Graded on a Curve: Snatch, “Shopping For Clothes” EP

Let’s hear it for rock’s great forgotten. Take Fanny, the first all-female band to record an album on a major label, back in 1970. They opened for everyone, recorded some cool albums, and who remembers them? Nuts like me. And David Bowie, who in 1999 said of them, “One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny. They were one of the finest… rock bands of their time, in about 1973. They were extraordinary… they’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time.” That “wasn’t their time” deserves elucidation; it’s not that they were playing music that was out of sync with the age—their problem was they were a female group in what was still a world dominated by all-male bands.

Judy Nylon falls into the same category. She is a largely obscure figure, despite her multidisciplinary contributions to the glam, punk, and No Wave movements in both London and New York. The reasons for her neglect in the historical time line of rock music are two-fold; first she was a woman, and second she didn’t release much music, and is as well-known for inadvertently assisting Brian Eno to develop ambient music as she is for the relatively sparse collection of songs she recorded with Crucial, a dub punk outfit, and Snatch—originally called Cha-Cha—her duo with fellow American Patti Palladin, who would later record with Johnny Thunders and lend her ice-cold vocals to the Flying Lizards’ frigid version of “Money (That’s What I Want).”

Beyond the 1983 Snatch compilation Witch 1, which collected the band’s singles and miscellaneous tunes, and her reggae/dub/punk LP Pal Judy, which she released with the band Crucial in 1982, there’s virtually nothing out there. She was primarily a background presence and muse—she played the seductress in John Cale’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” off his 1974 LP Fear (for which she was paid, she has said, “Twenty quid and a line of coke”); collaborated with Eno on the song “R.A.F.,” a sound collage featuring telephone calls from the German revolutionary group that succeeded the Baader-Meinhof Gang (and that appeared on the B-side of Brian Eno’s “The King’s Lead Hat”); and was the “Judy” of Eno’s “Back in Judy’s Jungle” off his 1974 LP Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).

For an art rocker and Avant gardist, Nylon—who was a glam female doppelganger for the Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie—produced work (especially with Crucial) that was easily accessible. With Snatch, she and Palladin specialized in complex sound collages, but they are still far more listenable than, say, early Cabaret Voltaire or Sonic Youth. Featuring lots of distortion, and an affinity for spoken word over repetitive melodies, your typical Snatch song is simultaneously lulling and mildly disturbing. Then again, songs like “Amputee” off Witch 1 are surprisingly musical, while “All I Want” is a flat-out punk song, and an excellent one at that. In short, just when you think you’ve got Nylon pegged as a pointy-headed aesthete, she’ll shock you with an acute pop sensibility.

1980’s “Shopping for Clothes” EP (Fetish Records), produced by John Cale, features three great Snatch songs, including a significantly different version of the Eno collaboration “R.A.F” called simply “Red Army.” While the Eno version reminds me of the techniques he would later use to great success with the Talking Heads and “Once in a Lifetime,” the version on “Shopping for Clothes” sounds more like early Public Image Limited, and features a throbbing bass line, some great guitar squall, the voice of an R.A.F. member calling the authorities regarding the failed hijacking of an airliner by the PLO designed to win the freedom of the four Baader-Meinhof leaders then in prison, and lots of extraneous noise.

I like them both myself, in part because I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Baader-Meinhof Group, and both have a funky feel. Neither can hold a candle to Auteur Luke Haines’ 1996 LP Baader-Meihof (by a one-off band of the same name), but hey, it’s an untouchably brilliant album. As for Snatch’s “Joey,” it’s a catchy post-punk number with lots of cool keyboards, synthesizers, and percussion that sounds veddy, veddy English. Meanwhile Nylon and Palladin sing in synch about her friend Joey, “who did her time/did her time” and so far as I can tell (the lyrics are hard to understand) is a lesbian. Then she reminds us, “What you do in what amount/It waits for you/It’s on account,” while a bass throbs. Reminds me of a combination of the Tom Tom Club and your average synthpop band, it does, but that’s not an insult. I love it, to be honest.

The A-side “Shopping for Clothes” is a droning cover of the 1960 Coasters’ classic “Shoppin’ for Clothes,” and Nylon talks her way through it like Patti Smith at her snottiest, while Palladin throws in her vocals (she plays the store clerk) here and there. The background features keyboards and one cool sax, along with some funky percussion. What it lacks in the humor department—the Coasters played it at least in part for laughs—it makes up in snarky beatnik cool, thanks to Nylon, who might as well be wearing a beret.

Were she to come along now, Nylon would be a real presence—she had the smarts and she had the ambition, although she was always on the look for new media to investigate—but in the boy’s clubs that were the New York and London music scenes back in the day, she was relegated to the status of a footnote. More’s the pity. I’m convinced she had great albums in her, but got tired of fighting tooth and nail to find the right label to do her work justice. What we’re left with are some hard-to-find artifacts that are well worth searching for. Judy Nylon remains a relatively obscure figure, at least on the music scene, and that’s too bad. She had the skills to pay the bills. But it was her sad misfortune to have come to the forefront at a time when chicks were to be screwed, and not heard.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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