Monday, October 04, 2010

Out of Print (Not Exactly) Digital Relics: Toiling Midgets

When I write "San Francisco punk," most may think of 924 Gilman St scene, ironically both a paragon of anarcho-socialist punk orthodoxy and a breeding ground for future millionaires. Despite this claim to fame, the city by the bay has never really gotten its due as one of the first in America to fully embrace punk.

Given the city's open-mindedness and tolerance of the transgressive, punk rooted in SF early and got weird fast. Locals Crime released their first records before many prominent UK acts such as the Clash and the Jam. Outsider/bizarro rock acts like Chrome and the Residents were operating pre-punk but found both new directions and new audiences thanks to the new wave. The Dead Kennedys became favorites with the hardcore crowd and the Avengers' records garnered some acclaim from the rock press. However, the most interesting punk coming out of San Francisco was from an axis of bands who shared some members and more than a few musical ideas: Flipper, Negative Trend, The Sleepers and Toiling Midgets.

All these bands fused the spirit of experimentalism of the original CBGBs bands and UK post-punk outfits with the more aggressive approach favored by the new breed of punk bands popping up all over the U.S. None received much attention nationally except for Flipper, who toured a bit and got some posthumous recognition when Kurt Cobain sported their t-shirt of Saturday Night Live. Still, Negative Trend had their sole release, a 4 song EP, reissued by Henry Rollins and the Sleepers had a complete discography released in the mid-90s (which is out of print but available cheap). The only one of the bunch whose best work remains buried is Toiling Midgets.

Featuring the unmistakable and inimitable vocals of the Sleepers' Ricky Williams, Toiling Midgets released their debut LP, Sea of Unrest, in 1982. It was reissued on CD briefly in 1994 but quickly fell out of print and is now extremely difficult to find. This is a shame as it's one of the finer slices of U.S. post-punk. The album features many of the sonic motifs of the Sleepers' material, which Jon Savage dubbed "the sound of the unconscious". In some ways, it actually sounds like more of a continuation of the sound of the Sleepers' brilliant debut EP than that band's more muted (if wonderful in its own way) album. As befits a band from San Francisco, Toiling Midgets achieve a nearly psychedelic grace though more in the psychological sense of the word than the musical one. Besides, you'd never mistake the band's pummeling rock for Haight-Ashbury flower power anyway. If you thought that Joy Division were at their best before they went into the studio with Martin Hannett, Sea of Unrest is the record for you.

Following the album's release, Williams quit and the band released a mostly instrumental album the following year before splitting up. They reformed in in 1989 with American Music Club's Mark Eitzel on vocals and released the album Son on Matador, 10 years after their debut. The band appears to be a semi-active concern at this point. There's what appears to be an official MySpace for your perusal.

Though it was reissued on CD, the following rip of Sea of Unrest comes from the original vinyl source as I don't have a copy of the CD. When and if I obtain one, I may replace these MP3s. I've tried my best to remove any surface noise from the recording while leaving the wanted noise of the music intact.

Download Toiling Midgets Sea of Unrest

1 comment:

Brushback said...

I will grab this.