Leatherface: A Love Story

Part 1.

I’d been fascinated with Leatherface ever since I’d been turned on to them in 1991 or so. I’d listened to my first copy of Mush until the CD delaminated. When I heard they’d broken up a couple of years later it sent me into a real funk. I collected their records fanatically, even the stuff that former members did outside the band like Pope and Fatty Jones and Doctor Bison. Most of it was just ok, but it was hard for me to listen to it without feeling an intense sense of loss. Frank Stubbs and Dickie Hammond were both very good, but together they were much more than the sum of the parts.

In 1999, when I heard Leatherface had gotten back together and were touring the US. I was extremely excited. Ok, Dickie Hammond wasn’t in the lineup, and they were touring with Hot Water Music (for whom I do not really care), still it was like a dream come true. They played at the old Mississippi St. house in north Portland. The day of the gig I was really amped. As it got toward evening, I realized that I hadn’t told my wife that I was going to need our car, and it only dawned upon me that it might be a problem long after it was too late to undertake the epic bus ride from where I lived in southeast up to the peninsula. By the time my wife arrived at about 8:00, I was pretty sure my chance had gone, but she convinced me to give it a shot anyway. I drove like a psychopath up 99E, blowing about every other light. Of course, when I got there I found out that they wouldn’t be playing for another hour or more.

Their set that night was not all that great. The mic kept giving out and their second guitarist didn’t seem to have a very good grip on the songs. Worse yet, there was a really large, sweaty guy in the pit who insisted on both taking his shirt off and moshing all over the diminutive woman standing next to me, all the while shouting at the band like they were some bunch of frat boys covering “Tequila.” This was really beginning to bum me out. I was mulling over the probable consequences of punching him when the woman, sick of getting slathered in this guys bodily fluids, turned to him between songs and said, “If you barge into me one more time I’m gonna knock your fucking teeth out.” She couldn’t have weighed more than 95 pounds, but I had no doubt that she was serious. And neither did the sweaty moshing guy, who settled right down.

I spent the show in a state of extreme nervous excitement. Leatherface was certainly my favorite band in those days, and I expected that actually getting to see them would be cathartic. But it wasn’t. I kept waiting for the mic to cut out again, or for the sound to die completely, or for some other bad thing to happen. I suppose it was because I assumed that this was going to be a complete one off. By the time they finished, I was about ready to have a seizure. I went out on the sidewalk in front of the storefront where the bands played and smoked a cigarette, trying to calm down. I stood by, watching the band load their gear out of the door. Finally, I worked up the courage to go over to them. They were sitting in the side door of their van. I walked up to Frank Stubbs, grabbed his hand, and shook it, saying, “That was great. It was really fucking great.” Then, without so much as waiting for a response, I turned around and headed to my car. Even in that moment, the prospect that the image might be shattered was too much for me to bear.

The next year, I was living Chapel Hill, North Carolina when I heard that Leatherface was touring again (with Samiam). This time I wasn’t quite as psyched out about the whole thing. I lived within a short walk of the Cat’s Cradle, where they were playing and, more importantly, I’d already seen them before so I was a little more relaxed about it.

I got to the club just as the opening band was finishing up, got a drink, and positioned myself about three feet back from the center of the stage. Leatherface came on after a short changeover and played a couple of songs off of Horsebox, their most recent record at that point. This was ok. They were playing well, even though that stuff wasn’t my favorite material. Then they stopped. Frank Stubbs looked down at me and said, “This next one goes out to the guy in the Arsenal jersey. That is what that is, right?”

I think I managed a stunned, “Yeah.”

“We beat you guys,” he said, meaning Sunderland, their hometown football club. “We got beat by Ipswich, but we beat you lot.” I was right on the verge of having a stroke. Then they broke into “Not Superstitious,” my favorite of their songs. This was, quite possibly, the best thing that’s ever happened to me at a show. They went on to do a whole bunch of other songs from Mush, and generally played an absolutely raging set.

When they were done, I resolved that I was going to actually talk to Frank Stubbs. The backstage at the Cat’s Cradle was a tiny area off to the right of the stage, shielded from the rest of the room by a curtain. Veteran ligger that I was, I decided to just walk in there and see what was going on. Stubbs was sitting on a stack of gear, talking to a girl who I gathered from the conversation was doing a zine. I waited until she was done and then introduced myself. To my intense relief, he turned out to be very pleasant. He offered me a beer from the open case next him, and we talked about football and music. I got the chance to ask him a lot of questions that had been buzzing around in my head for years, like about what writing process of their songs was like, and why Dickie Hammond wasn’t in the band anymore. He told me that their relationship had kind of soured when Leatherface got well known because Hammond felt like Stubbs got too much attention. He also claimed that he wrote most of the songs and minimized Hammond’s contribution to the writing. I took this all with a grain of salt, since people will say a lot of things when they are angry at each other. He did say that both he and Hammond really respected one another, and I’m sure he meant it (especially since Hammond subsequently rejoined the band).

We sat around for half an hour or so, drinking beer and chatting. Then he said he had to get something from their van. I followed him out into the parking lot, shook his hand again, and told him I had to split. He asked why I wasn’t sticking around for Samiam. I told him they were from the US and I would have plenty of opportunities to see them. In fact, I was so stoked from the conversation that I wanted to get out of the area quickly before something happened to tamp down my euphoria.

Part 2.
I’m not going to talk about every single thing that they have released, just the ones that have had particular significance to me.

Cherry Knowle (1989) Meantime Records
Fill Your Boots (1990) Roughneck Records
I bought these two records on the same day in 1993. At the time I thought that Fill Your Boots came earlier, and you could almost believe it given the way that the two records sound. Although the song structures are pretty comparable on both, the guitar mix on Fill Your Boots is muddier, which gives songs like “New York State” and “Peasant in Paradise” a sort of whooshy, distant sound. The crisper guitars on Cherry Knowle make it seem a bit more advanced, and you could argue that the lyrics are a bit more direct, in the way that they would be on Mush. Of the two, Fill Your Boots the one that I like better overall, but I think Cherry Knowle has that better individual songs. “Discipline” will always be one of my favorite songs, particularly because it is an early illustration of Frank Stubbs’s capacity to understand human character. “Cabbage Case” takes on the theme of drug abuse, one to which the band would return repeatedly, particularly in the powerfully moving “Little White God” released five years later. “Smile (You’re In a Free and Pleasant Land)” has a powerful melody and allows Stubbs to flash his culture, which from the lyrics of their songs is clearly extensive. Still, it is Fill Your Boots to which I listen more often. It has a darker, more depressive quality than Cherry Knowle, one that I find particularly appealing. Fill Your Boots also shows flashes of another of Leatherface’s great skills: the cover song. They reprise the cover of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” that featured on Cherry Knowle (which is not one of my absolute favorites) and add a version of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” (which is).

Mush (1991) Roughneck
I got the version that came out on Seed in North America, but that’s a minor point. In my opinion, this is about as close to a flawless punk record as I have ever heard. The songs are powerful and well-arranged and there isn’t one filler cut in the bunch. The thing that really struck me the first time (and the first hundred times) that I listened to Mush was the excellence of Frank Stubbs’s lyrics. He writes songs for adults, songs that deal with things in ways that are complex and nuanced. From the desire to be more than one is (“I Want the Moon”), to the complexities of belief (“Not Superstitious”), and the stories that we tell ourselves to live (“Baked Potato”), Stubbs creates lyrics that either turn clichés on their heads, or dispense with them completely. The song that really stand out for me is “The Scheme of Things”. There, Stubbs returns to the theme, first approached in “Discipline” of people’s search for something to give their lives meaning. Stubbs focuses on people involved in religious movements, but rather than just calling them stupid or implying that they are simply deluded, he tries to address the underlying loneliness that motivates believers. As the lyric finishes, Stubbs moves from compassion to anger at the people promulgating these systems, “Show me a savior, after all, that’s what you’re selling.” For me, this is a cut above the standard fare.

Dreaming b/w Eagle 7” (1992)
I can still remember buying this in record store near South Street in Philadelphia. “Dreaming” is an ok cut, but “Eagle” is arguably the best cover tune they ever did, all the more so because it’s originally by ABBA.

Minx (1993) Roughneck

This was the first Leatherface album that I got after Mush. I bought it when it came out in 1993 and I was a bit disappointed. The songs are a bit longer than on Mush, sometimes surpassing the quality of the licks on which they are based. Also, if you listen to Mush and Minx back to back you will notice that Frank Stubbs’s voice becomes rather huskier between the two records. His singing was (and is) always gritty, but it sounds to me like he is singing in a bit higher register on the earlier records and this gives them a directness that Minx sort of lacks. That said, Minx really grew on me, especially when I read in a fanzine that Leatherface had broken up. I figured that this was the last thing that I would ever hear by them, so I decided that I would do my best to understand what they were trying to do. There are some really beautiful tunes on Minx, particularly “Books,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Pale Moonlight” which I think rank as classics in the Leatherface catalog. I think my favorite song is probably “Fat, Earthy, Flirt,” both because it’s melody is a great example of Stubbs and Hammond combining chords with ringing individual strings, and because I really have no idea how the title relates to the rest of the song.

The Last (1994) Domino Records
Buying The Last was, for me, a little like receiving a letter from a dead friend. The band was gone, forever for all I knew. It has the feeling of a last will and testament, but it also seemed like a fragment. It contains some of the band’s finest work. “Little White God” is a compelling melody paired with a very moving lyric about drug addiction, one which I found particularly compelling as I heard it around the time that a friend of mine died from a heroin overdose. “Daylight Comes” flashes a harder rocking side that wouldn’t have been out of place on Mush, while the Snuff cover “Winsome, Losesome” is more rollicking and upbeat than a lot of their other material. Then there are cuts like “Shipyards” and “Ba Ba Ba Ba Boo” which really seem like filler to me.

After hearing The Last, I really felt at sea. And then there followed a weird period when the main creative forces in the band released projects with other bands. Frank Stubbs did two bands that I knew of: Jesse and Pope. I never heard the Jesse 7”s, but I bought Pope’s Johnpaulgeorgeringo when it came out. I wanted very much to like it. It featured the familiar powerful melodies and thoughtful lyrics, but it seemed somehow empty. Perhaps it was an effect of there only being one guitar, but it made me think that the songwriting team of Stubbs and Hammond were more than the sum of their parts. Hammond had formed Doctor Bison with former members of the Welsh band The Abs. Their two records, The Bloated Vegas Years and Dewhursts – The Musical, we decent, but they had a different flavor from Leatherface. Baz Oldfield is a talented songwriter and lyricist, but he operates in a much different creative space than Frank Stubbs. The melodic overlays that Dickie Hammond added to their songs sounded like the dying echoes of what had gone before. Hammond went on to form Fatty Jones (later just The Jones), and although I don’t know for sure I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that Newport is a long way from Sunderland, which must have made getting Doctor Bison together kind of a hassle. The Fatty Jones EP is actually not bad. In particular, “Ashebrook” is an enjoyable cut, but it was once again the sort of thing that made one wish that Leatherface would get back together. Gravity Blues, the album that they released once they became simply The Jones is not bad, but it is really uneven and, once again, illustrates the degree to which Hammond and Stubbs writing together were better than they were apart.

Horsebox (2000) BYO Records
I’m passing over the split album that they released in 1999 with Hot Water Music, mostly because it’s greatest importance was that it let people outside the UK know that Leatherface were back together again. Still, it contained the sorrowfully beautiful “Andy,” a tribute to their bassist Andy Crighton who had committed suicide in 1998, and it showed that the band had lost none of its fierceness. I have trouble listening to Horsebox these days, the reason being that I bought it about a week before I moved to North Carolina to do a degree program that necessitated a) living apart from my wife for 22 months, and b) leaving all but about ten or twenty of my records on the west coast. I listened to Horsebox obsessively in those days, and it became suffused with my loneliness. Now, hearing songs like “Sour Grapes” and “Choice” has the power to put me into a funk that can last for days.

Dog Disco (2004) BYO Records
I think that the day that I bought Dog Disco at Singles Going Steady in Seattle was one of the worst of my life. This is one of the few things that Frank Stubbs ever did that I really don’t like at all. In fact, it is the only one of Leatherface’s full LPs of which I do not actually own a copy. It was as if Stubbs had distilled all of the mistakes in his songwriting into one large mistake. I mean, it’s not quite Bad Religion Into the Unknown, but it is not up to the band’s normal standard. Hearing this record was like a punch in the gut. It was like the breakup all over again, but worse since there seemed to be every prospect that they would continue to release bad records. It took me months to get over it.

The Stormy Petrel (2010) No Idea
Given the intense disappointment that I’d experienced after buying Dog Disco, I was really hesitant to shell out the cash for another round. But then a friend of mine told me that Dickie Hammond was playing with the band again, and that piqued my interest. I bought the actual disc at a store in Cambridge and walked home in a state of expectation strongly tinged with fear. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The Stormy Petrel is a titanic return to form. Where the songs on Dog Disco seem to lack direction, those on The Stormy Petrel are punchy and compelling. As noted above, Frank Stubbs once discounted to me the degree to which collaboration with Dickie Hammond had on his songwriting. I have to say that, on the basis of the available evidence, it is clear to me that Leatherface produce much better music when Stubbs and Hammond are in close proximity. From the opening cut, The Stormy Petrel brings forth music that is at least as good as than on Horsebox, and if it is the case that they don’t reach the heights achieved on Mush, it is also worth noting that the vast majority of bands have never written anything nearly that good. While Frank Stubbs’s lyrics have been consistently excellent, on The Stormy Petrel they are once again paired with breathtaking Leatherface hooks from the old school. “God is Dead” is a good, rocking opener, while “Never Say Goodbye” is an outstanding illustration of Stubbs’s persistent ability to plumb the human condition. Perhaps the album should have ended with “Isn’t Life Just Sweet,” especially since this is a cut that they often use to open their set, but tacking the lower key “Hope” onto the end of the record creates one of those attractive nuances that make Leatherface records so appealing.

Of course even this gargantuan post really only scratches the surface. There are lots of other things that could be talked about in this connection, such as Dickie Hammond’s pre-Leatherface band HDQ (whose awesomeness is too often forgotten), or the live records that Leatherface has released, or Frank Stubbs work producing other bands, or even the short lived band Stokoe that Dickie Hammond played in while in exile. The fact of the matter is that, for me, Leatherface is a practically inexhaustible vein of compelling music. I thought that writing this piece might be a way of working through this, but in the end I find that I am more fascinated with them than ever.

Magadh

8 Responses to “Leatherface: A Love Story”

  1. alleywaykid Says:

    Nice reading here. Though I personally hold Dog Disco up among the pantheon of their classic cannon, I have to say you need to LISTEN TO JESSE!

  2. first time I saw them was in Sheffield in late nineties supporting mudhoney. that was enough to get into them. I was gutted when they split the first time.

    missed them the first reunion and really felt I’d missed out so wad happy when second reunion happened. saw them in a tiny pub in leeds which was good but only about 2 people really getting into it. felt like we were all going to fall through the ceiling.

    saw them in Berlin in 2011 I think, was one of the best and hottest gigs any of us have ever been to. chatted to frankie in the audience before the set about fighting sea gulls for pizza off the pavement. because salad was dangerous in Germany at that time. saw them again in Bolton, set was awesome, crowd was shit. I’m sure frankie did a double take outside the venue at us from Berlin. was going to see them in Manchester, but that was the gig that got cancelled because they split up the day before. balls.

    hope they go round one more time but I doubt it. I might go to them all if they do. seems like three makeups is too much.

  3. It took me a long while to get into Dog Disco but now its my fave with mush a close second, definitely worth another go!

  4. It’s amazing designed for me to have a website, which is
    helpful in favor of my know-how. thanks admin

  5. I could have written that. My thoughts exactly.

  6. thanks mate that meant the world to me,a tear in the eye has appeared

  7. Hey. I knew Dickie. It’s the first year anniversary since he’s passed away. I found this kinda in a state of looking for him try and find something to put my sadness in. It’s helped. ❤

    • Well I’m very happy that you took some comfort from it it. Between HDQ and Leatherface (and The Jones as well), Dickie Hammond has given me as many hours of enjoyment as any musician ever has. Not at day goes by that I don’t listen to his music. At one point right after he’d passed someone put up a post in which they showed a sort of back of the envelope list that Dickie had made for them outside a show one night of his favorite music. It was so close to what I would have done (for instance he was one of the few people who understood the true brilliance of the Moving Targets) that I really felt like I was in soul with the guy. I’m having a couple of scoops in his honor. I suggest you do the same. 🙂

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