The Ones That Got Away – A tribute to Thin White Rope

Such a terrible decade they were, the 80's. Bad taste has never been any worse than it was back then. Ugly clothes. Fast money. Terrible movies. Silly people with ugly haircuts. The breakthrough of MTV. Very bad music.

I did my best to ignore all that though. I dropped out of school to be a music writer because there was after all some music out there worth preaching about to the masses and I knew the name of it.

Or at least behaved as if I did.

Classes were something I attended when I needed some sleep but life's too short for sleeping when you're young. So I quit. I wrote for the local paper, and I had realized that writing about music was a great way if not to get girls, so at least to get free records, get on guest lists and get served in bars where they really shouldn't have let me in to begin with since I was too young.

I was a teenage writer with a Paisley Underground hang-up and I was 'Almost Famous'.

Anyway, one day I was sent an album by the enigmatically named Thin White Rope. (I later learnt that it was a William S. Burroughs term for ejaculation.) I had to admit that “Down in the Desert” was a really cool song, but the rest of Exploring the Axis didn't impress me that much. I didn't think of Thin White Rope as something that would steal my heart and fry my brain as some of the other bands of the era did.

Years later as I was, ahem, exploring the axis of my own mind, somebody put on Moonhead. Side one. Track one. “Not Your Fault”.

It was like being aurally electrocuted.

It came on like “Tomorrow Never Knows” on half speed. Guitars screeching and howling and twisting as if they were soaked with the world's most potent drug, punctuating my skin and crawled underneath it like some alien entity right out of a future X-Files episode. And then the weirdest voice ever, like an underground-pitched Roger McGuinn bouncing around in the rubber room.

As an old ad in Bucketfull of Brains read with an understatement, 'this is weird shit indeed'.

It was fucking perfect music indeed!

TWRPhoto When British magazine Strange Things Are Happening reviewed the Rope's third full length effort, In the Spanish Cave, they called them “godlike”. What could I possibly do but agree? It had after all only taken me about 30 seconds to become a so-called Swingin' Dangler, a Thin White Rope fan. They had to be godlike!

My infatuation with the band continued, and I was further excited to see they had good taste. That means their taste looked a lot like my taste. They took “I Knew I'd Want You” and David Crosby’s amazing “Everybody's Been Burned” and brought them to new levels on the Byrds tribute album Time Between. Later on, they covered Hendrix’s “May This Be Love”. And, even more stunning, they recorded Roky Erickson’s “Burn the Flames” which saw singer Guy Kyser laughing madly with a touch of evil that could easily compete with Roky’s original hellfire laughter. Not to mention “Some Velvet Morning” that brought Lee Hazlewood's classic to its uttermost best. The first line Hazlewood sings in the original duet version with Nancy Sinatra has an underlying, almost eerie tension, but he loses it for the rest of the song. The Rope took that tension and injected it into every syllable of the song’s lyrics. There’s a rhythm of foreboding disaster, guitar notes hang on until they bleed feedback, a paranoid roar from the centre of a hallucination experience. It's like a war upon the senses and you cannot win. Nancy’s vocal parts they turned into instrumental interludes, smooth and flowing like a waterfall of liquid crystal. It's sweet, like a promise of relief, but the verses refuse to fulfill promises of any such kind. It's an amazing recording, one of the best Hazlewood covers ever, and one of the finest moments of the Rope’s recording career. It makes me shiver every time, just like “Not Your Fault” did the first time I heard it.

“Some Velvet Morning” was originally found on the mini album Red Sun. Thin White Rope usually tucked their covers away on singles and twelve inch EPs, of which there are a couple. Bottom Feeders has, for instance, Suicide’s “Rocket USA”. Squatter's Rights has, apart from the Byrds tracks, Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. And then there are the Rope’s takes on the Stooges, Can, Hawkwind and Gene Pitney. The song choices may seem disparate, but make perfect sense. The Rope's own music was made of all these things, and the cover songs fill in the blanks if there are any, much in the same as they do for the music of fellow Americans the Walkabouts. They do have a few things in common. They shared a manager. Their eclectic taste that shines through in their music respectively. Their ability to paint a musical picture of a slightly warped reality. The electric tension they create as a band. And like the Walkabouts still are, Thin White Rope was a band with greater success in Europe than in their native country. The Rope tapped fuel from American culture and used it to create something ambivalent. Europeans love that kind of thing; they love all things Americana and still, and they love to hate it at the same time. Somehow, Thin White Rope fit into that context.

Thin White Rope - AntsLack of success wasn't the only drawback the band experienced. Actually, they seemed to have bad luck constantly chasing them down their trail. Problems with recordings, equipment stolen during tour etc. Hard times were so often theirs. When I saw them around the time of The Ruby Sea, their last studio album, this GREAT band didn't even seem to have a roadie. After an incredibly loud show, they packed their gear and rolled it into their tour bus. There was something sad about the sight. They deserved people carrying things for them. They desrerved the royal best. They were so kind people making music that elevated me. I wished them so well, to no avail. Eventually, they broke up, leaving us swingin’ danglers with an empty feeling in our hearts. Their thank-you-and-goodbye was a double live CD titled . I’m not sure what the other guys are doing now, but Guy Kyser turned to a botanist career. I'm told he's got a new band now, the Mummydogs.Maybe Thin White Rope just weren't made for their times. Maybe they would have made it better now. With the seemingly never waning interest in Americana on one hand, and the success of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club whose sound is not that far removed from what can be heard on the Thin White Rope albums, I’m sure they would.Whatever the case, I miss them dearly.

DISCOGRAPHY

The albums have been reissued on CD a couple of times, some of the reissues adding the EPs as bonus material.

Original full length albums and EPs:

  • Exploring the Axis (Frontier 1985)
    I still think this is their weakest outing but I also still think that “Down in the Desert” is way cool. It suffers from somewhat weak production, but what can you expect from a producer who thinks guitar feedback is unintentional...
  • Moonhead (Frontier 1987)
    Not one bad track, all winners. A masterpiece. That’s all that needs to be said.
  • Bottom Feeders (12” EP, Frontier 1987)
    Their EPs were a good place for the band to experiment with covers and other off-beat songs. The cover of “Ain't That Loving You Baby” could have been left off the album, while “Valley of the Dolls” is tremolo trash country at its best.
  • In the Spanish Cave (Frontier 1988)
    Or as its full title reads, Captain Long Brown Finger in the Spanish Cave. Almost as good as Moonhead and another must-have even if you're not a die-hard fan.
  • Red Sun (12” EP, Frontier 1988)
    The title track was culled from In the Spanish Cave. I just love the Civil War trumpets at the end of the song. The EP finds Thin White Rope exploring their love for easy listening oriented material.
  • Sack Full of Silver (RCA 1990)
    The band’s first and only major label outing is an uneven collection of songs written on the road. It has its moments though, “Diesel Man” in particular is stunning Thin White Rope.
  • Squatter's Rights (12” EP, Frontier 1991)
    A compilation of scattered tribute album tracks, soundtracks and other songs that fell by the wayside. Features the two Byrds songs, primo stuff.
  • The Ruby Sea (Frontier 1991)
    Their much underrated last album. Hard-edged and heavy, with the title track, “Tina and Glen” and the relentless “Fish Song” among the highlights.
  • The One That Got Away (live, Frontier 1993)
    The real life experience of the Rope live on stage isn’t done justice in the album format, making this a slightly disappointing testament recorded during the band’s last ever show. Not really essential. Spoor
  • Spoor (compilation, Frontier 1995) A rag bag of demos, singles tracks and other rare material. Features all the odd tracks from Red Sun. Not the place to start for the neophyte, but a good way for the trained TWR listener to get diasporic Rope tracks in one place.
  • When Worlds Collide (compilation, Munster 1995)
    A good and cleverly compiled overview of their career with several of their standout tracks gathered in one place. Features the Sub Pop 7” A-side “Ants Are Cavemen”, a powerful blast of pounding drums, unnerving bass lines, guitars of psychedelic contortions and of course, Kyser's burning petrol vocals. You don't have to understand what “Ants are cavemen living in a brand new world” means to see it all makes perfect twisted sense. Essential to the casual TWR listener along with Moonhead and In the Spanish Cave.

Other releases with tracks not on above albums:

  • Bucketfull of Brains #27 (7" free w/BoB 1988)
    features “Skinhead”, a fast live version of “Moonhead”.
  • Sounds Blasts 2 (7" free w/Sounds 1988)
    features “Munich Eunich”.
  • If 6 Was 9 - A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix (Imaginary 1990)
    features “May This Be Love”.
  • Vera Groningen - Beauty in the Underworld (Vera, 1990)
    features “Mr. Limpet” live, on CD only.
  • “Moonhead”/ “The Ruby Sea” (live, 7” Frontier 1993)
    recorded the same night as The One That Got Away but not on the album.
  • The Axis Calls (live, video, Frontier 1993)
    Thin White Rope in concert.