Ben’s girlfriend Michelle gave me a tape of ‘Goat’ in 1991. I was scared of it. Scared of the name really. A prim and proper child by instinct, I was working my way out of my shell with help from William Burroughs, Public Enemy, Pussy Galore and Hunter S Thompson but still, The Jesus Lizard, raving out of Austin, Texas, sounded like a scary proposition. As it happens, they didn’t actually sound quite as trangressionally extreme as I might have anticipated, but to be fair neither did they come across as the sort of chaps you would want to hang around with much past sundown.
The music hit a sweet spot from the moment the opening track ‘Then Comes Dudley’ lurched into life. Grumbling gut-punch bass, ominous and insistent drumming, sharp and nagging guitars.
You’ll know within 15 seconds whether this band is for you, and they certainly were for me. There just something about the combination of heavy bass and unhinged guitars that acts like a dog whistle to these ears. Only much lower. I think I might happily trade about 15 years-worth of my record collection for another 8 or 9 records that did to me what ‘Goat’ still does, ideally in exactly the same way but, you know, new.
Now, bear in mind that if you really have formed your opinion within the first 15 seconds, you haven’t yet been introduced to David Yow.
The Jesus Lizard’s vocalist and frontman is, in some sense, both your worst nightmare and the coolest kid in class you’re secretly hoping will think you’re cool too. In another way, I guess a more meaningful way, he’s the guy who works at the slaughterhouse who all the other guys that work at the slaughterhouse are a bit scared of.
His vocals are as deranged as his live performances used to be. They swing around the concept of melody like a rabid orang-utan on a climbing frame. Half the time he sounds violently drunk, which it’s possible he was. He certainly built a reputation for being loaded and explosive on stage. I saw The Jesus Lizard play a tiny venue in Manchester in the early Nineties and Yow came over as nothing less than a new Iggy Pop, only psycho, flinging himself at the crowd (as opposed to ‘into the crowd’), his performance was some sort of bare-knuckle self-flagellation, like nothing I’d seen before or since.
If all of this makes him sound like an unlistenable lunatic, think again. In fact his vocals, swooping, hollering, yelping, are just a quarter of the band’s noise, a noise made up of elements which don’t so much compete against each other as fight and kick and scratch like cats in a sack. All four elements sound totally crazed but are performed with incredible self-control and, essentially, virtuosity. That they hang together so well is a miracle, producing all the slack-jawed wonder that word should invoke.
Take ‘Mouthbreather’, a hurly burly buzz saw of a track. Ravenous guitar meets tub thumping drums, they wrestle each either to the ground and proceed to roll down a bumpy hillside together, throwing punches all the way whilst Yow intones “don’t get me wrong, he’s a nice guy, I like him just fine… but he’s a mouthbreather”.
‘Goat’ is more focussed than their first album proper, the wild-eyed ‘Head’, and therefore somehow more menacing. Still, it retains the heavy madness that would be lost in subsequent years as the sound became more focussed. It’s the band’s high-point and, for me, a high point of the inspirationally unhinged post-punk noise that was being made in the last 80s and early 90s. These bands seemed to be rending open access to hitherto unexplored worlds of primal, blissful rock and roll, and for the relatively brief period where their imaginative reach exceeded their technical grasp, before musical competence caught up with them, they were making some of the most thrilling sounds of the last 50 years.
Graham listened: Rob has an uncanny knack of digging out albums that remind me of how exciting music can be to ears that have not been subject to years of acquired cynicism. Direct as can be with touches that sound like they are not going to work together, but pull it off in a stripped back sort of maelstrom. However, I would certainly cross the street if I heard Mr Yow coming towards me.
Tom listened: Having seen Jesus Lizard back in the day – at a Reading festival in the late 80s or early 90s – I was very pleasantly surprised by Rob’s offering. The contrast between the impact of carefully listening to Goat on a good stereo in a limited space with watching David Yow flail around on a stage hundreds of meters away in broad daylight as the sound gets lost to the elements and the crowd get increasingly apathetic is massive. At Reading, all I was left with was a memory of unstructured noise and a diminutive, bare chested man wailing away like some sort of demented despot stuck in one of those bad dreams where the louder you scream the less people listen. The recorded version of the Jesus Lizard experience revealed a wonderful album full of twists and turns and soulful rawness. I thought it was really good.
Nick listened: I own this! I’ve only listened to it about three times, but it’s pretty awesome, in a faintly brutal way. Very happy to hear it again, especially enlivened by Rob’s deep affection and context for it (I bought it many years after it came out, with no context other than ‘this is a good record’, which often isn’t quite enough to understand the whys).