Chain Gang

  • Chain Gang
  • Deuce Package EP7 (Kapitalist) 1979 
  • Mondo Manhattan (Lost) 1987 
  • Kill for You EP7 (Matador) 1990 
  • Perfumed (Matador) 1993 

Like the Loch Ness monster, this venerable New York quartet creates both heated excitement and intense apprehension among those who’ve followed its murky existence through more than two decades of irregular surfacings. Chain Gang began with the onset of New York’s first punk scene, having played its initial gigs (under a prior name) in the early part of 1975; the band’s aggressive, occasionally outright violent, approach would have fit right in if the deportment of its devotees hadn’t gotten the group banned from most of the city’s venues.

After releasing a handful of singles, Chain Gang went underground in the early ’80s, only to return with the blindingly intense Mondo Manhattan, the soundtrack to a mythical video project the group purportedly spent years working on before abandoning. Picking up where Taxi Driver left off, squalid songs like “Are You Wearing Gold Tonight” and “Gross Out on 40 Deuce” chronicle the Big Apple’s slow slide into the void — an inevitability that doesn’t seem to bother singer Ricky Luanda all that much. Although parts of the album are likely to be all but impenetrable to those living west of the Hudson, the guitar splatter that surges from the heart of songs like “Kill the Bouncers at the Ritz” and “I Read” (captured live, in a 1982 version enhanced by the sax honking of scene stalwart Bud Struggle) is absolutely universal.

Another stretch of self-imposed exile came to an end when the band recorded the Kill for You double 7-inch and then compiled Perfumed, matching those studio tracks with live material from various eras — evidence that the quartet has carefully preserved every ounce of the nihilistic vitriol it’s emitted over the years. Luanda proves as sharp as ever when it comes to anti-authority harangues like “Cut off the Drug Czar’s Head.” (In a show of solidarity for Body Count, Chain Gang challenged every band in America to follow its lead and integrate a version of “Cop Killer” into their sets.) Larry Gee’s pinned-pupil guitar scratching adds more than enough menace to anti-everything missives like “Murder for the Millions.” But don’t let those titles give you the idea that Chain Gang plays only punk rock. As evidenced by the mid-’70s recording of O. V. Wright’s soul classic “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and the contorted funk of “Beijing” (which spotlights the freakishly synchronous bond between bassist Ted Twist and drummer Phil Von Rome), it’s far more out there than that. This is the real sound of the decline of Western civilization.

[Deborah Sprague]