Clogging my brain’s ability to deal with even the most basic of human social requirements is a cloud. Not a dark, bleak, low-lying cloud, but a storage cloud. Y’know… like iCloud, in that it ceases to function at the most crucial of moments. Taking up an 85% chunk of that cloud is music. Of that 85%, thousands of tiny sub-sectors can be carved up into micro-percentages of categories, biases, lists and other unimportant/very important role calls. Taking up a micro-percent of one of those micro-percents is a category of singers that I have entitled Wahlburgers. Essentially, Wahlburgers is a small list, exclusive if you will, of singers with such fucked up voices that they shouldn’t really be singers but are so god damn amazing at singing that of course they should be fucking singers! Bob Dylan, Pat Todd from the Lazy Cowgirls -kind of reminds me of Bender from Futurama– Tom waits… it goes on. This absolutely pointless list -so excruciatingly symbolic of my lack of desire to deal with any form of reality- is called Wahlburgers for one simple reason… Jon Wahl.
Who the hell is Jon Wahl?
If nothing else, Jon Wahl is a fucking superstar at coming up with band names. The Lexington Devils -super cool sounding giving off the garagey vibe of rebellion, gang warfare and stylin’ patches on the back of leather jackets. Blunder Tongue -gives off no vibe. Just a stupidly cool name. Midget Handjob -gives off the vibe of erm… midget handjobs. And Claw Hammer. A solid moniker, real meat and veg type stuff and a hint as to what one might expect from this balls out, slightly unusual band. By the way, Jon Wahl’s voice is so terrible that it’s absolutely incredible!
Claw Hammer, from Long Beach, California, kicked off an inauspicious career in 1986 when five kids from local neighbourhoods bonded over their mutual love for Captain Beefheart -another terrible/incredible voice- and a handful of local punk acts. After self-releasing a few cassettes and an EP, the band signed to boss label Sympathy For the Record Industry. In 1990, Claw Hammer released a self-titled debut LP and an EP entitled ‘Double Pack Whack Attack’, but it wasn’t until the surprise 1991 tribute to Devo’s ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo’ that the band slowly became entrenched in the minds of discerning fans of punk blues and garage rock. Calling their version of the highly influential magnum opus ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Not Devo’ Claw Hammer quickly became known as a fun band but perhaps a bit of a novelty. BUT…
In 1992, Jon Wahl and his league of men released what could perhaps be considered a blueprint for scuzz-garage blues for the following decade to come. ‘Ramwhale’ -released on Sympathy For the Record Industry- displayed a shun of the band’s earlier, chaotic and dare I say, Beefheartesque tuneage, opting for a more conventional yet somehow still totally off the wall approach to balls-to-the-wall punk rock ‘n’ roll. Opening track ‘Naked’ proves just that; immediately following the opening Wahl-wail -a unison of eerie chill and comical mental institution- the blistering intro all sliced guitar and machismo whilst stellar, truly does smack of conventionality. But don’t judge! Because from the moment that crazy Wahlburger opens up his larynx and blurts out the opening blaaahhh… ‘Such a waste, what a shame, how it slipped out from under my feet’ you know that conventionality is the farthest thing from this dude’s mind.
This is the precise reason why I love this album so god damn much. It shifts me to polar opposites, rips me to shreds in two completely different directions.
‘Ramwhale’ could not have slapped me in the face at a better time of my life. I was seventeen and hovering around that intangible borderline of being bored with the usual Sex Pistols/Ramones/Dead Kennedys mantra, and was not so much concerned as to what I wanted out of life but more what I wanted out of music. You skim around, discover the Stooges and MC5, Motorhead and Sabbath, Billy Childish and 60’s ‘Nuggets’, but when you examine closely, despite my ongoing love for all these bands, it’s still just rock ‘n’ roll. My young sponge of a brain required more. That’s where ‘Ramwhale’ comes into play.
Courtesy of the great roast beef eating truck driving Gibson Bros aficionado Bevan at Au-Go-Go records in Melbourne, Australia, my hot little hands possessed what at the time was an unknown entity; ‘Ramwhale’. I remember thinking what a stupid name, but when I arrived home and frisbeed it to the turntable (I didn’t actually do that) I immediately knew the answer. By the end of side one, Claw Hammer and Jon Wahl had already opened up an entire new world for me. A world of experimentation and offbeat rhythm. A world where even the most heinous voice is the most beautiful, even soulful. A world that lends itself to Beefheartian ramblings and a labyrinthine pick-a-path of musical desires just itching to be explored. By the end of side two I was already frantically searching for coins under the couch to scrape up enough money for something else. I remember thinking, is it too soon to give Trout Mask Replica another chance?
The songs on ‘Ramwhale’ aren’t openly twisted. One must concentrate, focus, dig deep within and let it find you. But what they are is this: pure, adrenalised rock ‘n’ roll sweat executed to perfection by five dang talented individuals who understand their craft enough to be able to intertwine elements of Chicago blues, ghosts of bebop jazz and utterly desperate, treading the tight rope between split seconds wailing from the wailmaster himself, Jon Wahl.
Claw Hammer did go on to slightly bigger and better things signing with Brett Gurewitz‘ Epitaph for 1993’s ‘Pablum’ and even teaming up with major label Interscope for 1995’s ‘Thank the Holder Uppers’ and their final LP before splitting, 1997’s ‘Hold Your Tongue (and Say Apples)’. But for me, not too many bands will ever top ‘Ramwhale’ for pure, imaginative simplicity. For that’s all one requires to make great rock ‘n’ roll. A balls out sensibility with a flair for a twist and an imagination that rivals the most inspired mind and the simplest child alike. That is what music is all about.
*Please make sure to dig on ‘Ramwhale’ at least once. You’ll have a wail… Wahl… no… WHALE of a time!