In Vinyl Retentive, A.V. Clubbers share what we find while crate-digging in our own houses.
"Sex Machine" b/w "Berlin"
Factory Records, 1980
Format: 7-inch single
File Under: The unsexiest booty jam ever
Seeing as how I covered James Brown in last week's Vinyl Retentive, it seems perversely fitting to follow it up with Crawling Chaos' "Sex Machine." Nope, it's not a cover of JB's funk anthem–in fact, if his "Sex Machine" is a stiff dose of aural Viagra, Crawling Chaos' is the musical equivalent of getting punched in the groin. While being forced to watch barnyard porn. Starring your mom and dad.
"It was (and still is) an unwritten policy," it is, well, written on the band's website, "for Crawling Chaos and their ilk to annoy as many people as possible." While it's not exactly clear who their ilk are, the group's two core members–Doomage Khult and Strangely Perfect, the latter being maybe my favorite punkonym next to Will Shatter–were spurred to form Crawling Chaos by the British punk explosion of the '70s. Further inspired by proto-industrial noise terrorists like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle–as well as the macabre prose of H.P. Lovecraft, whose "The Crawling Chaos" might have had some small influence on the band's name–Khult and Perfect did, as promised, annoy. In fact, the band only barely managed to get signed to the legendary Factory Records; allegedly, the decision was hotly debated by Factory head Tony Wilson and partner Rob Gretton. It didn't help band-label relations much when Factory wound up having to siphon money from Joy Division profits to press the Crawling Chaos' debut single, "Sex Machine," which came in an embossed, expensive-to-produce sleeve.
At the time, Factory had just three bands on its roster: The Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, and the recently beheaded Joy Division (with OMD already having defected to a major label). As relatively eclectic as that bunch was, Crawling Chaos didn't fit in with any of them. Even the sexiest of the Factory bands, A Certain Ratio, bore the label's trademark cold, clean lines and antiseptic aura. Crawling Chaos, though, was a fucking wreck. Gangling, ungainly, sloppy, self-sabotaging, murderously humorous, and perhaps mildly insane, the group appropriated the title of one of James Brown's most archetypal funk tracks and basically took a big dump on it. Clinical detachment was the name of the game when it came to that era's synthesizer-backed post-punk, but Crawling Chaos was about as robotically aloof as a rusty lawnmower–and "Sex Machine" is a dripping, glorious, psychosexual phantasmagoria worthy of Ballard or Cronenberg (or a precociously perverted 11-year-old). The synths are demented, the singing shrill, the beats nearly brain-dead–but it's the lyrics alone that are worth a trip to the nut farm:
I've got a brand new pair of genes I've been to the doc, he's got the means He's turned me into a sex machine He's given me a pair of enormous balls That could even fill the Festival Hall With schoolgirls screaming for more and more
I'm going to the doctor's It's easy you see No need for operations And you'll know how it feels
Tomorrow I get my hands done With fifteen fingers and a phallic thumb I'll rattle the girls till they come and come The stomach lining change has really done the trick It brews alcohol and gives me kicks And makes me have supersonic sicks
I've got pricks on my toes and one on my nose And some on my back that nobody knows But the one I got first still grows and grows I've got a set of clits hanging in my ear I've been to the doc to get a smear He told me I had gonorrhea
A nuclear prick is hidden up my bum I tried it on a lady who likes some fun And she got blown to kingdom come
Still, "Sex Machine"–as refreshingly anti-pop and counter-aphrodisiac as it is–sounds like Depeche Mode compared to the single's B-side, "Berlin." The name of that city at that time bore connotations of Lou Reed, David Bowie, and the Teutonic lockstep of Krautrock, which were all clear influences on Crawling Chaos. And they all melt into a dissonant mess all over "Berlin," an aimlessly menacing jam that limps and burps along for seven torturous minutes before succumbing to some kind of sonic gangrene. In other words: It's fantastic.
Current whereabouts: Crawling Chaos' relationship with Factory went south soon after the release of their debut album, 1982's equally sick and surreal The Gas Chair. From there the band started releasing records on its own label, Foetus (no relation to Jim Thirlwell's pioneering industrial project of the same name, although it's not hard to imagine Thirlwell and Crawling Chaos being mutual admirers). Khult and Perfect gradually drifted away from the group, although they reunited in 2003 for a new full-length titled Homunculus Equinox.
While loved by '90s indie-pop luminaries Unrest, who covered "Sex Machine" on a Sub Pop single in 1991, Crawling Chaos has sadly been forgotten in favor of their more somber and earnest post-punk contemporaries. When Factory's resident Joy Division clones, Crispy Ambulance, are more fondly remembered than you are, you know you've definitely annoyed all the right people–like, for instance, critic Simon Reynolds, who figured Crawling Chaos didn't even warrant a mention in his definitive post-punk history, Rip It Up And Start Again. Despite the Factory-mania that followed 24 Hour Party People–not to mention the whole post-punk revival of the aughts–Crawling Chaos doesn't even have its own Wikipedia entry. Apparently undaunted, Khult and Perfect are still plugging away.
Availability: The "Sex Machine"/"Berlin" 45 is currently on sale for between $40 and $70 on the Internet, but both sides showed up as bonus tracks on the recent CD reissue of The Gas Chair.