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Resilient rockers' egg-cellent adventures
THE CHICKENS with WAYNE OMAHA, DALE MORNINGSTAR and RICHARD CARSTENS, at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Friday (January 19). $7. 598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
forget what you heard aboutthat crossing the road bit. These Chickens ain’t no joke. Sure, the knuckleheads in the Chickens know how to have a raging good time, but there’s a huge difference between being a novelty act and having a sense of humour. There’s no corny shtick involved.
The Chickens kick out high-decibel rock-and-roll action with the same sort of sweat-soaked intensity that once came roaring out of U.I.C. And that isn’t a coincidence.
Not only do the Chickens boast the propulsive rhythm section of former U.I.C. drummer Murray Heywood and bassist Dan Preszcator along with the devastating firepower of U.I.C. guitarist Fred Robinson, but they also have the megacity’s most exciting microphone mauler, U.I.C.’s Dave Robinson, fronting the band.
That’s right, Exeter’s answer to the Stooges have clawed their way back from obscurity to kick ass with a vengeance. So why the name change? Well, despite the fashion-world dictate, the 80s are over and the Chickens aren’t a nostalgia act.
The songwriting savvy of former El Speedo guitarist Ken Mikalauskas has added a sharper pop edge to the compositions, as can be heard on the Chickens’ cranking new Prepare To Plug In (Egg-cellent) album. Brilliant tunes stacked with massive melodies and ripping riffage – clever, concise and crushing without ever having to resort to intimidation tactics.
“We discussed the name thing a lot,” groans Fred Robinson, shaking his head. “In fact, we just jammed together for about a year and a half before we played our first gig because we couldn’t decide what to call ourselves.
“We went through about a million names and even contemplated going back to U.I.C., but it didn’t click. Ken has contributed so much to our sound that this really feels like a new group. Besides, none of us really liked the name U.I.C. anyway.”
So the Chickens it is, but the brothers Robinson can’t escape the influence of the high-energy Detroit rock sound. It’s right there in the twin guitar wallop of the Chickens just like it was in the battering blitz of U.I.C. The only difference is that, thanks to Scandinavian thugs like the Hellacopters, Backyard Babies and Gluecifer, the Detroit thing is cool like it never was during U.I.C.’s run.
“The Detroit sound was never a contrived thing for us,” explains Fred Robinson, tilting a large lager. “We came about it naturally from growing up in Exeter. It was easier for us to go to concerts in Detroit than Toronto. We’d listen to the FM radio stations from Detroit because the reception was really good across Lake Huron. So of course, we’d hear a lot of Ted Nugent, the MC5, Bob Seeger and Alice Cooper. I had the Stooges albums as soon as they came out.”
“Since Fred’s two and a half years older,” continues Dave Robinson, who co-founded U.I.C. with brother Fred, “that 70s Detroit rock was more of an influence on him than me. He was always a bit ahead of the rest of the crowd and listened to a wider range of stuff, like glam and heavy metal. I was into punk stuff like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, the Clash.”
The younger Robinson’s punk inspiration should come as no great shock to anyone who’s experienced his kicking, flailing and bouncing approach to delivering a song. He’d be a captivating showman even if he couldn’t sing a lick, but Robinson has a full-bodied holler to match his goofy-grand physical feats. He actually wails better dangling upside down off the PA or knotted on the dance floor than standing upright.
It’s amazing to see him hurl himself into the crowd at Chickens gigs. He can’t possibly be doing it to impress anyone, since half the time he ends up tangled in patch cords or flat on his ass.
“Toward the end of U.I.C., I thought, “I’m getting older and I probably shouldn’t be doing what I do onstage any more,'” allows Dave. “When the band broke up, I took a year off and travelled around to get away from the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing. As soon as I returned from my trip, I went out to see a band. That was it. I knew I had to get back onstage.”
An unexpected offer to join smalltime hoods El Speedo was just the sort of confidence boost Robinson needed.
“I felt like it didn’t matter what anyone thought about me,” Dave insists. “I was going to let loose and have a good time.”
In turn, Robinson’s revitalization with El Speedo – where he connected with future Chickens guitarist Ken Mikalauskas – indirectly helped reunite the members of U.I.C. as the Chickens.
“Of course, I’d played with Dave for years,” says Fred. “but it wasn’t until I saw El Speedo at Call the Office in London that I saw what Dave was doing from the perspective of the audience. It blew my mind. I don’t think any of us understood what we had in U.I.C. until we started working with different people”
What the members of U.I.C. also didn’t fully comprehend was the impact their music was making beyond the scene. Shows throughout southern Ontario were always packed and enthusiastically received. But apart from two brief exploratory trips across Canada and one gig in Cleveland, they never toured in the States or ventured to Europe to connect with the people who’d bought their records on a whim and caught hoser hysteria.
“My one big disappointment with U.I.C. is that we didn’t get to travel outside the country. If we’d toured the States or played some shows in Europe or Australia, who knows what might’ve happened?”
Hey, they might’ve been Nirvana. But then again, if their first cross-Canada expedition is any indication, they might’ve imploded. With seven dirty lunks squeezed into a tiny Econoline van for a six week trek, the stench was so overwhelming, manager Patrick Duffy elected to sleep on the equipment in the U-Haul.
“Most bands get better as the tour progresses,” offers Fred Robinson. “We got worse. Because we had only eight shows booked for the entire six weeks, we had all this extra time to get into liquor and other things that completely wiped us out.”
“We were so strapped for cash,” Heywood remembers, “Ted and I put on some old clothes and tried applying for welfare in Calgary. But when they noticed we’d listed a Toronto mailing address, they started yelling, “You have to live here to get welfare!'”
“Then we went over to the University of Calgary for a radio interview,” recalls Fred, “and discovered that the campus pub had a 75-cent special on shots. In no time at all, we were shitfaced. Somehow the fire alarm got pulled and the place was swarming with cops and firemen. We wound up duking it out with each other in a back alley. I walked off one way and the guys drove off in the opposite direction.
“The next morning I was stumbling around downtown Calgary without any money or shoes on my feet and I had no idea where the band was or where the next show might be. So I called my wife, Joanne, and tried playing it slick, like, “Hi, honey, you haven’t heard from the other guys lately have you? Oh, no, nothing’s wrong….’ Eventually, they called my home and we reconnected. We spent most of that tour in a drunken stupour.”
“We’ve never made any money at this,” toasts Heywood, “but we’re rich in memories.”
Smells like Nirvana
While the similarities between the guitar intro to Nirvana’s Come As You Are and Killing Joke’s Eighties have been widely noted, fewer people have noticed that Smells Like Teen Spirit sounds a lot like a song called Mystery Train on U.I.C.’s Live: Like Ninety (OG) LP released two years earlier. U.I.C. guitarist Fred Robinson, who was originally pitched Mystery Train by the composer, Richard Carstens, then of the Wammee, remembers.
“Just after our Live: Like Ninety album came out in 89, the Young Fresh Fellows played a gig at Lee’s Palace and crashed at our place afterward. We gave them a copy of our record to take back to Seattle with them.
“If you listen to Smells Like Teen Spirit you can definitely hear similarities. The first time we heard the Nirvana tune, we were, like, ‘Whoa! That’s bizarre!’
Young Fresh Fellows front man Scott McCaughey, who at the time was writing his influential Searchin’ USA column in the Seattle Rocket, is currently in South America and unavailable to discuss the matter.
Nirvana’s management did not respond to a request for comment.
“It got even stranger when we saw their accompanying video,” laughs Robinson. “The whole high-school auditorium thing with the kids going crazy looks just like our Strange Sin video.”