I got all this from the New York Times website. It’s so well written by Mike Rubin there’s no point changing anything. Read on…
One day in 1980, I reached a milestone in a Jewish boy’s journey into manhood: spending my bar mitzvah money on punk rock records. I was searching the racks at a record store for “Adult Books,” the debut single by the Los Angeles band X, and the only 45 that remotely fit the bill featured a couple of white X’s on the front cover, separated by a dash, above a photo of the bare backside of a woman bound at the ankles. The back-cover band photo corresponded somewhat to the group I’d read about in a zine — four members, one of them female — though the label credited the single to Drome Records instead of Dangerhouse. So a band name starting with “X,” a multigendered quartet, a record label beginning with “D,” a whiff of the forbidden: “Close enough,” I thought, and made my purchase.
What I’d actually acquired was the first of two singles by the Cleveland band X__X (pronounced Ex Blank Ex), which existed for only six months in 1978. Led by the guitarist John D Morton, X__X was a spiritual heir to Mr. Morton’s more infamous group, the Electric Eels, whose unruly noise and penchant for mayhem provided inspiration for future punks, despite playing only five shows during their existence from 1972 to 1975 and never seeing the inside of a proper recording studio.
When I eventually heard it, “Adult Books” turned out to be rather conventional. The record I’d brought home, on the other hand, was wild: Its atonal droning, lurching rhythms, skronky guitars and snarling vocals suggested a Midwestern cousin to New York’s “no wave” movement. This was literally art-punk: The X__X single’s A-side, entitled “A,” was about getting cancer from making sculptures with polyester resin. The band photo, a fake, was actually an image of Mr. Morton’s punk performance-art project (the name of which, like many of Mr. Morton’s pronouncements, cannot be repeated here) that lip-synced to a recorded soundtrack and mimed playing their instruments. Mr. Morton deliberately put different years on the sleeve, much as he had written the credits for the Electric Eels’ first single in pidgin German, leading some to believe they hailed from Europe, not Cleveland.
“Just having fun,” Mr. Morton said recently over coffee at a Brooklyn bakery, when asked about the confusion such misinformation might create. “Why not provoke?”
This artistic antagonism, inspired by an affinity for the Dadaist movement, has been at the heart of Mr. Morton’s work — both as a musician and a visual artist — for the better part of four decades. He has remained a relatively obscure figure. But back in the early 1970s, with only the Stooges and the Velvet Underground as role models, he and his colleagues turned their youthful alienation into a brazenly experimental, loudly confrontational and proudly antisocial roar that forged a new and distinct style. Despite their limited discography, the Electric Eels are cited repeatedly in underground rock histories as having provided a spiritual beacon, if not actually a seminal role, in the evolution of punk. Without the benefit of an actual scene or clubs, specialized labels or built-in booster groups, they defined the conventions of noise rock. Today, with punk rock a staple of the pop mainstream, the defiance of Mr. Morton and his band mates, in the face of almost total antipathy, remains a benchmark for anyone hoping to express their rebelliousness by plugging in a guitar.
The Electric Eels “were doing stuff that was punk and beyond punk before punk had even started,” the British author Jon Savage said. “They prefigure punk, but in many ways they’re more sophisticated and more intense and funnier. You never quite know where you are with them because of John’s relentless black humor.”
After a lengthy disappearance from music to focus on art and health issues, Mr. Morton has seen in the last year a rediscovery of his recorded legacy. In late 2013, both the Electric Eels’ and X__X’s debut singles were included on a compilation by the British label Soul Jazz. In March, X__X’s two singles were collected for the first time, along with previously unreleased 1978 live recordings and practice tapes, on the compilation “X Sticky Fingers X” released by the Finnish label Ektro/Full Contract. (In July, the Florida label Smog Veil released a digital version.) Last week, the Superior Viaduct archival label released “Die Electric Eels,” a compilation of 1975 recordings.
The X__X collection prompted Mr. Morton to reunite with members of that band and tour: they will play songs from both bands at Cake Shop in Manhattan on Thursday and at Monty Hall, the radio station WFMU’s performance space in Jersey City next Sunday, making their New York debut almost four decades after they ceased to exist.
In advance of the concerts, Mr. Morton, 61, visited Brooklyn from his home upstate in Treadwell, N.Y., to begin new treatment for hepatitis C, a result of his years of heroin addiction. (He says he has been sober and drug-free for 19 years). At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Mr. Morton still cuts an imposing figure, despite needing a hiking pole to walk with. (He has had both knees replaced.) About 10 years ago, he began getting tattoos of his own design, including a steaming coffee cup on the back of one hand, necklacelike bands of color around his throat and an infinity symbol on his left earlobe. Gone is the peroxided blond shoulder-length mane that, combined with his size, made him look like a glam-rock version of the 1950s wrestler Gorgeous George.
Espousing an approach he termed “art terrorism,” Mr. Morton formed the Eels with friends from suburban Lakewood High School, drawing inspiration from Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. “I played what I called antimusic in my mind,” Mr. Morton said. “I purposely never learned the scales.”
The Eels’ infrequent live performances were anarchic; often dispensing with a drummer, they had “instruments” that included a gas-powered lawn mower, sheet metal and a sledgehammer. The Eels’ shows were also marked by “violence that mostly I was in charge of,” Mr. Morton said. Most gigs resulted in fisticuffs with his band mates, audience members or the police. “That was kind of what I did back then, but I don’t do anymore — though I think about it.”
Culturally, the Cleveland of the early 1970s was a vacuum, Mr. Morton said, but the Eels found a few other more-or-less kindred spirits, sharing bills with Rocket From the Tombs (whose members would later form Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys) and Mirrors. Trying to pursue his vision in Cleveland was “horrendous,” Mr. Morton said. “Everybody said I was wrong in my art and in my music. There was no support, there was no nurturing, it was only ‘You are wrong!’
After deciding to move to New York in 1978, he started X__X as a temporary band before departing, enlisting another songwriter in the rhythm guitarist Andrew Klimeyk. Where the Eels were barely controlled chaos, X__X was more musicianly, thanks in part to its drummer Anton Fier, who showed Mr. Morton how to practice and rehearse the band. “The Electric Eels gigs were much more confrontational, both in terms of the inner workings of the band and the band’s relationship to the audience,” said Mr. Fier, who would found the Golden Palominos after moving to New York. In contrast, Mr. Fier said, X__X shows “were much tamer, almost blasé by comparison. All we did was play our set.”
Even so, X__X’s approach was hardly traditional. “We would do songs like “No No” where we would play the same two notes 30 times,” said Jim Ellis, X__X’s original bassist. In “Encore,” Mr. Ellis said, “the band would strike a pose for 30 seconds not playing a single note,” while the song “Tool Jazz” “consisted of us playing power tools onstage.”
Given the Eels’ combustible dynamic, it’s probably no surprise that Mr. Morton has battled with various former band mates over everything from songwriting credits to Internet domain names. His relationships with former members of X__X, however, have fared better, though Mr. Fier and Mr. Ellis declined Mr. Morton’s invitation to play in a reunited X__X. To replace Mr. Ellis on bass, Mr. Morton tapped another Lakewood High alum, Craig Willis Bell, who had been in Mirrors and Rocket From the Tombs. (Mr. Fier’s drum seat has been filled by Matthew Albert Harris, the 25-year-old son of a friend of Mr. Morton’s.)
While Mr. Morton insisted that he is “still a nihilist,” Mr. Bell instead described him as “the kinder, gentler John.” It’s not just Mr. Morton’s demeanor that’s evolved; the recent reassessment of Mr. Morton and his music has seemingly meant that what was once viewed as wrong is now understood by a new generation to be right. At a show in Detroit in August, fans swarmed the stage and knocked over gear. After a career facing unreceptive audiences, “it’s very different,” Mr. Morton said. “People like us. They applaud us. This is a change.”