If you’ve heard Bush Tetras, you’ve almost certainly heard “Too Many Creeps.” The group’s debut single, released in 1980 just a few short years before they broke up (and later reformed in the ’90s), is something of a signature song for the group—agitated, odd, fun and more than a little off. It’s a bridge between the atonal anti-music of no wave and the ubiquitous hybrid of disco and punk rock that permeated New York’s underground—and eventually the mainstream via “Heart of Glass“—Pat Place’s one-note guitar riff and Laura Kennedy’s woozy bassline providing a suitably paranoid backing for Cynthia Sley’s antisocial narration: “I just don’t wanna/Go out in the streets no more/Because these people they give me/They give me the creeps.”
“Too Many Creeps” is, fittingly, the first track on new 3xLP box set Rhythm and Paranoia, which is essentially a description that encapsulates the essence of the group’s sound. The expansive compilation makes good on a series of attempts of varying levels of success at telling the complete story of the Tetras, the most successful of which thus far had been 1995’s Boom in the Night. The nature of the band’s fractured discography—a handful of early ’80s singles, a live album that preceded any studio albums, a cassette titled Better Late Than Never—curiously complicates putting one’s hands around the output of a band who, in the scheme of things, doesn’t have a body of work as large as Siouxsie and the Banshees or Talking Heads. Here, every chapter is covered, from 7-inches to studio albums, live recordings to the occasional cover song (see: Motörhead’s “Motörhead”), making good on once and for all compiling the material of one of post-punk’s most influential and innovative bands into an extended story well worth telling.
The band came into being during one of the most storied eras in popular music, Pat Place having previously played with no wave icons The Contortions before becoming Bush Tetras’ guitarist. And while Sley’s vocals are less of a frantic howl than that of James Chance, the guitars on highlight tracks like “Snakes Crawl” and “Punch Drunk” carry a similarly slippery Beefheart vs. Gang of Four shriek-n-slide. The Tetras wove punk rock into similarly peculiar shapes as their no wave counterparts, but there’s a sense of immediacy and groove to fiery funk-punk highlights like “Things That Go Boom in the Night.” Bush Tetras had the fodder for freaking out the squares (or creeps), but more than that, they made slithering, slinky post-punk that felt compulsively physical.
By the time the group released their Topper Headon-produced Rituals EP, however, they had begun their evolution toward a noisier, denser, and arguably even weirder permutation of their sound that fully solidified with their proper post-reunion debut album Beauty Lies. The grunge-noir chorus of “Mr. Lovesong” evokes 120 Minutes and Lollapalooza stages, but the rest of the song is sufficiently strange to remind you that this is the Bush Tetras after all, its verses a single bent guitar note and mostly open space, a spiritual successor to “Too Many Creeps” if not a sonic one. But this period of the band’s history has been somewhat overlooked, in large part because their major label debut, Happy, didn’t end up getting released as planned because of ’90s era label acquisitions, and the Don Fleming-produced album was shelved for 15 years. Which is a shame, because songs like the bright and grungy “Nails” and “Heart Attack”—though miles apart from where the band began—showcase a pop sensibility that’s easy to love, even if it’s not always so easy to reconcile as the same band that sprinted their way through “You Taste Like the Tropics.”
Shortly before the release of Rhythm and Paranoia, tragedy struck Bush Tetras when longtime drummer Dee Pop died, making the occasion one of mourning and sadness rather than outright celebration. As such, this is as much a tribute to a late figure in New York’s punk legacy, one who helped to make it both weirder and more fun. That agitated spirit is present throughout the entirety of this 3xLP set, the most complete document of a group whose output has never been so easy to piece together even via thorough crate digs. To get the complete picture is to hear a group that contributed so much more to the underground than catalog numbers.
Label: Wharf Cat
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.