Weird At My School: Bush Tetras

photo by Spencer Lloyd

By DJ El Toro

On December 29, 1982, I saw Bush Tetras play the Ontario Theater in Washington, DC. I’d like to pretend that I was cool enough to have planned this, but I can’t; we were there to see Bow Wow Wow headline. But back then, my friends and I always caught the opening act. We were too naïve to realize shows never started at the time printed on the tickets.

My recollections of that Tetras set are sparse. On one song – “Cowboys In Africa,” I believe – vocalist Cynthia Sley accented pauses with this cool piece of handheld percussion that generated a loud buzz when smacked against her palm; a vibra-slap (or mandible), I learned later. Thanks to Sley’s deadpan delivery, and reiteration of key lyrics, a couple of song titles got wedged in my noggin, too: “Too Many Creeps,” “Can’t Be Funky.”

But unlike so many opening acts I caught during this era – Book of Love, Billy Bragg, A Certain Ratio – I did not rush out to buy a Bush Tetras platter the next day. Because they didn’t have a full-length album, just a few singles. And import and independent singles were thin on the ground where I lived. Maybe I flipped past a copy of their Rituals EP, produced by Topper Headon of the Clash, later on down the road, but by then I was undoubtedly rooting through the bins after whatever esoteric haircut band-of-the-moment I’d read about in Melody Maker.

photo by Mitch Kearney

Bush Tetras records remained hard to find. They issued a cassette-only live album, Wild Things, in 1983 – the year the original line-up split. Much, much later, their singles were compiled on Boom In The Night. When I started exploring the KEXP record library last year, I was ecstatic to unearth a copy of Tetrafied: Rare & Unreleased Recordings, released on Henry Rollins’ 2-13-61 imprint in 1997 and deleted almost immediately. A proper studio album, Beauty Lies, made by a reconvened Tetras, came out in 1996, but damned if I’ve even held a copy in my grubby mitts.

The elusive nature of Bush Tetras’ back catalog is why their new disc, Very, Very Happy, seems so aptly named. A curious mix of six new recordings, some cleaned-up gems from the out-of-print Tetrafied, and a couple live tracks (plus three video clips), it’s not the perfect introduction to the band – but a welcome one, regardless.

Listening to this odds-and-ends career survey a quarter century after first hearing them, I realize that even if I could have found their records in small town Virginia, Bush Tetras were too intense for my coddled sensibilities. Their terse, brittle grooves sprang from a world – the New York’s bombed out Lower East Side – that was alien to me. Bassist Laura Kennedy described BTs as “a rhythm and paranoia band” to NME in 1980; hell, guitarist Pat Place was a founding member of James Chance’s no wave cornerstone the Contortions. In my suburban universe, the Go-Go’s “This Town” was as edgy as things got until I was halfway out the door to college.

“Too Many Creeps” directed by Ed Steinberg (1982)

But today? They sound great. I could do without the updated rendition of “Too Many Creeps” – when bands re-record their classics, I always feel like someone is trying to reprogram my memories – but the rest of it kills. Sley’s vocals have mellowed a wee bit, but audible tension still vibrates through the opening “Nails,” and “Jaws,” possibly the only ditty ever written from the point-of-view of a shark attack victim. Listening to the 1982 demo “Point That Gun,” I reflect on my own years in New York – two muggings, a fourth-story Chinatown walk-up with no bathroom – and the soundtrack synchs up perfectly.

Even with the cleaned-up sound of Very, Very Happy, Bush Tetras don’t feel wholly revolutionary any more. Not after bands like the Rapture and the Rogers Sisters have had years to study their canon. Heck, Romeo Void were already poaching their sound 25 years ago. But Bush Tetras still sound good. Damn good. Memorable, even. And actually hearing what the fuss was about just got a hell of a lot easier.

Bush Tetras – Point That Gun (MP3)

DJ El Toro – aka Kurt B. Reighley – has been writing about music for over 20 years, but only been a KEXP DJ since Nov. 2006. He frequently finds himself wanting to blather on and on into the microphone about why he loves a band or record, but refrains, out of respect for the audience. His new KEXP blog column, “Weird At My School,” represents his feeble attempt to reconcile these two impulses: Informing KEXP listeners about overlooked music he loves, without cutting into their listening enjoyment during his weekly show.

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show “In Between Sleep & Reason,” Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and

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  1. joseph
    Posted March 17, 2015 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    Saw Bush Tetras back in the 80’s with Bad Brains and some other band (probably the head-line act) at the Ritz in NYC. Just recently bought Punch Drunk. Forgot how awesome this band was. First heard them on the Start Swimming compilation (a good one). Thanks for being a voice.

  2. joseph
    Posted March 17, 2015 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    Oh. to follow up. Gang of Four. What a show, back in 1981. Gotta love the internet.

  3. joseph
    Posted March 17, 2015 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    And it wasn’t the Ritz. It was at Roseland.

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