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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