Chrome – Half Machine Lip Moves
By: Andrew Perry
Mojo Magazine – Issue #283
Quite possibly the most original, influential and flat out weird album of the punk era was made by a failed MGM movie soundtrack writer, together with a former janitor at Honolulu airport. Chrome's Half Machine Lip Moves still sounds radical even after four decade's worth of homage from Butthole Surfers, Nine Inch Nails, and innumerable metal-bashers inspired to scour refuse sites for things to hit. Like a William Burroughs cut-up sci-fi novel in audio form, this LP's gonzo riffs and mutoid motoric nevertheless remain tantalizingly accessible.
Initially, Chrome was a bedroom band started by art school-educated Thomas Wisse, AKA Damon Edge, who'd decamped to San Francisco after his MGM dreams fell apart. He pulled together a quartet for 1976's The Visitation, a shambolic DIY take on West Coast psychedelia self-released on his Siren label. Thereafter, his violinist Gary Spain introduced him to a far-out hippy guitarist, Helios Creed (real name: Barry Johnson), and Chrome's cosmic vision snapped into focus.
Growing up in Hawaii, Creed had seen Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath, the latter while tripping on Orange Sunshine LSD. Initially, the new Chrome was "a straight punk band," vibed on The Stooges, but, says Creed, "I said, I think we should be more punk-psychedelic, and Damon said in his deep voice, 'I've been thinking the same thing.'"
The collision of acid-fried Creed and pathological experimentalist Edge worked like magic on '77's Alien Soundtracks. By 1979's better-recorded Half Machine Lip Moves, they'd acquired an enthusiastic cult following in post-punk UK, already keyed into SF's other indie-released weirdoes, The Residents. Among them: Julian Cope - who later described the third LP's total-noise-into-groovy-space-rock intro as "my favorite beginning to any rock 'n' roll record" - and two employees at Earl's Court's pioneering indie record shop, Beggars Banquet, Ivo Watts-Russell (who later launched 4AD) and Steve Webbon.
Also working for the store's fledgling label, these two saw Beggars' overnight success with Tubeway Army's Are 'Friends' Electric? As carte blanche to indulge their more outre tastes. "We were like kids in a playbox," recalls Webbon, "'Ooh can we sign Chrome?'"
On the surface, Gary Numan and Damon Edge might've seemed comparable artists, sharing a penchant for dystopian sci-fi. Numan, however, was commercially ambitious, while, says Creed, "Damon's art statement was to be anti-success. He'd say, 'Because we're so anti-success we'll be successful.' He had this seriousness about him, but within that seriousness he was so funny."
As a recent collection of outtakes, Half Machine From The Sun, shows, Edge was so absorbed by that refusenik vision that they shelved their more approachable material in favour of squawking alien punk-psych riddled with Phillip K. Dick paranoia and Cold War fear, all folded into a disorienting, Faustian collage.
"I gave a copy to me neighbor," says Creed, "and he broke the record intow, and pinned it on my door with a note saying, 'This sucks!' Everybody thought we sucked, except in England, and in Lincoln, Nebraska. But there, our records were in the windows of record stores!"
Chrome might've capitalised, but promotion was problematic. "Damon didn't wanna play live," says Creed, "because it turns out he had agoraphobia, and stage fright. We only ever played two shows together"
They buy three more albums, each more conventional, but lacking the madcap cut-up energy. When Edge moved to Paris with a glamourous model/rock star wife, Fabienne Shine, he unveiled an all-new line-up, featuring Shine's backing band.
"I was pissed off," says Creed. "Damon's biggest problem was, he was addicted to hot girls. She convinced him like, 'Oh, he'll try and take over the band, like all guitarists do,' and he believed it. I had nothing like that on my mind. He was my bro. We'd still be playing together now."
"Damon got heavily into smack," adds Webbon baldly, "and you just can't deal with smackheads."
By the early '90's, though, Edge was back in Los Angeles, his marriage over. "Damon started calling me in Hawaii," says Creed. "He sounded terrible, kinda drunk and drugged out. I knew he was overweight, eating to excess. He was like, 'We should make a Chrome record,' but he didn't want me to see him. I said I didn't wanna do a mail record, then three months later he died. He was dead in his apartment for a month, and they only discovered him through the smell - he'd started decomposing."
In the meantime, Creed had been enjoying underground solo success, guest-starring in Nik Turner from Hawkwind's band, but he felt forced into taking ownership of the Chrome brand after a series of acts tried to trademark the name, including Gene Simmons of Kiss, for his son's band. Creed's fantastic five-piece Chrome have duly stepped up their activities in the 2010s, recently unleashing the ace Techromancy album, and dusting off Half Machine Lip Moves nuggets live.
Ever spiritual, Creed says he senses Edge's approval when his current music tallies with his ex-cohort's wacko notions of cool. "It didn't have to end like it did," he reflects. "He didn't trust anybody, not even his best friend, which was me."
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