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Artist: Social Climbers

Album: Social Climbers

Label: Drag City

Review date: Sep. 1, 2011


Social Climbers - "Chicken 80" (Social Climbers)


Social Climbers emerged out of NYC’s post-punk/no wave scene just as the 1980s began. Mark Bingham had taken a run through the mill of major label striving, earning a songwriting job at Elektra just after high school, then returning to his native Bloomington, Ind., for school and a stint with Zappa-influenced Screaming Gypsy Bandits. Moving to Manhattan in the mid-1970s, he hooked up with the No Wave crowd, playing guitar in Glenn Branca’s guitar ensembles. He met Jean Seton Shaw and Don Connette (here credited as A. Leroy) during this period and formed Social Climbers in 1979.

Social Climbers’ sound was, in some ways, classic no-wave post-punk, relying on indifferently tuned, synthetic keyboard sounds for manic tuneful-ness, double layers of abrasive bass for its punch. The band used a drum machine most of the time, its uninflected beats giving the music a jerky, robotic feel. Yet unlike, say Devo, who also played with de-humanized, mechanized rhythms, Social Climbers incorporated a good bit of disco funk into their formula. (It was, after all, the age of Studio 54 as much as Lydia Lunch.) “Chicken 80,” for instance, filters tangled funk guitars and twitchy bass through a homegrown, anxiety-addled aesthetic. It is, unquestionably, the most anthemic of the band’s songs, but even so, a bit arch and italicized, a commentary on its post-punk and funk influences, rather than a thing in itself.

A couple of instrumentals lay Social Climbers’ tense sound bare, accentuating their dry, sparely decorated architectures of drum machine and keyboards. “Palm Springs” is maybe the most austere of all these tracks, Connette tracing out Return to Forever-ish keyboard futurisms over a galloping mechanized beat. Later, “Ernie K” has a jollier, more feverish feel, its roller-rink farfisa rushing merrily over a one-two cadence.

Still, for most of the songs, Bingham added a nervous, mildly psychopathic lyrical layer, in which the most mundane subjects turned luridly subversive. A Hoosier by birth, he retained a certain wide-eyed naïveté, or at least the ability to summon it in music. In the slinky “Chris and Debby,” Bingham alternates between R&B croons and quotidian spoken word (“How about I make you another sandwich?”), a regular guy adrift in the sexual heat of smooth soul. His reveries on predatory European art photographers with pencil-thin mustaches has the slightly-off awe of a boy who’s new to town. He turns the mic over to Jean Seton Shaw for “Taipei” (in the liner notes spelled “Type A”), and this is a very smart move. Shaw’s voice has a caressing softness that offsets and contradicts her band’s spasmodic sound, and she brings out the melodic tendencies of Bingham, too. He’s actually singing in this track, rather than ranting or declaiming, though in a distinctively strained and yelping voice.

Social Climbers ran in the same circles as DNA, The Contortions and Teenage Jesus, but was never very successful, even by underground standards. This self-titled album, originally released as three 7” singles, represents pretty much the band’s entire recorded output. The reissue adds a live performance of “Tickhead” recorded at Max’s Kansas City, and a giddy, unsettling cover of Bernard Herrmann’s theme from “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” with occasional drummer Wharton Tiers sitting in.

The reissue shows how prickly and difficult Social Climber’s aesthetic could be, its arrangements as sparse as Young Marble Giants, though less even less concerned with hook and melody. Even heard now, as a rash of young artists work the once-eccentric intersection between disco, punk and home-recording, the album is, at best, an acquired taste. It’s no mystery why Social Climbers never hit it big, though they make an interesting side note to NYC’s downtown, No Wave history.

By Jennifer Kelly

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