When success eludes a band, more often than not its missing component is easily detected. Amidst the thousands of unoriginal acts and the handful of successful ones, a few, slightly ahead of their time, manage to slip through the cracks. Post-punk act Executive Slacks, whose first EP is reissued this month, may be one of them.
The band was spawned in the early 1980s in Philadelphia by three art students—Albert Ganss, Matt Marello and John Young. What began out of boredom—Marello and Young found the string part to an old piano lying on a street corner, dragged it inside and began making recordings—ended with a major label contract and an acrimonious split. In between, Executive Slacks nearly turned art-rock into crossover material and pre-saged a number of later trends in techno and goth music.
From the start, Executive Slacks was as much art project as it was real band. Early performances were held at house parties, art exhibitions in the subway and at local galleries. The trio once threw a wine and cheese party, placing the refreshments off in a far corner, where guests were subjected to a pathway of noise assaults before imbibing. Regular club gigs soon followed.
The band found their moniker in a run-down bookstore on Robin Street, where, looking at old magazines, an ad for polyester men’s pants—in other words, executive slacks—offered the kind of triple entendre that fit their jocular humor.
In short order, the Slacks played opening slots for the Stray Cats in 1982 and in ‘83 recorded four songs for a self-titled EP on local indie label Red Records. Ignored in the U.S., the EP’s opener, “The Bus,” became a pop hit in Belgium. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem recently said of it, “I always wanted to make a song that sounded like that.”
“The Bus” is compelling, not for its originality, as its twitchy backbeat and buzzsaw guitar lines are a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of punk and new wave culture. What it has is virility (a rarity in art-rock), which is matched by nightmarishly droll lyrics such as, “Oh no! Our legs are touching on the bus/Well, I’m not moving/My leg is stiff and shaking, but it doesn’t bother me.”
“In Belgium,” says vocalist Marello, “they didn’t understand the lyrics, so it was actually just a song they danced to.”
The rest of the EP roars out with similar obtuse urgency. Heavily modified synths play off primitive noise machines, dramatic percussion and white-hot shards of guitar, all of which earned the Slacks comparison to post-punk mainstays like Cabaret Voltaire and SPK. Red Records owner Richard Jordan joined forces with Ding Dang Records in Holland to organize the Slacks’ first European tour. A followup EP came in ‘84. (Both EPs were eventually combined for the full-length LP, You Can’t Hum When You’re Dead.)
The latter material was produced by ex-Killing Joke bassist Youth, whose work with Alien Sex Fiend convinced the Slacks that he alone could move their sound forward. In fact, the second EP’s angular sensuality sounds five years ahead of the New Beat/darkwave explosion that hit in Belgium during the late ‘80s, and, in hindsight, may’ve had more than a passing influence.
The band’s first album-proper—titled Nausea—came in 1985, though this time Youth’s production emphasized the kind of stylistic artifice that eventually killed off new wave completely. Where his slick, bombastic style works best is the album’s instrumentals and experimental sound collages, particularly the freakish “In and Out”—part breakdance, industrial-rock. By the time the band self-produced Fire and Ice, their sophomore LP, in 1986, instrumentals were a trademark. Even when lyrics appeared, they were rarely poetic couplets, more like shouted bursts of word art and surrealist slogans conceived inside a demented ad agency.
A new percussionist—Bobbie Rae (who replaced Ganss after the Nausea tour)—brought a propulsive backbeat to the album’s excessively delightful cover of Gary Glitter’s “Rock + Roll,” which was used in an episode of Miami Vice. The cooly tribal “Wide Fields” aped its hook from the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” adding a fiery wall of guitar pyrotechnics that sounds eerily like the Nine Inch Nails of Pretty Hate Machine, still two years away.
Fire and Ice got solid college airplay in the U.S. Soon Warner Brothers came offering a record deal. That’s when Marello says things fell apart.
“I was talking to my wife,” he remembers, “and I said to her, ‘This is about to change a lot.’” Marello says the band had fought a lot on the previous tour, and “the whole thing felt like it was more about business and career,” he continues. “It wasn’t fun anymore.” Marello’s decision to quit left keyboardist John Young as the sole original member. The Warner Brothers deal off the table, Young continued on for a few years, employing hard-rocker Athan Maroulis as the new frontman. But by 1990, Executive Slacks was finished. Young and Marello didn’t talk for years.
Both Young and original drummer Albert Ganss went on to successful careers in advertising, which they’d studied in art school prior to the Slacks’ formation back in ‘82. Maroulis went on to a career in record production, with the occasional acting gig. Marello, by far the most interesting post-Slacks artist, moved to New York City in 1987 and established himself as a successful video and conceptual artist. More recent forays into psychedelic, almost quasi-religious paintings have been less financially successful, but in many ways are a continuation of the tripped-out anarchy of the Slacks’ best work.
When Josh Cheon of Dark Entries Records contacted Young with the idea to reissue the first Slacks EP, the original members say it came as something of a surprise. Marello more recently found a bunch of old cassettes in a box at his mother’s house, which he and Young had made and handed out to friends before the first EP. Cheon digitized them and has since compiled the best for a forthcoming LP titled Seems Rough.
A few months back, a link to an early performance on Philly’s WXPN appeared on the band’s Facebook page. An odd rendition of Bertolt Brecht’s “Song of the Both” sits next to “Sugarhill,” which Young calls “our first, but not best, song ever.” Then again, what Executive Slacks did best was not write great songs. They pieced together sounds that captured the growing paranoia of an age predicted by Orwell, which, as it turns out, wasn’t marked by a single year, but by several decades. The inequalities of the 1980s, in fact, never ended. Neither did Executive Slacks’ relevance.