The Dead C: Harsh 70s Reality

In spring 1997, when the increasingly obtuse New Zealand trio the Dead C had been releasing records and tapes for about 10 years, Pavement appeared on the cover of Pulse!, formerly the in-house promotional arm of Tower Records. Pavement were promoting Brighten the Corners, an album that seemed designed to reengage a more mainstream crowd that had hopped on with the “Cut Your Hair” video in ’94 and hopped extremely off after Wowee Zowee. Inside the magazine, each member of Pavement provided a list of their 10 favorite albums. Steve Malkmus opened with the Groundhogs’ Thank Christ for the Bomb, a very necessary hunk of oddball British blues-rock. Right below it was the Dead C’s 1992 noisy, rambling masterpiece Harsh 70s Reality.

The early Pavement records pulled apart traditional songcraft and stapled it back together, covering hooks in gunk and fuzz, eschewing studio slickness for a looser sound and vibe. For a while there, the Dead C—the trio of guitarist Bruce Russell, guitarist Michael Morley, and drummer Robbie Yeats—did pretty much the same thing, often at even lower fidelity. And Pavement’s onetime label Drag City released records from Dead C’s first label, Xpressway, which took its own name from the Sonic Youth staple “Expressway to Yr Skull.” The bands seemed like distant cousins, as if the New Zealanders might get the younger act drunk at a family reunion and show them the magic of open tunings on a beat-to-hell acoustic guitar.

While Pavement quickly moved into more traditional studios and more traditional acceptance, the Dead C continued to mess with fans’ ears, their perception of time, and often their patience. The relative fidelity of the Dead C’s work seemed exactly matched to their aural goals, be it a rehearsal captured on a Sony Walkman WM-77, two-track, four-track or otherwise. The Dead C took the line between “live” and “studio,” sometimes a very formal division in the rock fan’s mind, and smudged it beyond recognition (their “live album” Clyma Est Mort, something of a companion piece to Harsh 70s Reality, was recorded live in front of one person). For longtime Dead C listeners, Malkmus’ appreciation for Harsh was understandable, laudable, and perfect.

From their start floating around the grotty 1980s New Zealand underground alongside Peter Jefferies, the incredible Plagal Grind, Alastair Galbraith, Dadamah, the Renderers, and many more, the trio took ideas from progressive and psychedelic rock, avant-garde improvisers such as AMM, minimalist composition, punk’s fuck-it stance, and Sonic Youth’s artier end. They made it into a collage and xeroxed it, zooming in and distorting the details with each pass. If fellow islanders the Clean lived inside the third Velvet Underground album, the Dead C built a summer shack in “Sister Ray” and stayed there year round.

From 1987 until about 1990, the period covered by such collections as the DR503 LP (released on Flying Nun and about as “out” as they got), the Perform DR503b cassette (alternate takes of the former), the EUSA Kills LP, the monstrous cassette-turned-CD Trapdoor Fucking Exit, and a few EPs, the band’s discography could charitably be called “annoying.” Various takes of key songs appear here and there on various tapes and albums, obliterating any notion of a definitive version. Albums appeared in the U.S. years after they appeared in NZ, with songs added and subtracted. Even devout fans got a little tired.

Harsh 70s Reality was the third Dead C recording to be released on Philadelphia’s Siltbreeze Records. Label owner Tom Lax first released the glorious 12" EP “Helen Said This”/“Bury.” The first song scans as one of the few breakup songs that actually sound like the time-as-molasses moments of internal chaos and distortion that accompany the end of a relationship; the flip side is a dignified rumble. Next, the mesmerizing single “Hell Is Now Love”/“Bone.” Then, Harsh 70s Reality, an old-school double album.

The CD version eliminated two songs, which, in retrospect, was both totally understandable and probably a mistake. It got hard to imagine in the 72-minute CD era that was the 1990s, but the double LP—by which I mean four sides running between slightly over an hour to 100 minutes—was once a major statement of purpose, an epic gesture, the moment a band expressed a worldview in as much detail as it saw fit.  The stacks of guitars, horns, and keyboards on Exile on Main Street took the Stones as deep into the heart of American blues as they cared to go, even if they cut it in France. The White Album found various combinations of Beatles putting everything from rock and folk to blues and avant-garde together in thrilling ways. Nobody has ever completely understood what is going on with the fractured tape experiments on Royal Trux’s Twin Infinitives, released two years before Harsh 70s Reality, but it remains a little scary to ingest.

Harsh 70s Reality was a double album in this same tradition, a massive dose of the muzzier songcraft mixed with the free-rock improvisation one usually associated with extremely high Germans in the ’70s, if one associated it with anything at all. It wasn't “noise rock”—that designation belonged to more structured acts releasing on labels like Touch and Go, AmRep, or Noiseville. This was something hazier, more mysterious, and far less aggressive.

Even for deep and nerdy fans, the Dead C’s first American tour in 1995 was a revelation, song form and improvisation jousting endlessly. Morley stood upright, every inch the guy who was charged with holding it all together, his vocal an occasional moan floating out of the chaos. Yeats’ beats were reasonably steady when it was called for, obtuse and skittering when it was not. But it was Russell everyone stared at. He treated his guitar almost like an annoyance: bending over into it, holding it by the body and waving it at the amp, pawing at the strings, doing everything other than play it conventionally.

The trick to Harsh 70s Reality is balance—between the rockers and the almighty zone-outs, between the tuneful bits and the parts that sound like a concrete saw. At the time, the Dead C could go in any direction, and after this record, they went in all of them, testing the limits of even their own audience. Their next few albums for Siltbreeze were increasingly “out there” but still occasionally engaged in the idea of writing songs. In 2000, the crew self-released The Dead C, a 128-minute double CD full of looped samples, restless electronic improvisations, a general sense of formlessness, and a 33-minute track called “SpeederBot.” As the band put it, “This is the hinge around which our career pivots…the Tascam porta-studio ceased to be our main technical mainstay, much of this was direct to open-reel two-track or digital video camera.”

I submit that the actual hinge in the Dead C’s career is Harsh 70s Reality. Russell has said the band stopped writing conventional songs around 1995. “We don’t have a theoretical rationale, we just do [it],” he said in a 2016 interview. “This dialectic is hard-wired into the trio. It is a product of our characters and our capabilities. Without that tension, there is no Dead C.” The album’s side-long opener, “Driver U.F.O.,” mixes a distant wind tunnel drone, clanging guitars, an oddly calming keyboard riff, voices perhaps, and tape scramble. It’s the sound of long-form confusion, a taste of where they were headed mixed with bits of where they’d been.

Kicking off side two is “Sky,” as conventional a rocker as appears on the record: driving strum und klang, one guitar a rusty screen door in the wind, another holding down some heavy buzz as Yeats bashes away, not so much holding a beat as smashing it into submission. Various voices wail “...to see the sky” and “I’ve got more important things to worry about.” This is the nature of the album: riffs (or, rather, repeated note-clusters) generally in the shape of songs. Yeats lays fractured triples on “Love” while the guitars technically sound clean but are also caked in gunk of varying flavors. “Suffer Bomb Damage,” with its acoustic intro, queasy keyboard, and giant-sounding distorted guitar, plays like the folk music of Tolkien-scale trolls, slightly intimidating for its simplicity. 

The Dead C remain your favorite noise nerd’s favorite noise nerds. In 2009, TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone told NPR that Trapdoor Fuckin Exit, itself a more semi-conventional song-album than not, was an all-time favorite. “They seemed so broken and messy to me when I first heard them,” he said. “But then early on when I was experimenting with psychedelics, one of their records was on heavy rotation at the apartment I was in… and I remember listening to it and having my mind really blown.” (Malone has been a member of the band Iran, which certainly owes a thing or two to the early Dead C.)

Harsh 70s Reality is one of the great psychedelic albums of its time in that it goes way out but it also lets you come down, the riffs akin to a guide talking you through a trip. In the 21st century, the band has abandoned songs for fully improvised pieces more akin to free jazz sessions than rock records. A generation of fans has grown up knowing them for full-on abstraction. “The process remains the same: We bottle the lightning as it strikes,” Russell has said. “You can’t plan that; you can only prepare.” On Harsh 70s, the Dead C balanced structure and lightning exactly right, as if they were throwing the bolts themselves.