19 min read

Notes On Leatherface, Baking Potatoes

I'm a butterface but for leather
Notes On Leatherface, Baking Potatoes

This was one of the first editions of Abundant Living. It... could probably do with some editing. But that would require me to reread it, and who knows what waves of shame that would cause. But I'm reposting it because Andrew Laing, the pile-driving and graceful drummer for Leatherface, has passed away. I can't remember if I gave Laing enough credit in this essay. If I didn't, let me do so now. Andrew Laing played drums like he was playing three songs at once; one a power pop-punk song, another a d-beat rager, and another the most dramatic epic crust song you've ever heard. And this was usually all before the chorus. He had bounce, he had verve, and every fill he played set off sparks. He was amazing and he made Leatherface what it was. RIP

Leatherface, for their on-and-off 20+ year existence, were a “cult” band. Which can mean a lot of things, but generously means “about as popular as was warranted as much by circumstance as talent.” I mean, while one can wish that the bands we love had more money, I don’t think most of us would wish the compromise or pathology necessary for mainstream success on artists we actually care about. Despite being briefly buzzed about in England, Leatherface weren’t fated for ‘90s style sellout accusations. Even their Domino signing was because the Fire Records subsidiary label, Roughneck, which put out the three previous albums, had the same owner and anyway it was well before Franz Ferdinand transformed Domino into the (comparative) indie powerhouse they are today. Maybe because they were prematurely emotionally hardcore, or maybe because they put out their masterpiece a few years before Green Day put punks with English accents on the Billboard map, or maybe because they just weren’t that cute, Leatherface never expanded their audience beyond proto-Gainsville rough hewn feelings feelers.

In regards of specific legacy, let’s say Leatherface’s Terrible Bands In Untucked Shirts Born From Their Influence numbers are wildly lower than The Replacements, significantly lower than Jawbreaker, roughly the same as Big Star, and significantly higher than, say, J Church. Because bands influenced by heart-on-sleeve working class bands tend to epitomize good-dudeness and mean the world to their fans, I’m not going to list all the pretty OK bands that took Leatherface’s earnest gruffness, minus the smarts and oddness, and rode it straight to the middle. I’m not going to hurt feelings for free. Suffice to say, if a band plays like H2O and dresses like shit, gots monochromatic tattoos, sing about their exes like their black-banged and boobed Joe Hills under beer hazy moonlight (or literal Pinkertons), and aren’t exclusively Springsteen rippers, Leatherface is at least one of their tour van playlist player gods.

There may not even be an alternate timeline where the Domino Records supported Leatherface min-album The Last was Nevermind huge but there’s probably a few Earth-1,2,or 3s where I at least heard it when it came out in 1994 and spent my remaining twenties using it as a passive aggressive cudgel to be a prick to Dear You fans. On this timeline though, we have Mush. A masterpiece for the hundreds of us who have made personalities out of distrusting the concept.

Does a band of Leatherface’s limited reach warrant 4,000 words? Well, if you’re out of work like I am, then absolutely. If you’re not, feel free to skim or skip altogether. My computer only tells me if you’ve opened the email, not if you gave a shit. But, as Franz Nicolay says in his ode to the band at hand’s singer, Frankie Stubbs’ Tears, “Be of good heart/ Our songs will all be silenced/ So what?/ We’ll go on singing.” So let’s sing about Leatherface! I owe them that much at least.

The world, as Exene Cervenka and John Doe predicted, is a mess. Any kissing done to convey that fact is to be done through cloth fabric covering. Nobody still living is happy and entire populations are exhibiting previously sublimated coppish tendencies or taking to the streets to demand anyone over the age of seventy-five commit Seppuku so said street rage population can go to their local Arby’s hassle free.

Conversely, my baked potato game has never been more on point.

For the months of lockdown, the record I’ve had on heaviest rotation (with The Royal Scam a distant second) is Mush, the 1991 punk rock record by the Sunderland, UK punk rock band Leatherface. I play its twelve tracks (the thirteenth song on the CD/cassette, a cover of The Police’s Message In A Bottle isn’t on the vinyl) of thrashed-out melodic emotionalism when I wake up. I stare at the close up of mushrooms on the cover (members used to sell the psychedelic version of the fungi), eating my morning banana. I play Mush when I get home from volunteering (yes, I’m bragging… though tbc I only volunteer at this particular org because Mark from Supertouch volunteered there in the ‘90s and I am deeply invested in clawing my way into a NYHC narrative) and eat another banana. I play Mush throughout the days I do nothing. I play Mush as I fumble with my phone, fumble with a couple 8 lb weights, fumble with the remote as various muted CNNFOXMSNBC actors make googly-eyes at mass death and/or poverty. And, like I said, I play Mush while I prepare a thousandth variation of “put potato in stove, cover with whatever goop handy, eat in front of TV.”

So Mush serves as an accompaniment to that comfort food staple, the noble potato. And loath as I am to submit to current social mores that insist on evaluating all music for its therapeutic qualities, I admit Mush serves as an emotional comfort in of itself. And, most importantly to my self-regard as someone who avoids sentiment regardless my listening habits, Mush serves as a practical text.

The third song on Side B of Mush is called Baked Potato. The chorus goes “Everybody knows how to cook baked potatoes/Everybody knows but they still tell you.” Even sang in singer Frankie Norman Warsaw Stubbs’ hard-life signifying growl, these are not lyrics that felt terribly punk to a sixteen-year old Zack who bought the cassette of Mush at the Berkshire Mall in 1992, when the album was (according to AllMusic) re released on Atlantic Records subsidiary, Seed, in the common to the times delusional hope of cashing in on Nirvanamania. At sixteen, I liked my counterculture lyrics either full of fuck yous, Fugazi oblique, or with a profundity that announced itself with all the pomp of any given Jane’s Addiction song. I’d skimmed Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces and the first ten pages or so of The Society Of Spectacle so I knew that artifice was to be rejected in spray paint and riot, but I didn’t know that punk could just describe life. If I remember correctly, Greil Marcus himself insisted that punk should act as a refusal of mere survival. Now, forty-four years old and spilling over with a spirited resignation, songs about survival with dignity may be the only kind of punk I care about. (This dictum, if it even still applies to my fickle aesthetic worldview in ten minutes, applies only to punk music. I want my rap to be about whatever bee is in the Backwoodz Studioz roster’s bonnet on any given day and I want my heavy metal to be about Atlantis getting gentrified by Erol Otus rendered Mind Flayers and loin-clothed elves of indeterminate gender giving Lucifer Morningstar a tugger.)

In Frankie Stubbs’ lyrics, whether the stated topic is romance or cooking advice, external forces beyond our control loom large. On its surface, the topic of Baked Potato is exactly as the title says; the universality of cooking spuds. As Stubbs’ voice is always a growl and he and Richard “Dickie” Hammond’s guitars are always bright and driving (or as Pelican’s Trevor de Brauw puts it “…two guitars interweaving these dense melodic layers instead of just hammering away at power chords…”), it is not immediately clear if the song is a celebration of the topic or complaint. The “they” offering cooking tips for the world’s easiest dish in the chorus could be fellow punters killing time sharing common wisdom. The opening lines of “I've read the books of men and women and death/I've stood in bars listening to conversations/About Jesus Christ and the refugee's and the Royal family,” while certainly a grocery list of heavy vibes, make clear that discussion at hand will be held at the bar, presumably amongst friends.

But Leatherface, since Hammond (who died in 2015) and Stubbs’ bonding over a shared affinity for rare Manchester-built guitars led to the band’s formation in 1988, were never interested in pandering to any of punk’s easy outs. Not to apocalyptic cynicism nor to rose-tinted populism. Baked Potato is a song about art. Baked Potato is a song about collective knowledge via baking potatoes and individual, and potentially collective, transcendence via rock and roll. And Baked Potato is about who exactly gets to dole out any transcendence and who gets to determine its actual worth. The “they” in “...everybody knows but they still tell you.” is just as likely a “they” coming from on high to tell the bar’s population truths that Frankie and his pals have been knowing. With “Everybody knows there's catastrophe/Then comes the film packed full of art/You know that for a start” the decidedly non-rocker world of galleries and cinema is framed as patronizing repackaging of the self-evident. Stubbs’ goes on to contrast the entirely silly parliamentary tradition of the “Black Rod” playing its traditional game of monarchical slap ‘n’ tickle with the House of Lords with the supposed silliness of his chosen medium of “Impersonating Cliff Richards lip or Iggy with a bottle,” The idea is that there are ways of living and expressing that living that have as much value as the grandiose ash of one’s social betters. (I think. Cut-from-heroic-cloth songwriter, punk-micro-genres-historian, and fellow Leatherface-enjoyer Ted Leo suggested the ash take as no one I know can figure the lyrical reference to “black sand” or “coughing big mound” so Leo’s theory of high society’s trappings seen as “beautiful, but ash” works for me!) Rasping over his and Hammond’s interplay of guitar chugg and bright wirey leads, Stubbs posits that “people like me/have something to sing about.”

As Joe Briggs of the UK unhappy-hardcore Flipper inverters, Scrap Brain, says; Baked Potato is “about how things keep moving along, and though art isn't something that should be held up as special, it's not worthless either.”

(Briggs, who helpfully explained Black Rod to me, goes on to astutely put Baked Potato in the esteemed tradition of New Bomb Turks’ Born Toulouse Lautrec. Though that song’s chorus of “All work is honorable/Yet art is just a job/Let me spend my paycheck on a beer/No heroes, no leaders, no artists, no gods/I'm a worker, you're a worker/Wouldn't you like to be a worker too?” while sick as hell, kind of says the quiet part loud. Or, rather, the loud part louder.)

It’s not that hard, on endless listens, to work through what makes Leatherface’s art get better with time. Of course, underestimating helps. A lot of their biggest fans, myself included, didn’t quite get it at first. In 1992, I had zero notion of the context Leatherface was coming out of. I didn’t know bands like Snuff or Exit Condition. Even Husker Du was something girls at the local college listened to. (It would be years before I’d hear that awful term for (slightly) more tuneful fast ‘n’ loud: “melodic hardcore,” with its self-fulfilling prophesy of paying rent at the House of Vans and its whiff of giving up.) So I enjoyed Mush but, really, all I heard was the growl. And I sure as shit knew who Motorhead were. So, yeah, “Ramones with Lemmy singing” comes up. There’s no denying that Frankie Stubbs sounds like the singer of Motorhead. Even if that’s all the listener gets, there are worse things. As with the thousands of Discharge worshipping bands putting “Dis-” at the front of their band names, there is also (and with a sizable overlap) an entire cosmology of musicians who take pride in being “Motor-punk” and nothing else. A million denim daddies positioning their microphones too high, to best approximate Lemmy Kilmeister’s larynx stretching bark. And good for them. To hate that purity of vision would be like to hate a meteor shower. So if that was all Leatherface ever was, just one in a legion of SS she-wolves, I’d probably still like ‘em a bit.

But I kept listening. While other bands fell to the wayside (I can’t remember the last time I listened to The Ramones on purpose), Leatherface stayed on heavy rotation. First as amiably angsty background bop, later as inspiration and memory box.

A dismissal I’ve heard in my travels gives a more succinct indication to Leatherface’s depth then anything I can come up with. “Motorhead for girls,” which, aside from the sexism, gender essentialism, and/or wild misunderstanding of Motorhead’s discerning and/or horny fanbase, works better as a compliment than was presumably initially intended. And, without intending to disrespect Motorhead or, god forbid, overpraise girls, the designation does give a hint to Leatherface’s raucous sublimity.

From Essential Logic to Warp, for a number of punk bands designated as either “female” or gender nonconforming, part of the appeal is the sound of a band operating outside of the hierarchical notions of “proper” song writing. While keeping within the templates set by pop and rock, singers and soloists choose their points of entry and exit as much by an internal I-ching as Beatlesian mandate. Leatherface’s music is obviously more conventional than,say, The Slits. But, at least as realized on Mush (some of the other records are either more conventionally hardcore or conventionally indie), Leatherface absolutely sounds like they’re playing a brand of punk only they could have taught themselves. Unlike Essential Logic or contemporary skronkers within the P4K/MRR critical axis, the songs on Mush are hardly discordant or “free” in the no wave or jazz sense. They’re pop-punk songs. But they’re pop-punk as written and played by men who’d rather write their own chords than figure out Blitzkrieg Bop.  You get Dickie Hammond’s blurring of multiple guitar sub-genres within a single song (As Art Brut’s Eddie Argos describes Hammond’s playing: “People talk about buzzsaw style guitars all the time, it's become a cliche, but on this Dickie sounds like he's actually managed to somehow play a buzzsaw and make it almost sound like a guitar”). You get drummer Andrew Laing’s use of (what sounds like) double bass to match melodic lines. And, most consistent with this thesis I just made up, you get Frankie Warsaw Stubbs’ counterintuitive stretching of vowels and admirable disinclination to come in on the one. Between all this, it’s clear why emo beardos found it easier to mimic Jawbreaker over Leatherface.

In a way that I feel colors the above thesis rather than contradicts it, Ted Leo makes the case for Leatherface’s distinction coming in part from their fidelity to older traditions; “It's not JUST that they famously sounded like Motorhead meets Husker Du.” he says, “People talked about ‘melodic hardcore’ all the time, even back then, but Leatherface were mature in their melodicism. They knew when to use minor chords (and created Husker Du-ian or almost, like, Joy Division-y listening worlds with them) and vocally, I could tell that Frankie was working from a history of music that was broader than a lot of their peers.”

Regardless whether one subscribes to either of these notions, Leatherface’s primary charms can take a minute to register. Mush can blaze past a hundred times before the listener realizes how idiosyncratic or well crafted the music actually is. Or maybe I was just a particularly dense sixteen year old. Anyway. If, upon repeated plays, the listener still mainly hears “pop-punk Motorhead,” and even if maybe the voice comes off as cartoonish and the earnest pop-punk moves in the choruses come off as merely corny, Mush has a final trick. After all, Leatherface were, in the words of Jack Rabid in the Trouser Press overview of the band, “by far, England's finest, most exciting punk band of the '90s.” (I assume, as Rabid covered Leatherface regularly in Big Takeover and eventually wrote the liner notes for the band’s Fire Records reissues, this was not meant as the faint praise it sounds like.)

About the words to Leatherface’s songs, Eddie Argos wrote to me, “I was just thinking of my favourite lyrics to quote at you, but it's all so good I'd just end up cutting and pasting the entire songs.” Argos, an excellent lyricist in his own right, sums up the problem I’m having. And it’s not just that every lyric is just all too brilliant but that, unlike a lot of favorite rock lyrics, there aren’t necessarily so many single lines that come off as brilliant in the vacuum of an essay. What Stubbs does encompasses politics and romance and an elegiac reverence for memory. The songs can be short sharp bursts (as in I Want The Moon) that start as simple rhymes barked out as command before Stubbs’ ambition spills over with “Choose to give icons of our age/ And choose to live with one foot in the grave” like he’s supposed to be giving a simple 1,2,3,4 count before the chorus, but he simply can’t help himself.

And sometimes the songs are wordy as hell and even then he doesn’t deliver them in the way essayists like John Darnielle do. This is not a jab at Mountain Goats. I like Darniel’s lyrics/phrasing. But what Stubbs does is different. Despite the consistent maintaining of specificity of landscape, the drawing from of a hundred years of English industrial folly, and the breathless proclamations of endless(ish) love, Stubbs never loses the sense that it’s all off the cuff; the offhand brilliance of your best ex (friend, lover, whatever) finally getting it all off his chest. “There's dark satanic mills and there's green and pleasant hills/ Could be riding/ through Lancashire with all it's Witchcraft/ dead industrial air/You can hear a melancholy desert song/ And smell George Orwell as a funeral goes on/There's plenty with a license to prostitute/ And room to develop the ultimate building…” or “There's a little bit of springtime in the back of my mind/ Remembers things perhaps as they should have been/ Rather than the lies rather that the cruelty/ That sometimes we were guilty of as everybody knows/ We were only young and really couldn't have known/ We were very young” he rants and pleads (or, as author and fellow Leatherface-enjoyer Darcie Wilder describes it, “growls and yearns, and the earnestness is cut with cynicism so it’s not saccharine”), twisting the consonants into an attack, really quite pretty in its fashion, that makes the poetic density of his songs fit into four minutes (tops) of toe-tappingly melodic hardcore. With space leftover for the guitar solos. You're maybe in a different place than you were back when Stubbs and you were wild and free and you’re certainly not going to leave your husband and house and dogs, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

I mean, look, I have come to terms, over the years, with the unpleasant truth that what I consider “good” lyrics is not the universal standard. I don’t pretend to be the final arbiter (there has been the occasional “bad high school poetry” accusation thrown at my own lyrics) but I feel like I have a pretty decent grasp of what is genuinely profound within the context of Rock And Roll Music. From the urtext (“Wop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom”) to the metatext (“When I was just seventeen/ sex no longer held a mystery/ I saw it as a commodity, to be bought and sold like rock n' roll”) to whatever we call the middle (“There were parts of my nature too shit hot to hide/ from certain angles I could have just died”No man of the people, I wouldn't be caught dead with most of y'all”I hear the roar of a big machine/Two worlds and in between/Hot metal and methedrine” etc etc), I don’t settle for diary scribbles or that “beautiful” stuff that critics pump up when they could’ve just read a book or obituary. Good rock lyrics should be poetic without reading like poetry, be conversational without the tedium of real person-to-person conversation, and be as full of shit and irrevocably true as rock and roll itself. A teenager should be able to read them as gospel and a reasonable person should be able to claim that they’re drivel. Otherwise there’s no stake at all. It’s a balance of spit and shine that is extremely important and also damned difficult. More than anything, a good rock lyric should read cool enough to register as such, but not look too hot outside of its intended music. Otherwise we’d all just stay in school. So when I tell you that Frankie Stubbs writes punk rock lyrics like “You're like a salesman/ your foot in the door/ That's what they're for/ show me a Heaven/ After all.. that's what you're selling” that an honest punk rock person should be jealous of, it may be dependent on the delivery and the context of the rest of the song, but I’m not lying.

The Oscar Wilde quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” even setting aside the implied exclusivity of “some of us,” has been taken as an ethos and mangled by bourgeois problem drinkers with low-slung guitars for half a century. After countless songs of poetry-dappled crapulence and nostalgia, the gutter is more of a theme park and it’s romanticization is practically shorthand for “I’m not texting you the next day.” So it’s maybe some self-deluding nostalgia on my own part to still pull so much value from an album like Mush. It’s for sure a gutter/stars human condition album if there ever was one, and one aimed at a certain kind of human who maybe, despite claims to the contrary, tends to sentimentalize said condition. Maybe! The world is a gutter but our hands have, in verifiable fact if not metaphor, never been cleaner. So maybe I need to be told that I might have a song to sing. And told in a rasp that feels more attainable than a distant star. Sometimes a potato just needs just a little encouragement to really get cookin’.

Thanks for reading! As always, I like to give the artists who were kind enough to do homework on my (and Leatherface’s) behalf the space for their full quotes. And, also as always, most of my analysis of the music itself (Lemmy setting up his mic stand higher to stretch out his larynx, Stubbs not coming in on the 1, etc) was either inspired by discussion with Zohra Atash or lifted directly from her explaining how notes and singing and stuff work. I’m endlessly grateful to her. And I’m grateful to Ted Leo, Eddie Argos, Darcie Wilder, Joe Briggs, and Trevor de Brauw, for taking the time to talk about shit I like. And thank you!

Ted Leo: The first thing of theirs I heard was the Razorblades & Aspirin 7”, which I may have found because it came into our college radio station, or may have just bought on a whim because of the band name and song titles - I honestly can’t remember. But that exact grouping of three songs lies in a very specific sweet spot for me.  Because it’s not JUST that they famously sounded like Motorhead meets Husker Du. People talked about “melodic hardcore” all the time, even back then, but Leatherface were mature in their melodicism. They knew when to use minor chords (and created Husker Du-ian or almost, like, Joy Division-y listening worlds with them) and vocally, I could tell that Frankie was working from a history of music that was broader than a lot of their peers. I’d say that THEIR peers, like Snuff and Exit Condition, were also operating with knowledge of and appreciation for of the great English songbook, but generally, you know what I mean about “peer” rock - you do what your friends are doing and you write and play to and for them, literally and figuratively. This band was thinking bigger, and you could hear that. Lyrically, it *felt* political, but poetic and personal, while NOT getting mired in peer-concerns or journal entry stabs at poetry - it was actually poetic. And the vocal melodies felt like they were more in line with Colin Blunstone’s Zombies choices (even within the context of a Lemmy-like growl) than whatever concurrent “melodic hardcore” bands trying to prove that they were growing up were doing with their root-note “whoa-ho-hos.” That was the main thing for me. And back to the lyrics again, they were like the best of the post-emo bands - legitimately conveying and drawing you into emotion and pathos, and hinting at bigger things, while also being legitimately mysterious and personal. And to that end, as far as I know, back then they never toured over here. It was like the mystery of Bad Religion to an east coast kid before they finally played a night show at CBs in 89 (I have stories about that too..). God - back when it would actually take you a while to learn what a band actually looked like? It gave them something of a god-like status akin to the (alternative-)rock stardom of bigger bands like, yeah - Motorhead and Husker Du. That’s my Leatherhead pitch.

Trevor de Brauw (Pelican, RLYR): Leatherface came up at a time when it felt like punk was distilling and simplifying its formula and just went in the opposite direction. The way their riffs are structured, with the two guitars interweaving these dense melodic layers instead of just hammering away at power chords, imbue the songs with so much emotional evocation that when they lean into a properly sentimental song like Springtime the effect is visceral and intoxicating. In retrospect it’s hard not to draw a direct line from Leatherface to the wave of mid-90’s post-hardcore bands that mined that same technique, though it didn’t really feel like many ever gave them their due.

And, since it’s not likely that I’ll ever be asked about Leatherface again, I also want to add that Frankie Stubbs’ band Jesse, who did just one album in 1998 during a window of time that Leatherface was inactive, were absolutely the fucking best.

Eddie Argos (Art Brut): I first heard  Leatherface through a CD I bought called 'I Wouldn't Piss On It If It Was On Fire' back before we all had access to the internet and buying compilation CDs was the best way to discover new music (1997/8). It was a compilation of bands released on Fire Records. I probably bought it because it had My Legendary Girlfriend by Pulp on it, and Where I Found My Heaven by the Gigolo Aunts on it, which I knew from a sitcom. I ended up liking everything else on that CD a whole lot more though, Leatherface, Half Japanese, Television Personalities, Built to Spill… it changed my taste in music.

I blasted I Want The Moon the most, played it all the time, but for some reason never thought to go and get an album or investigate any further. Then when Art Brut started touring, Dickie Hammond was our sound man for a few years, I loved him. It was like touring with a crazy wild  animal, I mean a friendly, loyal, funny one but still a crazy wild animal all the same. I told him I loved Leatherface but really meant I loved I Want The Moon, when we came back on our last tour with him back in like 2006, I missed him so I bought Mush to have a listen to and it blew my mind. I mean… what is that? I didn't really know anything like that.

People talk about buzzsaw style guitars all the time, it's become a cliche, but on this Dickie sounds like he's actually managed to somehow play a buzzsaw and make it almost sound like a guitar. It's incredible, all of it at breakneck speed, intense, wonderful.

And the lyrics, I mean, I should have known how good they'd be from I Want The Moon, “I want the moon, I don't expect too much from honeymoons” and “passing time, passing phase, stupid bastard rat race” I mean bloody hell! There is more poetry in that one song than most bands manage on an entire album and every song on Mush  is that good or better.

Its an overwhelming listen, it attacks all the senses and it's full of poetry and rage. I was just thinking of my favorite lyrics to quote at you, but it's all so good I'd just end up cutting and pasting the entire songs.

Anyway I guess what I'm saying is I love this album. It's not really an album I can listen to while doing something else, except maybe walking. It's a totally immersive album.

And I’m going to go and listen to it now.

Subscribe now