[Friday Playlist] An Ode to Touch and Go Records

text by Adam Lehrer

Not sure if all of our readers read the UK-based music site, The Quietus, but if you have any passing interest in music then you have to head to their URL immediately. It is one of the last music publications around that will review the new Zayn Malik album amidst articles about artists populating the deepest depths of the underground: abstract electronic music, noise, minimal synth, whatever. This week they have dedicated a slew of articles to noise rock; that hard to define punk sun-genre that makes use of dissonance, noise, atonal skrees, occasional odd time signatures, and a sometimes aggressive, if often arty, approach to a standard rock n’ roll sound. Naturally, I’ve been listening to a lot of Melt Banana, Pussy Galore, Lightning Bolt, and the many and sonically far-ranging bands that fall under the noise rock umbrella.

One such article discusses the year 1986, a formative year for rock n’ roll experimentation: psychedelic drone rock bands like Spacemen 3, metallic hardcore bands like Cro-Mags, grindcore like Napalm Death, arty post-punk bands like The Membranes, and Black Metal bands like Mayhem all released records that year. There was also a lot of early noise rock happening, with Sonic Youth and Swans both releasing swan songs. A lot of this noise rock happened to be released by iconic underground rock label, Touch & Go. Naturally, I found it was time we celebrate this brilliant label.

The title Touch & Go was originally applied to an East Lansing, Michigan punk zine written by Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson (of which you can read every issue and great memorial essays in a book, it’s rad). By 1981, Vee teamed up with Corey Rusk, singer of hardcore band The Necros (no tracks available on Spotify) Touch & Go was a label. From the get, the label was releasing hardcore that leaned towards the extreme, with the two label founders bored with early ‘80s punk. These early releases included records by The Necros, The Fix, Negative Approach, and Vee’s band The Meatmen.

But let’s face it, past 1982 hardcore got boring. It became more about macho posturing than leftist politics and extreme self-expressions of discontent. So, punk rock got weird. Touch & Go linked up with the man probably more linked to the sound that noise rock would encompass than any other: Steve Albini. Albini’s first band, Big Black, released all its albums via the label. Eschewing drums for a Roland drum machine, Albini utilized the crushing rhythms of industrial to create a rock sound that was as jarring as its lyrics were offensive. Albini’s next band, the infamously named Rapeman (after a Japanese Manga comic of the same name) also found its single record released on the label.

While Albini defined the Chicago noise rock sound, a punk band from San Antonio was dropping acid, embracing the psychedelic rock of the ’60s and early ‘70s, and making a glorious noise racket with a performance art approach to live shows. They were The Butthole Surfers. On all their releases for Touch & Go in the ‘80s, the band made a point to show that art, traditional rock n’ roll, punk ethos, noise, and copious drugs could co-exist in one collective.

Touch & Go wouldn’t subsist in relevance one bit for 15 years. Die Kreuzen approached hardcore with a contrarian nature, applying angular rhythm and far out riffs to the thud and band three-chord structure. The Laughing Hyenas leaned towards garage, but did it with the loudest possible volumes and most dissonance imaginable. And finally, David Yow was unleashed upon the universe. Influenced by Nick Cave and Iggy, Yow’s guttural moon howl, free-form poetic lyrics, and sweaty visceral live performances would come to define what a noise rock vocalist should be (and influenced Kurt Cobain). Touch & Go knew it before anyone else did, releasing all the massively influential records of Yow’s first and second bands: Scratch Acid and later The Jesus Lizard.

Touch & Go was part of a few more key moments in noisy rock, especially math rock (or post-rock)(worst genre names ever). These bands approached rock n’ roll with a composed albeit sprawling and progressive sound. The defining band and record was of course Louisville band Slint’s Spiderland, that Touch & Go put out in 1991. Still thought of as one of the great rock records of the ‘90s, Slint was as influential to arty music school types starting rock bands as The Ramones was to zitty downtown kids. The album holds up too, I still find myself giving it a few spins a year. Polvo, from Chapel Hill, NC, walked the lines between noise rock and the shifting time signatures of math rock better than any band around, and their Touch & Go release Today’s Active Lifestyles was a formative album for me. Don Caballero eschewed vocals and expressed through colliding riffs and near incomprehensible rhythms. Touch & Go signed them, too.

It’s arguable that Touch & Go is the most important label in the history of rock n’ roll. Why?Perhaps unlike other labels, it evolved with time. Rusk and Stinson remained open to new sounds throughout their careers. With Dischord, you think of hardcore and emotional post-hardcore. With SST, you tend to think Black Flag (despite the fact that they released Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Saccharine Trust, and all sorts of weird bands). But with Touch & Go, you merely think of interesting, creative, and kicking rock bands.