Formed by the unification of two talented veterans of the LA indie-rock scene — ex-100 Flowers guitarist/singer Kjehl Johansen and ex-Last keyboardist/guitarist/singer Vitus Mataré — Trotsky Icepick began life as a trio (with ex-Last drummer John Frank), striking a workable stylistic compromise between the two fraternal bands. Rather than just play airy/edgy pop (friendlier than 100 Flowers and more modern than the Last), the group hit on a Big Concept: keep the same title for every album, and change the band name instead!
Recorded two years prior to its 1985 release, Danny and the Doorknobs’ clear-vinyl Poison Summer is a neat little pop record — underproduced and haphazard, perhaps, but sprinkled with good songs (like the title track) and skillfully varied arrangements. (Granted a more explanatory title, this debut was later overhauled — replacing several tracks with vintage outtakes — remixed and reissued in an inferior sleeve as Trotsky Icepick Presents Danny and the Doorknobs in ‘Poison Summer’.)
The second Poison Summer, an entirely different 1986 LP credited from the get-go to Trotsky Icepick, was recorded as a quartet in which the arrival of a keyboardist allowed Mataré to concentrate on guitar. Harmony vocals and improvements on every front — studio sound, twin-guitar arrangements, melodies, lyrics — make the LP a treat, a crisply uncommercial demonstration of unstylized pop with intelligently offbeat lyrics.
Abandoning the name game and dispensing with keyboards entirely, Mataré and Johansen then drafted two new bandmates — ex-Leaving Trains drummer Jason Kahn and ex-Last bassist/guitarist John Rosewell — for Baby, a louder, thicker rock album of tuneful songs about hated crooners (“Bury Manilow”), lost loves (“Mar Vista Bus Stop,” the fingerpicked folk of “Robitussin Rag”) and the evils of advertising (“Don’t Buy It”).
Upon Kahn’s departure (to join the Universal Congress Of), the Trotskys absorbed another Last alumnus (drummer Hunter Crowley, a sorry substitute) and another 100 Flowers alumnus (singer John Talley-Jones, a solid asset). Thus constituted, the quintet made El Kabong, a well- integrated blend of fascinating lyrics and intricately textured catchy guitar rock. Besides a cover of Magazine’s “The Light Pours Out of Me,” TI takes another swipe at rampant consumerism (“The Conveniences of Life”) and explores bizarre corners of the imagination in weird character studies. (The CD has three bonus tracks.)
Perhaps feeling a little more adventurous, the group added seven musicians to supplement the core quintet for The Ultraviolet Catastrophe. Marimba, cello, Chapman stick and mandola all appear on an album that still fails to equal previous efforts. Covers of the Monochrome Set (“Alphaville”) and Television (“Venus”) are mixed in with typically oddball originals about horror stars (“Barbara Steele”), superheroes (“The Martian Manhunter”) and the like.
Rosewell and Crowley then exited and Middle Class bassist Mike Patton (who had played on two songs on The Ultraviolet Catastrophe) and John Glogovac signed up for Carpetbomb the Riff. Stripped down to guitar, bass and drums, the album contains one ace song (“1001 Points of Light,” about the LA riots) but the rest is a disappointing mishmash of songs about politics (“Invisible Politicians,” “Home Surgery”), religion (“There Goes Salvation”), the obligatory clown song (“Hate Clown”) and whatever else was playing on indie radio in the early ’90’s. Whatever happened to the guys who sang about Goya, Barry Manilow and session musicians?
After six albums, the Trotskyites released Hot Pop Hello, a compilation of leftovers, which announces (on the back of the album) that “Any semblance of a commercially viable product is strictly coincidental and not intended.” Ironically, it’s one of their best albums. Aside from the dreary opener, the album is full of spiky pop ditties about the Beach Boys (“Father Murry’s Glass Eye”), desperation (“Personal Ad”) and Paraguay (“Oh, General”). Even the faux bluegrass number (“Empty Reel”) is a winner. It ends on a high note, with a pair of real foot stompers. The unlisted track is a live version of Baby’s “Dante’s Flame.”
Johansen and Talley-Jones joined the reformed Urinals in the mid-’90s; Johansen then left to put out a solo album. The Urinals released one album and have since morphed into The Chairs of Perception.