My view is that there aren’t as many lost gems and hidden greats in hard rock / heavy metal than there are in most other genres. Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you – mostly it takes a decent amount of money, no matter how talented you are, to make a great sounding LP, secondly it’s not a genre that prizes obscurity and denigrates success in the same way as say, indie or electro-bluegrass-n’ bass and lastly the fans tend to be obsessive sorts scouring the press for new heroes to adore. I always felt like being into metal was a bit like following a sports team at times, you wanted to see them hit all the big venues and get as successful as possible. So, here’s a bunch who I think very unfairly missed the fame bus*with a great LP, Uncle Sam Letters From London.
Hailing from Rochester, NY Uncle Sam were noted in the UK rock press for two things, their rocking debut LP Heaven or Hollywood which featured an excellent gritty garage rock band take on early Alice Cooper** and the fact that the band still worked as milkmen for a dairy. There was much excitement in Kerrang! when Letters From London was released and so I mail-ordered the sucker and I can remember walking up the long uphill track home clutching my new treasure in May 1990. Uncle sam were a cool band, hell they even looked real cool on the cover, sprawled all over a bus, shirtless guitarist Larry Miller also sported the coolest goatee since Tom Waits. The back cover showed them ghostly and over-exposed (in the photographic sense of the word) in what I really hope was an abandoned house, rather than their current abode; although the fact that at least two of them are barefoot and there’s a picture of satan behind the beer cupboard on the wall, naturally, might point to the latter case.
Anyway, its one thing looking cool – another sounding cool and could Uncle Sam who’d just ditched their singer cut the mustard? they damn well could. Uncle Sam didn’t sound like anyone else I’d heard, the term ‘garage rock’ wasn’t really being used much back then, but only tells part of the story anyway. Sure there was breakneck rock (Whiskey Slick) but there were all sorts of interesting melodies and sensibilities going on in there too. Just take the high-strutting, ‘Dreams of Money’, clean drum sound, over-loaded fuzzy 3 chord guitar, clear vocals and great tune,A class act always works until somebody pulls the breaks You’d cheat a game of sollitaire when someone raised the stakes
I play this LP fairly often by my standards and my favourite tracks change each time, I love the way the title track just hurtles out of the traps, bemoaning ‘dirty little letters from London’ spreading rumours about a girlfriend’s infidelity, the sheer thrashy menacing sexual jealousy of ‘Stranger’ (You kissed a stranger/ You kissed a stranger / You kissed a stranger on your back!) – which suddenly introduces a horn section as the creepy protagonist threatens his girl’s life. To my mind every track here is a winner.
Today’s particular highlights for me were, as always, the ferocious ‘Goodbye Mr. Mary’, a cautionery tale of what happens should you fancy a rumble with this band, which features the refrain ‘I’m lean, I’m Mean and I’m good in bed / And I lost more friends than you’ll ever have’ – which I still think is a damn cool boast and would make a damn fine strap-line for a movie and the sexually-charged, and comparatively tender, ‘Crystal’. But the big pay off for me is ‘Red Shirt’, a clever, clever track about an affair at work. The couple involved work out an elaborate code based on her clothes,Red shirt means you love me Short skirt means be quick We’ll sneak into the back room Before the second trick
It’s just a great track, snarled out at good lick over another brilliant fuzzed-up riff, but again with a real grasp of melody. Such a good tune, such a good band.
The band always got good write ups and good press, but never seemed to find much of an audience. I went to see them play In Manchester Rock World on 6 November 1990 with my friend Ads, who was astonished that he’d finally met someone else who’d heard of them. We got there and accidentally broke into the ‘backstage’ area in search of booze to steal, to compliment the many Newcastle Brown Ales we’d already drunk and stumbled across Larry Miller the lead guitarist, 15 minutes before the show face down on a small table totally passed out, but with a bottle of Jack clutched upright in his hand. We promptly woke him up and had a chat with him and the singer Dave Gentner. They were lovely and gentlemanly and told us how much they loved it in the UK because they had fans here, whereas no-one knew them back home and the beer was much stronger, Larry Miller told us that he could show someone who knew how to play a bit of guitar everything he could do in less than 20 minutes and they very obligingly signed all manner of stuff for us. They then played a blistering set to about 75 people, Larry Miller shuffling sideways to throw up on the side of the stage without missing a note.
I bought a copy of their 12″ single Whiskey Slick from them that night, even though I already had a copy I’d bought 3 weeks before, because it came with a giant Letters From London poster, which was a bigger, better version of the cover photo. The B-side is an appropriately ramshackle version of Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’, which in my usual fashion thought was one of their songs for a year, or so. Hey-ho.
The band pretty much faded away after Letters From London which is such a shame, they were a genuinely talented bunch of guys. Raise a glass to Uncle Sam, who just didn’t get the breaks.
214 Down (LP and 2 copies of the single – I know, I know).
*not to be confused with the FAME bus – full of leg-warmers and overly-dramatic performing kids.
**and originally, a nude chick on the cover. Don’t worry I will review this at some point soon – anyone want it now?