Zombie Teens On A Frantic Timewarp
by Patrick The Lama
|When the Stomachmouths and the Crimson Shadows began
playing vintage American teen music in Stockholm 1984, they had no European
predecessors. There had been a few new wave-era bands in Britain and Sweden who
covered a Nuggets tune or two, but for those bands it was always part of
something else. None of them had gone the whole nine yards and stripped away all
alien elements from 1960s punk, like Stomach and Crimson would.
After having experienced the original craziness first-hand, I'm delighted to present the full story of this great rock'n'roll band for the first time on the Net.
The 1980s garage scene was created and has to be understood as a complete immersion in American pop culture from the 1950s and pre-hippie 1960s. It wasn't about heavy fuzz guitars or tattoos, it wasn't about wearing leopard skin pants and proclaiming a "revolution". Everything like that just had to go. It wasn't a retro scene either, because nothing like this had ever existed in Scandinavia, where the teenage scenes had always been ruled by English fads, from Tommy Steele in 1961 to "Quadrophenia" in 1979. As anyone who was around will remember, walking down the street in 1985 wearing a bowl haircut and a Chocolate Watchband outfit (striped or checkered pants, paisley shirt or black polo, mod-style jacket, Chelsea boots, a 5-inch belt with a big buckle) would cause people's heads to turn just like they must have in San José back in 1966. Not even the local mods understood the angle the garage guys were coming from.
In this pure garage scene the
Stomachmouths were undoubtedly kings. They were the best live band, they had
been around the longest, they had the most developed sense for the right moves
and attitude. A lot of this came from band leader and vocalist Stefan Kery,
whose knowledge of the bizarre underbelly of American entertainment was
encyclopedic even at this early stage. Additional input was received from the
band's early mentor Gunnar Johansson, who as a fanzine and record dealer knew
people in New York that would play a vital part in forming the frame of
reference for the Stockholm bands - Tim Warren of Crypt/"Back From The
Grave", Billy Miller of Kicks magazine, Mike Weldon of
"Psychotronic" movies fame.
Playing US-style garage was an idea that appeared in what was essentially a vacuum. Rock'n'roll was at an all-time low, and whatever promise 1977 punk had held sank into oblivion as corporate blockbuster rock looked more powerful than ever. In Sweden the early 1980s scene was particularly pathetic as the punk "movement" there had failed in even its most basic mission, which was to kill off the progressive era and its bad music and ideas. The leftwing prog scene in Sweden was so vast and all encompassing that it swallowed the entire punk scene, spiky hairdos and all, and turned it into a politically correct, locally subsidized pseudo-rebellion joke. After this failure there was nothing, a few new-romantics, and the same old dreary singer/songwriters. This background is vital to comprehend the Stockholm garage bands' complete rejection of whatever was going on at the time, and their unconditional love for an obscure culture from a different time and place.
The first line-up of the Stomachmouths was born in 1984 and lasted about a year. The band consisted of Stefan Kery (vocals/guitar), Lars Kjellén (guitar), Pär Stavborg (bass) and Martin Skeppholm (drums). The four came from unglamorous suburbs in the northern part of the Stockholm region and all except drummer Skeppholm had played together in a pre-Stomach outfit called Råger Mår (a k a "Roger Moore"). Material from the 1960s had already worked its way into the Råger Mår live set, such as a Seeds cover and "My eyes have seen you" by the Doors. Apart from the direct influence from original 60s garage punk Stefan Kery recalls getting impulses from early NYC neo-garage bands the Outta Place and the Raunch Hands, who both had releases out in 1983-84. The Stomachmouths members were also fond of vintage California surf music as represented by Dick Dale, the Tornadoes etc, and a few such numbers were made part of the Stomachmouths repertoire. Incidentally, the band's bizarre and memorable name was derived from 1969 cult novel "Confederacy of dunces" by John Kennedy O'Toole, where the main character often refers to his intestinal "valve", the corresponding Swedish word for which is "magmun", which literally means "stomach mouth". Bass player Pär Stavborg has been credited with picking the name, although all four were fans of O'Toole's novel.
Only 500 copies were pressed of the first run (which shows a band photo on the front sleeve), but it seems these ended up in just the right hands, as the international buzz that quickly arose around the Stomachmouths seemed out of proportion for a band with just one release and no tours under their belt. In short, the 45 was an indie hit everywhere… except in Stockholm, where the music scene was in the hands of old proggies, new romantics, and Springsteen fans. This didn't matter much as word got around locally anyway, and it seemed that for every Stomach or Crimson gig there were several new moptop arrivals in the audience.
Musically the band was top-notch, with no loose ends or weak links. In retrospect it seems that the key engine for their musical prowess was the high-energy interplay between Stefan Kery and drummer Martin Skeppholm, but at the time it was just a great, great rock'n'roll band playing freaky originals mixed with cool covers that few people had heard of. I think they're alone to this day in covering "The Cat Came Back", an old nursery rhyme given a stupid, fratty reworking by a forgotten 1960s Minnesota band called the Stingrays. A somewhat more well known and unfailingly popular cover was the Kingsmen's "That's Cool That's Trash", although I think Stomach patterned their version on the even drunker interpretation by the Street Cleaners. Stefan sang each verse in his inimitable nasal punk whine, before Pär the bass player leaned over to the microphone to deliver the "That's trash!" line in a deep baritone. The audience loved it. I also remember being impressed with the surf numbers, and instrumental surf music was indeed a path that guitarist Lars Kjellén would explore further in coming years.
In terms of sheer excitement, 1985 was the big year for the Stockholm garage scene. There would be greater commercial success in 1986-87, but the classic local gigs and the peak of the local buzz - where you drank, ate and talked 60s garage 24 speed-fuelled hours a day - happened during that first year. Few would challenge the notion that the Stomachmouths spearheaded this scene, not just because of the credibility their overseas reputation gave them, but because they took it so seriously, like a mission. There were no sloppy gigs or ill-conceived covers in there, and if you didn't get it, like the Solna suburb/Amigo label bands (Nomads, Shoutless, etc)… well, that was your problem. It wasn't just about playing 60s teenage punk music, but having a 60s teenage punk attitude. Perhaps the song that best illustrated this was "Born Loser" by Murphy & the Mob, another staple of Stomach's live set, with it's half-spoken mid-section:
Plans for a follow-up to the hugely successful debut 45 were made and record deals were discussed involving various names, but after some tempting offers failed to materialize in time the band hooked up with Got To Hurry, which was a small record store in Stockholm's Old Town. While the GTH guys believed in Stomach, the deal later turned out to be a mixed blessing. But at the time things were looking swell, and Stomach laid down three new tracks for an EP, released in late 1985 - "Cry", "I'm going away", and "Eegah", which was a surf instrumental inspired by the classic Arch Hall Jr turkey movie. The front cover showed the band playing one of the songs in their recently acquired tailor-made suits and ties (which made sense, as this is what most "Back From The Grave" bands actually looked like). Interest in the release was huge but the record label's distribution was casual, something the band didn't discover until later on. Around this same time they also embarked on their first regional tours and fed the rock'n'roll-starved peasants with great success. The garage scene in Sweden was growing rapidly at this point, although few bands would go the extreme lengths that Stomach and Crimson did in terms of both music and look.
The Stomachmouths kept working on their live set, adding new covers with superb taste - I recall great versions of "Hold Me Now" by the Rumors and "Dirty Old Man" by the Electras - as well as newly written originals of which at least one, "Upsetter", never made it onto vinyl. Apart from the near residency at Kaos they played all the big rock clubs in Stockholm at the time such as Tre Backar, Cityhallen, and the legendary Ritz. While the shows were great and met with huge response, it must be acknowledged that the buzz on the garage scene was always at an underground level, and if you opened one of the embarrassing "rock" publications of the day you were unlikely to see anything about it. Individual writers from all the big newspapers liked the garage bands enough to give them a paragraph now and then, but on a local media level there was never a sense of a "wave" or "movement"- if you wanted to know more about the Stomachmouths you had to pick up fanzines from New York, or Canada, or Germany.
The Got To Hurry EP had been out a few months when the band started putting together what was to become their debut album. Most of the LP material had already been recorded before and during the "Eegah" EP sessions, again mainly at the Pharda Studio, but a decision was made to put some additional time and money on the mixing, which was made at an upscale studio in northern Stockholm. There was a certain amount of discussion within the band during the production of the album, which shows in the large number of tracks included. In the meantime, things were changing in the local garage landscape, in the wake of the disbandment of the great Crimson Shadows. Crimson's fallout gave birth to two bands that were integrating elements of British and Dutch r'n'b - the raw, basement kind you'd find on "Pebbles vol 6" and "Transworld Punk" - into the American teen sounds; the Highspeed V and the Wylde Mammoths. The Stomachmouths did acknowledge this expanded vision with a new track called "R'n'b no 65", an obvious nod to Holland's great Q65. Apart from this the "Something Weird" LP, released by Got To Hurry in the Spring 1986, stayed true to the Stomach credo of garage, surf and good clean teenage fun. The artwork wasn't terribly impressive, except for a bunch of cool pics on the inner sleeve, and the number of tracks was perhaps too large, but it still seemed a mighty cool record at the time.
While he could take on all guitar-playing himself - especially as Anna Nystrom's Farfisa organ rounded out the soundscape nicely -- Stomachmouths mainman Stefan Kery still found himself without a bass player and plenty of work lined up. Fortunately, a perfect solution was just around the corner in the form of Jens Lindberg, ex-Crimson Shadows and at the time playing with the Highspeed V. Jens was a good bass-player and of course already knew the Stomachmouths and their repertoire well, and the potential death of the band turned out to be a brief hiatus. It took just a few weeks to bring him up to speed with the lifestyle and musical ideas, and the band also took the opportunity to rework their set-list, bringing in newly-written material and a couple of new covers that again showed an influence from primitive teenage r'n'b, such as the self-explanatory "Ode to rhythm and blues" by obscure Swedish 60s band the Stringtones. With the line-up and material revamped the band was ready for whatever was in store, and indeed the year that followed turned out to be their best in terms of commercial success and attention.
The unholy garage stew that had been brewing in Europe since 1985 reached the boiling point in 1987, when the scene seemingly exploded in big countries such as Germany and Italy. The Stomachmouths who had been around since the beginning found themselves championed as original masters, and a European tour seemed the next logical step - especially as the Stockholm scene was already a year past its peak and offered no new ground to conquer. When an invitation arrived to participate in a pan-European package tour christened "Psychomania" featuring garage bands from all corners of the world, the band needn't think twice about it. The tour happened in the early Spring 1987 and apart from Stomach featured names such as the Vietnam Veterans from France, the Fuzztones from the US, Italy's Sick Rose, and a couple more. By all accounts the tour was a blast, and Stomach's unparalleled stage show, with new member Jens joining Stefan in stagedives and daredevil jumps off speaker stacks (remember: still dressed up like Freddie & the Dreamers!), caused them to get bumped up in the headlining hierarchy after the first few shows. The tour covered much of Central Europe with several gigs in Germany and Italy, and apart from the general fun and mayhem, connections were made that would lead to further European tours soon after.
Looking back on 1987, it seems the band spent most of the time on the road, playing one-off gigs around Sweden when not touring Germany and Italy. While the domestic club gigs were crowded and successful - and I witnessed a number of them - there was a difference of scale between these and the gigs abroad, which often happened at huge venues with a 1000+ capacity and a whole different level of promotion and production. There is a live video from one of the Psychomania shows, apparently made for German TV, and it's a somewhat surreal experience as the production is on the level of a Van Halen show, with 4 cameras doing tracking shots and a $10 000 light show, while Stefan and Stomach were still playing their brand of stupid mid-60s garage punk. Another international tour fondly remembered happened later in 1987, when the band went on an upscale double feature deal with the Creeps to Italy, and were booked in first class hotels and met by assistants and roadies at the airports; a treatment no other Swedish bands could expect at the time - yet back home people hardly knew who the Stomachmouths were! There was also a "Tyrolian" tour covering Germany and Austria, a short trip to Spain to do some gigs, and a tour of Finland where the promoter's surprising "no booze" policy had the band sneaking away for frequent visits to local Alko shops. This bizarre Finlandia tour also included gigs in remote towns near the Russian border, and a visit to a local magic mushroom grower.
Right around the time of the Psychomania tour in early '87 the band was hit with an unexpected surprise from overseas - an unauthorized, never discussed album release from Greg Shaw's famed Voxx label in California. Titled "Wild Trip" this LP outsold all official Stomachmouths releases on the strength of the Voxx name and distribution net, and remains to this day the most well known Stomach record, despite the band not being involved in the production one iota. The album consists of the early demo tapes the band had sent to Shaw in '84, the debut 45, and some sub-standard live material. The artwork was terrible, but apparently it was the right product for the right time. There was a lot of bad blood around this release at the time, but it appears that the band sorted out their differences with Shaw and Voxx later on. In retrospect, the record label shuffling seems unfortunate as the potential of a wholly legit album recorded for Voxx at the band's peak would undoubtedly have established the Stomachmouths on a significant level across the garage world.
Inbetween European tours the band found time to record a new 6-song mini-LP for Got To Hurry. Seeking to recreate the vibe and sound of their 1984 demo tape, the band returned to the studio where those first tracks had been recorded. As always, all songs were nailed in just a few takes, after which a couple of days were spent mixing. The end result shows a minor change in the band's sound, with influences from the British/Dutch r'n'b scene showing up in a few songs as well as in Stefan Kery's vocals, which had been moderated from his trademark nasal teen-punk whine into a more soulful, Phil May/Wally Tax type expression. This slightly anglified sound brought the band praise from fans of mainstream 60s music, but in retrospect I think it's fair to say they always sounded the best and seemed most at home within the realms of American teen culture, which still dominated their repertoire. After some back and forths "In Orbit" was selected as the title, while the sleeve was designed to resemble obscure US garage albums such as the Half Tribe or Ha'Pennys, a fact that went over the head of most record buyers. I remember visiting Plastic Passion in London just as the mini-LP had come out and getting involved in a discussion with shop manager Bill Allerton on its merits relative to "Something Weird". The Plastic Passion guys told me I should have brought some copies with me as there was huge demand but little supply, another indication that distribution wasn't optimal.
Despite the recognition and the exciting tours, the energy was slowly fizzling out of the Stomachmouths. In late 1987 they were one of the few original Stockholm bands still standing, and apart from the American success of their colleagues the Wylde Mammoths, the second wave never reached the same heights. Stomach kept the fire burning with a new promo kit full of groovy pics and clippings, and also became subject for an entertaining film project which showed the band being transformed into zombies and having martial arts fights to the tones of original jam music. Another important development at the time was the emergence of a new psychedelic scene, which was an effect of several of the booze & speed-oriented garage guys discovering the wonders of LSD-25. Beneath the surface a local metamorphosis was taking place, with things becoming increasingly lysergic and to a certain extent more intellectual. This would lead to another underground boom which began in 1989 and lasted for several years, centered around Stefan Kery's Xotic Mind record label, but that's a whole other story for another time…
Noone seems to remember exactly when or why the band broke up, but in the changing landscape of the Stockholm underground the Stomachmouths name was peacefully put to rest, after some 40 months of hard, dedicated service. "In Orbit" turned out to be their last release, and the last gig was in the Fall 1987 at the Grosse Freiheit club in Hamburg. While Stefan and friends returned for a couple of superb garage one-offs with the Mongrels and the Tonebenders, the great Stomachmouths were no more. Behind them they left memories of tremendous shows - in fact I never saw them do a bad gig - and a legacy of timeless teen rock'n'roll recordings.
full version of this article & a detailed discography can be found as liner notes to the STOMACHMOUTHS
retrospective "Born Losers" CD, 2004; currently available from Subliminal
For even more on the Stockholm 1980s garage scene, the Stomachmouths & the
Crimson Shadows, see Confessions Of A Teenage Moptop
The Lama Workshop