Raging Slab Against the Machine

In a July 2015 issue of The Guardian, Faith No More’s Mike Patton and Billy Gould are asked to reflect upon their career, and recall their record company’s initial reactions to their fourth album ‘Angel Dust’:

“It didn’t totally click,” Patton says drily. “I remember the label saying ‘commercial suicide’.”

“The classic line was: ‘I hope you didn’t just buy houses,’” Gould says.

Maybe ‘commercial suicide’ was a little extreme, but the suits had a point. Artists exist to create art, and labels exist to make money. ‘Angel Dust’ has barely achieved Gold status in the US over the course of 25 years. Having a record universally acclaimed as a masterpiece is no doubt fulfilling to the artists involved, but this alone doesn’t butter anyone’s bread. In the ages-old battle of Art vs Commerce, compromise is key, although the balance of power is heavily skewed toward the biz side, and it’s usually the creators that have to do most of the compromising. In this environment, it’s easy to lose sight of your vision, and sticking to your guns can get you killed.

Consider the saga of New York’s Finest Southern Rock Band (!), Raging Slab. Their 7-album discography (or is that 10?) includes three albums released via the Majors (or was it 6?), and includes the record we’re going to explore here: the Slab’s 5th (8th?) album, ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’, a record that I love dearly, but has beguiled me for many a year. As the follow-up to what many consider Raging Slab’s defining statement, 1993’s ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’, ‘Sing!’ is a wildly careening curve ball, at best a challenging listen for the band’s fan base and a twisted and broken middle-finger farewell to the major label segment of their career arc.

For the uninitiated, ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’ was a potent dose of southern-tinged hard rock with extra helping of musicality and a whole lotta soul. Southern Rock from NYC? Think Heavy Metal Skynyrd with an subversive alt streak and a wickedly obtuse sense of humor. DMBC was released on Rick Rubin’s red-hot Def American label (through Warner Bros), featured strings composed by Led Zep’s John Paul Jones, and the video for lead single ‘Anywhere But Here’ was Beavis and Butthead-approved. In an era when both Grunge and Alternative were slowly creeping into the mainstream, Raging Slab’s ‘Dynamite’ was a welcome blast of 3-guitar, old-school boogie-rock kick-ass, that somehow managed to seem both familiar and thoroughly relevant.

Then why, WHY?? was the follow-up, ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ so … um, different? DMBC seemed to be a perfect foundation on which to build a career, and combined the best of several worlds: Hard Rock, Alt Rock, Southern Rock, even a li’l Alt Country. All the stars looked to be aligned: hot video, buzz band status, a growing live rep… So what the HELL happened? The follow-up to ‘Dynamite’ is a very different animal, almost sounding like the work of a totally different band. Guitarist Gregoryy Strzempka has called ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ ‘one of the most bitter, unlistenable records ever made.’ There must be a reason for the extreme left turn that Raging Slab made here; some explanation for the abrupt transmogrification from funkified Blackfoot to something that might have eminated from Frank Zappa’s Straight label.

‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ is a poke in the eye to to the Powers that Be from a band tired of trying to please desk jockeys and number crunchers. Crammed with obtuse musical angles, algebraic lyrical formulas, and oddball atmospherics, this ugly little album stares at you with a demented smile and dares you to like it… If you don’t dig it: HA! You’re not supposed to! This willfully weird musical mutation was not aimed at you anyway. And if you do: That’s because a truly great band can deliver a bad album that’s still great because it’s supposed to be so bad that it’s great. If this record wasn’t a deliberate career suicide, it was certainly career self-sabotage, a musical hand grenade lobbed at label honcho Rick Rubin and the majors in general. And, boy, did it backfire…

Everything about this album reeks of ‘FUCK YOU’: the album’s title, the strikingly bizarro cover art, and the severely bent anti-boogie within… The queasy, seasick bass throughout ‘Gracious’… the haunted house stabs in ‘Never Comin’ Down’… the wicked witch vocals in ‘Checkyrd Demon’… the throat-shredding chorus of ‘Lay Down’… the disorienting vocal patterns in ‘C’mon N’ On’ and ‘Shoulda Known’… The lyrics are laced with poetic poison, and you don’t even wanna know about the album’s epic 3-part closer. It’s ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’ played upside down and backwards. Don’t worry: The Slab groove is there; it’s just hiding, and the whole mess is delivered with an artfully musical smirk. Once you clue into this record’s genius/dementia, suddenly it all makes a kind of sense. Kind of.

Full Disclosure: I love this much-maligned, misunderstood masterpiece. In fact, it’s one of my favorite albums of all time. And while ‘Dynamite’ might be a ‘better’ record, ‘Sing!’ resonates with me much more. Why? Simply put, backstory. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows it’s all about backstory here. Backstory can deepen one’s appreciation for an album or an artist; at least it can for me. And the story behind Raging Slab’s brief foray into the swirling cesspool of major label Purgatory is a humdinger. A little while back, I reached out to the principles in the Slab saga: Main man Gregory Strzepmka, slide guitarist extraordinaire Elyse Steinman (Strzempka’s wife), and bassist Alec Morton for the straight dope on this curious classic:

The Slabs 1st two indie releases, ‘Assmaster’ and the band-favorite ‘True Death’ EP, are a unique combo of classic 70’s boogie rock with an alt-punk edge and NYC underground attitude…

Alec: We were really proud of True Death. ‘Assmaster’ had been recorded very quickly and chaotically, and with ‘True Death’ we took our time and loved the result. Elyse spent hours at home making cassette dupes of the record; the three of us would load our pockets with them and pass them out to anyone we could when we went out to clubs, trying to get the record heard by as many people as possible.

Elyse: The important factors of our philosophy were humor, groove and to make people think beyond their horizons. ‘True Death’ encapsulated those qualities for me, just like Bowie or Zappa did for me as a kid.

Greg: I imagine my nostalgia regarding “True Death” is due to the fact that it was the last time we’d functioned in a studio without the ‘benefit’ of label input. It’s definitely my favorite Slab release. It was the perfect gel of everything we had envisioned. We all knew it sounded like us and nobody else, and I felt as if we had found our voice. And we had done so with only Elyse, Alec and myself in an 8 track, basement studio in Brooklyn.

Workin’ For RCA: The Slab enter the big leagues, sand down a few sharp edges, and learn a new word: ‘Compromise’, while working on their major label debut…

Alec: For me, the most mainstream thing about the RCA record is the production. Daniel (Rey, producer) had a production deal with RCA, he wanted to make records that sold. No one at RCA was looking for an ‘art’ band; the labels were desperate to find an east coast Guns n Roses. It seemed like a possibility that if we had a big, ‘current’ sounding record, we could succeed on a national level. This was new territory for us, a little intimidating. The final result is slicker than ‘True Death’, but once you’re signed to a corporation, there’s a certain amount of playing ball that goes with it.

Greg: I hope that ‘Raging Slab’ sounds more commercial, because it was intentional! The RCA record was done in two parts: we recorded five songs as part of a ‘development deal’, which was basically a recorded audition. There was a conscious effort to present ourselves as a sign-able act. So the more mainstream material was part of the ‘demo’ sessions. We were offered a contract based on those tunes, and we completed the album three months later, at which point we began our return to quirkier stuff. When the label chose Gary Lyons to mix, it became evident what they wanted us to sound like. RCA were not interested in anything other than having their own Guns n’ Roses.

Elyse: I think this is what we all wanted at the time, not so much to be ‘rock stars’ but to be pioneers in the field of music and art. But like our good friend Lisa Robinson always said, ‘It’s the pioneers that get shot in the back’, a prophesy we would later find to be true… ‘True Death’ indeed.

After some moderate success with their self-titled major label debut, Slab enter the studio with renowned Metal producer Alex Perialas for RCA album #2: ‘From a Southern Space’. Nobody likes what they hear; RCA pulls the plug.

Alec: We only finished 6 songs with Alex Perialas; we weren’t happy, neither was the label, so no full record was done.

Greg: Alex Perialas and Pyramid Studios was entirely an RCA idea. And I recall our agreeing to it because we had no intention of recording in NYC again as the Record Plant had just closed for good. Alex was a nice enough guy, although he didn’t have a clue what to do with us.

Elyse: Well, once again we were outsmarting ourselves. Raging Slab tended to mix it up a little too much and that made the suits very uncomfortable because you just couldn’t pigeonhole us. I think Gregory, Alec and I can be shameless contrarians and we just didn’t want to be a carbon copy of anyone, even ourselves.

Another record, ‘Freeburden’, is begun; this one is completed. There’s a little more of the ‘True Slab’ sound and vibe on this one, and hopes are high…

Alec: There was a lot of pressure to get product out, since we had spent time and money on the Perialas recording. RCA had several suggestions for a producer; we went with Michael Beinhorn. I remember liking the results a lot; we were mixing it in NY, inviting friends to come hear it, getting great reactions across the board. Greg and I were in the room when all the RCA execs heard it, convinced they would be thrilled. When it was done, there was an awkward pause… Someone finally said,’I don’t hear a ‘Don’t Dog Me’. It was a crushing moment.

Greg: We still fully expected most listeners to ‘get it’. Whether it was a musical quote, or a triple entendre, or a heavily veiled lyric, we always gave the record buying public, and especially our fans, the benefit of the doubt that they’d be rewarded for listening closely. We also tried to make sure that it stood up without the intense scrutiny. In some sense, that’s exactly what was wrong. It was our misguided belief that people wanted rock and roll that was subtle, tongue-in-cheek, and unpredictable. Even in our half-hearted attempts at commercializing, I still insisted that the songs not fully surrender themselves after a single listen.

Now with two records in a row rejected by RCA, Slab are dropped from the label, and disillusion sets in…

Alec: I guess they were confused by a couple of acoustic songs; they thought they could farm the record out to the country department. Believe me, it was a full-on hard rock record. We were dropped shortly after. We were frustrated, angry, confused, and we also didn’t have a drummer.

Greg:This was also about the same time that major labels started utilizing third party market testers & data analysis, rather than using their own fucking ears. A&R staff began throwing around terms like ‘the 18 to 24 yr old demographic’ and saying things like ‘That track got bad phones in Atlanta, so we couldn’t use it as a single’. You got the impression that they weren’t even listening. We’d counter this by telling them ‘we play this shit to live people every night, with our fans presumably constituting our most immediate demographic, and we can tell you which songs they respond to!’

Elyse: Very frustrated. I remember when we did the monster truck video (for ‘Raging Slab’s ‘Don’t Dog Me’) the record company wasn’t into it at all. This was still the 80’s, and I had to take them to Madison Square Garden to see a monster truck show and I said ‘count the AC/DC t-shirts in here!’ For goodness sakes, what isn’t rock and roll about monster trucks??

Rick Rubin’s Def American picks up the band, and oversees their next album, ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’. Once again, the band makes concessions to commerciality, and again, a bit of the band’s unique identity is missing. The album is excellent, but the band’s frustration grows…

Alec: I know what you mean about some of the ‘weirdness’ being left behind, although I don’t agree 100 percent. Still, we were in the world of MTv and mainstream rock radio, we were not an indie band. For sure wanted a successful record. For me, ‘Dynamite…’ is more over-produced than the RCA record; keyboards, background singers etc, but it sounded very current for the time. Everyone at the label was convinced if was going to be a huge hit.

Elyse: Rick’s initial motivation seemed honorable, I think he genuinely liked our band, but I’m not sure if he understood it because he seemed to drop the ball quickly; they focused on songs we felt weren’t the strongest ones.

Greg: Unlike RCA, American had a staff that was obnoxiously ‘hip’, but they were still miles away from grasping what we were about. And as far as we were concerned, we were never in need of advice. We had album titles, videos, graphics, all planned out ’til the next millennium. We always had a chip on our shoulder about the ‘art’ of what we did, because we genuinely regarded it as just that. Elyse, Alec and I grew up admiring artists who didn’t ‘sell out’. We were predisposed to not play nice with a major label. Granted, Def did try harder than RCA, but still… And once again, they didn’t trust us enough. The ‘artistic guidance’ that RCA and American dispensed always felt like going clothes shopping with your mom.

After the moderate success of ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’, Raging Slab once again try to assert their true Slab selves on the planned follow-up, ‘Black Belt in Boogie’… a record that is flatly rejected by the label. If you’re keeping count, that’s rejected album #3…

Greg: ‘Black Belt in Boogie’ was started with DC Hardcore producer Don Zientara, that was Rick’s idea, which turned into a long, low-energy ordeal. We had just gotten back from a really gruelling European tour. Marc (Middleton, guitars) and the band parted ways mainly because we wanted to get back to the ‘True Death’ lineup, streamline, strip down, etc. There was a lot of wandering in the dark at that time. We spent a LOT of money, doing what amounted to one and a half CDs of music. They didn’t want it.

Alec: When it was time to do another record, we were eager to not be hemmed in by the “Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Metallica” label. Greg came in with a wide variety of songs, and I liked the eclecticism. Rick had signed us himself, so he had veto power on the material. When he finally heard the stuff, he really disliked it, and told us he wouldn’t put it out. Once again, we were angry and frustrated and felt time passing us by. After Rick rejected the record, our drummer Paul quit. Everything seemed to take forever with us; once step forward two back.

Elyse: Well of course we were frustrated. We had recorded so many songs over and over again and kept being slowed down for one reason or another. It was maddening to say the least, and it was very hard to keep positive. We just kept producing more material and tried to remain focused on the big picture, which was the integrity of the band and making music. But yes, those were very hard times.

Rubin agrees to let Slab work alone for their next album. Spirits are low, but unhindered by label expectations, the band tries hard to shake off the dysfunction, and seizes the opportunity to recapture their original mojo…

Alec: We knew at that point that nobody at the label liked the band, but they wouldn’t release us from our contract, and I felt an atmosphere of freedom and lack of pressure to produce a hit. I loved playing the songs on ‘Sing Monkey’, it’s my favorite Slab record after ‘True Death’.

Elyse: ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ was a conscience effort back to our roots, but it was gravely misunderstood. We had a great time making that album because we knew that nobody at the label gave two shits about us which allowed us the freedom to be totally ourselves. It was great to experiment again, just like on ‘True Death’.

Greg: ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ was essentially a psychotic episode set to music. When you’ve consciously made concessions that ended up being damaging to your career, you overcompensate in the other direction. As a result we began to develop a collective psychosis. The constant rejection began to ferment a climate of paranoia and desperation as well as a really poisonous, bitter outlook towards the music business. It’s impossible to look back at ANY of that material and not feel our anger and frustration all over again.

If all art is self-expression, ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ is a window into the soul of a great band… at the very end of their rope. It’s everything the majors didn’t like about the real Raging Slab, and then some. The record has little commercial potential, but its lack of mainstream viability feels wholly intentional yet also completely organic. It’s almost as if, after having 3 of their records rejected, Slab crafted a record intentionally conceived to be rejected. Was there a conscious effort to hand in a ‘difficult’ album?

Greg: Music is all about communicating emotion, and is best when communicating emotions that are beyond words or pictures…so let me congratulate you on your remarkable powers of perception.

Elyse: Thank you so much for noticing, I wasn’t sure anybody did.

Alec: When Greg came in with new songs, I felt there was a toughness and a fuck-you quality that was a response to frustrations with the label. I don’t think we tried to make a difficult record, we just didn’t want to make the same record again. I seem to remember Rick’s take on the album as something like, ‘It’s the best record you guys have done, it won’t sell at all’. Iggy Pop’s album ‘New Values’ was one that we all liked a lot; I always felt that it was lurking in the background on ‘Sing Monkey’.

Rubin tells the group that he ‘didn’t hear any songs’ on ‘Sing!’ Then Rubin’s label ends its relationship with Warner Bros, but neglects to tell the band, and also ‘forgets’ to release the group from its contract. The ‘Sing!’ album is disowned by Rubin and sold to the Columbia Record & Tape Club. Slab has no choice but to wait out the term of their contract, which prevents them from releasing any new music for almost seven years…

Elyse: I really don’t know what Rick’s feeling towards us were at that time, he had clearly moved on, I was very sad about that. But he runs a business, and if you’re not selling product… I heard whispers of ‘not wanting to throw good money after bad’. I understand that but I thought of Raging Slab as something that wasn’t instant bubblegum music, we had more depth to us. We were trying to make meaningful art.

Greg: Rick treated that record with some degree of puzzlement; I think he wasn’t quite sure if it was the worst piece of shit he’d ever heard or if it was our “Trout Mask Replica”. The majority of the American Recordings staff did their best to make sure it was buried. We didn’t even think he’d put it out. It was like ‘if you didn’t like the nice stuff we did for you, here’s this!’ And it didn’t even achieve our intended result, which was to have them drop us. The Columbia Record & Tape club arrangement was their incredibly effective, career-destroying way of saying ‘Fuck you, we own you, you have made us sad and we’re more than happy to set up a few lawn chairs and watch you wither on the vine’. We ended up being under contract to them for another 6-7 years.

Raging Slab waited out their ties to American Recordings, retreated into the underground and released two indie albums: ‘The Dealer’ and ‘(pronounced ēat-shït)’ before calling it a day. Both records are more akin to the band’s 1st two indie slabs than to their major label output. Lessons learned? Perhaps. Strzempka waxes philosophical for a brief moment and offers a cautionary spin on the entire Slab saga…

Greg: There’s nothing inherently wrong with intentionally making “pop” music, but I’d strongly caution anyone from making partial concessions in that direction when it doesn’t feel right. It either has to be one or the other. And in terms of our career, I would have preferred that we lived or died by our own hand. If I have a ‘what if’ moment, it’s: What if we hadn’t conceded anything after ‘True Death’?

In terms of the mainstream record-buying public, Slab might mainly be remembered for RCAs ‘Raging Slab’ and Def American’s ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’, when in fact their major label adventure resulted in 2 albums released, 3 albums rejected, and 1 album buried– Raging Slab’s official discography is gonna have a bunch of asterisks attached. I asked them how this whole adventure looks now that it’s firmly in the rearview…

Elyse: It was a tremendous ride and I’m grateful to everyone who gave us a chance. I do wish the powers that be had a bit more faith in our vision and trusted us a bit more, but I never had any illusions about one indisputable fact, it was called the record business for a reason.

Alec: We certainly were more successful than lots of bands I know; most bands don’t get the chance to not sell records on a major label, I’m well aware of that. There’s no point in my speculating on what would have happened ‘if’… although I’ve done it plenty. If we were a band with a small cult following, so are many of my favorite bands. I’m grateful that I was a part of it.

Greg: If you measure success by album sales then surely RS was a disappointment, however as a music fan I’m comforted by the fact that most of my favorite albums and bands were flops. Frankly, I never wanted to be anything more than a ‘cult band’ and had no interest in fame. If I re-examine our career in those terms it was an undeniable success. Even though we had more material rejected than was released, the fact that the material was recorded counts a lot to me! Not to mention having been signed to two majors over a span of eleven years without landing anything close to a Top Ten… now there’s a trick in itself!

. . . . .

Epilogue
Many sincere thanks to Alec Morton for taking the time to participate in this exploration of a decidedly dark era of his band’s history… And of course to Greg Strzempka & Elyse Steinman, for also doing so during a very difficult time. During my discussions with Greg and Elyse, it was disclosed to me that Elyse was battling Stage Three lung cancer, and that Greg was acting as her primary care-giver. Both agreed to indulge me nonetheless, and I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to these two amazing people.

Elyse Steinman passed away on March 30, 2017, just a few months after our conversations wrapped up. Although we corresponded via email, it was apparent to me that, besides being a truly unique musician, Elyse was also a very special person. This article is dedicated to her memory. Rock on, Slab Chick.