' version rocked it, which actually seemed more appropriate to the strange chord changes (verses: B - C sharp - B - C sharp - A - E - F sharp - A - B - C sharp - B; bridge: B - E - F sharp - E - F sharp - E - F sharp - E - F sharp - B - E - B - A - B - A - B). I often wondered if the lyrics were written sincerely, or if George Clappes was gunning for a lucrative deal with the Chamber of Commerce, because for a song about love, it's very long on municipal amenities and very short on love.

I traveled over many a land,
Even through the desert sand,
Nowhere was I satisfied,
'Til I came to the riverside of Memphis

I got me a job and I settled down,
Right here in this nice big town,
Lots of girls there are around,
I found my love in Memphis

Now I have plenty of everything,
Even to my wedding ring,
I just go around and sing,
I found my love in Memphis


Listen to me friends wherever you are,
All round close or way off far,
There's lots of music and lots of fun,
I found my love in Memphis

We've got more churches and fillin' stations,
One of the best cities in the nation,
And there are industries everywhere,
I found my love in Memphis

We've got new buildings up to the sky,
Come on friends and start a new life,
Well that's exactly what I did,
I found my love in Memphis,
I found my love in Memphis

If you never heard The Grundies perform this song, you're probably not encouraged by my description, but trust me it was very, very good, particularly the version we recorded at that final session.

Our other epic cover, "Lawman," was a fairly lame country recording by Eddie Bond, one of his many musical tributes to Buford Pusser, with whom he had something of an obsession. The Grundies also had something of an Eddie Bond obsession: one of the early Grundies songs was "Eddie Bond" (the sole lyrics of which were his name), Jeff had a number of Eddie Bond albums, and he also produced an Eddie Bond frisbee featuring an unflattering caricature of the man drawn by Bob. We reworked it as a southern rock anthem, in which Trey, Jeff, and Bob all took turns singing the verses, ending with the singalong chorus from "Hey Jude," re-purposed as "Na, na, na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey Buford." This was frequently a set-closer for the band, and I think it often made up for a wealth of musical transgressions perpetrated earlier in the evening.

Black smoke's rising from the poplar trees,
They're making moonshine liquor down in Tennessee,
Look out, bootleggers, Buford comes around,
He's got a nose for whiskey like a hot bloodhound,
He's a lawman

Well he could stare down the barrel of a 44,
And leave six men lying on a barroom floor,
Buford won't back down when the going gets tough,
If he comes to getcha, you can pack your stuff,
'Cause he's a lawman

God help you boy if you carry a bounty,
Don't plant your feet in McNairy County,
They got a man with a plan for upholding the law,
Standin' proud and walkin' tall

Towhead White's been comin' around,
He told the whole dang town he's gonna gun you down,
Towhead White, I'd hate to be in your shoes,
When Buford comes around and starts looking for you
'Cause he's a lawman

Well they said "Buford why don't you get outta town while you've still got your life?,
You've been shot six times, now they've killed your wife,"
He said, "They buried my Pauline in the cold, cold ground,
Nah boy, nah, I ain't leavin' town.
I'm a lawman."

Between the two very different recording sessions at the beginning and end of the band's life, there is adequate material for an album, almost all of it very good. I have a compilation tape of the two which contains:

Fire in the Driveway
McLemore Avenue
Tip, or Dump
Mary's Head (two versions, one fast, one ambient)
Cinco de Mayonnaise
Eddie Bond
Hurry Up and Stop
Go-Kart Track
Clam Ranch
Jimma Lee
You Look Good
San Antonio
Cowboy Song (written by Trey's then-toddler son, Red)
Buddy Up
Wise Without Study
Fire in the Driveway (flamenco version)
I Found My Love in Memphis

Assuming that the tapes survived the Easley - McCain studio fire, I would love it if someone assembled a definitive collection, to share the vision of The Grundies with the world. I think we could all use a smile right about now. Thanks for the memory, fellas.

Grundies pennant

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