Graded on a Curve: Hampton Grease Band,
Music to Eat

For the longest time, the skinny on the Hampton Grease Band was that the group was responsible for the second-worst selling release in the history of Columbia Records. But upon its reissue in 1996, Music to Eat was revealed as so much more. A 2LP debut, the outfit’s sole 1971 effort presented the fertile zone where the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band intersected with the outbound psychedelia of The Grateful Dead and the sturdy blues-rock of The Allman Brothers, as a huge dollop of surrealist humor was slathered over the entire mess. Simply put, Music to Eat is an amazing document.

Apparently, it was undersold by a yoga instruction record, if the story of Music to Eat’s initial poor retail performance is indeed accurate. Of course, this situation occurred prior to its temporary reinstatement to availability on compact disc, with the tale of the album’s underwhelming sales but one tidbit in guitarist Glenn Phillips’ highly informative liner essay.

Having been born in August of the year Music to Eat began receiving its long bout of consumer neglect, I was unfortunately in no position to slap down cash on the counter in an attempt to reverse the Hampton Grease Band’s woeful fortunes. However, 25 years later I eagerly paid the fee, though I’ll add that right up to the point of Columbia’s 2CD reissue appearing in the racks, the album and by extension the band, which featured Phillips and Harold Kelling on guitar, Mike Holbrook on bass, Jerry Fields on percussion, and Bruce Hampton on vocals, was something of a well-kept secret.

I’d seen the name dropped here and there, but without context it didn’t mean very much. I’d also heard Claw Hammer’s very nice cover of “Hey Old Lady/Bert’s Song,” though without knowing the source that didn’t help me much either. At least in my experience, vinyl copies of Music to Eat were/are downright scarce; I’ve knowingly been in the same room with an original on only one occasion (to my knowledge it’s never been repressed on 2 LP.) And when I special ordered the CD reissue from my local wax shack, the owner, an affable curmudgeon and something of an expert on “head music” hadn’t even heard of it.

Yes, there was Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the group’s self-titled debut coming out in 1992 via the Capricorn label, but I didn’t run in jam band circles and therefore missed the connection. I do recall the Unit as one of the more adventurous acts in the ‘90s neo-psych wave that included Widespread Panic, Govt. Mule, and of course Phish, but the most prolific and interesting member post-Grease Band was the highly talented Phillips.

By the second half of the ‘80s he’d insinuated himself into a variety of productive situations, with the activity including two solo discs (‘75’s Lost at Sea for Caroline and ‘77’s Swim in the Wind for Virgin), the formation of an eponymously-titled outfit for a series of releases, and also a collaboration with fellow progressive string-bender Henry Kaiser. The kicker was my ownership of The Glenn Phillips Band’s 1987 Elevator LP (that album but one entry in SST Records’ sanity-testing late-80s glut of releases) without even knowing of the leader’s relationship to Music to Eat.

The Grease Band’s persistent underdog status was mainly due to their flat-out weirdness being so resistant to easy categorization. They were certainly psychedelic, but the potency of their surrealist humor placed them on the outskirts of that scene with Beefheart and Zappa. Unlike their largely good-vibe San Franciscan contemporaries, the Grease Band had no compunction over provoking their own audience.

Their origins are linked to Kelling’s excellently named mid-‘60s outfit The IV of IX. Playing high school dances as essentially a Ventures cover band, the group’s activities eventually attracted the interest of Hampton and Phillips, with the former’s eccentricity becoming an infrequent part of the act. When The IV of IX broke up, the trio decided to join forces and brought Glenn’s brother Charlie and friend Mike Rogers, both non-musicians, along for the ride on bass and drums respectively. While Phillips describes the pair as doing a fine job, as the music grew in complexity they were replaced by Holbrook and Fields.

One of the most revelatory aspects of finally getting to hear the Hampton Grease Band was the welcome and long overdue confluence of Strangeness and the late-‘60s/early-‘70s American South. Music to Eat might just be the most outlandish record the region’s ever produced, especially if you exclude Texas from the scenario. Either way, it’s an obvious finalist. So it’s fitting that in the band’s early days they played the Stables Bar & Lounge, a dive unexceptional except for its being run by the late outsider blues musician Abner Jay.

In another occurrence of freak magnetism, on a trip to NYC Charlie, Harold, and Bruce spotted Zappa on the street. After kindred spiritualism was established, ol’ Frank dragged them into the studio to tape their conversation for use on Lumpy Gravy. Much later, post Columbia’s dropping the Grease Band for poor sales and erratic behavior in general, Zappa signed them to Straight/Bizarre, but they broke up before any recordings were made.

In the Holbrook/Fields-period they became a Southern live staple, playing both club gigs and festival stages with acts as diverse as Hendrix, Spirit, NRBQ, Procol Harum, the Dead, Mahavishnu Orchestra, B.B. King, John Mayall, Beefheart, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac. But their two most inspiring shows were an Alabama opening slot where they inevitably alienated 10,000 Three Dog Night fans, and a New Jersey warm up for Alice Cooper that turned the crowd into increasingly hostile pro and anti-Grease Band camps.

Middle ground was, if not impossible, highly rare. Auxiliary members watched television or ate bowls of breakfast cereal on stage, and Hampton’s role as vocalist became increasingly Dada-inflected as well. What’s amazing is how much of their essence made it onto that double LP. In a sense, the Grease Band’s association with Columbia was both a blessing and a curse.

Labels such as Verve (original home of the Mothers and also The Velvet Underground) or Warner Brothers (the parent imprint for Zappa’s Straight/Bizarre, which amongst other oddities issued Trout Mask Replica) would’ve done a far better job of distributing the album and promoting them as a cult act; amongst other Columbia blunders, Music to Eat was often misfiled in the comedy section of record stores.

But by 1971 both Verve and Warners, had either label been so forward-thinking as to actually sign the Grease Band to a contract, would’ve also been savvy enough to strategically lessen the group’s formidable heft, at least  somewhat. I can’t imagine either company would’ve allowed Music to Eat to delightfully mutate into this two LP set.

Columbia on the other hand (the involvement of rampant egotist Clive Davis aside) was still a virtual R&R rookie on the block. Phillips’ notes for the reissue detail that the label was basically clueless in how to manage an act of such extreme attributes. As a result the Hampton Grease Band was able to make exactly the album they wanted to. And (sorta amazingly in retrospect) Columbia pressed it up, but without the proper post-release stewardship the severity of its fate was sealed. Music to Eat’s eventual rise to cult status was a long, slow climb.

So what’s it sound like? To begin, the Zappa and Captain comparisons are quite appropriate, though there are some distinctions to make. To my ear, on a purely musical level they fall substantially closer to the Magic Band, except that the Dali-with-a-head-injury surrealism of Beefheart is replaced with a spirit more purely Dadaist. This is immediately apparent on opener “Halifax.”

As a non-instrumentalist, Hampton’s role was to come up with lyrics, or at least something resembling them. But the often highly twisted structures frequently left him at a loss, and as a result he sometimes resorted to the recitation of preexisting printed material, much of it inherently banal (the label of a can of spray paint, an encyclopedia entry on Halifax, Nova Scotia). The result is surprisingly successful; sometimes jarring, occasionally humorous and reliably complimentary to the music’s deliciously bent ambitions.

But just as unusual was the very sound of Hampton’s voice. Idiosyncratic to say the least, it does however forecast the emergence of another quite distinctive and non-trad vocalist, namely Pere Ubu’s David Thomas. Additionally, the manic intertwining guitars of Phillips and Kelling often come off like clone Jerry Garcias circa Live/Dead, but filtered through the abstraction of prime-Beefheart.

While some explicit musical affinity does exist, the links to Zappa are mainly those of a satirical nature. But where Frank mostly came from a Lenny Bruce-like zone, the Grease Band registers more in the tradition of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python (with a touch of the irreverent spirit of The Firesign Theatre.) This is most obvious on the second track, the relatively concise “Maria,” the closest thing here to an actual yuk-fest.

I’ll now add that the Grease Band loved to stretch out, with three of Music to Eat’s tracks breaking the 19 minute mark. But due to their constant structural shifts, things never get boring, though surely the patience of many will be tested. And Hampton’s personality and tweaked execution might give a false impression, but there is nothing random about these songs, with the team of Holbrook and Fields deserving kudos for keeping up with the rapid fire movement.

In his notes Phillips mentions the influence of the blues, and on “Six” this factor becomes plain, with the opening moments mildly reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. There is also bleating trumpet and skronking sax, and the humor also takes an odd detour into the realms of Rocky & Bullwinkle and maybe even Peter Sellers. But as wild as the following cut “Evans” gets, it also reinforces the significant jazz chops already on display in “Six.” It’s a rather fusion-oid thread that would later manifest itself in Phillips’ solo work.

LP two’s opener “Lawton,” a duo improvisation featuring just Phillips and Fields, begins quite minimally with a slow fade-up and an even higher level of abstraction. And in both succinctness and the employment of a straight-ahead (though very heavy) rock framework, “Hey Old Lady/Bert’s Song” offers the album’s most easily graspable chunk of mania. The 20 minute “Hendon” gets all of side four to its lonesome; the exquisitely advanced and increasingly harried guitar work in its last five minutes are alone worth the price of admission.

A grand example of beautifully haywire humanity creating spectacularly singular art, Music to Eat was simply doomed to commercial failure. It might be in questionable taste to ask for a vinyl reissue of a release that sold so poorly, but Kelling and Espy Geissler’s exceptional front cover art alone almost demands it. And this is just one of the true classics of expansionist, genre-bending rock; increasing the number of people who get to experience its brilliance will only make for a better future.


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