"I don't think you can underestimate the influence Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had on the antiestablishment, prank-driven, California punk and performance art scene in the '70s." — The Units
San Francisco's cultural revolutions of the '50s and '60s get plenty of retelling in the history books, while the vibrant years when punk shook the status quo often go overlooked. The late '70s was a fertile time for creative instigators in this city, with students from the Art Institute interfacing with a burgeoning music movement and an experimental film scene. A brave new world of adventurous activists was busily honing a sense of humor as weird as its recorded output.
I've been dwelling on San Francisco's punk roots a lot lately after stumbling into an excellent new collection of out-of-print material by San Francisco's original synth punks, the Units (History of the Units, the Early Years: 1977-1983). The group's music and mantra provide interesting angles from which to view an era of rapid technological and artistic progress — much like the one we're in now.
As Units founder Scott Ryser explains, when he moved here from Redding in the late '70s at the age of 17, the Bay Area was a hotbed of innovation. Apple had released the first preassembled computer. Performance artists were challenging the norms of entertainment, sexuality, and advertising. "Boundaries were breaking, and it felt like anything was possible," Ryser says. (It was especially possible when you could pay $200 a month to live in an underground parking garage in North Beach, as he did.)
Most importantly for the Units, though, Robert Moog had produced the first portable synthesizer, the Minimoog, right when Ryser was thoroughly disenchanted with the guitar-band stronghold. "As long as you held a guitar and jumped around like an ape, you could spout antiestablishment lyrics," he says. "I was sick of the program."
Hence, San Francisco got its first Devo (or, if you prefer, its counterpart to L.A.'s Screamers) in the Units, an act that even now lives up to its boasts of being "a synth band that kicks ass." The group's multiple synthesizers were helmed, for the most part, by Ryser and his future wife, Rachel Webber, with a live drummer to round out the lineup. The music packed pop's infectious punch, but also had punk's subversive lyrics and critical eye toward the mainstream. Many of their songs possess a fidgety energy and driving beats; they're paced like races against apathy.
History of the Units puts the group's broad aesthetic spectrum on display. Some of these 21 songs show where the instruments are set adrift into dystopian, sci-fi soundtracks inspired by electronic composer Wendy Carlos (A Clockwork Orange). "Bird River" and "Zombo" are particularly blissful zero-gravity explorations.
The Units also injected their music with messages about remaining human in an increasingly commercialized culture. "High Pressure Days" is an apt anthem for today's gadget-saturated relationships. Ryser delivers staccato lines about lacking the time to greet a friend, existing in a space where people are "bumpin' round like bumper cars." The song pulses with a robot's anxious heart murmur, punctuated by Ryser's human outbursts. A chorus of glowing machine drones brings to life "Warm Moving Bodies," where Webber and Ryser lament the myriad ways advertising reduces us into sums of product-perfected body parts. On the flipside, the Units paid homage to a neighborhood that has long promoted individuality. The tongue-in-cheek tune "The Mission Is Bitchin" hails the streets of big burritos and bigger boom boxes — with an underlying tribute being paid to Mission venues like the Roxie and the now-defunct Deaf Club, which gave the Units places to perform.
Live shows by the Units were chances for the group to smash up the ruling class. They showed their disdain for guitars by creating plywood effigies of the instrument, which they'd then bash to pieces against an old Cadillac hood. The hood — which sounded like a gong — got quite a beating during the act's five-year run. It doubled as a movie screen, upon which the Units would project images of corporate training films "liberated" from dumpsters, as well as footage of "hated politicians" and "irritating authority figures." These images were particularly popular after the 1979 White Night Riots, when the cops raided the Castro in retaliation for heated public protests against supervisor Dan White's lenient sentence for assassinating Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. The Units performed often with the Dead Kennedys, who used the image of a burning cop car from those riots on their debut album.
Despite the serious social issues the Units were confronting onstage, the band was also attempting to keep its intelligent jester aspect intact. "Through our music and performances, we were really trying to heckle our culture," Ryser says. That included heckling themselves. "We were doing some things onstage to intentionally make performers — ourselves included — look ridiculous." You can get a taste of the smartass attitude from History of the Units. The CD opens with an old recording from iconic punk venue Mabuhay Gardens (R.I.P.) where emcee Dirk Dirksen taunts the crowd by introducing the Units with the line, "Obviously people with as little taste as yourself [sic] would become ecstatic over such average talent."
Punks weren't the only ones able to experience the Units, though. Besides playing at gay and strip clubs and taking part in an artist "boxing match," the Units were part of a fantastic-sounding performance art event in the window of a JC Penney store in 1979. (Can you imagine some experimental audiovisual gig going down now at, say, Macy's? Dare to dream.) The Units were part of the San Francisco synth scene that also birthed Tuxedomoon, the Residents, and Chrome, but their reach extended to opening for Gary Numan and touring with mainstream New Wavers OMD.
By 1984, though, the system the Units were trying to subvert was feasting on the band. They'd signed to Epic, where Ryser says the group's music was repackaged as "mediocre shiny bullshit." After the death of their manager, rumors of a former roadie being investigated for murder, and general San Francisco claustrophobia, Ryser and Webber moved to Brooklyn, where they started a family and a design business.
Now that his kids are grown, Ryser hints there may be new Units recordings, but he's reluctant to make any commitment before gauging support for the History compilation. In the meantime, his collection of electric cool-aided synth tests offers plenty of inspiration for tomorrow's witty tricksters.