For twenty years, the Golden Palominos have been musical chameleons, continually changing lineups and styles just as listeners start to think they have the band figured out: from downtown improv-noise ensemble, to alternative rock band, to dub and techno-flavored dance music generators. The only constant has been drummer Anton Fier, whose vision and interests have steered the group through two decades of music making.
The Golden Palominos were formed in the early 1980s, as a joint project, by drummer Anton Fier and noise-guitarist Arto Lindsay. Fier came from Cleveland where he had played with new wave cult band Pere Ubu. In 1978, he left Ohio for New York City. Once there he moved through various bands including a band he formed himself, the Feelies and the Pedestrians. At the end of the 1970s, with Lindsay and John Lurie, he co-founded the Lounge Lizards, a band that played an indescribable combination of noise, kitsch, and jazz. “Actually, when I first started playing with the Lounge Lizards, Arto and I wanted to call the band the Golden Palominos,” Fier told Down Beat’s Bill Milkowski. “We liked the name but Lurie didn’t.” Lindsay, Fier said, was the reason he joined the Lounge Lizards. So when Arto left the band, Fier did too and decided the next step was for the two of them to form a new band together, which they were able to name the Golden Palominos.
The group’s first incarnation was as a super group of the late-1970s New York downtown improv scene. Its participants included luminaries such as saxophonist John Zorn, guitarists Fred Frith and Nicky Skopelitis,and bassists Bill Laswell and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. The music the band made was a marvelous combination of incongruous styles. On the one hand, the music was improvised, free, uncontrolled even. Lindsay, the Palominos de facto frontman, played chunks of noise on his 12-string guitar which he deliberately refused to tune and squawked out truncated, nonsensical lyrics, while Zorn was as likely to accompany the band with bird calls as with his horn. On the other, when the band played it locked into a throbbing, unrelenting funk groove driven by Tacuma and Laswell’s basses and Fier’s unerring backbeat.
The group gave a series of critically well-received concerts in the New York City area in 1982, and in 1983 released a record, simply titled Golden Palominos, on Bill Laswell’s Celluloid label. The New York Times lavished praise on the album. Down Beat called it “a masterpiece…an enormously important and satisfying album” and gave it five stars, the magazine’s highest rating. However, Anton Fier was far less satisfied. Three years later he told Down Beai that he considered the record a failed experiment. “I don’t consider it a success either musically or conceptually,” he told Milkowski. “It was supposed to be more song-oriented, but the other people never really picked up on it. I wanted them to get more outside of themselves and their traditional roles of what they’d been doing, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Fier’s dissatisfaction led to the Palominos’ first 180 degree turnaround. When the second Palominos album, Visions of Excess. appeared in 1985, the downtown super group was no more; only Laswell and Skopelitis remained. The Palominos had become a different kind of “super group,” a rock ’n’ roll super group. It included one-time Cream bassist Jack Bruce, REM’s singer Michael Stipe, John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, guitarist-extraordinaire Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention, Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell, guitarist Henry Kaiser, organist/bandleader Carla Bley, and Raybeats guitarist Jody Harris who with Fier composed most of the record’s music. The Palominos had morphed from an improv funk band to a guitar-driven rock group. They played with the heavy, pounding edge of Led Zeppelin, whose songs the Palominos began performing as encores at their concerts.
The most unexpected surprise on Visions of Excess. was the emergence of singer Syd Straw as the star of this group of stars. Fier first heard her perform at a Van Dykes Park show. They were introduced and Fier invited Straw to do some background singing on Visions of Excess. It worked and he asked her to write some lyrics for Jack Bruce. She came through again and Fier let her sing lead, first on one song and then
For the Record…
Members include Anton Fier (born on June 20, 1956, in Cleveland, OH), drums, percussion, programming;Bill Las well, bass; Nicky Skopelitis, guitar. Occasional members: Nicole Blackman, vocals; Carla Bley, organ; Jack Bruce, vocals, harp; Lori Carson, vocals; Knox Chandler, guitar; Bootsy Collins, guitar; Fred Frith, guitar, Jody Harris, guitar; Henry Kaiser, guitar; Lydia Ka-vanaugh, vocals; Robert Kidney, vocals, guitar; Amanda Kramer, vocals, keyboards; Arto Lindsay, guitar, vocals; John Lydon, vocals; Bob Mould, vocals, guitar; Michael Stipe, vocals; Syd Straw, vocals; Jamaaladeen Tacuma, bass; Thi-Lihn Le, vocals, Richard Thompson, guitar; Bernie Worrell, organ; John Zorn, saxophone, clarinet.
Anton Fier moved from Cleveland to New York, 1978; Fier joined Lounge Lizards with guitarist Arto Lindsay, early 1980s; Lindsay and Fier’s new band, the Golden Palominos, played their first New York City gigs, 1982; released first album, Golden Palominos, 1983; Visions of Excess released with completely changed Palominos line-up, 1985; Palominos made first national tour with Syd Straw as primary vocalist, 1986; Amanda Kramer and Robert Kidney took over primary as vocalists, 1989-91; Fier collaborated with singer Lori Carson for two albums, 1993-94; collaboration with poet Nicole Blackman.
Addresses: Record company —Restless Records, 1901 South Bundy Drive/Los Angeles, CA 90025-5203.
another. By the time the Palominos set out on their first tour in 1986— Rolling Stone called it the band’s “third incarnation”—Straw was front and center. She had quickly become the band’s face and she was doing most of the vocal chores.
By the time Visions was released, it was clear whose band the Golden Palominos was. Anton Fier had a hand in writing nearly all of the music. He made all of the group’s creative decisions. He hired and fired the musicians. Arto Lindsay, with whom he had formed the group in the first place, was relegated to a single cut on the record. Fier made sure his hand-picked players played the way he expected them to. If they didn’t, things could get unpleasant. “If people don’t sound like themselves, and do what they [want to] do,” Fier told Rolling Stones Steph Payne. “I’d get very angry.”
Discussing the Visions band with Don McLeese of the Chicago Sun-Times Vision, Fier said “This is as permanent as anything I’ve ever been involved in.” Indeed, the Palomino’s third incarnation line-up and sound remained largely intact for their third LP, with the double title, Blast of Silence/Axed My Baby for a Nickel. The record opened with a spoken introduction by actor Dennis Hopper, whom Fier had long admired. “I decided I wanted Dennis to do something on this record,” Fier told Peter Kobel of Billboard. “So I had him do various dialogs and we decided on the line, ’A little older, a little more confused.’” This line was from The American Friend, a Wim Wenders film in which Hopper performed. Blast of Silence also included guest vocals by T-Bone Burnett, Matthew Sweet, and Robert Kidney earlier with the Numbers Band.
It took Fier three years to bring out a new Palominos record. 1989’s A Dead Horse revealed that he had reconceptualized to band once more. Fier had had boiled the Palominos down to a tight core of himself, Laswell, Skopelitis, and vocalists Robert Kidney and Amanda Kramer, who did all the singing themselves. The songs were dreamier, more introverted, without the in-your-face rock edge of the previous two records, but with undeniable drive and energy nonetheless. With A Dead Horse, considered by some the group’s finest album, the Palominos moved into a new kind of rock that was understated and intelligent, yet vibrant and moving at the same time. On their next record, Drunk with Passion released in 1991, Fier seemed to combine the different approaches he had previously used in making the Palominos rock. Amanda Kramer handled the lion’s share of the singing. But there were also guest shots by Michael Stipe and Husker Du’s Bob Mould.
When This Is How It Feels came out in 1993, the Palominos had made major changes. The rock was gone completely. Dark, pulsating dance rhythms predominated, accentuated by the vocals, sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, of Lori Carson and Lydia Kavanaugh. Frequently Fier sampled and replayed their words to create a pulsing, obsessive verbal tapestry. Fier had waited five years to work with Carson, who co-wrote much of the record’s material. “It’s like a dream that I had five years ago is finally being realized,” he told Billboard’s Chris Morris. Another addition to the dance mix, which Billboard’s Bradley Bamberger termed “intimate chamber funk,” was veteran funkist Bootsy Collins, who played guitar rather than his customary bass for the Palominos. “He’s playing the guitar like a drum,” Fier told Morris in praise of Collins. “I used the guitar strictly as a rhythm instrument.”
According to Fier, This Is How It Feels was the second installment of a trilogy, that began with Dreamspeed, a Japanese album of Fier’s not credited to the Palominos. “I view the Dreamspeed record as a Japanese version of what I am doing with the Palominos and it laid the groundwork for This Is How It Feels and Pure,” he told Yellow Peril. “These works show me pushing the boundaries and are more rhythm-oriented and less song-based than earlier Palominos work.” However, Fier was dissatisfied with the third section of the trilogy, 1994’s Pure. Half of the record, he thought, was great; the other half, though, hadn’t been worked through completely and was no good. He tried to get Restless, his record company, to stop the record’s release. They refused. “The record was a mistake that I for sure will not make again,” he told Mike Lehecka and Walter Mitty of Hinternet. “Because I only have a limited number of records that I can make before I die and they should all be something special.”
The next Golden Palominos record was nothing if not something special. For Dead Inside, Fier teamed up with poet-performance artist Nicole Blackman to create one of the most ominous CDs of the decade. Blackman spoke rather than singing, and she spoke disturbing texts about violence, the death of feeling, falsehood, and desperation. Fier’s accompaniments for the texts, which for the most part Fier created digitally on his computer, are more soundscapes than music. Swirls of electronic wind and digital noise combine with Fier’s drum and bass into a fierce techno beat, all of which collides with Blackman’s words in the mind of the listener. The combination is potent.
Dead Inside’s most notorious piece opens the record. “Victim” is the stream-of-consciousness of a kidnap victim, that ends abruptly with her shotgun murder. Blackman heard a story about a woman who had disappeared, sat down and wrote the story in a single session that left her exhausted and shaken. “As strange as it sounds, I really don’t feel I wrote ‘Victim, ’ it seemed a dead woman just told me her story and I took dictation,” Blackman told the online magazine, Artistdirect. “I didn’t know how the story would end and when it was over I turned off the computer and wept because I knew it had to be true. I didn’t sleep that night and the story haunted me for a long time. I’m quite sure it was the testament of someone who had to tell the tale so she could move on, like a ghost caught between worlds.” Both Fier and Blackman were delighted with how the album turned out. Blackman believed its assembled parts possess the coherence of an opera. Fier told Artistdirect simply: “Dead Inside is the best work I’ve ever done.”
Anton Fier’s musical life extends well beyond The Golden Palominos. He has long been one of the most in-demand session drummers in New York, having played with the likes of Mick Jagger and Yoko Ono. He regularly produces records for other artists. But that’s the work Fier does to pay his bills. His ultimate musical love is the Palominos, and they are the laboratory in which he works out the musical ideas he finds most challenging. “Anton makes Golden Palominos records separate from any kind of commercial context or concern with what the world or the music business is doing,” Lori Carson told the Los Angeles Times. “I found it very liberating to work under those conditions, and recognize that it was possible—that you could do your own work, be true to yourself, and it would find its own place in the world.”
As the millennium changed, the Golden Palominos took a break of nearly five years from recording. But it seemed clear that as long as Anton Fier continued to think about music, his ever-changing group of musical collaborators would find a way to make music. “I’m going to have this band in some form for as long as I’m alive. It’s my outlet,” Fier once told Mikel Toombs of the San Diego Union-Tribune. “As long as I like the music that’s coming out, the records that are coming out, I’m happy on any level it exists.”
“Omaha,” Celluloid, 1985.
“No Skin,” Restless Records, 1993; reissued 1995.
“Heaven,” Restless Records, 1995.
“Prison of the Rhythm,” Restless Records, 1993.
Golden Palominos, Celluloid, 1983.
Visions of Excess, Celluloid, 1985.
Blast of Silence, Celluloid, 1986.
A Dead Horse, Celluloid, 1989.
Drunk With Passion, Nation Records, 1991.
This Is How It Feels, Restless Records, 1993.
Pure, Restless Records, 1994.
Dead Inside, Restless Records, 1996.
Dreamspeed, Avant, 1992.
Billboard, March 14, 1987; September 25, 1993; March 25, 1995; August 31, 1996.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 14, 1986.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 4, 1994.
Down Beat, January 1984; April 1986.
Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1997.
Rolling Stone, June 19, 1986.
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 4, 1987.
“The Golden Palominos,” http://imusic.artistdirect.com (March 8, 2001).
Hinternet, http://www.hinternet.de/musik/intrview/palomino .htm (March 8, 2001).
Yellow Peril, http://www.cia.com.au/peril/texts/features/palo minos.htm (March 8, 2001).
—Gerald E. Brennan
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