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Obituary of a Band
The Honolulu Mountain Daffodils
With the death in May of singer Lord Sulaco, the Honolulu Mountain Daffodils, one of the least known and most underrated of all cult bands, has now lost three of its key members in the most final fashion. Many of their songs are shadowed by death in some way, but this piece is intended to celebrate the three albums they made and the possibility to reinvent your life that rock music once offered.
The band’s best-known member was the Sound’s Adrian Borland, but in common with the others - Sulaco, Daiquiri J. Wright (Percussion) and Zoe Zettner (keyboards)- he took on a pseudonym, that of Joachim Pimento. You can probably discover the actual names of the others as well if you’re so minded, but for the purposes of this piece I will stick to the names they adopted - the Honolulus don’t exist outside of their records (they never played live), so it’s by these that they should be judged. Sulaco and Wright both lost their lives to alcoholism, while Borland committed suicide in 1999 as a result of mental illness.
They were close friends and drinking partners long before forming the band, and Borland was the only professional musician amongst them. Here I must declare an interest, insofar as I too was among their circle. But I consider their albums to be genuinely exciting and innovative, and I’m sure I’d feel the same if I had never known them at all.
‘Guitars of the Oceanic Undergrowth’ (1987)
The Honolulus walked the line between wild, black humour and seriousness. Their name and those adopted by the four core members immediately raise a smile, but from the first moments of their debut, where distorted guitar chords are swiftly joined by a pounding beat and Sulaco rasping, “Honolulus: let’s go!”, it soon becomes clear that, though they’re laughing, they are not a joke band. his track, ‘Hanging on the Crosses (By the Side of the Road)’, shows both their irreverence and originality: I know of only one song taking the viewpoint of Christians martyred by the Romans and anticipating their return to life (“So we can wreak our just revenge”) : this one. Above all it rocks, being laced with blasting feedback and a vicious solo at the end. The “rules” of punk and post-punk which demanded self-restraint on the part of gifted players are gleefully ignored by Pimento, and this sense of freedom extends throughout the three albums, producing some of his most extravagant and expressive playing.
Next, ‘Wolverine’ starts to more fully realise the Honolulus’ self-image as the kind of American band that might have been found on Lenny Kaye’s classic ‘Nuggets’ compilation. This was developed over the course of the albums, through the conviction of Sulaco’s performances (in which he convincingly assumed various American accents) and the subjects of several of the songs. It’s comparable to the approach of early Bad Seeds, who conjured up the Deep South without ever having been there. Here Sulaco’s raw vocal, edged with lupine lust, evokes ‘L.A. Woman’-period Jim Morrison, as Pimento’s guitar gradually shifts from spare and funky to increasingly unhinged.
‘Electrified Sons of Randy Alvey’ takes this descent into “dark, dark noise” even further. (Randy Alvey and the Green Fuz were a cult 60s garage group, typical of many of the bands remembered on ‘Nuggets’, whose one single was later covered by the Cramps and is sampled here.) Over a remorseless, reverberating beat that makes Moe Tucker sound like Buddy Rich, Sulaco declares a kinship with the Alveys of this world (“Never getting anywhere/We’re always bound to fail”), while Pimento’s squalling feedback might be enough to make even William Reid call for some restraint, as it threatens complete collapse into a rushing wash of noise before getting pulled back by the drums. Not aspiring to stardom, the Honolulus were freed to make music as they wanted. So though their albums barely sold, they and all such Randy Alveys still raise the question of what real success is.
On ‘Guitars of the Oceanic Undergrowth’ itself, Sulaco draws upon his Welsh roots to unleash another of his voices, what he himself liked to regard as his “Richard Burton”. Over thudding drums and swirling cymbals, mournful organ and slowly intensifying guitars, he declaims the tale of someone mutating from a man into a creature truly one with this ocean: “Flesh turned flotsam/Jissom turned jetsam”. He was an enthusiastic reader, and it’s not impossible that this scenario could be what his imagination made of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, where the narrator gradually realises his own profound connection to the mutant marine creatures who populate the town. In a similar spirit, Sulaco exultantly yells, “I’m growing fins!/I’m diving in!”
The variation of moods continues with the relatively straightforward ‘Sinners Club’, which evokes the band’s unholy trinity of sex, booze and rock and roll, to be immediately followed by the superbly atmospheric ‘Black Car Drives South’. In the latter, sinister bass and organ notes, delicate guitar, swirling strings and surges of white noise are all employed to conjure up the mysterious car (a hearse? Death itself?) as it moves onwards both at night and “through a heat it never feels”. The effect is chilling even as the final image suggested is of unrelenting sun.
This picture is carried over to Spain and the story of the ironically-named bullfighter ‘El Muerto’ who himself is killed, told over a pseudo-Spanish backing of acoustic guitar, castanets and trumpet (based,I believe, on a Miles Davis sample).
The album ends with a version of Pere Ubu’s ‘Final Solution’, the choice of cover further proof of the band’s non-mainstream inclinations, eight songs of amazing variety and yet somehow forming a coherent whole.
‘Tequila Dementia' (1988)
With each successive record the Honolulus broadened their range and adventurousness.
Enthusiastically adopting the relatively new practice of sampling, their combined influences, drawn from a very different background to that of rappers and dance DJs, inevitably produced a very different music. On the sleeve of ‘Tequila Dementia’ they explicitly acknowledge “Neu, Eno, Blue Oyster Cult, V.U. Mk 1”, but what they ended up with was far more than the sum of their influences.
The crazed humour certainly continues. Vinyl had yet to be overtaken by the CD format: taking advantage of this, every track (including the start and run-off grooves) was topped and tailed by a blast of white noise, the idea being that in the unlikely event of radio play the hapless DJ would be unable to avoid inflicting it on their audience.
As with the music, the production also took a leap in quality. Opener ‘Disturbo Charger’,
with its immense drums and rampaging guitar, kicks like a maddened mule. The no subject too weird lyrical policy is also retained, this song apparently being about some sort of machine by which Sulaco feels obscurely threatened. For reasons that remain equally unclear, he calls upon various associates of the Blue Oyster Cult circle (such as producer/lyricist Sandy Pearlman) for help in resisting it.
‘(I Feel Like a) Francis Bacon Painting’ abruptly changes the mood to a synthesiser-led ballad. As so often with the Honolulus, what from one angle is blackly hilarious (“The Pope is screaming ‘cause he knows that he can/For a peanut-butter sandwich in the Vatican”) may also, because of the accomplished singing and playing, be taken straight (“I’m tired of life/I’m tired of waiting/I feel like A Francis Bacon painting”).
And then there comes ‘Collector of Souls’, a truly moving song about the inevitability of death: “Don’t matter what you’ve done/Don’t matter where you go/You’ll have to share that drink/With the collector of souls.” (Characteristically, the encounter with Death is envisaged as meeting over a drink rather than, say, a game of chess.) Beautiful string synthesiser backing, a snare that cracks like a gunshot and Sulaco at his most sombre makes this feel like a lost Scott Walker classic.
‘Also Sprächt Scott Thurston’, the band’s one instrumental, begins as a limpid piano melody that melts into purring synth, then gradually evolves into a motorik rhythm topped by driving guitar and wailing harmonica, one of the clearest examples of how the Honolulus take an influence (in this case Neu!) and twist it into the shape they desire. Nietzsche meets Iggy Pop as Sulaco intones the first half of the title, spliced with Iggy announcing his ex-keyboard player.
‘Death Bed Bimbo’ is more black humour. Written in a time when AIDS panic was at its height, the Honolulus’ idea of responsibility is not for the infected to forgo sex but to enjoy it with each other. As with other of their songs, while it might be questioned whether these are matters for levity, the music remains hard to resist: Pimento’s main guitar figure sheds a light, shimmering tone over a compulsive stop-start rhythm, and his climactic solo is a controlled explosion.
Each album has a song poking fun at religion, and here it’s ‘Menace in the Font’, a scenario probably born of the band’s love of horror films where Sulaco, after whispered verses from Revelations, intones the dreadful tale of the Beast’s christening. A spooky keyboard theme, menacing tick-tock effect and touches of fuzz guitar build the suspense until, in the midst of yet another burst of white noise, Wright growls, “Do you hear us Dave the Hippy? Do you hear us, man?” (Dave the Hippy was someone who the band had somehow discovered was a big fan of ‘Guitars of the Oceanic Undergrowth’. One can only imagine how pleased he must have been to receive this unexpected recorded tribute.)
‘Tequila Dementia’ itself naturally concludes an album where Jose Cuervo is amongst the dedicatees. It’s an increasingly raucous party over ten guitar-blasted minutes which seem half that. Sulaco meets the challenge to come up with increasingly imaginative rhymes for the word ‘dementia’ (“I’ve been off on a Spanish adventure/Smuggling drugs in every denture/Hey there, hombre, just back from Valencia/With a terminal case of Tequila Dementia”). Meanwhile the Velvet Underground contribute organ samples (from ‘Sister Ray’) and underlie the lines “I’ve been to all tomorrow’s parties/Popping mescaline like Smarties.” This bare description should give the uninitiated at least some hint that this is neither an average track nor an average band.
‘Aloha Sayonara’ (1991)
According to a rare interview from 1988, the Honolulus already had a clear vision of producing three albums and then stopping. Yet with the abundance of ideas on their first two, it’s perhaps not surprising that they took three years to come up with the culmination of the trilogy, still less so as the sixteen songs on ‘Aloha Sayonara’ amount to a double-album. Given the quantity of material, I’ll pick out the highlights here, the first of which is ‘Electronic Alcoholic’. Many have speculated about the possibility of robots becoming more and more human; spoofing Kraftwerk (a group Pimento in fact loved), Sulaco’s treated vocals tell of one succumbing to android alcoholism, the synth line and his voice stuttering and stumbling ever more drunkenly towards the song’s conclusion.
Changes of mood are perhaps even more abrupt than on the previous albums, for this is followed by ‘Drug Dog Girl’, a ballad the equal of ‘Collector of Souls’. Nothing is explicitly stated, yet the tender voice and the physical details in the lyrics (“She’s laughing at the day/Eyes have closed to it all/There’s a number by her phone/It’s a number she’s gotta call”) suggest deep sadness and desolation. Pimento’s soaring guitar, its tone almost Fripp like in its purity, is a superb complement.
‘Stigmata Non-Starter’ knowingly lifts the rhythm of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ as Sulaco tells of his ambition to rise from being a “poor Italian boy” to a famous, miracle-working Pope. Once again Pimento’s guitar work, full of spikey urgency, is outstanding.
A journalist once described LCD Soundsystem as a cross between the Stooges and Kraftwerk. Not only did this comment suggest but a passing acquaintance with those bands, it certainly confirmed his ignorance of ‘Psychic Hit-list Victim No. 8’. This staggering track, awash with phasing and Sulaco’s vocodered, vengeful voice, powers along on a relentless bass-drum before unleashing an extra level of power on the chorus as the snare slams in, cut across by slashes of fuzz guitar.
‘Aloha Sayonara’ features some of the band’s most frenzied rockers (though this is not to forget the electronic, psychedelic,blues and folk influences it also crams in). At the same time their love of the obscure is not neglected: both qualities meet in ‘Chien d’Enfer’, a tribute to probably the greatest French rock band of all time, Metal Urbain, (whose ‘Paris Maquis’ was the first release on Rough Trade). All the Urbain elements (energetic drum machine, wild guitar, stentorian vocals) are parodied, but with an affectionate understanding.
The title track itself is yet another example of the Honolulus’ skewed take on the world. Who else would write a song about Pearl Harbour, let alone from the point of view of a Japanese pilot? Maybe on some level it’s a rejoinder to Pere Ubu’s ‘30 Seconds Over Tokyo’ - whatever the case, it provides the opportunity for some pointed dark wit, such as
“We can’t compromise/So we’ll meet you at Midway” and “There’s a world on fire/Ignited nations”. Despite the arguments over taste the song might provoke, the music once again carries all before it, driven along by dynamic drums, ringing guitar and Sulaco’s voice at a forbidding register approaching that of Johnny Cash. The tension is allowed to simmer briefly before, with a yell of “Tora! Tora! Tora!”,the song climaxes as a thrilling keyboard rises over a murk of chugging guitar and explosions.
Keen to acknowledge their heroes, the track ‘Kramer Versus Williamson’ pulls off the trick of being great rock which is also hilarious. Taking literally the Sixties’ ‘Battle of the Bands’ concept, samples of the MC5’s Wayne Kramer and the Stooges’ James Williamson at their most abandoned are set over a thudding drum machine and counterpoised by the urbane tones of BBC boxing commentator Harry Carpenter, who regales the listener with comments like, “This arena is seething”. Let’s not forget sampled ‘referee’ Patti Smith, who from time to time interjects “Break it up!” If the Honolulus had never done anything else, this would have justified their existence.
But that existence was coming to an end. Heard from beginning to end, ‘Aloha Sayonara’ is a draining experience, even if some of the weariness comes from laughing so hard. As if in well-earned retirement, valedictory song ‘Free Men of Mauna Loa’ depicts an idyllic life (“We are the low/That’s living high”), over bongos, gentle acoustic guitar, and delicate pipe-like synth. It ends with a succession of sampled singers (among them John Lydon and Iggy Pop) taking their leave, before Sulaco aptly completes the cycle with a final, “Honolulus - let’s go”.
“Getting drunk… you’re in complete control up to a point. It’s your choice, every time you take a sip. You have a lot of small choices. It’s like… I guess it’s the difference between suicide and slow capitulation.” - Jim Morrison
“I knew something was wrong. But this. You are really in bad shape, Ig.”
- John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole’s great tragi-comic novel was a favourite of Sulaco’s. But whereas its hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, seems by the book’s end to be making his escape from threatening circumstances, sadly neither Toole himself (a suicide) nor Sulaco were able to do the same.
As his family and friends entered the crematorium chapel, they were greeted by ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, that Velvet Underground song which so ruefully sings of a life of pleasure. Who can say when the point comes for those who at first drink to relax, to release their sense of humour and their best side, and they find it has turned into a crutch? And then in time reliance on the crutch leaves them crippled altogether.
But this is not the place for psychology, or even moralising. On the day, various people affirmed that Sulaco enjoyed his life, prematurely ended as it was by his illness. The albums still exist to give him, Pimento and Wright at least a form of immortality. They let those of us fortunate enough to have them hear these men again at their exciting, funny and affecting best. It’s time that they were made available again for all to hear.
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The Honolulu Mountain Daffodils were a little known cult band, which included in their line-up the Sound's front man Adrian Borland who took on the pseudonym of Joachim Pimento for it. With the death in May of singer Lord Sulaco, Adrian Janes pays testimony to a lost group and their three albums
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