Without wanting to come on all Rock Family Trees, there was a band called Pussy Galore. In it were people who rocked, including men called Jon Spencer and Neil Hagerty. By the time Pussy Galore ended in a shower of recrimination and Spanish best-of parody art, new bands had already risen like pre-emptive phoenixes: Boss Hog, Blues Explosion and Royal Trux. While all are worth investigation, only one has had its first pair of albums re-released in the last few weeks.
Royal Trux burst onto ‘the scene’ in 1987 fully formed, and pretty much better than every other band out there. While it’s dang near impossible to say the same about pretty much any band in the now, Trux changed rock music for the better in three short years. (They didn’t go bad after that, they just made their mark in a hurry.)
They were the musical equivalent of Ren and Stimpy, and not just because both entities put you in mind of slacker garage rock. I’m serious.
Both Ren and Stimpy and Royal Trux were era-defining aberrations. Both were seemingly dysfunctional duos whose chemistry worked, well, til it stopped working. Ostensibly married to the past, but approximately a thousand years ahead of their time, both pairs were the epitome of cool: capturing the zeitgeist yet offering slightly surreal thrills whenever you happened upon them. And that’s without even invoking the 1993 record Cats and Dogs.
Royal Trux visually surprises by following the Xerox-chic cover art with hazy orange cityscape sunset for the centre sticker. While minimal, it evokes so much: the sun metaphorically setting on the Reagan era, for one. The 1980s summer-rock epoch of convertibles and hot-pink string bikinis, of Dave Lee Roth solo albums and Sunset Strip decadence, was coming to an end. Like a dying star, its content was insufficient to justify its own mass.
So, straddling the attitude of peak Guns N’ Roses and the experimentation of the Velvet Underground, Trux meant business. Like VU, this was the sound of a garage rock underground gone horribly right. ‘Incineration’ is almost a twenty-years-later sequel to ‘Electricity’. From the 1967 debut record of another set of garage rock explorers, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, that song was wickedly disjointed. Especially considering how loved-up most major bands seemed to be that year. Both ‘Incineration’ and ‘Electricity’ have their titles used as weapons, sneered and smeared, with some sustain, almost at odds with the musical message.
It’s almost as if Trux have sucked the youthful vigour out of garage rock at times. Like they have to kill it in order for it to live again. ‘Esso Dame’ bears the signifiers of the style, heart on its sleeve. Only Hagerty and Herrema have taken it literally and the ventricles and viscera are pumping away, bleeding down the short sleeved White Light, White Heat shirt. The loose drums, simple-but-catchy basslines and alternately sneering and drawled vocals are all there.
There’s something awry, though: our Doctors Frankenstein created a monster. Far be it from me to accuse anyone of heroin use but this is rocking as might happen, to borrow a turn of phrase from Poe, in the excitement of an opium dream.
At times, the record flirts with tradition. Hagerty’s vocals on ‘Gold Dust’ recall the sound of mid-decade Gun Club or Replacements. But just as you think they’re getting earnest, a completely loopy guitar line is drawn, like crayon on a newly-papered wall, all over the song.
As fresh as it was, Royal Trux did little to prepare listeners for Twin Infinitives (1990). Again, monochrome artwork hid an explosion of detail. The gatefold, this time, bears a great montage of drawings, photos and randomness, rather like the Carcass albums of that era, but with less dead people.
Like the design, the music at first seems random, carelessly thrown together. This is the real intelligence behind Royal Trux, that pervaded their entire career (and carries on still): they managed to make it look/sound like as though they weren’t trying, like the music was effortless and un-thought out.
Really, the opposite is true. There are songs that sound thrown together, and may well have been. ‘Solid Gold Tooth’ features rambling, incoherent vocals, voices as bassline, while Autobots brawl it out with Decepticons above their heads, their laser fire criss-crossing the music.
The mix manages to sound sparse and bare, but when you focus deeply into the void, there are tons of details: subtle rhythmic samples, ambience, devilish details. ‘Jet Pet’ begins with a mouthwash-gargle tribute to the ‘Voodoo Chile’ intro, before Jennifer deconstructs rock and roll language: “YEAH YEAH YEAH, HEY HEY”.
‘(Edge of the) Ape Oven’, sprawling across side three, is where Trux clue you in on the method behind the madness. The electro-percussion sounds for all the world like a avant-garde Terence Trent D’Arby, but the song soon launches itself towards the moon.
The guitar assumes many shapes on this track. There are noises and effects, jangle-chords, blues-influenced riffing and even metallic speed-picking. Always totally in control, the band know when to rein it in, and the last movement of the song’s spent in hooksville. For all the criticisms of the album being too random, there are strong hooks; the dynamics are clearly thought-out.
That’s what’s so thrilling. There were other, similarly great, rock albums around this time, whether Slint’s Spiderland, Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual, or Carcass’ Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious. Some were easier to get a handle on than others, such as the minimal Slint album. The Carcass album was a wonder of technical brutality, but death metal had been hinting at a record like that for some time. Twin Infinitives is a landmark in intelligence dressed up as glamorous trash, of massive ambition realised on the sly.
The Trux would enjoy more high-points before eventually burning out in acrimony. Accelerator and Pound for Pound were both fantastic, though relatively traditional, records in the latter days of the band. The former, especially, was a catchy fuzz-freak out. Its hooks and riffs were a signpost on the highway to the super-charger Heaven that Jennifer still seeks with current crew RTX.
RTX: the name itself is a throwback to a song on Twin Infinitives, as well as an icon the band used on the Thank You and Sweet Sixteen records. While Jennifer has clearly been on her own musical journey since starting the new band, its name is a constant link back to the legacy of Trux.
Musically, Herrema maintains the faux innocence to this day. The two most recent of RTX’s trilogy have been increasingly traditional in their hard rock/heavy metal sounds, but still there is a concept trying them together, of Jennifer as Pied Piper capturing rats (or ‘RaTX’).
Their 2004 debut, Transmaniacon, is vital. Working from a blueprint of Appetite for Destruction, RTX weave in myriad effects, from autotune abuse to P-Funk sampling. The result is an incredibly well written, psychedelically fucked up album.
Neil Hagerty, meanwhile, has been releasing records under his own name and the Howling Hex. No idea why this is yet another band whose name ends in ‘x’, but it clearly works.
Hagerty’s output is often applauded for being ostensibly ‘truer’ to the sound of original Trux but, given the original band’s propensity for change, the fact that they were all about ripping up the past and rearranging, rather than retreading it, I question the value of such praise. Still, the ‘Hex provides an intriguingly organic redux of Perrey-Kingsley’s swirling, intentionally perplexed polyphony.
Garage rock itself has been on a bit of a downward spiral since these records became history. Scandinavia briefly took the reins during an especially fecund period, The Hellacopters and Turbonegro, with related bands Backyard Babies and Super$hit 666, bringing the goods. However, as with any movement, the rot set in: the lasting impression is of adequate, but inferior, Hives and the White Stripes.
Thankfully, the Royal Trux influence carries on elsewhere. This level of experimentation-within-bounds can be heard in the best work from The Liars and The Hospitals. The later work of noise-rock supremos Skullflower even suggests something of a debt in terms of interpreting a genre aesthetic by delving inside and exploding it.
Recent news of Touch and Go scaling back its pressing and distribution operations – Royal Trux’ home Drag City being a partner – is sobering. One hopes that the current financial climate, rather than scuppering the chances of another band like this coming along, would inspire musicians to make vital music in the face of institutions crashing down. To challenge falling sales and labels by making art vital again. Or at least DC can re-release Cats and Dogs on vinyl…
It would take a lot for anything to top these two records as rock reissues of 2009. But, with Touch and Go itself readying the Jesus Lizard back catalogue for release, it looks like one form of business is about to pick up.