It’s possible that no band better defined the aesthetic, attitude, or ethic of Touch & Go’s 25-plus-year history than the Jesus Lizard did. The label’s 50/50 business model, first started by Factory Records in England, gave the underbelly of American music a creative vehicle it never had before, with the backing of Chicago, America’s closet cultural metropolis, to support the music on a local level. All of that coalesced when Dave Yow and David William Sims, two members of an Austin cult favorite named Scratch Acid, and guitarist Duane Denison formed the band and moved to the Windy City. Once there, they promptly made friends with a local punk icon who would become the band’s biggest champion, Steve Albini. If the last records Touch & Go ever puts out are reissues of the Jesus Lizard’s back catalog — the Pure EP, originally released in 1989; Head, 1990; Goat, 1991; Liar, 1992; and Down, 1994 (click each for a review) — the label couldn’t have asked for a better swan song.
The progression of the Jesus Lizard’s discography follows recognizable patterns: from a stark debut EP to a masterful first three albums to an inconistent decline after the band reached its peak. What made the Jesus Lizard’s discography different was that in the process, the band was able to perfect a genre and encapsulate an entire subculture.
Of course, if you were raised in the 2000s, you had the Internet to provide you with a free-flowing back catalog to read about and listen to past bands at varying levels of legality. The Jesus Lizard emerged in the CD era, so not much musically is lost via MP3. But the remastering of the Touch & Go albums, handled by Albini and Bob Weston (Shellac, Volcano Suns, Mission of Burma), has made the albums sound louder, tougher, and fully prepared to embellish the best parts of the Jesus Lizard. All grievances aside, Albini has since declared the Jesus Lizard his favorite band, and he and Weston understood what made that band great like perhaps no one else could.
The remastering is the main benefit of the reissues, but bonus features are fascinating relics of the era. In addition to lesser some alternate takes, the highlights are early B-sides “Sunday You Need Love” and “Pop Song,” which showed that the band could be more accessible musically if they so chose. The live tracks show a band that started with small crowds and moved up to as large and wild as a club setting would hold, but still nothing close to an arena-rock band. (As far as a document of the band’s live shows, the 2007 DVD Jesus Lizard: Live is still a better option.)
Epilogue to the Touch & Go Years
After the Jesus Lizard’s vaulted tenure on Touch & Go, the Jesus Lizard made the difficult decision to jump ship to Capitol Records, in 1995, and to replace Albini with a new producer. The move to a major-label made sense in the context of the mid-’90s, but it seems ludicrous in hindsight. By signing to the majors, the band alienated many of its fans.
The outcome was predictable: The Jesus Lizard’s two albums for Capitol Records, Shot (1996) and Blue (1998), were critical and commercial flops, even with producers with exceptional credentials to replace Albini, such as Garth “GGG” Richardson and Gang of Four’s Andy Gill. McNeill left the band in 1997 and was replaced by the Laughing Hyenas’ Jim Kimball. The band had been robbed of two of its crucial components, and with major-label demands and a dwindling fanbase, the members didn’t have the chance to re-establish the chemistry that had worked wonders in the previous 10 years. Once Capitol dumped the band, there was nothing left but to split up, which they did in 1999. It’d been a hell of a ride, but it was over.
The ’90s were one of the strangest decades in the history of pop music, but it was also one of the most commercially successful. One benefit of a thriving music industry is that it allows bands with more of a cult appeal to thrive. Even in the context of the ’90s, however, the Jesus Lizard still stands out. The band had all the aggression of Nirvana but without the mass appeal. It had all the underground credibility of Pavement but none of the coolness.
The band didn’t need to be cool, though. These guys kept their music separate from the rest of their lives. The Jesus Lizard was a band that could incite a violent riot in a live show and then meet you for beers an hour later. Independent of the band, the members had jobs and families. That kind of approach to music was the result of four remarkably intelligent individuals who kept their devotion to music into their adult lives, thanks to experience handling moshers, slam dancers, and bottle-throwers during the ’80s. That approach to living as a band and as an adult is still difficult to understand and even harder to pull off, even — or perhaps especially — today.
When the members of the Jesus Lizard decided to call it quits officially, they left a glaring void behind them. Noise rock is almost by definition not for everyone; if you were an outcast in your crappy town growing up in the ’90s who needed intense music to make you feel alive, the Jesus Lizard may as well have been as important as their namesake. If you were that kid in the 2000s and were smart enough to see through the MTV-ready packaged angst of Linkin Park and Papa Roach, you were left without any new options.
Whatever confusions, complications and upheaval have come to what was once known as indie rock this decade, it was only recently that bands who had tastes for noise rock and no need to be cool started to emerge. This time, the hotbeds were even shittier towns, like the outskirts of Atlanta (Deerhunter, the Black Lips), Memphis (Jay Reatard), Allentown, Pa. (Pissed Jeans), Glen Rock, N.J. (Titus Andronicus), and, to some extent, sweet home Chicago (The Ponys, Mannequin Men). Fucked Up have begun to take the charge as the heads of the latest wave of pigfuckers (even if they’re from Toronto), which made the Jesus Lizard’s recent return to touring well timed.
The reunited Jesus Lizard won’t fill arenas like Pavement or the Pixies can, but they can still produce a hell-raising live show. Last year saw the return of the Butthole Surfers and Boss Hog, contemporaries of the Jesus Lizard who put on shows that echoed the wild fun of the early ’90s. But the Jesus Lizard were the best live band of all the pigfuckers (a genre tag coined by Robert Christgau), and their live show shouldn’t be missed.
I saw the Jesus Lizard at Pitchfork Fest this summer, and the band’s fans were older, more wrinkled and more leathery, but still as scary-looking as ever. A festival setting isn’t the best place to see the Jesus Lizard, but the band did not disappoint live. The show was the highlight of the festival, as expected. At one point in the show, a toddler started dancing on top of an amp to “Puss.” It was the kind of thing that would have caused all sorts of sirens in the Beavis and Butthead copycat days of the early ’90s, but in this context, it showed that good music is undeniable.