Elizabeth Montgomery’s Face
Boston Phoenix, September 1, 1989
AFTER NEARLY A decade of cult reverence on underground radio, the Embarrassment, arty-neurotic punksters from Kansas, have reunited for a new album on Bar None and a trio of East Coast gigs beginning at the Paradise this coming Thursday. Best known for the violent mental harangue of their 1980 single “Sex Drive,” these former Wichita State University art students transcend punk formula with their untoward, rattling ensemble, which flies off the stray pitchfork jabs of Bill Goffrier’s guitar. Remember “Scott’s Trans Am has the windows down/But he’s in a jam when the girls around/ He yells, ‘Hey get outta my way/I haven’t sex all day!’ “? If you happen to own “Sex Drive,” dig it up. It first appeared as the B-side to the “Patio Set” single on Big Time Records in 1980 and is now a valuable collectors’ item.
“‘Sex Drive’ became a cult thing mainly because it was in such short supply,” says Goffrier. “We were mostly selling it in our region, and very few copies ever got outside of that. But it got written about; it got certain stamps of credibility by being reviewed in Maximum Rock’n’Roll in San Francisco and Boston’s Take It! ‘zine. And New York Rocker helped spread the word too.”
Goffrier adds, “I realized early on in life that you can’t have a successful rock-and-roll band unless you first have a painting degree,” and he does mean early on. “Brent [Giessman] and I wrote our first song together when he was in second grade and I was in third; we played in his sandbox. We wrote a song in his brother’s room, ’cause his brother had a guitar and drum kit, and we were sneakin’ around in there writing about his brother’s stuffed animal, a pink elephant.”
If you happen to own ‘Sex Drive,’ dig it up. It first appeared as the B-side to the ‘Patio Set’ single on Big Time Records in 1980 and is now a valuable collectors’ item.
Goffrier, drummer Giessman, singer John Nichols, who came along in the fourth grade, grew up in the same apartment complex. “It seems entirely normal to us,” Goffrier says, “this suburban world of apartment complexes with swimming pools and big yards where kids would hang out together. By around 1978, the three of us had a trio called the Lemures.”
Like many other inspired amateurs who picked up instruments around then, the Lemures were disciples of punk. “We went to see the Sex Pistols in Tulsa,” Goffrier remembers. “We were the only people who had driven through the blizzard, 150 miles, and waited in front of the club for the Sex Pistols. No one who lived in Tulsa even bothered to be there when this big Greyhound pulled up with all this graffiti on it. Their spiky hair was so big, so exaggerated, it made them seem like really large characters.”
The Embarrassment’s lineup solidified in 1979, after bassist Ron Klaus replaced Nichols—who was then playing bass himself—in a unit dubbed the Spontanes. Nichols then rejoined as lead singer. Their subsequent catalogue is as far-flung and spotty as some of their better songs. After “Patio Set” came five tracks on a 1981 compilation cassette, Fresh Sounds from Middle America, No. 1, followed that year by the infamous The Embarrassment EP on Cynykyl Records. It sounds like the border-line sanity that “Sex Drive” trashes. Numbers like “Celebrity Art Party” and “I’m a Don Juan” hammer knotty instrumental gears down with an insistent neurotic pulse, which—though rangy—remains maniacally controlled.
The group’s songs map out a world where couches “seem to breathe,” where the spectre of “Elizabeth’s Montgomery’s Face” haunts you in your sleep (“Her cheeks are running a race to see who gets to her collarbone first”). “Don’t Choose the Wrong Song” is the voice of a stripper fearing the worst from her accompaniment. Yet the attitudes lampooned in “Celebrity Art Party” never hamper the band’s daffy-cerebral song forms. These are art students who know how to jam.
These former Wichita State University art students transcend punk formula with their untoward, rattling ensemble, which flies off the stray pitchfork jabs of Bill Goffrier’s guitar.
Embarrassment material turns up on the occasional compilation: Battle of the Garages 1981 sports a makeover of the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” (from the “Sex Drive” session in 1979), a cornerstone of their live set; and there are two songs on Sub Pop magazine’s cassettes (Nos. 5 & 7, “Lifespan” and “Sound of Wasps”). Finally, in 1983, came the follow-up to their EP, the near-album (cut short by lack of funds) Death Travels West, which features trademark meter shifts and melodic bass lines (especially in “Hoover Dam”). In 1987, four years after the band lost its momentum and dissolved, Time to Develop Records put out The Embarrassment LP, which included The Embarrassment EP and seven other songs. (The Embarrassment Retrospective Cassette, a Fresh Sounds release from 1984, collects live takes.)
Although its members scattered (Goffrier to Big Dipper, on the verge of graduating from their Homestead label; Giessman to the Del Fuegos until last year), the past several New Year’s Eves have occasioned Embarrassment reunions at Wichita’s Bottleneck club, which led to studio time last summer and the current deal with Bar None. Two Embarrassment songs appear on Bar None’s recent Time for a Change collection: the new “Train of Thought” and “After the Disco,” which brings things full circle. “‘After the Disco’ is actually from the ‘Sex Drive’ session,” Goffrier says. “Right now we’re remixing our old material with [producer] Lou Giordano for another Bar None project: a compact-disc anthology to follow the new record. So many of these records are getting lost and deleted, we hope to make it to the definitive, comprehensive group overview.”