From Aural Innovations #19 (April 2002)
The JFK Jr Royal Airforce - "2" (Slutfish Records 2002, SLUT 041)
The Billy Syndrome - "Stratego" (Slutfish Records 1995/2001, SLUT 030)
To this listener the first JFK Jr Royal Airforce CD is an acid freakout classic of recent years. Fuck production values. JFK is raw, in your face, and beaming their transmissions from outer space. On their sophomore release, simply titled "2", the Airforce travels more overtly into Space Rock territory. The quartet of Billy Syndrome on guitar and vocals, Mr Starry Night (aka Scott Prato) on guitar and vocals, Evil Jim Friendly on bass, and Cliff Ferdon on drums, trumpet, and vocals, is augmented by Louis Boone on keyboards, a veteran of such space luminaries as Alien Planetscapes and Born to Go, and now a full member of JFK.
"Forbidden Planet" opens the set with thudding marching rock music that serves as a backdrop for Orson Wells' broadcast of War Of The Worlds. Missiles fire, guitars quake, and the invasion begins. My two favorites on the album are "Take The Chicken From The Man And Give It To The People" and "Impartially Fiber-Banana", both of which include music that would be right at home on Hawkwind's Space Ritual. Take The Chicken begins with an extended buildup of space guitars and synths. After about 7 minutes of lysergic exploration the drums start to go into a frantic tribal race and Billy Syndrome starts chanting, "Take The Chicken From The Man And Give It To The People"!!! The guitars and synths continue to shimmer and wail creating a crazed cosmic atmosphere and the band soon launches into a full blown space rock assault. Fans of the earliest freakout Hawkwind who can tune into the Airforce's garage rock angle will be in heaven on this one. "Impartially Fiber-Banana" is similar, but some parts have a more whimsical feel. But it also has some dark pounding moments that travel along the Hawkwind Doremi axis. "The Bats Of Mars" is another extended acid space voyage. For the first 5 minutes the listener can just drift along and melt into the interweaving trip guitars. But then the pace picks up as the band rocks out at a steady head bopping tempo accompanied by wailing synths. A good jam tune.
Adding to the variety of the set are such tracks as "Track 2 / 6231 Garbage Man", a spacey garage psych song more along the lines of something from The Billy Syndrome or Scott Prato's Friends Of Mescalito. A freaky party glom of shimmering and wah'd guitars and bubbling space synths. "Navigator" is a short floating psychedelic instrumental. "Sanctuary" and "What Went Wrong" feature more of the Airforce's take on garage psych, with the later being a highlight that builds up to intense psycho rock levels with great freakout guitars. The band also get a bit into experimental territory with "Hot Dog Stand", a kind of avant-garde psychedelic tune. Cliff pulls out his trumpet and plays semi-dissonant jazz while the rest of the Airforce goes off on a meandering tripped out space jam. And "Circle Of Dreams" wraps things up with a zany glom of efx'd vocals, a roaring chainsaw, and toy pianos. Wiiiiiiild!
In summary, "2" didn't consistently thrill me from beginning to end, but the good stuff is excellent and I was glad to see the Airforce explore more varied territory. If you like classic mindfucked space rock and don't mind it down ‘n seriously dirty with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek whimsy, then you'll find lots to trip along to on this disc.
The latest from The Billy Syndrome, Stratego, is a collection of tracks from albums and singles and unreleased material from 1995. Reading the liner notes it sounds like this (ever-shifting) lineup of The Billy Syndrome was formed after the breakup of the one that recorded The Stupidest Show On Earth (reviewed last issue) and itself wasn't to last beyond the year. But as this document shows there was some excellent good fun rock music to be made.
Among the highlights is "If We Don't Know Any Better It Doesn't Get Better Than This", which includes Dub rhythms and a Billy Syndrome take on funk and soul. "Still Your Loyal To Jabba The Hut" features a Syndrome rap with eerie drones, harsh whiny guitar, and funky piano. The title track draws on 70's rock with a bit of a psychedelic edge. Kind of reminded me of Alice Cooper's "Eighteen", except this one goes off on a jam with raw guitar chords and solos. "Gotta Kill A Chicken By Tuesday" has a similar feel but with heavy wah guitar. "Clowns Don't Settle Down" is my favorite track on the disc. An excellent raw garage psych rocker and I really dig the guitars. "Message Is A Mess" is a thrash rocker with bashing and screaming guitars that I enjoyed. "Don't Be Mulvey" is a metallic thrashing rocker, and "Flappy Lips" is another standout which brought to mind "Bad To The Bone" with grinding metallic psych guitars. The Billy Syndrome also do two interesting covers tunes. "Crimson And Clover" is an angry garage rendition of the 60's classic, which also veers off briefly into "Sweet Jane". And on "Joy To The World", The Billy Syndrome express themselves as Three Dog Night only wish they could have. A good fun collection of grungy garagey rock tunes.
Between the JFK Jr Royal Airforce and his own bands I've heard quite a bit of Billy Syndrome's music over the past couple years. Billy has been at it for nearly 20 years now and still going strong so I decided to dive a little deeper into his world. The following interview was conducted through the magic of cyberspace.
AI: The first JFK Jr CD is an acid freakout classic in my opinion. "2" has plenty of that as well, but is more varied and more overtly "Space Rock". Some of what I heard sounds like it would be at home on Hawkwind's Space Ritual. But you've also got these more tripped out experimental type tracks like "Hot Dog Stand" and "Circle Of Dreams".
Billy Syndrome (BS): The first album was recorded late 1999 when we were all jelling at this "spacerock" thing. I like the term "spacerock" because too many people have this idea that they think they know what "psychedelic" music sounds like. Like "punk" it sets you free to redefine and define what the music can be. Everybody in the JFK Jr have been playing for years together in bands that didn't work. "The process" and a love of Pink Floyd brought us together. It was just a matter of time traveling. To me the first album is Sonic Youth jam type stuff with a Hawkwind edge. That was my approach recording the album. The only rules we got in the JFK Jr is to be Heavy Heavy Heavy and try to take it further. We want to take it higher!
The second album was recorded a year and a half later after listening to a lot of prog rock space albums and digesting different musical ideas. We became better players and played some gigs. By the time we get to 2 we are focused and have a direction. We decided no more half assed shit, we're going all the way. We want to replace Hawkwind as a definition of spacerock. We got Louis Boone on synths and now it's a different band. We are spacerock and we got a long way to go. 2 is our attempt at a Heavy Heavy Heavy prog rock album. I think it's our best yet until the next one. The first recording session for 2 was the second time we'd played with Louis and we went to see how far out we could go which is pretty far out. That session provided the basis of what the rest of the album fit into, most of it recorded live with no overdubs.
"Circle Of Dreams" happened because of an opportunity. We recorded that upstate New York at The Valley Of The Unsane which happens to have a door that goes outside next to a garage which just happened to have a chainsaw so I just had to write a track around it. Fun with shit laying around the studio. When the Martians learned about chainsaws the planet was saved.
AI: What were some of the albums you were listening to that stick prominently in your mind?
BS: There's no single album that plays in the mind, but the JFK Jr are all record freaks. Me and Starry Night have at least 1,000 albums each. They take over your apartment. I mean we all digested the Hawkwind, Gong, Can stuff before. I'm big on 60s psychedelic bands, everything really, and we all love The Damned. I've been hanging out at Mr. Starry Night's space listening to his record collection. He has the obscure space rock LPS and now I know what Guru Guru sound like. All I had to do was ask. It just seemed that now that we are doing this space rock stuff, I may as well hear what came before. Listen to 30 Sun Ra albums instead of 5. Aural-Innovations radio is great cause I get to hear things I usually like. Communication.
Anyways here's a bunch that stuck to my brain: Amon Düül II - Yeti, Dance Of The Lemmings, Guru Guru - Känguru, F/I - Space Launcher, Embryo - Rock Sessions, ST 37 - I love to talk..., Focus - Moving Waves, Iron Butterfly - Metamorphosis, Sun Ra - Concert For The Comet Kohoutek, Batman & Robin, the entire West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band catalog, used Grand Funk albums, Steppenwolf, Robert Calvert - Freq... and anything heavy heavy heavy. I turned Starry Night onto Herbie Hancock - Sextant.
AI: Your web site notes that the theme on "2" is of the first Earthship landing on Mars and saving Mars having taught the Martians about the power of chainsaws. Most sci fi themes are the opposite... of those on other worlds being more advanced than us, either saving or attempting to destroy us.
BS: Well, I think that if man got his shit together and his ass in space exploration, we probably would try to open a McBurger or hot dog stand everywhere. We're most interested in enforcing our culture despite logic. It's like religion vs. science. You can't argue with insanity! Besides there was a chainsaw in the studio. We want fastfood in space.
AI: How did you happen to add Louis Boone to the lineup? I'd say he was a perfect choice and has kicked the SPACE factor up a notch or two.
BS: The Strange Daze festivals were the deciding factor in putting the JFK Jr together. At the first one in '97, a highlight was tripping in the audience hearing Born To Go sing "Quantum Cat" for the first time. Through Strange Daze festivals I've gotten to meet other "Pink Floyd fans". It's really a celebration of psychedelic music fans and making connections. Through that I hooked up with Adam Strider and went to some of his famous jello shot parties where I spent a lot of time talking to Louis Boone. Me and Starry Night were checking him out cause we knew we needed a synth player to make this band work. Born To Go Marc Power had a stroke last year and Boone was just sitting there. Then he said YES and now it's a band. He's a pleasure and inspiration to work with. He likes Pink Floyd more than I do!!
AI: Tell me about your recent tour. Cities? Turnouts? Reception? More coming up soon?
BS: The JFK Jr are concentrating on getting our live act to perfection. We've abandoned setlists to concentrate on jamming and going further. We want to get to legendary Grateful Dead status. No two shows are the same. The JFK Jr are Heavy Heavy Heavy and go over great wherever we've played. We do our own thing, we're real. The audience understands that and drinks more beer.
We also relate to the Velvet Underground who didn't play in NYC between 1968 and 1972 (the end at Max's). In NYC, probably everywhere, playing live comes down to a contest of popularity and jealousy. And when you've been doing it for twenty years it's insane. Us 30 somethings who's friends now have kids vs. rave kids. Who's the bigger draw?? We seem to draw the same 20 people any state we play in but that's the state of live music fans and communication. Pop culture is so fake we're not playing the game. We don't care anymore, we are beyond. So there's no reason to play in NYC anymore, although we do do it every other month. We want to take the JFK Jr on the road and infiltrate other cities with spacerock. We probably should go to Europe for exposure which is something we're starting to think about for 2003. Make us an offer Europe!! The USA is square!!
AI: How did the JFK Jr Royal Airforce come about after focusing on The Billy Syndrome for so many years?
BS: Evil Jim Friendly has been with me since 1982 and Porcelain God. I've played drums and toured with The Thundering Lizards in 1993 and Starry Night was in The Billy Syndrome in 1992 and again in 1996. Cliff was in The Geeky Dorks with me in 1998. We all have played together, know our rhythms, listened to the same records. It was a natural selection and we knew it. We have the same mission.
In 1999 Slutfish Records put out a 2 LP compilation album of The Billy Syndrome with Buddy Holly's dead airplane crash photo on the cover. To promote this I put together a oneoff band with Starry Night, Cliff Ferdon and Evil Jim. JFK Jr Kennedy died a week before the gig so we called ourselves "The JFK Jr. Royal Airforce". We played a gig that went over great and felt right. I wanted to play again but didn't want to do The Billy Syndrome. I wanted to be a musician in a band. This was our opportunity. We had all gone to the Strange Daze festivals and decided that we wanted to be on stage and give our testimonial. We practiced for four months, went into the studio and recorded the first JFK Jr album.
AI: Looking at your family tree it looks like Thundering Lizards was your first non-Billy Syndrome band in some years. It's interesting to note that you were the drummer. Why'd you chuck your guitar for drums?
BS: The Thundering Lizard's Width Of A Octopus CD came out on Celluloid which had a better distribution deal than our usual gig. Whoever makes it to the top first. Help yer brother. Call me when you get there. I bought a drum set and did a midwest tour with the Lizards. It was also a excuse to escape from my own band which I was looking to do at the time. All guitarists are drum players.
AI: I gather from your web site that you started playing sometime in the early-mid 80's? Were you initially playing punk rock?
BS: Like the rest of JFK Jr., we all grew up in suburban long island, New York listening to psychedelic 60s records and the punk rock that was happening in our minds. I was in the middle of the first NY hardcore scene (‘80-'82) as front person for The Pricks. It was kind of sad. Having obsessed over Ramones CBGBs 70s scene stuck in suburbia high school, I graduated to find that the CBGBs scene was over and that the hardcore scene was a bunch of 14-16 year olds. The chicks were too young and I was too old at 18. Then the Circle Jerks and Black Flag came to NY and punk became a contest of who could play faster. Punk became a uniform, not a attitude. I quit The Pricks and started Porcelain God with Evil Jim in reaction to all this, a buncha punks playing broken toys screaming aggressive psychedelic hippy rhetoric. I was punk before punk was cool and now that hardcore's really spent what am I gonna do?? Slutfish is releasing this madness on CD this fall!! We were punks on acid freaking out. Hardcore was too conforming so we became Beach Boy fans.
AI: Tell me about the "Anti-Folk" you were into some years ago? It sounds like this was a scene that was specific to New York City. How did you get from punk to Anti-Folk?
BS: Porecelain God would get offers for gigs in NYC but the members were too stupid to show up. It left me frustrated. I started performing solo in folk clubs playing punk rock on acoustic guitar annoying the Fast Folk Dave Von Ronk scene . There I met other former punk band leaders who ditched their bands to save money and do it yourself. Anti-folk was the noise in Thompson Square Park NYC for a few years. We put a few albums out and were crushed by Nivanna.
Anti-folk was a NYC scene based around the Fort and ABC NO RIO and hanging out with guitars playing anywhere busking for change, sleeping in the park, playing open mikes, having a good time. Celebrating the beats, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, hippies, warhol & freedom. The What If We Don't Go Away idealism. The opposite of now.
AI: You have a very intense vocal style. Is that passion or anger?
BS: Attitude. A cross of Rob Tyner, Bob Dylan & Mick Jagger.
AI: Was Savage Smut your label? Is that what evolved into Slutfish Records? Have you had much success getting the music on your labels distributed?
BS: Savage Smut is the Slutfish of old. Put out 8 years of cassettes 1982-1989. Sold the name Savage Smut to Barry & Big Apple Music Inc. in 1990 for six months of cash. That was Anti-folk. After being frustrated with labels not putting out delivered items and the over all prostitution of the music business to got a record out, went D.I.Y. and started Slutfish. Check out www.slutfishrecords.com. We have no distribution. We are insane. Help me. Look forward to our 10th anniversary disc next year!!
AI: You've been reissuing a number of early Billy Syndrome recordings lately. Are these a mixture of older cassette/vinyl releases and music just being released for the first time?
BS: Over the last 15 years I've recorded a number of albums, most of which has never been released. Slutfish has opted to correct this by releasing The Billy Syndrome Bag Set containing 5 CDS of stuff available separately but in a autographed paper bag at a lower price. The stuff is the Savage Smut cassettes, the unreleased Community 3 album and other stuff we didn't have the money to pay for. Now that it is available I feel free to die in dignity and record more records at will. A cleaning of the vault perhaps. An opportunity to put my history in order.
AI: You've got close ties to the WOO/WOT clan and there seems to be a lot of cross-pollinating of musicians across a variety of projects.
BS: We're all friends!! It's a musician's club.
AI: Reading historical info in your CD's you seem to have struggled with band lineups over the years. But the one constant seems to be Evil Jim Friendly. Why has that collaboration lasted so long?
BS: Me and Evil Jim were roadies in his brother's heavy metal cover band Existence (1979-1982). Existence is dead and the roadies remain. While the rest of Existence was jacking off to the latest Judas Priest album, me & Jim were stoned listening to the MC5 thinking we gotta form a Heavy Heavy Heavy band. It's taken us 20 years. We formed Porcelain God in reaction to the hardcore scene and he's never left. Luckily he's learned to play the bass swell over the years and all is good. He's my best friend and conspirator.
AI: You've been playing music for a long time. What's inspired you to keep plugging away all these years?
BS: What else is there to do? Me & Louis Boone are musicians of all trades. We can record and perform music and run nightclubs. What me worry?? I want to record a album a year till I die. IT is what I do.
AI: Any current or future news you care to share? Is JFK Jr your main focus or are there separate Billy Syndrome projects in the works?
BS: The JFK Jr is my main focus. Working on new solo album, between, which is like the JFK Jr playing my pop songs that don't fit with the JFK Jr. format that's due in the fall, Slutfish is putting out the Porcelain God cassettes on 3 CDS over the next 2 years starting with Home Taping Is Killing Music. The Slutfish 10th anniversary CD in 2003 will be a laugh riot and the beat goes on. Not enough time in the day to do everything I want but I try. Yes, the country's at war but the 60s were fertile. The 60s music was fertilized by war. You just gotta keep doing your thing. No matter what.
For more information you can visit the Slutfish Records web site at: http://www.slutfishrecords.com.
For all the latest JFK Jr Royal Airforce visit: http://www.slutfishrecords.com/jfknews.html.
Contact via snail mail c/o Slutfish Records; 327 Bedford Ave #A2; Brooklyn, NY 11211.