Above: Nation of Ulysses featured in K News #16, 1990
Memphis - - - nothing ever happens there, but it's happening all the time. Wide streets canopy trees blues singer playing at the laundromat. Everybody knows somebody who did something. And they're still doing it. Not a sleepy southern town, Memphis - - - Teeming. Crawling. Bubbling under. Dunt forget about blues, country, jazz, soul, gospel both black and white. The Mississippi River looms large over Memphis, though it's easy to forget it is rolling by less than a mile away. It may not be the town it once was, but what city in America is?
Nation of Ulysses (Tim Green, Steve Kroner, James Canty, Steve Gamboa, Ian Svenonius), the Sound of Young America, bathed in the golden glow emanating from the back of large amplifiers strewn through the basements of D.C. (they're from Washington!) Nation of Ulysses pounded a combination sword and plowshare at shows in churches and vegan restaurants. Hailed as the soundtrack to revolution, living a love supreme.
Bikini Kill (Kathi Wilcox, Tobi Vail, Billy Karren, Kathleen Hanna), fierce progenitors of poli-sci punk with a feminist thrust. Aided in their crafting of solid anthems by ears finely tuned to the pop music of assorted eras, including their own. People always dance to Bikini Kill (they're from Olympia!). Gleeful shouting ensues. Anarchy in the patriarchy. Loud music. Good beat.
These two visionary artists shared many positive attributes, not the least of which was an appreciation for the music of The Wipers and Melvins. In an era when the oversized, shapeless fashion and long, non-descript hair of grunge were seeping across the globe, Nation of Ulysses and Bikini Kill stood out for even daring to possess a sense of style. Both Nation of Ulysses and Bikini Kill were rock'n'rollers in the trenches with a zest for revolutionary politics. Both combos were literature based groups, revivalists of the social movement in musical culture with written manifestos they distributed to their audiences at events. says Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail, "We wouldn't have been the same without Nation of Ulysses. They were the same generation as us, teenagers during the hardcore '80s who grew older to invent our own kind of punk, move punk forward using style and music to present politically radical ideas." Ian Svenonius of Nation of Ulysses sees Bikini Kill as a role model: "It was instructive to go on tour with them, see the way they communicated with their audience. I was still into hardcore screaming with my eyes shut. Bikini Kill were very exciting at that time, so stripped down, PUNK. We were on a mission together."
Also dunt forget the loud music.
Primal Scream (fomented by singer Bobby Gillespie with assorted musician-appendages) first splashed down with the seemingly innocuous 45rpm phonograph record "It Happens" / "All Fall Down" (Creation), a 1985 debut that is as close as anyone has gotten to the perfect pop single - - - spangled guitar jangle vibration and reverberating, yearning yodel, free and clear through endless summer nights. Once you start there, it's a problem. Where to go? What to do? They had already out-Big Star-ed Big Star. They attempted a move toward "rock" but the playfulness drained out. They experimented with dance/electro/hip-hop sounds with some success. But what about rock'n'roll? Like so many artists from the United Kingdom before them (they're from Glasgow!) Primal Scream were in love with the sound and attitudes of American soul, R&B - - - No wonder Primal Scream ended up in Memphis in 1991. Visionary artists in search of a vision.
At the same time Bikini Kill were moving their base of operation from the Pacific Northwest to Washington, D.C. After a couple farewell shows Halloween night and All Saint's Day they hopped in their van to move east through mountains of snow, meeting Nation of Ulysses in Northampton, MA. After a whirlwind tour around the East Coast they dropped off their belongings in D.C. and continued with Nation of Ulysses through the Midwest and southern states.
Nation of Ulysses had a debut album available on Dischord, Bikini Kill a self-released cassette tape, and no one was attending these shows. They arrived in Memphis with several days off. "Nobody knew who we were and we had no records out" recalls Tobi. "The tour wasn't going very well, ten people in two vans, we were running out of money." Piggly Wiggly was helpful, somebody shoplifted a loaf of bread and some peanut butter. There was talk about one band maybe having to drop out of the tour. Bikini Kill singer Kathleen was not going to let that happen. She was determined to make this Memphis show count. They went to a copy shop and made flyers for the show and distributed them wherever they could, hitting up every record shop in town.
At Shangri-La Records Kathleen went in to handout flyers while Tobi and BK guitarist Billy put up some posters around the neighborhood. Unbeknownst to her, one of the people Kathleen gave a flyer to at Shangri-La was a member of the Primal Scream entourage. The band was in Memphis to record their new album for Creation Records at Ardent Studios, the same place Big Star had recorded their finest moments. This was the thing. Soulful, powerful pop.
Ian Svenonius met two local punk women at Shangri-La and invited them to the show that evening at the Antenna Club. Things were looking up.
But then, rock'n'roll is a cruel mistress. As Ian recalls, "No one was at the show except the two women." All of a sudden this mob of eight or nine people piled through the door. James Canty distinctly remembers them as "alien-like creatures skulking in the back in full black leather. Rail thin. Cool mod haircuts." It was Primal Scream plus, making the scene. Far out. Tobi Vail was in the Bikini Kill van and Billy came running out and said "Where's that Jesus and Mary Chain tape?" - - - after examing the cover he said "Yep. Bobby Gillespie and Douglas Hart from Jesus and Mary Chain are at the show right now."
Nation of Ulysses, K News #17
Turns out, Primal Scream types loved the show "This is great you're like Birthday Party meets Miles Davis!" An epic entourage-to-entourage hang was brewing. James again: "We connected in all these ways and made plans with Bobby to see him later. I've this vivid image of Ian Svenonius and Bobby Gillespie laying on this bed talking the whole history of rock'n'roll and youth culture. It was spectacular."
It was decided the tour gang would visit Primal Scream at Ardent Studios the next day. James Canty was in awe of the place. "I'd been listening to Big Star for years. They had the original Hammond B3 Booker T. had used to record 'Green Onions', it was too much." Tim Green was also impressed with the set-up: "We secretly pulled a hair off the mesh screen covering the speaker [of the B3] and taped it to the inside of Steve's bass." Ian Svenonius: "We went to Ardent Studios and it was so fun. Bobby played a bunch of his new songs on acoustic guitar for us."
Primal Scream had the run of the place for several weeks, recording the follow-up to their highly successful Screamadelica album for Creation Records, who were footing the bill. The idea was floated for Nation of Ulysses to record right then and there at Ardent. James recalls the attitude appeared to be "this is just a big boondoggle fro our label, they'll never know if you are playing or we are playing', though Tobi Vail remembers it slightly different: "Alan McGee (Creation label founder) was there, sitting on the couch the whole time. He was like, 'Hi, I'm Alan McGee.'"
Nation of Ulysses set it up to turn it out. Tim Green has the clearest memory of the actual recording process: " It was a very fancy looking studio (no disrespect to Inner Ear), with a wall of giant speakers and a console the size of a car. When i was mixing it with the engineer, Bobby kept comin' up and whispering in my ear, 'turn up the guitar'.' I was only too happy to do that. The session went late into the night and one engineer who passed out was replaced by another, while another Primal Scream player arrived and promptly passed out on the only couch in the control room."
The members of Nation of Ulysses and Bikini Kill had spent the previous summer dancing to Stax/Volt singles, reading Peter Garalnick's Sweet Soul Music and had just spent the previous 24 hours wandering the deserted streets of Memphis like the main characters in Jim Jarmusch's Last Train to Memphis. Now a batch of new songs had been recorded at a legendary Memphis studio, a wild hair had been plucked from Booker T.'s B3 grill.
What ever happened to these Nation of Ulysses recordings? From Ian's perspective "The tapes were not very good. We didn't know how to record in a fancy, state-of-the-art, 48 track studio." But it makes a good story.
What about the Primal Scream "follow up" record? It was never completed, shelved, forgotten (though some later Ardent Studios recordings from 1993 were packaged for a Record Store Day release in 2018). That's show biz.
It was all not a total loss. Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulysses and Primal Scream remained pals, attending each other's shows over the years, along with the occasional Northern Soul dance night.
But wait - - - what about the determination to not let the tour end in Memphis, putting up the posters, rallying the scene so this epic tour could live on? Tim Green: "Bobby gave us gas money to get to the next show cos we were so broke."
Tenement Kid by Bobby Gillespie is available now from The K Mail Order Dept.