The newly released Artifacts/yclept 2-disc compilation Necroscopix (1970-1981) is a simple documentary survey of a very particular time and place; a sliver of a local culture — made in imitation of, or perhaps as a salute to the work of musicologist, Dick Spottswood, one of our heroes. The best stories can’t be told in this amount of space, but here’s an outline.“…in Richmond, or in any Southern city for that matter, you do see types now and then which depart from the norm. The South is full of eccentric characters; it still fosters individuality. And the most individualistic are of course from the land, from the out of the way places.”
— Henry Miller,
“The Air-Conditioned Nightmare” (1945)
The oddest of us were, to be sure, not from the Big City, but while many here came from places like Boones Mill, Roanoke, Martinsville, Clarksville and Culpeper in Virginia, and Winston-Salem and Greensboro in North Carolina, nearly half came from the D.C. suburbs, all converging on the urban scene around the art school at Virginia Commonwealth University in the late 1960’s.
And, if the South is indeed full of “eccentric characters,” what is art school, if not a universally potent magnet for creative misfits? There isn’t a person on these two discs who ever intended to be what the Japanese call a “salary man,” and though most succeeded in that intention, some inevitably succumbed, while more than a few died resisting in their own way (see the list, please) — and others just disappeared.
Richmond is less than 100 miles from Our Nation’s Capital, which in pre-digital days was still worlds away from the major centers of the Counter Culture on the West Coast and in NYC, and that remove forced us to interpret and synthesize a take on the zeitgeist that was uniquely our own.
From the beginning too, we felt that we differed from other regional scenes because of our abiding interest in and exposure to the world of music outside of Pop: Free Jazz, Musique Concrete, Gamelan and much more.
By the time the earliest Artifacts bands, Titfield Thunderbolt, Big Naptar, Frozen Horizons, Les Ultratones and others, took the stage, the peace and love Sixties were collapsing, the government was still trying to draft us into the Vietnam War and a permanent, and in some cases debilitating, cynicism had infected us all.
So much so, that even at the end of the following decade, Network/R.M. Keller, from his studio in Cairo, still felt a need to disavow the insipid notions of Flower Power by grumbling, “Shit on the Age of Aquarius” (Onoonanism on Disc 1).
In 1970 Stymie the Hermit and Key Ring Torch launched the five-piece Titfield Thunderbolt, a band whose act was fundamentally more conceptual event than rehearsed performance. Their unpredictable stage shows included the use of costumes, sparklers, card games, phoned-in solos, keyboards played with live lobsters, drums pounded with frozen fish, walkie-talkies, stylophones, short wave radios — almost anything that would make a noise. Later that year in a major coup, they were asked to open for Frank Zappa’s Straight label’s hot new band, Alice Cooper; and in 1971 the band held a show in a city park in which they played unseen inside a bamboo thicket.