Phil “Snakefinger” Lithman, an English guitarist and singer whose musical career began in the early ’60s, recorded a pair of albums in the early ’70s with his pub-rock band Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. After working closely with the Residents and on his own, he died of a heart ailment in July 1987; the work he left behind typifies both imagination and technical excellence. On songs like “Sinister Exaggerator” and the Residents’ savage reworking of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” his deranged slidework and upside-down solos — trickily playing the wrong notes in the right places — adds an immediately recognizable deviant edge.
Snakefinger’s solo debut was “The Spot,” a cutely weird little 1978 single that ended up on Against the Grain. But his first two albums pointed up Snakey’s major weakness as a solo artist: even with copious musical and technical input from the Residents (who co-wrote and co-produced both), he just isn’t that weird (for a Ralph Records act, that is). Skeletal arrangements and over-reliance on clichéd rhythm-box beats don’t help, either. Nonetheless, when released as singles, a track from each — “Man in the Dark Sedan” and Kraftwerk’s “The Model” — became modest (but deserving) underground hits.
Around the time of Greener Postures, Snakefinger hit the club circuit with a backing band variously known as Bast and the Dead Residents. The presence of steady company (including Beefheart alumnus and future Pere Ubuite Eric Drew Feldman) makes Manual of Errors an improved listening experience; juxtaposed against (relatively) straight rock backing, Snakefinger’s innate weirdness comes across as even more subversive.
Against the Grain is a thoughtful compilation of his Ralph work to that point, providing the perfect entry to this unique guitarist’s demi-warped world. Everything you’d want to hear is here — from “The Spot” through “Beatnik Party” — plus a great unreleased track, “I Love You Too Much to Respect You.”
With a new backing group, the Vestal Virgins (again led by keyboardist Feldman), Snakefinger recorded Night of Desirable Objects and the cassette-only Live in Chicago, which have no songs in common. The excellently produced disc is quite good, comprising complex jazz instrumentals, a believable English fiddle ballad, unadorned a cappella gospel and typical (for Snakey) originals like “There’s No Justice in Life” and the organic “I Gave Myself to You.” The live tape gives up something in audio sophistication and audio variety, but offers showy and extended new versions of such oldies as “Save Me From Dali,” “Beatnik Party,” “The Model” and Ennio Morricone’s “Magic and Ecstasy.”
Snakefinger’s posthumous CD Collection comprises Chewing Hides the Sound (minus two songs), Greener Postures (minus one) and both sides of his 1978 single, “The Spot” b/w “Smelly Tongues.”