(Listen While You Read)
It should be common knowledge by now, but if you don’t know, this is important: Indiana has a secret treasure trove of largely forgotten or ignored acts that are unique, endlessly creative, and each important in its own way to an underground scene that has yet to really catch the notice of the larger public in a lasting way. Then again, popularity isn’t really the point of underground music. “Weird music” drifts in and out of style (albeit only as novelty for many), but there’s some music that just doesn’t seem destined for mass consumption, as innovative and oddly brilliant as it may be (think The Residents, Captain Beefheart). Bloomington’s seminal early-eighties art-punk weirdos The Dancing Cigarettes are a case in point. Their jagged, new-wavy blend of post-punk influences wasn’t exactly popular in its day, and it still looms just out of notice for most fans of the genre or just beyond accessibility for the uninitiated. But fans of authentically dissonant and angular rock should take note: The Dancing Cigarettes may be one of the best spazzy punk bands you haven’t heard, and you owe it to yourself to listen.
Formed in 1979 and playing until 1983, The Dancing Cigarettes combined an avant-pop sensibility with a love for energetic beats, skronky noise rock, and odd, almost dadaist lyrics. The Dancing Cigarettes typically focused on creating a cacophony from only a small handfull of instruments, but they could also prove surprisingly versatile. For example, listen to the synthy new-wave pop perfection of “Pop Doormat” next to the atonal nightmare-wave of “Puppies in a Sack,” on which vocalist Michael Gitlin keeps yelping, “How many of these problems do you have?” and “It was fun for a while,” to the tune of carnivalesque keys battling sharp-cornered guitars and Don Trubey’s repetitive, honking sax. The effect is something like listening to Pere Ubu and The Magic Band simultaneously: disorienting, no doubt, but fun in the dizzy, nauseatingly nihilistic way that defined the best art rock bands of the early eighties. Again and again, The Dancing Cigarettes specialized in the same clashing, howling, deeply synchronized power that defined New York’s James Chance and the Contortions, fellow Bloomingtonites MX-80 Sound, and Athens, GA dance-punk legends Pylon.
Perhaps best known for “Broken Windows,” their feverish, outstanding contribution to Indiana label Gulcher Records’ 1981 punk/new wave compilation, Red Snerts (if you really count that as “known”), The Dancing Cigarettes also recorded a 7” EP for Gulcher that features the aforementioned “Pop Doormat” and “Puppies In A Sack,” along with two other crown jewels for the band: “Mr. Morse” and “Best Friend”. All of these songs, plus outtakes from the same session, plus a live show from the Bluebird in 1981, were compiled and reissued on a 2002 CD titled The Gulcher Recordings: 1980-1981. Another CD, 1996’s School of Secret Music is also a superb collection of studio and live recordings, but the true collector will probably seek out any of the band’s cassettes made during their active years, which must be almost impossible to hunt down now. If nothing else, it would be a dream come true to see the band’s fabulous first 7” for Gulcher back in print on vinyl, but only time will tell if/when that will happen (2011 was the year, remember, that saw Family Vineyard re-issue the Dow Jones and the Industrials 7” EP).
We are fortunate that the internet age has helped preserve the legacy of The Dancing Cigarettes so that they can remain more than a footnote in Indiana’s musical history. Live videos of the band can readily be found on youtube, and the footage makes it clear that this is a band who shone just as brilliantly (if not moreso) in the live setting as on tape. “Wild Times” is a jittery, anxiety-ridden, oddball anthem that sounds like a feistier version of early Talking Heads until it ends in a compact noise freakout that lands closer to Sonic Youth territory. “Burn in Heaven” is another outstanding live video that puts the band’s fantastic bassist/sometime-vocalist Emily Bonus into the spotlight. The band’s hive-mind collaboration skills, their locked-in intensity, their singular energy, impeccable taste, and artistic integrity are just a few of the reasons it would have been amazing to actually see them play live, but in the absence of a time machine, we have to delve into what time has left us, and appreciate it, and share it, so that the memory of this towering band of midwestern visionaries can live to dance another day.
(Original Gulcher 7" Cover Art)
*Note: We at MFT have become aware that some of the song titles on The Dancing Cigarettes page may be labeled incorrectly, and we are working to correct this issue.