Piercing the Fog: VANIISH on San Francisco’s underground history

Keven Tecon

Having been in numerous SF-based bands himself, Keven Tecon of VANIISH has nothing but adoration for his city’s current and historical underground music scene. He says it himself, he could write a book on the history. Until he begins that arduous task, he’s started with a 10-song playlist of unheralded beacons in the city beginning in 1980.

Photo by Damon Way

With San Francisco as the current focus of gentrification and the displacement of artists I wanted to mention some groups that were influential to the underground music scene here.  San Francisco has never been given the same attention as New York or LA but that’s probably what has made the music here so interesting.  There are so many great bands to talk about that it could fill a book but I tried to keep the list to 10.

Chrome, “Static Gravity” (1980)

William Gibson once wrote about a post apocalyptic San Francisco in which all the poor and outcast created a shantytown on the condemned Bay Bridge. This is the song that would be playing on a boombox as you walked through the debris with your head down.

Tuxedomoon, “No Tears” (1978)

Tuxedomoon was/is a mercurial, arty, experimental group but “No Tears” is one of the most straight ahead exciting post-punk songs ever written. This sets the template that many SF bands will later follow.

The Units, “Cannibals” (1979)

One of the earliest synthpunk bands along with The Screamers. “Hoping some rare man’s blood is going to give them life/ This is a generation of cannibals.” Gary Numan would become famous for adding keyboards to punk with Tubeway Army but The Units did it better.

Factrix, “Splice of Life” (1980)

Experimental/ early industrial in tune with Throbbing Gristle and early Cabaret Voltaire. If you are going to stay up for three days straight painting mannequins you pulled out of a JCPenney dumpster than this is the soundtrack for you.

Minimal Man, “To Hold You” (1985)

From the band name as an alias to the mangled self-portraits, Minimal Man has always seemed like a much more introspective project than some of Patrick Miller’s contemporaries. Members of Tuxedomoon and Factrix also played in the band at different points. “To Hold You” is such an intensely beautiful song that I can’t help but listen to it on repeat.

The VSS, “Lunar Weight” (1997)

The VSS are technically from Boulder, Colorado but transplanted to SF. They added organ and keyboards to hardcore which gave their music a darker quality that set the stage for a lot of SF bands of the time. Singer Sonny Kay founded the label Gold Standard Laboratories which put out almost every great band in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Phantom Limbs, “Hot Knives and Hornets” (2000)

Death rock meets no wave. Phantom Limbs made the simple act of going to show feel dangerous, which is something I miss. They had records out on Alternative Tentacles and GSL. Skot Brown and Stevenson Sedgewick went on to form Black Ice.

Subtonix, “X-Rated” (2002)

Amazing noisy/post-punk/no wave band that happened to be all girls. Singer Jessie Montaigne went on to form Magick Daggers and Jewels of the Nile. Saxophonist Jesse Evans went on to form The Vanishing and is currently a solo artist. They released an album on Troubleman Unlimited which was owned by Mike Simonetti who also started Italians Do It Better.

The Vanishing, “Lovesick” (2004)

Self proclaimed as “sci-fi horror disco,” but watching them live felt more like being transported to Weimar Berlin. I remember seeing one of their final shows where Jessie Evans took off all of her clothes except for a marching band hat and her saxophone but it wasn’t for attention or titillation; it was as if she was performing a ritual.

Sixteens, “Live at Knockout” (2007)

Singer Kristen Louise is straight up crazy both on and off stage. After a show I saw them play on top of a pool table Kristen bit my friend’s neck hard enough to draw blood like some sex bat vampire. Impressive. They have also worked with Brian Hock from The Vanishing/Bronze and Skot Brown from Phantom Limbs/Black Ice.

VANIISH’s Memory Work is out now on Metropolis Records and streaming on Bandcamp.

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