I think it was Brian [Elliot] who said ‘You know, Elvis [was] shaking his hips with his acoustic guitar and people were freaking out. Ten year’s [sic] later there’s Hendrix spraying his guitar with lighter fluid and setting it on fire – what the hell is gonna happen in thirty years?
Salvador Salgado, Orgasm liner notes, 2009
Formed: 1969, Connecticut/New York, USA
Featured album: Orgasm/Cave Rock (1969)
CROMAGNON’S MUSIC MIGHT be as primitive as the band’s name suggests: an elemental stew of grunts, screams and people hitting things, with about as much structure as an amoeba. But these hedonistic barbarians were among the first to chart rock’s outer limits, mapping terrain that is still being explored to this day.
Cromagnon was the brainchild of two budding Svengalis: guitarist Bob ‘Austin’ Grasmere and producer Brian Elliot, an ardent admirer of Phil Spector who had some far-out ideas of his own. A year earlier, Elliot was working as producer for an R&B group called The Boss Blues whose members included Grasmere, singer Mark Payuk, bassist Peter Bennett, guitarist Vinnie Howley, and drummer Salvador Salgado. The Boss Blues had scored a few regional hits and regularly sold out shows in and around the New England area. But after Buddha Records fired Elliot and tried to turn the Boss Blues into a bubblegum group, they fled to New York City, ready to try out some of the producer’s more radical ideas. According to Salgado, these included ‘…a bunch of people chanting, pounding sticks, and maybe somebody squirting water from a garden hose at a microphone on stage and walking up until he’s just nailing it’. It was wacky ideas like these that impressed Bernard Stollman and got Cromagnon signed to his ESP-Disk label, home to The Fugs, The Godz, and Pearls Before Swine.
Set loose in ESP’s A-1 Sound studio in Manhattan for three months and with the help of house engineer Onno Schultze, Cromagnon aimed to take music back to its origins: ‘The birth of sound. The birth of man…. The fetus being formed in the womb’, as Salgado put it. A communal vibe was created in the studio, traditional band roles giving way to a more free and open approach, with a cut-and-paste attitude towards composition that was almost unheard of for a rock group. In a move similar to that made by Red Krayola on The Parable of Arable Land, released two years prior, The Boss Blues and other musician friends Gary Leslie, Louis Mazza and Jimmy Bennett chanted, muttered, wheezed, yelled, cackled and occasionally sang their way through proceedings as well as providing more traditional instrumental touches. Random strangers were invited to bang on pots, pans, broom handles and bits of plywood. A door-to-door vacuum salesman was even roped in to play his ‘Elecro-Luxe’. Elliot cut and pasted it all together with found sounds, tracking and double tracking to create a wall of sound more disturbing than an evening at Phil Spector’s house.
Elliot had grand plans to match Cromagnon’s far-out music with a stage show that would begin with the band blasting through a giant pulsating womb with a flamethrower after having subjected the audience to thirty minutes of white noise. But it wasn’t to be. ESP-Disk folded shortly after Orgasm’s original release and the album sank without a trace. After Elliot died in a car crash in the seventies, Grasmere reissued Orgasm as Cave Rock in the eighties on the German label ZYX, botching the mastering of the album’s second side and cutting the other members out of the picture by billing them only as ‘The Connecticut Tribe’. For a long time, the identities of the Tribe were shrouded in mystery – they were even rumoured to be members of The Residents at one point. But after Grasmere died of heart failure in 2008, Orgasm was reissued on the Jackpot label in 2010, and those responsible for Cromagnon’s singular racket have been rightly identified.
They may not have left much material behind – only one full-length album – but Cromagnon’s legacy looms large. Their chaotic sound-collages anticipated everything from Faust to the Boredoms while their unconventional percussion ideas were a precursor to the junkyard rhythms of Einstürzende Neubauten and Tom Waits. There’s even something of the faux-ethnomusicology of the Sun City Girls and Animal Collective‘s back-to-nature zaniness in the band’s sound. But Orgasm/Cave Rock has perhaps had the biggest impact on industrial music and at the more extreme end of noise, the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Nurse with Wound, Whitehouse, and Merzbow all testifying to their love of Cromagnon. You can’t get much further from bubblegum than that.
Boss Blues, “Could It Be True” single from 1968
Orgasm full album (1969)
“Caledonia” cover by Ghost from In Stormy Nights (2007)