Graded on a Curve:
Death of Samantha, “Laughing in the Face
of a Dead Man” EP

Death of Samantha was one of the most consistently interesting bands to emerge from the ‘80s subterranean rock scene, with their success unfortunately subverted by the nagging obscurity of their discography. While their records offered a fruitful trajectory of quality throughout their existence, the 1986 EP “Laughing in the Face of a Dead Man” presents a concise snapshot of their considerable achievements at their most raucous.

While Cleveland’s contribution to ‘70s punk is well-established and secure, some of the city’s triumphs in the following decade haven’t gotten anything close to their just due. This is especially true in regards to Death of Samantha, a band too often footnoted as simply one of the numerous proto-indie bands that impacted the US underground rock scene in the late-‘80s as part of the prolific Homestead Records roster.

Death of Samantha also gets talked-up due to their connections to Guided by Voices and Cobra Verde, but that conversation hasn’t really resulted in much of a contemporary presence for the band. While they have played a few one-off reunion shows since their breakup in 1990 (notably at the Beerland club in Austin, TX during 2012’s SXSW), it’s a sad reality that the group’s entire discography is currently out-of-print.

Perhaps those records, which combine into a very fine and unique body of work, are so cheaply acquired that reissuing them isn’t burning up the lobes of anyone’s mind. But I doubt it. For stories persist that the band is disinterested in having their work return to widespread availability. Maybe that’s down to to the red tape of rights issues, but it’s also just as likely the members of Death of Samantha share an ambivalence over those recordings.

If so, that’s a shame, for the group deserve much better than to be filed between the Dead Boys and the Defnics in the Cleveland section of a well-stocked used-record emporium. And their first two singles are most certainly pretty scarce these days. Like many an ‘80’s u-ground band, Death of Samantha started out on a local label, specifically St. Valentine Records.

85’s debut “Amphetamine” b/w “Simple As That” and the following year’s “Porn in the USA” 45 positioned the band as a notch above the average melodic racket of the era, but it was really their dress sense that alerted parties that Death of Samantha were onto something considerably different. Some observers continue to call the sheer chutzpah of their duds into question, but in this writer’s viewpoint the outrageousness of those collective togs helped to make the group’s interest in a glam-rock sensibility (which was sorta dormant in the ‘80s outside of hair-metal) quickly tangible.

Indeed, one look at a promo pic of these guys and it could almost seem like they were shooting to replicate the band photos from the first Roxy Music LP via the castoff clothes found in Cleveland thrift-stores. But the sound of those first singles, if possessive of a quality of discernment, was definitely punkish in nature, and it placed them pretty far outside the mainstream of the period.

And a rather hilarious part of the band’s story relates to their first show, which took place in a Ground Round Restaurant that also served as singer/ guitarist John Petkovic’s place of employment. Immediately after kicking off their inaugural set a mass exodus ensued, with many tabs being left unpaid. Petkovic was apparently fired shortly thereafter, the victim of cheapskate philistines.

But not to worry, for the man and his band had bigger fish to fry. Their first album Strungout on Jargon appeared in ’86 via Homestead, and was the first real inkling that Death of Samantha were on track to be something quite special. Along with a larger dose of their ragged tunefulness came elements remindful of their hometown kings Pere Ubu. And in addition to vocal and guitar duties, Petkovic also occasionally huffed into a clarinet, his use of said instrument becoming just another of the band’s take-it-or-leave-it qualities.

Death of Samantha remained on Homestead for the rest of their run, with both of their subsequent full-lengths, ‘88’s Where the Women Wear the Glory and the Men Wear the Pants and ‘89’s Come All Ye Faithless more than living up to their early promise. That final album continues to play like a real masterpiece from an unheralded national scene that was preparing to explode all over the next decade’s mainstream.

But if not their best document, the Death of Samantha release that continues to bring this writer the highest level of pleasure is the 5-song ’86 12-inch EP “Laughing in the Face of a Dead Man.” In some ways the record signals the end of their first phase before coming into the full flower of those two ensuing LPs, a circumstance that’s only amplified by the eminent departure of original bassist David James (he was replaced by Dave Swanson.)

Strungout on Jargon is a very good LP, but “Laughing in the Face of a Dead Man” packs a real wallop of swagger and ambition. This is immediately palpable through opening ripper “Blood & Shaving Cream,” the song drenched in a mess of Petkovic and Doug Gillard’s dual guitars while James and drummer Steve-O (aka occasional Elvis impersonator Steve Eierdam) thunder forth with the necessary bottom end.

Just the sort of sound to whiz right up a punk-weaned rock fan’s alley, except for one thing, that being Petkovic’s divisive vocal style. So full of brassy bluster was his huge yawp that the first few times I heard him it was basically impossible to not think of it as some sort of put-on. But with familiarity, the nature of Petkovic’s lung-purge was revealed as sincere. And appealingly distinctive, for many of Death of Samantha’s ‘80s peers took an opposite approach to human voice, lowering it in the mix and treating it as just another instrument.

Petkovic and company were instead grappling with a tradition of whacked-out rock-stardom and coming up with something wonderfully twisted in their own right. “Blood & Shaving Cream”’s lyrics are bizarre and darkly humorous, and the overall heft of the song is almost like a cross between the Alice Cooper Band and the sweet fury of Raw Records.

Following this initial burst of rowdiness is an equally torrid take on Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” that’ll likely find many fans of the original teetering on the brink of opprobrium. For the finesse of the original is given a total punk steamrolling and the vocals sorta connect like a demented karaoke prank, but with all this considered it still feels inappropriate to categorize the song as a piss-take; underneath the undeniably rough treatment of the tune is something that registers like genuine affection.

Death of Samantha was especially adept at covers, with two of their best being a smoking version of the Pink Fairies’ “Do It” (found on Homestead’s very swank 2LP comp Human Music) and a truly brilliant and very reverent reading of Bowie’s “Heroes” (the B-side to their “Rosenberg Summer” single from ’89). While “Werewolves of London” is given a throttling, it succeeds because it’s never shallow. And its depth fits well on a record of prickly intelligence.

Side two opens with “The Set Up (of Madame Sosostris),” the EP’s most impressive statement in terms of song structure. Yes, underneath the potentially confounding gestures and cranked amps, the band had a considerable talent with a tune (that’s a big part of what makes Come All Ye Faithless such a strong LP), and Petkovic’s words are deliciously strange, which is unsurprising given the title’s reference to the deep weeds of T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem “The Waste Land.”

“Yellow Fever” is another fine slab of rip-snorting glammy-punk, the song going far in not only vindicating Petkovic as a legitimately great, non-gimmicky vocalist, but also in establishing the whole group as one of the more slept-on rock units of their decade. They’re heavy but spry, and while it means a lot less now than it did back then, their full-on embracement of big-time rock moves went a long way in a time and place plagued by an onslaught of punk-derived generics.

Closing track “American Horoscopes & the Bad Prescription” is nearly two minutes of Pere Ubu mutating with Tex Avery; there’s a human clucking like a chicken, fingers playing Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes theme on guitar, and some overwrought dialogue from one of the original Planet of the Apes flicks (it’s worth mentioning that the EP’s integration of film samples is one of its most endearing traits.) The “meaning” of this final missive might be hard (or downright impossible) to gather, but it continues to sound pretty cool in its indecipherability.

Death of Samantha is a superb example of the smarts that resided in the warm folds of the ‘80s US underground. As evidence, check out New Yorker music critic and The Rest is Noise author Alex Ross’ high opinion of “Rosenberg Summer”. Their reliably tacky dress sense often obscured their musical acumen, but their records continue to cut some major mustard. “Laughing in the Face of a Dead Man” endures as one of their best.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Scarlette Stark

    This rambles around a bit, my mind works that way, it jumps around like a toad from subject to subject. Please forgive me. Anyway, I bought “Laughing in the Face of a Dead Man.”when it first came out. I bought the EP during a period when I was so bored with mainstream music in the mid-to-late 80s that I chose to check the indie scene and experimented with any new band that caught my eye in a music review or in a Greenwich Village record store when I lived n Manhattan. I bought this for the hell of it because I loved and still love the Warren Zevon original “Werewolves of London”, because of the band name that they nicked off of a good Yoko Ono song (yes, I believe those do exist even if you don’t), and the insane graphic on the cover. AT the same time, I also got Pussy Galore’s 12 inch EP that was later integrated into their album “Dial ‘M’ for Motherfucker”, and Soundgarden’s “Ultramega OK” because a reviewer said that the band probably slept with their dolls of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and they had the gall to “cover” John Lennon’s one second of silence “song” called “The Nutopian International Anthem”. Also Laibach’s insane cover versions of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs. It didn’t hurt that I am also a Yoko Ono fan and the name Death of Samantha is started as the name a smooth, charming blues song that even my musical disabled ex-wife liked when she overheard me play it by accident. So…they covered Zevon, had a weird sense of humor with that EP cover “art”, AND named themselves after one of Ono’s finest songs. Sold. I loved “Blood & Shaving Cream” for the snotty rock music and the smart but maybe a bit too obscure and slightly creepy and morbid lyrics such as “I died well-hung hung (sic) alone”.. I bought their two follow up LPs but found them totally boring in contrast, except for their excellent cover of the Peter Laughner song “Sylvia Plath”, without question the best song ever written that I know about suicide. And I even find it superior to Laughner’s version, although I didn’t even realize it existed until last year. Having no other way to know, I assumed it was a DoS song. I think “Sylvia Plath” is even better than Cheap Trick’s kick-ass rocking “Auf Weidersehen”. The band’s version of “Werewolves” is still fun but it took me awhile to get used to NOT having the piano riff running throughout the performance as in the original. I had no idea that the spoken voices on the second side were samples until I read this review, I just thought they were an excellent humorous backhand swipe at hunters in general. So DoS unfortunately quickly lost their steam. Unlike Mr. Leff, I never even noticed their clothes. They were performers. Performers often were costumes, so their fashion sense didn’t even register on my consciousness. Soundgarden meanwhile signed with a major label and immediately lost all the charm and balls that made “Ultramega OK” interesting in the first place, Pussy Galore split into the two bands Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Royal Trux, I never really got into either band very much but the little I heard was okay. I preferred the deconstructionist sloppy rock noise of Pussy Galore to the solo member’s later work, but then I wasn’t really paying too much attention. Laibach disappeared and I didn’t care, their cover of the Beatles tune “One After 909”, with it’s cheeky reference to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, I later swiped the idea for one of the songs I wrote and recorded myself for my Internet “band” on mp3.com, was the only thing they did that I cared for. A decade or so later, when I switched from vinyl to CD, I digitized all of the vinyl I wanted to keep. “Laughing in the Face of the Dead Man” I made a complete copy of, but only three of the five tunes survive. And I could buy this EP on eBay OR Amazon for cheap, but my turntable has sat unused for over 12 years now and I have no way to play vinyl even if I had the EP. Perhaps I need one of those turntables that plugs into a USB port, assuming that Windows 10 even supports recording via a USB connection. I have bought only a handful of EPs, preferring singles or full albums, so it is no exaggeration that “Laughing in the Face of the Dead Man” is one of my favorite EPs. I wish I had all the files I digitized but I had to replace my computer five times since the late 1980s, and all but three are gone. And irritatingly, “Blood & Shaving Cream” had a skip in the .wav file I created and “American Horoscopes & the Bad Prescription”, I always loved Loony Tunes as a kid, still do, and hearing their signature tune “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down”, written in 1937, played by a real rock band was awesome and funny as hell. I may just buy the EP and look into connecting my PC to a turntable as soon as I can afford it. Meanwhile, I will make a .mp4 video of “Werewolves of London” to any pics of the band or EP I can find and then load it to one of my Youtube channels as soon as I get the chance. If you do a Youtube search for Death of Samantha and “Werewolves of London” in March 2016, it should be there by then. I agree with pretty much everything this fine essay says, it taught me a lot about the band I didn’t know, their cover *was* a picture with Manhattan in the background so I assumed DoS was a NYC band for instance. Thank you for writing and publishing your thoughts and knowledge about one of my favorite indie bands ever. It was nice to read and know I wasn’t their only fan.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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