Issue #123: Savvy Show Stoppers by Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet

July 23, 2018

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Savvy Show Stoppers by Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet
Released In 1988
Released By Glass Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Steve Lampiris

It all starts with The Kids In The Hall. Indeed, it’s the reason we’re discussing Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet this week. The most likely reason anyone knows SMOASP — guitarist Brian Connelly, drummer Don Pyle, and the late Reid Diamond on bass (now replaced by Dallas Good) — outside of the band’s home of Toronto is because of “Having An Average Weekend,” one of the band’s earliest compositions that dates all the way back to their promising Love Without Words EP from 1985. And the reason anyone outside of Toronto heard it is likely because it was used as the theme to TKITH, Canada’s answer to Saturday Night Live. (Fun fact: Lorne Michaels produced both shows.)

I came across TKITH because Comedy Central ran reruns of it when I was in middle school. I was instantly hooked, and to this day I’m convinced that its best sketches are on par with SNL‘s. So it’s a fair assumption that my fondness for Shadowy Men’s music is at least partly rooted in the nostalgia of summer vacation and not having a care in the world.

Can you blame me, though? The opening of Diamond’s palpitating bassline and Connelly’s ticklish guitar will forever have the same effect as hearing Valley Lodge’s “Go” (the theme for Last Week Tonight With John Oliver): namely, that it makes me feel like everything’s gonna be OK, if only for a few minutes. The world may seem like it’s unraveling at times, but not when “Having” is playing. It’s an impossibly fun little number, and probably the best surf rock instrumental not called “Miserlou.”

For Off Your Radar, I’ve picked the trio’s compilation album, 1988’s Savvy Show Stoppers, essentially a collection of the singles and EPs that the band had released up to that point. Besides having their most recognizable track, SSS is probably the easiest barrier of entry into Shadowy Men’s (admittedly small) catalogue, as well as being a damn fun collection of surf rock that’s perfect for warm weather. Like most bands of that genre, the material of SSS isn’t meant to be serious, something that’s immediately obvious from the song titles: “Zombie Compromise,” “Vibrolux Deluxe,” “Our Weapons Are Useless,” et cetera.

The politeness of it all — how stereotypically Canadian! — makes the album that much more fun. Sure, it’s absurd but it’s measured absurdity. “Run Chicken Run” is probably the weirdest of the bunch, and it still easily fits within the overall tone. The opening guitar sounds like it’s clucking, yes, but the band is careful never to color too far outside the lines. Even the slightly sinister vibe of “Theme From T.V.” and “Shake Some Evil” feel right at home here, and that’s because Shadowy Men make courteous, inviting surf rock. (Surf rock was never not polite, and yet the band’s Monty Python-esque take on it makes it seem like they invented the idea.) Hell, the most abrasive they ever got was calling a song “We’re Not A Fucking Surf Band,” only to walk that back 23 years later.

But whatever you wanna call what Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet does, it makes me happy. I love this album because it’s playful and absurdist in equal measure (i.e., “We put dance wax on the floor”), just like The Kids In The Hall. If you’ve never seen the show, a sketch called “Things To Do” is a personal favorite. It’s silly and odd and a little dark, and like Kevin McDonald’s character, it plows ahead without consideration for consequence. The same can be said for Shadowy Men. They’re just kinda in their own little world, one in which not only is nonsense a part of everyday life, but a part meant to be embraced. It’s a world where there are infinite possibilities because internal logic doesn’t matter. In other words, be yourself and embrace the weird.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

Vintage tone. Plucky spirit. Magnetic compositions.

It’s ironic that the musicians behind Savvy Show Stoppers called themselves “Shadowy Men” because from the first notes of opener, “Good Cop Bad Cop,” there’s virtually no pairing that can fit to describe the music, other than surf punk. And while solidly surfy music so often ushers in thoughts of high energy, bright days, and crowded venues with a messy but fun atmosphere, vague shadows and ambiguity? Not so much. Then again, the bends in many of the warble frosted notes and the flow to their larger motifs, do come across with a bit of minor-key mystery. Just listen to the ascending minor triad making up the bulk of the hook in the ever slowly swinging “Shake Some Evil.” There’s a brief moment where this track gives off that old school noir detective vibe or, perhaps in slightly more recent TV related terms, many of the police station scenes and themes for the officers in the original Twin Peaks. The show’s story and setting, with a supernatural murder mystery in rural Washington state, was hardly near a beach town or punk scene. Nonetheless, if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know right away what I mean when I say it could fit. Still, given that Savvy Show Stoppers and the Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet are so highly known for the placement of “Having An Average Weekend” on a popular comedy show, weird hypothetical applications and accompaniments for the music on this album don’t end up feeling all that strange. I’ve never seen the show Kids In The Hall but, for what ultimately became its main theme, there’s an interesting selection in a song that is, not only one of the longest on the album at over three and a half minutes (whereas others are under two and a single even under one, which seems more easily usable for a TV spot) but, uses a tone bend and guitar tone color that, unlike “Shake Some Evil,” evokes a classic western standoff scene vibe more so than that of recurring comedy. That is, unless Kids In The Hall had a western themed skit of which I’m not personally aware. Anyway, on the whole, this is a fun listen if you’re a fan of surf and-or punk energy and if it’s a less common set of genres for you, that’s fine too. Savvy Show Stoppers still elicits lots of character in its tracks, despite the large number of them being as short as they are. The band not being one that primarily relies on lyrics, make it obvious listeners aren’t going to just get one style of song more than a dozen times over. Each track exudes a unique mood or a mindset and if you need another example, just listen to the high pitched, thin toned, frenetic strumming and eventual matching drumming on “Run Chicken Run.” The hectic, high end strums, with a pair of almost screechy longer tones that play out the less-than-pleasant interval of a tritone, (augmented fourth) fuels the idea of something — namely a bawking chicken — as frenetic and panicked. And herein lies the primary vehicle of intrigue for this late ’80s record. The individual style of each song gives this album an almost single-minded feeling, even if the record came about in a time that was very much still about albums as whole, connective works. If some of the songs were just a bit longer and the band took the shorter EP-with-singles-released-monthly route, I could definitely see Savvy Show Stoppers doing well with 2018’s single-minded methodology.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

I don’t know this group’s history, or why they chose to make Savvy Show Stopper an instrumental album, but the project makes me wonder: how close were they to having vocals on some of these records? Was it a conscious decision by the group to always perform as an instrumental act? Did they simply just never meet a singer/ songwriter that fit into the group? I ask because some of these records are just begging for vocal accompaniment to strut their stuff as full-fledged songs. Now, of course, there are some records like “Good Cop Bad Cop,” which seem perfect in their natural state. But then there are others like “Having An Average Weekend,” that could easily be an iconic theme song to a ’90s sitcom, with its happy-go-lucky vibe and undeniable catchiness. What if? Then there’s “Big Saxophone Lie,” perhaps my favorite of the bunch. This track is so dynamic, so interesting that one can’t help but wonder if even a simple call-and-response hook may have put it over the top in the national consciousness. This is one of those albums that’s just different in the best way possible. It’s kind of like the Pulp Fiction soundtrack with vocal samples. It’s a sound that’s oddly hip in any era, except the ’80s, which makes Savvy Show Stopper even more of a quirky gem. These dudes were truly on their own (wave)length.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Calgary, Alberta has no ocean. It’s a flat Canadian prairie province where the only thing that flows is a breeze across a farmers field. It’s far from either coast and it occurs to me that simulating the sound of waves with reverb-drowned guitars was probably not the initial motivation of Shadowy Men On A Planet. Clearly there had to be a common desire to resurrect ’60s-influenced, instrumental echo-rock with a punk influence. At some point one of the band had to stand up and say “This is what we ought to do…” and then they proceeded even though they curiously denied the label. Listening to the compilation {Savvy Show Stoppers, it’s hard to imagine how the Calgary rock scene gave rise to a group of rock musicians performing technically superb surf rock, but their influence on Canadian rock history and on innovation on the sound general is undeniable. With the help of the hit sketch comedy series The Kids In The Hall, their song “Having An Average Weekend” propelled them to iconic status at home, but it was the strength of the rest of their work that made them stick. Tracks like “Zombie Compromise” meant there was more to the band than just that theme song. “Summer Wind” and “Misty” made the range of their work seem rich and fulfilling. The band helped reintroduce a very niche genre back into the modern, North American rock and roll lexicon. If we’ve learned anything about rock and roll in the last 100 years, it’s that it’s a universal sound and whether you’re playing it at a beachside hut in So-Cal or rocking out in a barn in Alberta, the classification argument becomes somewhat moot. Whatever it is, it sparkles, it flows, it swells, it rises up, and it crashes but most importantly, it rocks.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

From their name & aesthetic to TV association & song titles, most of Shadowy Men says “novelty act,” whereas their music simply proclaims “surf ingenuity.”

I feel like every time I write for Off Your Radar these days, I find myself thinking of my teenage years. This week’s discussion of Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet is no different, but at least this time I have a good excuse — these guys were at their peak in the first few years of the ’90s, fueled by the fact that their song “Having An Average Weekend” was the theme for the cult classic sketch comedy show The Kids In The Hall. I didn’t have HBO at the time, though — instead, I heard about them through the same punk-derived fanzine world that was introducing me to a lot of my faves around that time. Shadowy Men were the first of the early-’90s surf revival bands I heard, and like other bands from that wave of retro-garage twang (Man Or Astro-Man, Los Straitjackets), they mixed their straightforward surf-sound revivals with more offbeat touches, seen on Savvy Show Stoppers most prominently on brief skit-songs like “Shadowy Countdown” and “Malfunction.” This album, which actually compiles singles and EPs from their first few years and was never intended to stand as a unified work, is perhaps unsurprisingly more straightforward than follow-up efforts I’m more familiar with (mainly 1991 full-length debut Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham). But that’s absolutely OK, especially around my house — my wife’s a huge fan of surf music, and not only are Shadowy Men one of her faves, this is her favorite album by them. I can see why; these songs were originally released in small groups of three and four apiece. The band had to get their point across briefly and clearly, and they did so with aplomb by cranking out upbeat melodies with a driving forward motion, most of which draw to a close by the two-and-a-half minute mark. They serve their purpose, which is to get you up and dancing around your living room. This is good-time music of the first order, and if it’s not quite as frantic or distorted as the most manic of the genre (i.e. Dick Dale) it is certainly a worthwhile continuation of the legacy created in the early ’60s by groups like The Ventures and The Chantays — but without merely replicating their sound, as revival bands often do. Instead, it’s updated for a post-punk fin de siecle era that came 30 years after the original surf era. Shadowy Men’s success at creating an interesting, fun update on this sound explains why this album still holds up just as well another 30 years down the line.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

First, a note to my distinguished Off Your Radar colleagues: Whenever possible, don’t wait until the weekend to explore the week’s album. (I’m a repeat offender, so consider this a combination mea culpa and call to arms.) I pressed play on Savvy Show Stoppers while driving back to Richmond after a week at the beach with my wife, kids, and extended family. The beach. I could have been soundtracking the week’s cocktail hours and dinners — a job I love and take seriously — with some seriously situationally appropriate (don’t call it) surf rock courtesy of Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet. It would have been perfect. Ostensibly sunny with a conflict-laden, minor-key undercurrent? You could be describing “Good Cop Bad Cop,” or you could be describing the utterly bonkers experience of vacationing in the Outer Banks with nine children under the age of five under one roof. There’s also the fact that my sister’s family was there — she’s the reason The Kids In The Hall was often on the TV when we were growing up. (I had to be reminded by Wikipedia that “Having An Average Weekend” was the show’s theme song. Sigh. It would have been so much more fun to see her face light up with recognition.) Still, listening in the car was its own kind of fun, with the perfect amount of ambivalence mixed in. Take bonus track “Summer Wind.” While this version is instrumental, the song’s lyrics are stuck in the future. From the outset, they look back on an untouchable, golden past, capturing with painful accuracy the way that summer — the season in which time seems to slip away no matter how hard you try to savor each moment — is essentially over as soon as it begins. What better song could there be for that particular drive? Maybe I didn’t pick the wrong time to listen after all.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

The band Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet is a weird band. As is generally the case, this is by no means a bad thing. The level of weirdness they achieve on this album is actually pretty astonishing. It’s like they started off with the weirder aspects of Pixies, They Might Be Giants, and The Aquabats and used them as a starting point (which, it turns out, is actually the opposite of how things very likely went down as SMOASP predated the first releases from all three of those bands). Now, you might be saying, “But James, this seems like fairly straightforward surf rock to me. What are you talking about?” First, I would agree with you about the genre that this album most closely resembles (though the band might disagree with the both of us). But then I would ask you to take a hard look at songs like “Malfunction” (which, every time I listened to it, made me think something had gone wrong with my phone or with the internet or something — intentional, of course, and very effective) or “Theme From T.V.” (which sounds exactly how it should sound, but then the band yells “Theme From T.V.!” at the end and it feels almost like they’re revealing a prank that they’ve pulled). I really enjoyed this album because of its weirdness, and I think you might too.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

After not doing my homework last week and not realizing that Wulfband is, in fact, Swedish rather German until after the issue was published, I was quick to look up Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet and was amused to discover that they released a song titled “We’re Not a Fucking Surf Band” in 1993, though they recanted, in a manner of speaking, two decades later with a compilation called Oh, I Guess We Are A Fucking Surf Band After All. The comp title doesn’t sound like they’re fully convinced, but if Savvy Show Stoppers sounds like a surf album, it’s because it probably is a surf album. While I’m not much one for instrumental music, I generally make an exception for surf instrumentals (for me the gold standard is Night Birds’ 2013 EP, Monster Surf) and with that in mind, I feel comfortable saying that Savvy Show Stoppers is a hell of an album. There are fast tunes (“Run Chicken Run“), slower jams “Shake Some Evil“), and there’s even a humorous interjection showcasing the band’s sense of humor (“Malfunction“). It’s all I could ever ask for in an album that is solely focused on instrumentation. Most of my familiarity with surf rock comes from its close cousin: surf punk, and this album certainly came into my life at the right time: A few weeks ago Steve Soto, founding member of bands such as the Adolescents and Agent Orange, passed away and his death got me re-interested in listening to some of the earliest punk albums to grace my ears (namely, Agent Orange’s Living in Darkness — specifically the 1992 reissue with the original “Bloodstains” single featuring Soto in the lineup), so to get a whole album full of fast and dirty surf music feels like it was meant to be.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

Living up to surf’s music shadowy legacy, the trio offers up plenty of blueprint observances and tons of divergent concepts.

I was just recently crawling all over 1988 in the process of making a playlist to celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary. I wanted 30 songs, and only good ones (no kitsch), so first I dug into the Wikipedia list of album releases. Then I did some individual searches for reggae, jazz, and classical, all of which were underrepresented on the general list. I even ended up adding Red Rose For Gregory by Gregory Isaacs to the Wikipedia list, from which it was inexplicably absent. Ninety percent of the albums or songs were ones my wife and I had listened to incessantly when they were released, with one or two (Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, for example) being discovered slightly after the fact. I would also say I was familiar with most of the releases on the main list, even if they were crap or just not my thing. But Savvy Show Stoppers was not there 00 and if it had been, I doubt it would caused even a glimmer of recognition. Maybe that’s because we didn’t watch The Kids In The Hall, which used one of the Shadowy Men’s songs as its theme, even though it was relentlessly promoted on MTV. Our loss, because this is a seriously fun record and I can see sticking tracks from it onto mixtapes back then, where their retro but thoroughly contemporary stylings would have fit right in, maybe between another instrumental from Joe Jackson’s Tucker soundtrack or one of k.d. lang’s smoky tunes from Shadowland. While they don’t seem to explore deep emotions like Pell Mell, those other latter-day instrumental experts, they’re perfectly fine as they are, continuing an intermittent tradition that goes back to the origins of rock & roll. Sometimes the culture needs reminding, which starts here — and after I put these Savvy Show Stoppers on the Wikipedia list!

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Right from the get go, this album stood out. It has quirky album art, an amount of tracks that is far more than on a typical album, and plenty of random song lengths that caught my attention. Overall, I enjoyed that the album as a whole was mainly instrumental, and upbeat instrumental at that. I’m in that kind of mood where I actually feel like listening to sad piano melodies, but I think this is probably a better choice to listen to. Not to bring anyone down, but it’s just been one of those weeks and it’s funny, as soon as I saw the track title “Having An Average Weekend,” I knew it would be the song I needed to hear today. Sure enough it was — melancholy enough, but also with a hint of playfulness and definitely sounding like the soundtrack to an average weekend. It’s been on repeat since I hit play. Sometimes you just need that one song to bring you out of a little funk, and I am thankful I now have a song to play for the rest of my average weekends.

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

On the one hand, Savvy Show Stoppers offers up some of the most charming surf music to come out of the last three decades. It’s fun. It’s catchy. It’s breezy. It’s animated. It’s everything you could want out of music designed to mimic riding an cascading current. But I will admit, just being instrumental surf music, it’s hard to imagine this gripping your attention for a whole record, let alone a twenty track, 40+ minute compilation. Luckily, this is anything but surf music. I don’t exactly buy into their later proclamation that they are not a surf band — these are musicians who dutifully studied The Chantays, Jan & Dean, and The Atlantics. They are very clearly a surf band, though they are also clearly more than a surf band. Listen to funky country swing of “Vibrolux Deluxe.” You might still imagine the music taking place on a beach, but the beach gets transported from California shine to Floribama… whatever Floribama has to offer. (Clearly not a good TV show.) “Run Chicken Run” and “Malfunction” offer up playful experimentation that points at the band wanting to see how far they can stretch the rubbery style. And the surf sound seems to stretch well, but the most crucial evidence for the band being more than surf band comes from when they’re just trying to do a good surf song. Take “Bennett Cerf,” for example. It’s not their most memorable song, or even one of the top five, but it’s a giant testament to the band’s skill. It’s got all of the hallmarks of a classic surf song, with a descending guitar lick and a sprightly melody, but in just 95 seconds, the band accomplishes so much more. Around the fifty second mark, the bridge kicks in with a chord change that I have to say is downright sophisticated. That’s not something you really hear being said about surf music written by someone besides Brian Wilson. But it is. They basically take a fun, if not formulaic, surf melody and twist it into an engaging, slightly melancholic tune that’s has more pathos packed in than most art created today. Hyperbolic? Sure, but this is is an unassuming tune that shows off how brilliant the band can be when they’re not messing around with cute song titles or quirky interludes. And this isn’t a flicker of brilliance buried in an overloaded release. You can find similar moments in “Harlem By The Sea” or even “Customized,” though those moments are much more subtle than the Beatle-esque moment on “Bennet Cerf.” The Clash comes to mind in this argument. At their core, they were a punk band, but to end the description there is just a disservice to their hard work and vision. Same goes for Shadowy Men who may not have had the impact or legacy of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, but clearly had a congruent outlook that pays off handsomely when listening to their music.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
North Sentinel Island by The Copyrights
Chosen By Dustin Gates

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Hannah Angst, Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & Darryl Wright

Logo By Matt Klimas


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