The Wolfgang Press – ‘Queer’ (4AD/Time Warner, 1991/1992)

In 1991, I graduated high school, started college, and kissed a boy for the first time.

It was also the year that British independent record label, 4AD, released The Wolfgang Press’ album, Queer (CAD1011). But by the time Warner Bros. licensed and distributed Queer (9 26908-2) in the US the following year, it was a different album. And I was a different person.

I got turned onto 4AD in middle school by picking up a copy of Cocteau Twin’s The Spangle Maker before I knew who the Cocteau Twins were. (It was just so beautiful I had to know what it was). That led me to the then-new 4AD compilation, Lonely is an Eyesore, which turned me onto other bands, including The Wolfgang Press.

I was a “virgin” through high school and gave and received very little physical affection, beyond the familial and friendly, until college. I had crushes—starting with girls, continuing with boys—and a few very romantic friendships—a girl, then a boy. Family life was good. Friends were good. My romantic longings and sexual responses did not much synch, though, with what I understood to be The Greater Normalcy around me. I was shy and emotional. I was an Artist—drawing constantly, checking out art books on Salvador Dalí and Man Ray at the local library, as well as movies on VHS, like Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971) and Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), and reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Oscar Wilde, Anaïs Nin, and e.e. Cummings. I was, by any definition, a “queer” kid.

The Wolfgang Press began as a post-punk band, and all three members were previously in bands that had early 4AD releases—frontman Michael Allen and Mark Cox were members of both Rema-Rema and Mass, Andrew Gray had been in In Camera. The ‘Press released their first album, The Burden of Mules, in 1983 to seemingly no one’s unbridled excitement. Trouser Press describes it as “dark and cacophonous, an angry, intense slab of post-punk gloom that is best left to its own (de)vices.” Jason Ankeny on AllMusicGuide calls it “dark, noisy, and intense … impenetrable” and adding that a few tracks are “so morose and vehement as to verge on self-parody.”

Regardless, they went on to release a series of three EPs (produced by Cocteau Twin’s Robin Guthrie) through which they began to find themselves, recording a cover of Aretha Franklin’s Respect (with background vocals by Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser) along the way. Though not exactly “funky,” it didn’t seem a joke; the cover possessed a kind of contained hysteria and—however hazy—seemed to state a trajectory.

Their next album, 1986’s, Standing Up Straight, is my personal favorite. They’d gelled as a band and delivered a solid, exciting record. The sound of a slowed-down jackhammer begins the record; that sound becomes a beat (white men creating funk from the sound of heavy machinery). Bless My Brother is a flurry of what sounds like some kind of frenzied tribal drumming.  John Fryer’s production gives the whole affair that—by then—trademark 4AD Art House sound.

The funk trajectory is more clearly followed up with 1988’s King of Soul, the lead single from Bird Wood Cage, their next and arguably best album, produced by Flood. “If you don’t listen up, you’re askin’ to be told,” Allen barks at its jarring opening— the beats here have more in common with the industrial music that was coming out of Chicago at the time. Kansas, the following single, proved funkier, with a punishing insistence more akin to their punk roots than their soulful aspirations.

Then came Queer.

My last year in high school, I realized my queer-ness in a conscious way—first in regards to a punk rock poet, from afar, then in regards to a “best mate.” We shared a love of art, films, books, and music—I turned him onto Morrissey and he turned me onto De La Soul first album. Other friends turned me onto Acid House and other kinds of dance music popular in the New York City club scene. A few of those friends were graduating college at the time I was starting; they moved to NYC and found their way into that scene at its height. The Club Kids were in full effect, with ringleader Michael Alig at the center. They even produced a magazine for a while called Project X, that I would find from time to time and buy whenever I saw it.

My first year of college, I realized my queer-ness in a more actual way—when an attractive and charming fellow-Freshman pulled me out of my head and into his bed. It started with him gently bumping his knee against mine during a campus screening of the then-recent Madonna: Truth or Dare (Alek Keshishian, 1991), and of course would end in tears. But a door was opened.

I snatched up Queer when it came out on import in 1991. Rather than frontman Allen on the front cover, it was Mark Cox —a queer decision—and rather than opening with a jolt, the album fades in; we hear a sampled voice calling “Wolfgang…Wolfgang, my dear?” under layers of effects and instrumentation. The track, Birmingham, quickly settles into a shimmering groove. Allen sings “Face the facts and don’t look back / there’s a hole in this middle town affair.” One wonders if this is Birmingham, England or Birmingham, Alabama. Another sampled voice, distinctly American (“Are you The Wolfgang Press?”), leads us into the next track, a cover of songwriter Randy Newman’s Mama Told Me Not to Come, another upbeat track (and their second single from the album). Then Heaven’s Gate begins the album’s descent into nocturnal clubland territory. TWP sound more free on Queer than ever before and the beats point right at New York. Recent ex-Throwing Muses bassist, Leslie Langston, joined them, playing keyboards, as well as bass and co-writing Fakes and Liars. Dif Juz drummer Richie Thomas contributed to the album and singer/poet Annie “Anxiety” Bandez (who’d recently married Dif Juz guitarist Dave Curtis) performs the monologue (and only vocal) on Birdie Song and duets with Allen on the following track, Dreams and Light.

Jason Ankeny reviewing the album for AllMusic Guide called Queer “alien funk, a collection of idiosyncratic rhythms, dark textures, and ominous grooves.” The first single from the album, Time, preceded the album and pointed firmly in that direction, with dark, minimal remixes done by Colorbox’s Martin Young, who, at the coaxing of label head Ivo Watts-Russell, would also go on to remix other tracks from the album, most notably Sucker.

After my friends moved to New York, I started looking for them in the club photos in Project X—and sometimes found them. Then, Queer popped up in the very small section they had for album reviews and that kind of blew my mind. My love for 4AD and interest in dance music and nightlife were, for the most part, completely unrelated. Those two wires crossing really turned me on, and felt right-on-time, as I was starting to go out and entering into a period of experimentation.

Then in 1992, Time Warner released Queer in the United States but it was different. This was not uncommon at the time. American record companies were primarily concerned with releases doing well financially in what they saw as the American market(s). For example, Boy George’s 1988 UK album Tense Nervous Headache was released in the US in 1989 as High Hat—with virtually the same cover but with a different tracklisting and the US record company marketing him as “new jack swing.” Likewise, Queer (9 26908-2) had a slightly different color and tracklisting. This time it was frontman, Allen, on the cover and the background color changed from yellow to green.

The US Queer featured a new single and b-side—A Girl Like You (Born to Be Kissed) and Angel respectively—as well as the Martyn Young remix of Sucker. It was common for these US releases of UK albums to have extra tracks. But the two new tracks hadn’t much in common with the album. A Girl Like You was a strong single (it became their biggest hit internationally) and Angel is very pretty but compared to the shifty, experimental and yes, even funky Queer, both were very middle-of-the-road, no chances taken. If they’d all have been included at the end of the original album that would have been fine. But Warner Bros. made the new single the first track on the album, an album the single had nothing to do with.

Then there was the issue of sampling. I’d always loved sampling—Colourbox did it well and early (and to huge success in 1987 as M/A/R/R/S, a collaboration with A.R. Kane, with Pump Up the Volume) and it was common in industrial music in general, which I was wild about (I’m still discovering sources from samples in My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult tracks). It was one, of many, samples on De La Soul’s 1989 album, 3 Feet High and Rising, that resulted in a court case. The Turtles took them to court in 1991 over a 12-second sample of their song You Showed Me which had not been properly cleared. They settled out of court but it changed things forever. I loved that De La Soul album and listened to it over and over again, well aware that I was not the only one, but I had no idea until recently that TWP were also listening to it repeatedly. The creative freedom in that album, and the use of samples, inspired them to make Queer. “They were finally making the music that they were hearing in their heads,” remarks Ivo Watts-Russell in Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD (by Martin Aston, 2013).

The De La Soul court case happened prior to Time Warner releasing Queer, so, because of the album’s use of samples, extensive changes had to be made, further separating the release from the original 4AD. Their use of sampling was subtle compared to De La Soul, so some changes were more noticeable than others. The most obvious were samples of film dialog that were, presumably, “recreated” by the band members. I can’t find a comprehensive list of the original album’s samples, but I know at least one of the dialogue clips was from Powell & Pressburger’s 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death. There’s just no substitution for something like that.

With the changing sampling laws, I’d guess 4AD’s original pressing of the album was their only pressing. And with Time Warner re-angling and adding to the album, the legacy of the original Queer is a bit lost.

Michael Allen, Mark Cox, Andrew Gray

Their next and final album, 1995’s Funky Little Demons, would prove to be neither that funky or demonic. Not a bad album but not a great one either.

The Club Kid scene in New York would effectively end when ringleader Michael Alig and his roommate, Robert D. “Freeze” Riggs, killed and dismembered fellow Club Kid, drug dealer Andre “Angel” Melendez, in their apartment. One of my friends that moved to New York and fell in with that scene, knew Alig. He said his energy was so dark during the period of the murder that if he saw him on the sidewalk he would cross the street not to run into him.

I don’t have any reason to believe the last days of The Wolfgang Press were that dark; they do seem cinematic though: playing 4AD’s All Virgos Are Mad festival in Los Angeles (unofficially marking the end of Ivo’s 4AD), and collaborating with Sir Tom Jones (at his request).

I’ve experienced darkness in my life and had some glamorous moments—but nothing that dark, or that glamorous. I would move from my Midwest hometown, and college town, of Bloomington, Indiana to New York City in 2000, after an extended college career and a half-year in London. I’m writing now in 2020 from Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for a few years, and it feels like the edge of the world, at the end of the world. It was 25 years ago when The Wolfgang Press were in town and giving their last hoorah. I wonder what the city felt like then.

The city is weird now, like all cities are weird now—but Queer still thrills; it still makes me want to move. The final track on the album, Mother Valentine, starts with a dialog sample: “Life is a state of mind.” That may reverberate now more than ever.

– Aaron Tilford

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