Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #9 by Stephen McClurg
Stump: Quirk Out (1986)
Stump, a band difficult to categorize, is compared most frequently to Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. Stump formed right around the time that Beefheart’s last official album, Ice Cream for Crow (1982), came out, so maybe something in the ether passed on there, but Stump rarely reference the blues, a basic ingredient in the Beefheart stew. Stump comes out of pop-rock in terms of melody and punk in terms of aggressive, emphatic rhythms–though they share a similar sense of arrangement with the Magic Band: independent, weaving guitar and bass parts that lock up with the drums on certain beats, and sudden shifts of tone or tempo. Stump also reminds me of Wall of Voodoo, The Residents, or early DEVO, and were precursors to ‘90s bands like Primus or Mr. Bungle.
One characteristic that all of these bands share is a sense of humor, which turns some listeners away, something I’ve never understood. Maybe my predisposition for it was growing up and reading MAD or listening to The Muppet Movie soundtrack and enjoying the funny songs as much as the tender ones. I’ve had more than one person tell me that humor in music “makes me feel stupid.” It makes me feel human, and many of these bands revel in a type of humor that can be gleaned from literature like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (if read as a mock epic), Beckett’s Endgame (“If you must hit me, hit me with the axe.”), or Kafka’s Metamorphosis (Despite having turned into “vermin,” Samsa’s worried about getting to work on time.)
But I digress.
Quirk Out opens with “Tupperware Stripper,” a song that showcases a punk approach to the Beefheart aesthetic. Mick Lynch, the singer and songwriter, opens the song chanting about a housewife looking forward to a Tupperware party for reasons other than the plastic. Lynch frequently tells absurdist stories built from quotidian elements, yet steeped in beautiful and bizarre imagery. Don Van Vliet (the “Captain” of the Magic Band) is known for a similar approach, but Lynch doesn’t use Van Vliet’s growled dadaisms. Lynch leans toward more traditional senses of narrative and melody.
This song also showcases Kev Hopper’s idiosyncratic playing. Hopper plays fretless electric bass and utilizes the expressiveness of the instrument, and at once exploits the characteristic smooth glissando and works against it with a variety of rhythmic clicks. His lines weave traditional roots with harmonics, sliding harmonics, chords, and ghost notes that become either rhythmic or melodic depending on how he deploys them.
The second song, “Our Fathers,” is a kind of rock ballad, reminiscent of Tears for Fears or Big Country, with the exception of Hopper’s harmonics and chorusy, sliding octaves, which would have likely been performed on a synthesizer in those other bands. Stump scattered a few pop-rock ballads throughout their brief catalogue. “Our Fathers” is surprising in how comfortably one can imagine it on Top 40 radio or on a film soundtrack, yet the song has probably rarely been heard out of the UK, especially pre-Internet. The song’s lyrics are about “the sins of the fathers” or how, as Philip Larkin put it, “man hands on misery to man” without learning anything from the process.
Built out of wobbly, skronky guitar and bass lines, the verse (and guitar solo) on “Kitchen Table” is probably the most Beefheartian piece on this record. The chorus switches into a more traditional rhythm and sing-along that eventually becomes a dense, roiling noise of an ending.
“Buffalo”–their “most famous” song–was my introduction to the group. While watching the video, it’s hard to deny the charisma of Mick Lynch despite the fact that (or because?) he looks like a rubbery, spastic Tintin spouting seemingly jejune lyrics like “Swing bottom / Swing big bottom / Swing-a ling-a” or “How much is the fish? / How much is the chips? / Does the fish have chips?” My children have been dancing and singing to this song since they can remember and still request it. So it’s childish, but maybe in the purest sense. Besides, how many times can one hear “The Hot Dog Dance” or “Let It Go” and not lose it? Lynch says in a few live videos that this song is about the reincarnation of the American Buffalo, which I presume means, given the song narrative, that they come back as American tourists, “bulls” in the “china shop” of London.
Chris Salmon’s guitar solo is sublime, stuttering wonkiness. There are moments in his output with the band that sound like Snakefinger or D. Boon. He plays country licks on a few tunes reminiscent of other ‘80s oddball groups like Wall of Voodoo that had similar forays into the genre. One of my favorite songs by any group, and one that highlights Salmon’s use of country-styled guitar is “Charlton Heston” on their only full-length release A Fierce Pancake (1988). While Salmon pseudo-chicken picks, the backing rhythm is built out of a plague of croaking frogs. The lyrics are built out of puns of Biblical language along with references to film and the apocalypse. Fishbone’s “Party at Ground Zero” is a similar example of Cold War apocalyptic anxiety filtered through humor.
“Everything In Its Place”–a sort of song built out of chorusy bass and country-esque yelps and phrasing–delineates a crude Panglossian approach to human biology, including lines like “You should be glad he put two nostrils / in the middle of your head. / You might have to smell the roses / through your underpants instead.” “Bit Part Actor” reels like a noisy punk stomp, with a snaky, scalar guitar line that ends the verse phrases. Drummer Rob McKahey anchors this last track with what sounds like violently-played homemade percussion. Another comparison to Beefheart may be how Rob McKahey drives Stump’s music similar to how John French’s drums anchored the Magic Band. McKahey favors high hat patterns more than French, who is known for his tom and full-kit patterns. McKahey, on other releases, also plays bodhran, an Irish frame drum frequently played with a double-headed stick or tipper.
None of Stump’s work is in print, though there is an odd early and late collection available. Their other albums are worth hearing, especially if you like Quirk Out, which in some forms includes their first EP Mud on a Colon (1986). A Fierce Pancake, mentioned above, is worth hearing along with the disc of unreleased material on The Complete Anthology (2008, now also out-of-print). Their music does exist in various forms digitally, and maybe the Anthology will get released again.
In 2014, the band released a YouTube video called “Finding Mick Lynch” in which the members had gotten back together and tracked down their vocalist. Evidently this led to rehearsals and spots on the festival circuit. Unfortunately, none of it panned out as Lynch died in December 2015.
Since Lynch’s death, there has been more discussion on the Internet and more video uploads about the group. Lynch helped found an Irish puppeteering group that is still going. I would love to see any puppet work that he had either performed or had written. He also evidently did a one-man show of songs on a guitar with no strings. More recently, I’ve discovered Kev Hopper’s music. Along with free improvisation, Hopper also recorded a pop album with a single and video that is like Thomas Dolby and David Lynch collaborating with Peter Greenaway.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.