Have you ever come across something—a new piece of fiction, new television show, new band—and wondered, “Where the hell was I when that came out?,” “This is awesome! How did I miss that?,” It seems to happen fairly often amongst Space Western fans. Case-in-point: Eric Reanimator enlightens us about the Space Western/Cowpunk stylings of The Jet Black Berries — ed. N.E. Lilly
In 2001 a group of Rochester New York musicians reinvented themselves for about the fifth time since 1977 and formed the glam space rock outfit, The Atomic Swindlers. Previously they had been the folk/county group The Raw Magillys, the power pop/punk band New Math, and the cowpunkers The Jet Black Berries. Not having many new tunes ready The Atomic Swindlers re-recorded several new versions of the Jet Black Berries songs including a couple from the 1984 debut album Sundown on Venus.
Evolving beyond the confines of punk rock and new wave The Jet Black Berries had started off mixing the musical elements of Gram Parsons/early 70’s Rolling Stones country rock, Rockabilly, and the roots rock punk of The Gun Club and The Cramps. Lyrically transporting traditional western ballads into space and adding a huge dose of William S Burroughs beat style storytelling drawing mostly his then recently finished The Red Night Trilogy.
Cowpunk for those who aren’t in the know, is exactly what it sounds like, country style songs played with the energy, humor and basic rock and roll chops of punk. Often times, as with The Jet Black Berries, it was tagged as part of the so-called Paisley Underground Psych Revival of the 80’s. The Jet Black Berries were heavier, sonically speaking, on the psych and punk side of the equation.
Recorded in 2 days in August of 1984 Sundown on Venus is dark, moody and slightly droning, especially on the second side, but it never drags. ’Bad Hombrekicks‘ off the record with blast of hard rock only to melt into the poppy fun of ‘Macumba Love’ and through the title track, then onto the most obviously space westerny song ‘Masked Astronaut’. The last track on side one, a cover of Rockabilly legend Ersel Hickey’s ‘Bluebirds’, which outside of Rockabilly circles is know for having been covered by Ritchie Valens and The Beach Boys.
Side two is more challenging and rewarding of a listen. It starts with the Burroughs/Kilgore Trout feeling ‘Noon in Cairo’, which is my favorite track on the album and a lost 80’s psych gem. The rest of side two is dark and maybe a little deeper lyrically than side one. ‘Ring of Steel’ makes me think of the film stage coach for some reason, and ‘Johnsonville’ of John Wayne’s last film The Shootist. The album ends with another cover, this time of ‘Shakin All Over’, originally by Brits Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.
The first pressing of the LP also came with a 6-song one-sided 12″ record that included a couple of odds and ends tracks. First up is ‘Shadowdrive’ which was written and recorded for the scene in Return of the Living Dead, in which James Karen enters the crematorium, ‘Articles’ a track that refers directly to the Burroughs and The Red Night Trilogy. ‘All is Lost’ was also written for Return of the Living Dead (this time for the end scene of the film). A cover of the Brit 60’s psych/pop tune Cara Lin bridges the way for new recording of 2 New Math tracks; ‘Restless Kind’ another slightly western/ drifter feeling track and‘They Walk Among You’ a cool zombiesque should have been hit (which is really the track that should have been in Return of the Living Dead, aNew Mathtune called ‘Love Under Will’ was used) fill out the second disc. On the tape version of the album these bonus tracks were mixed with the Sundown on Venus album, and while they don’t hinder the flow of the album, knowing that they don’t belong in the sequence in which they are places is an annoyance.
The Jet Black Berries’ Sundown on Venus didn’t make many waves in the underground and as many people don’t know of the band, let alone the album, so obviously they didn’t do much in any commercial arena. Two more albums followed: Desperate Fires and Animal Necessity before the band called it a day.
Sundown on Venus isn’t perfect, but its vision and ambition are unlike any album I have ever run across. I like to play it every once and awhile just to remind myself that there is an intersection for all the stuff that I like, punk rock, dark Sci Fi visions and the myth of the west. The album was never released on CD and is of course out of print, but copies of the LP and cassette are still out there, in the discount bins and flea markets of the world.