The more I think about it, the more I’ve come to realize that Big Stick might be the greatest rock n’ roll band OF ALL TIME. I mean, I can’t think of anybody better. Could the Beatles write a song as visionary as “Do Not Rape My Sister At the Municipal Pool” or as nuanced as “Girls on the Toilet”? Well, even if they could’ve they certainly fucking didn’t, I’ll tell you that much. Big Stick did.
Big Stick slithered up from the NYC art-rock underground in the mid-80s like brightly colored lizards, worlds apart both stylistically and sonically from the noise-damage darlings of the junkie punk scene they emerged from—Pussy Galore, Reverb Motherfuckers, White Zombie—or their high profile big mean daddies in Sonic Youth, the Swans, or Foetus. Sure, they were just as druggy, and probably even snottier than their deathtripping brethren, but they had style, and a sense of showmanship long abandoned by the then-reigning Feedback Mafia. Sorta like the more playful, less genocidal version of Jim Thirlwell and Lydia Lunch, John Gill and Yanna Trance were a live-work-fuck-kill together couple who brewed up their crazed sonic schemes in their very own secret headquarters, explaining little and revealing even less. They performed wearing elaborate masks, and all known press photos were similarly mysterious affairs, shrouding their true identities in a veil of feathers and wigs and antlers. It was crazy but sexy, and the secret-squirrel gag was the perfect compliment to their bizarre cut and paste electro-skronk.
The music that Big Stick played simply did not exist before they did, and whether directly or otherwise, their dizzying, junkdustrial, urban warfare psychedelia was the seminal first step in what became a whole host of so-hip-it-hurts rock sub-genres in the ensuing decades. Their abrasive pastiche of distorto-punk guitars, drawling slacker-rap, and cheapjack drum machine beats was pretty much the blueprint for the electroclash movement that made Satanic superstars out of Peaches and A.R.E. Weapons. The concept of a two-man (or woman) primitive blues-punk racket, pioneering when Big Stick did it, is now a guaranteed recipe for at least fifteen minutes of rock radio-baiting success. Disco punk was their thing too, way before Electric Six took a trip to the gay bar. If being a dozen years ahead of your time was at all profitable, then Gill and Trance would be zillionaires by now. But it’s not, is it?
Of course, some of that might be by their own design. Even thirty years down the line, nobody really knows what Big Stick is all about. Whenever interviewers asked about their early days, John Gill will always say something mysterious like, “It was rough. People died.” And then he’ll change the subject. It might be true, though. Yanna Trance claims that Big Stick started with a different partner, Trevor White, but he died in while driving drunk inspiring their first single 1986’s “Drag Racing,” a sleazy ode to pit bunnies and door slammers fueled by a blown-out drum machine, a disorienting stream of car crash samples, and Yanna’s monotone, baby-voiced declaration—“On Sunday, I put on my tube top, and Eddie takes me to the drag races.” And that’s pretty much it. It’s a minute and a half of loopy trash culture that completely deconstructs the standard format for a “rock song” and puts it back together all wrong, with leftover pieces scattered everywhere and glue dripping all over the edges. It’s sexy, scary, dumb, and brilliant, all at once. And they weren’t joking about the drag races stuff, either. The chrome and black exhaust of the drag strip permeates everything they do. When they weren’t Big Stick-ing, they were making drag race videos or writing for drag race magazines. They’re probably at a drag race right now.
Big Stick’s Yanna Trance in her natural environment
In 1987, they released their biggest hit, a brain-rattling monster called “Crack Attack.” Crackmania was then in full swing. I know it’s difficult to imagine a world without crack, but it was a lethal new high at the time, and came on like a plague of locusts, punching big ugly holes into urban communities all over the country, and especially in New York City, where Big Stick got to see the damage done, first-hand. Crime went through the roof, and people were getting strung-out and dropping dead all over the place. The nightly news hyped it as the infernal menace it truly was, and the half-assed “War on Drugs” was on. Again. In this midst of all this madness came “Crack Attack.” It was part social commentary, part enraged protest, part mocking sarcasm, part shock rock, and part hip-hop. It was controversial and crazed and dead-on, it was mean-spirited and blunt, it was vicious but righteous. That’s an awful lot of things for one song to be, which is probably why there were at least six different versions of it.
Anyway, “Crack Attack” did well enough to keep ‘em going for a while, touring weird countries and making weird friends. I don’t know how or why but in the 90s they had to change their name to Drag Racing Underground for awhile. As DRU, they released an amazing self-titled album in 1991. It’s one of the most outlandish, snarliest, gnarliest disco-punk/garbage rock records you will ever hear, featuring the classic “A Threat (DRU Theme)” which contains the immortal line “You go save the Rainforest and help the homeless, just stay the fuck away from my car.”
A couple years later they changed back to Big Stick like nothing ever happened. They’re still together and I still don’t know who they are and I’d like to hug them because they’ve made some of the greatest records of all time. In fact, a new one’s been in the works for awhile now. Fred Schneider from the B-52s sings on it. What a coat-tail rider that guy is.
‘Big Stick Story’ rockumentary
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Crack Master’: Rarely seen 1975 ‘Sesame Street’ cartoon supposedly too dark for kids