The RISD Museum in Rhode Island recently asked me to create a playlist as an online compliment to their current exhibition, What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present. My relationship to RISD’s project hinges on my avid appreciation for the proto-punk art collective, Destroy All Monsters, which is included among the exhibition’s artists and groups. Founded in 1973 in suburban Detroit, where three of its four members were attending the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Destroy All Monsters has since taken on many forms. In the beginning, it was a collaboration between Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Cary Loren, and Niagara. Embracing Hollywood trash, amateur noise and sound, theatrical antics borrowed from Dada and the seminal Jack Smith, and the cut-and-paste aesthetic of zine culture, Destroy All Monsters created for themselves their own low and warped gesamtkunstwerk, an inverted utopia that celebrated the morbid and irreverent. After a few years, members cycled in and out, and Destroy All Monsters became more of an official “band,” taking on members of the legendary Detroit bands the MC5 and the Stooges. Beginning in the 1990s, the original line-up came back together, producing new visual pieces for exhibitions, performing at galleries and museums, and releasing their music, videos, and zines—most of which had never been widely available before that time. Below is the playlist commissioned by the RISD Museum, and a very brief introduction to the many characters that populate it.
The part-time punk band, part-time art collective Destroy All Monsters was a collage in and of itself—an odd mix of oddball characters, each of whom brought in unique points of view, aesthetics, and capabilities. Manifesting in what its members felt was a vacuum of culture, Destroy All Monsters momentarily created a burst of weird, erratic, trash-obsessed, monster-movie creativity that took form through audio recordings, bits and scraps of film, zines, and lost performances. Idiosyncratic and in some ways out-of-time with their surroundings, the members of Destroy All Monsters created their own vernacular culture.
The sorts of sound, language, and aesthetic they created are linked to many others—from the noisy drones of 1960s minimal music to the punk rock that would rush into existence in the years after their formation, from the level deadness of New York No Wave music to various other art-rock innovators, past and future. As a compliment to the exhibition What Nerve!, this playlist hovers momentarily amidst this and other analogous clusters of creative energy wherein art crossed over with music, high culture crossed over with low, new crossed over with out-of-date, and things generally got weird.
This playlist starts off, naturally, with a track from Destroy All Monsters—though at the time of this song’s release, group members Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw had been lost to the West Coast. The lyrics of “November 22, 1963,” written by Cary Loren, reflect on the assassination of John F. Kennedy while the music approaches punk rock with a more straightforward song structure than the band’s earlier, noise-based recordings. It then skips around at will to tracks by pioneers like Alan Vega and his band Suicide—the first band to use the word “punk” as a self-imposed descriptor; poet, drummer, and phenom Angus MacLise, who was associated with New York’s avant-garde of the 1960s, participating in the invention of early minimalist music as well as the original lineup of the Velvet Underground; and iconoclast Charlemagne Palestine, equally known for his “sonorities” on piano as for his ritually inspired performance routines, which invariably include Cognac and a host of stuffed animals.
The playlist tracks briefly through the New York No Wave scene, with selections from Lydia Lunch and her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and veers off into the strange, industrial, neo-dada world of Cosey Fanni Tuttie and Genesis P-Orridge with tracks by COUM Transmissions and their later outfit, Throbbing Gristle. Included here are several pieces by the musician, philosopher, and anti-artist Henry Flynt and his friend and sometimes-collaborator, the filmmaker, violinist, and mathematician Tony Conrad. Both of these men occupied a place among the New York avant-garde in the 1960s but left the strictures of Fluxus and musical minimalism behind in favor of other paths. Flynt pursued what he calls “hillbilly” music—a form that he felt was more egalitarian and politically open than the closed-off experiments of Stockhausen, Cage, and other lauded musical innovators of the time; and Conrad (who was also involved in the VU precursor, the Primitives) diverted his energy into filmmaking, though he continues to produce drone-based musical compositions that shed light on the musical innovations of the 1960s. Closing out the set is, again, Destroy All Monsters, whose noisy fusion of anti-music and basement-rock draws these other musical innovators and misfits into their orbit.