Tav Falco's Panther Burns

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Tav Falco's Panther Burns
PantherBurnsSwiss2004Kuenzler.jpg
Live in St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2004:
Falco with drummer Pizzorno
Background information
Origin Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Genres Rockabilly, psychobilly, garage rock, art punk, indie rock, post-punk, roots rock, punk blues
Years active 1979-date
Labels Stag-O-Lee (Germany), Bang Records (France), New Rose Records (France), In the Red Records, Au Go Go Records (Australia), Last Call Records (France), Triple X, Upstart, and Sympathy for the Record Industry.
Associated acts Alex Chilton, Gun Club, The Bar-Kays, The dB's, Bellmer Dolls, Jim Sclavunos
Website http://www.limbos.org/tavfalco/, http://www.myspace.com/pantherburns
Members Grégoire Garrigues, Tav Falco, Giovanna Pizzorno, Laurent Lanouzière
Past members See below

Tav Falco's Panther Burns, sometimes shortened to (The) Panther Burns, is a rock band originally from Memphis, Tennessee, United States, led by Tav Falco. They are best known for having been part of a set of bands emerging in the late 1970s and early 1980s who helped nationally popularize the blending of blues, country, and other American traditional music styles with rock music among groups playing in alternative music and punk music venues of the time. The earliest and most renowned of these groups to imbue these styles with expressionist theatricality and primitive spontaneity were The Cramps, largely influenced by rockabilly music. Forming just after them in 1979, Panther Burns drew on obscure country blues music, Antonin Artaud's works like The Theater and Its Double, beat poetry, and Marshall McLuhan's media theories for their early inspiration. Alongside groups like The Cramps and The Gun Club, Panther Burns ranked among the contributing influences and progenitors of the Southern Gothic-tinged roots music revival scene that arose during the last two decades of the 20th century and continued into the early 2000s.

Artists who have referenced Panther Burns as one of their influences include the American alternative music artists Southern Culture on the Skids, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Jack Oblivian, the Royal Pendletons, and The Gories. In Europe, neo-psychedelic groups who have cited the Panther Burns as an influence include England's Spacemen 3; Scotland's Primal Scream; Germany's Cuban Rebel Girls (named after one of Falco's original songs); France's The Dum Dum Boys; and Italy's Time Machine.

For Panther Burns' own professed influences, the list is lengthy, from The Cramps to Bix Beiderbecke, Jessie Mae Hemphill, The Sonics, Mack Rice, Chuck Berry, Phineas Newborn Jr., Calvin Newborn, Frank Sinatra, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Einstürzende Neubauten, the Johnny Burnette Rock and Roll Trio, Brian Eno, Marlene Dietrich, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Xavier Cugat, Junior Kimbrough, Laura Dukes, Mud Boy and the Neutrons, Chris Spedding, Jimmy Reed, The Nightcrawlers, the Velvet Underground, Junior Parker, Othar Turner, Charlie Feathers, Howling Wolf, Mose Vinson, Van Zula Hunt, Cordell Jackson, Ronnie Hawkins, the Ventures, Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley, Skip James, Pat Hare, The Doors, R. L. Burnside, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Fahey, Joe Meek, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Gene Pitney, and Elmore James, among many others Falco has listed over the years.

After forming Tav Falco's Panther Burns and making their first recordings in Memphis, the group soon evolved as a rotating crew of additional musicians hailing mostly from Memphis, New York, and New Orleans. In the early 1990s, Falco moved to Vienna and later, Paris; at that time he began working more with European musicians. He currently resides in Vienna.

Background and early history[edit]

In 1977 and 1979, Alex Chilton, attracted by The Cramps' feral, flamboyant rockabilly style, had brought them to Memphis to record sessions he produced that were later released as Gravest Hits and Songs the Lord Taught Us. Chilton had initiated the development of a rockabilly and country-tinged alternative rock music scene in Memphis, beginning with his Cramps sessions and his off-kilter Like Flies on Sherbert sessions recorded in 1978 through August 1979, following a stint working in New York's CBGB punk scene as a solo artist after the breakup of Big Star. This New York period had somewhat converted him to a turbulent and chaotic "punk performance ethos", according to Ross Johnson, writing in The Memphis Flyer. The Cramps sessions were the catalysts inspiring some of the young musicians who eventually helped launch Panther Burns to first start performing in public. Future Panther Burns drummer Johnson first performed publicly in a group called The Yard Dogs led by Alex Chilton in the summer of 1978; he made his first recording session appearance on Like Flies on Sherbert, drumming and bantering off-the-cuff, comical lyrics to "Baron of Love". This Chilton album is sometimes panned in retrospective reviews today by writers expecting Big Star's chiming guitars and tight, power pop recordings, but at the time the album came out, it was praised by critic Robert Christgau and was influential among young Memphis alternative musicians breaking out of the late 1970s era of disco music and slick, mainstream radio rock and starting to create their own punk rock/garage music scene unrestrained by industry dogma.

Tav Falco & the Panther Burns playing in New Orleans, 1993

Falco had focused his 1970s work on video and photographic documentation of blues performers and local culture in the Memphis area with fellow videographer Randall Lyon, in a partnership they called TeleVista Projects, Inc. Chilton, who first encountered Falco while Lyon and Falco were videotaping some of the Sherbert sessions, formally met Falco a couple of months later after witnessing his self-described "art-action happening" during an October 1978 Mud Boy and the Neutrons "Tennessee Waltz" event in Memphis, at which Falco, untrained in music theory, surprised the audience by blowing a police whistle and chainsawing a guitar on stage halfway through a haywire rendition of Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues".

Falco's association with Chilton and a small circle of record-collecting musicians helped deepen their shared, longstanding interest in the blues form. Chilton became inspired to work more with his blues and soul roots, after having temporarily been focused more on rockabilly and country music by the late 1970s. At the same time, The Memphis Flyer piece viewed the origin of Chilton's interest in forming the band as stemming from a desire to find "enthusiastic amateurs to play with" in Memphis, due to his recent exposure to Manhattan's budding punk music scene. "We were inept and offensive — just what Alex was looking for", wrote Johnson.

After Chilton completed the Like Flies on Sherbert recordings (for which Falco created some cover art graphics), Tav Falco's Panther Burns group was formed in February 1979 in Memphis by Falco (vocals, guitar) with Chilton (lead guitar/drums/backing vocals), Ross Johnson (drums), and Eric Hill (synthesizer). In the first couple of years Rick Ivy (trumpet), Jim Dickinson (piano), Vincent Wrenn (synthesizer), Ron Miller (bass), Jim Duckworth (guitar/drums), and Jim Sclavunos (drums), soon joined to play important roles. The group took its name from the Panther Burn plantation south of Greenville, Mississippi. The town, in turn, had taken the name in reference to a wild cat whose raids and nocturnal shrieks had so disturbed area residents in the 19th century that they set a canebrake on fire to keep it at bay after all attempts to trap or kill it had failed; the lore of the elusive animal shaking up a sleepy planters' hamlet appealed to the band.

A 2006 photo from a Paris concert (left to right): Laurent "Lo" Lanouzière, band leader Tav Falco (back to camera), Grégoire "Cat" Garrigues.
Photo by David Ulrich

The attention Chilton's early presence brought the band led to an increased interest in blues music, along with the already emerging Cramps-influenced rockabilly interest, in Memphis' alternative music scene at that time. Falco's initial inclusive approach of mixing enthusiastic players without formal musical training together with professional musicians was in tune with those of noted primitive experimenters Half Japanese and the 1970s East Village alternative music movement of performers like Talking Heads, James Chance and the Contortions, and Klaus Nomi in which visual artists and musicians formed bands together. In the beginning years of the band Falco told writers that because of his unschooled musical background, he represented "the possibility of anyone performing who wants to". Though confounding the expectations of some listeners, these musicians considered restoring a sense of unbridled enthusiasm to creative work to be more important than conforming to sterile, rigid industry standards, as reflected in the name choice for the small recording label moniker Falco soon adopted to release and co-release the group's future recordings: Frenzi.

Performance and recording notes[edit]

As interest in the band grew, Panther Burns soon played early gigs in Memphis and other cities, horrifying the host of a Memphis morning television talk show on which they performed. During the talk show performance, Lyon simultaneously encoded and transmitted an experimental, live, slow-scan feed to experimental artist groups OPEN SPACE in Victoria, Center for New Art Activities in New York, and RELAY in San Francisco. Falco explained to the disgusted host that the group was merely a "neo-rumorist orchestra" for a TeleVista experiment, creating what he termed an "anti-environment” to make visible cultural treasures and older, local performers overlooked in the daily environment by mainstream society and the establishment.

The album cover of Behind the Magnolia Curtain, the band's debut album, recorded in 1981

The band's early happening-styled, so-called "art-action" performances at downtown Memphis cotton lofts at the time frequently included waggish projected images, like the group's trademark burning panther image, trained on the musicians, harking back to Velvet Underground-era, psychedelic days of the 1960s. A screen-print artist since the 1970s, Falco promoted many of the early 1980s local live shows by using hand-screen-printed posters which band members and friends helped him create and paste around midtown Memphis. They performed many of these Memphis concerts at local new music dive The Well (later called Antenna Club) with other area bands of the period. They also opened for The Cramps and played double bills with The Gun Club during this period in cities including New Orleans, New York, and Los Angeles. In the early 1980s they performed in an anti-nuclear rally with Allen Ginsberg at The Peppermint Lounge in New York. Reactions to the cacophonous, disjointed, amateurish side of the group's early performances varied from enthusiasm to disparaging ridicule. In 1980, New Orleans writer Bunny Matthews, explaining that he enjoyed the group's ability to put its audience "through changes", drolly summed up the experience: "No one is ever going to attend a Panther Burns recital and leave with mixed feelings".

Behind the Magnolia Curtain, the group's first album, was recorded in 1981 and released on the British Rough Trade Records label in 1982. The album featured on some tracks, including "Bourgeois Blues", an appearance by a small, marching drum corps that included blues artist Jessie Mae Hemphill, who had participated in her grandfather's Northern Mississippi fife-and-drums groups as a child. The contrast between the strong, military beats of the drum corps dueling with Falco's occasionally out-of-sync vocals resulted in the wild, blues-rock chaos of songs on the album like the frenetic "Bourgeois Blues".

"We were thrown off quite a few stages during that period", wrote Johnson. "Though we initially enjoyed the effect we had on club audiences, somewhere along the way we tried to clean up our sound". The recording was followed by the slicker rockabilly revival style of Blow Your Top, without Chilton's participation, and in 1984, the Jim Dickinson-produced Sugar Ditch Revisited album was recorded, featuring a more subdued playing style by Chilton along with New Orleans bassist René Coman. That year, following a brief tour opening for The Clash before irritable college audiences impatient for the main act, Chilton stopped touring regularly with the group to resume his increasingly minimalist solo touring and recording career. Chilton's restrained, evolving solo style was beginning to diverge from his previously fiery, strident Panther Burns guitar style that had often featured reverb and feedback; however, he continued to produce several of their later albums.

Transition to less primitive performance style

Since the more refined productions of Sugar Ditch Revisited and 1987's The World We Knew, the band has concentrated less on raw, primitive sounds than in its early years. The group has developed into a combo working more with the feel and subtleties of the genres it explores, including tango and roots-oriented styles, with occasional forays into deranged, garage blues, as heard in Panther Phobia or in the frenzied guitar work performed in some of the 1980s and 1990s live shows by New Orleans musician George Reinecke, as also heard on Red Devil. The main constant in the varied work remains Falco's provocative vocals and wordplay.

1995 band lineup on Shadow Dancer (left to right): Tammo Lüers, Jim Sclavunos, Tav Falco, Kai Eric
Photo: Joe Fish

Over the years, the group has recorded and toured with different lineups featuring a mix of energetic, alternative musicians working at times alongside seasoned rock-and-roll, soul, and jazz veterans to create its howling sounds, always centered around the presence of vocalist Falco. Panther Burns occasionally opened for major punk rock acts in the 1980s, appearing on double bills with some of their older heroes like Cordell Jackson, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and rockabilly great Charlie Feathers in the same time period, but usually headlined its own gigs at small clubs across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Venues the group has played at during its career have ranged from no-wave clubs in the East Village to New Jersey hardcore punk pits, music heritage festivals, alternative rock clubs, the Ottawa Bluesfest, Central Park Conservatory, and many others. In the early 2000s, the group began to play mostly in Europe due to Falco's relocation there. A 2006 minitour of Europe and the United States featured the main lineup from the previous several years performing with Falco: Roman drummer Giovanna Pizzorno with Parisians Grégoire Cat on guitar and Laurent Lo on bass.

Panther Burns have released a number of recordings through the years on indie rock labels like New Rose Records (France), In the Red, Au Go Go Records (Australia), Last Call Records (France), Triple X, Upstart, and Sympathy for the Record Industry. The band's recordings have included raucous, yet controlled studio albums produced by Chilton and sometimes Dickinson; a live 10th anniversary show album was produced in 1989 by longtime group guitarist Ron Easley, followed the next year by a studio album, Return of the Blue Panther, produced by former group bassist Coman. Coman, a jazz musician who leads The Iguanas rock group of New Orleans, recorded the album with guitarist Reinecke at the mixing board.

The group has also recorded a tango-oriented album, a live concert mini-album, and a lo-fi studio album with Doug Easley of Easley McCain Recording. Among the group's early recording engineers were Ardent Studios' John Hampton, as well as former Sun Records session musicians Stan Kessler and Roland Janes of Phillips Recording.

In 2014 Stag-o-Lee Records (Germany) compiled a double album of Falco's favorites from his personal music collection, released as Tav Falco's Wonderful World Of Musical & Exotic Obscurities. Falco contributed to the varied artists album a liner notes essay and a Panther Burns song called "Real Cool Trash," which The Wire likened to "the rock 'n' roll energy" of The Cramps. The Wire described the album styles as ranging from rockabilly to "far-flung genres" that include "tangos, waltzes, and concertina music."

Band description and music styles[edit]

According to the band, Panther Burns is "a Southern Gothic, psychedelic country band influenced by Memphis music styles". The original band lineup featured two guitars, synthesizer, and drums, later usually omitting keyboards or synthesizers at live shows. The group's somewhat experimental recordings have embraced and deconstructed a number of influences and genres.

With his signature Höfner fuzz-tone guitar and a stage presence characterized by his Argentine-styled pompadour, pencil moustache, smoking jacket, and urbane manner, Falco infused his shows with theatrical antics and a reverence for the originators of country blues and rockabilly. The band's assorted song subjects and album photography themes have included Memphis scenery, Carroll Cloar's Panther Bourne painting, the occasional reference to historical figures like American rampage murderer Charles Starkweather, motorcycle imagery, denizens of Memphis neighborhoods, tango imagery, and blithe introspection, among other themes.

Current band lineup (left to right): Grégoire Garrigues, Tav Falco, Giovanna Pizzorno, Laurent Lanouzière; (foreground) Via Kali
Auto-Photo: Tav Falco

Falco's treatment of the blues classic "Bourgeois Blues" adds a line from Ginsberg's famous beat poem "Howl". In a 1984 interview discussing his anti-environment concept and music, he said that many outstanding, but lesser known blues and rockabilly artists were "treated like the idiot wind". Similarly, he continued, "the beat writers and theorists like Antonin Artaud were treated like they were crazy. It wasn't until he died that everyone realized he was a genius". Two of his originals, "Agitator Blues" and "Panther Phobia Manifesto", evinced playful humor and a left-leaning, Utopian anarchist political stance. In "Panther Phobia Manifesto", Falco referenced lines from influences as disparate as William S. Burroughs, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Howlin' Wolf, Rod Serling, French psychedelic band The Dum Dum Boys, and Dadaist poet Louis Aragon, in wishing a "huge firedamp explosion" to closed-minded members of society who blindly follow the dictates of the establishment. Proclaiming that everywhere the Panther Burns go, they are greeted with derision, he riffed from Aragon, "Laugh your fill, the Panther Burns are the ones who always hold out a hand to the enemy".

The group's wide-ranging styles have included Argentine tango music, country music, rockabilly, r&b, soul music, novelty tunes, early rock and roll, country blues, and pop standards of the 1950s and 1960s like Frank Sinatra's "The World We Knew", among others. Set lists have included mutated covers of songs originally performed by such diverse artists as J. Blackfoot, Doc Pomus, Bobby Lee Trammell, Gene Pitney, Reverend Horton Heat, Jessie Mae Hemphill, R. L. Burnside, Mack Rice, and Allen Page (of the small 1950s Moon Records label helmed by early rock-and-roll producer/songwriter Cordell Jackson), among others.

Terms the band says have been inaccurately "foisted upon" the group by media include "rockabilly, wreckabilly, psychobilly, punk, post punk, post-modern, garage, bluesabilly, roots, and permanent wave". The earliest description the band gave itself on a concert poster read simply: "Rock'n'Roll". Media confusion in categorizing led the band to eventually invent its own self-descriptive terms, such as "panther music" and "backwoods ballroom", also at times calling its tumultuous performance style "art damage".

Performing Personnel (alphabetical list)[edit]

  • Perry Michael Allen—keyboards, backing vocals: 1995
  • David Berger—drums: 2002
  • Barri Bob—percussion, rhythm guitar: some 1980s gigs
  • Orazio Brando—guest guitarist: 2005
  • Roy Brewer—violin: 1980s and 1990s
  • Benny Carter—drums: 1994
  • Grégoire Cat (real name: Grégoire Garrigues)—lead guitar: early 2000s onwards
  • Ben Cauley (also of The Bar-Kays)—trumpet: 1990s
  • Raymond Cavaioli—lead guitar: some 1980s gigs
  • Alex Chilton (aka L X Chilton)—lead guitar: 1979–early 1980s and occasional appearances thereafter; produced several of the albums
  • Rene Coman (also of The Iguanas/New Orleans)—bass: early to mid–1980s and occasionally thereafter
  • Peter Dark (also of Bellmer Dolls, real name: Peter Mavrogeorgis)—guitar: early 2000s, 2011 onwards
  • Jim Dickinson—producer and keyboardist: occasionally 1980s and 1990s
  • Peter Dopita—singing saw: 1991
  • Jim Duckworth (also of The Gun Club)—drums: 1981; lead guitar: early 1980s, 1989
  • Doug Easley—bass: occasionally, including 1989 live album
  • Ron Easley (aka Durand Mysterion; also of the Country Rockers)—lead guitar: 1980s and 1990s sporadically; producer: 1989
  • James Enck (later of Linda Heck and the Train Wreck)—lead guitar: 1984, 1991; bass on "Cuban Rebel Girl" from the 1984 Now! cassette release
  • Kai Eric (aka Red West)—bass: mid-1980s–2000 on most tours except some in the South U.S.
  • Tav Falco—'band leader ', lead vocals, guitar: since 1979
  • Cyd Fenwick—backing vocals, dancing: 1979–1981
  • Kitty Fires 1 (real name: Sue Easley)—backing vocals: 1984; Kitty Fires 2 (different woman)—guitar: 2000
  • Bob Fordyce (also of the Odd Jobs)—drums: 1989
  • Doug Garrison (also of The Iguanas/New Orleans)—drums: 1996
  • Diane Green (also of The Hellcats/Memphis and the Odd Jobs)—theatrics, tambourine, dancing: occasional 1980s appearances
  • Alex Greene (also of Big Ass Truck and Reigning Sound)—organ: 1989–1990
  • Stacy Hall and Dawn Hall—dancers: 1979
  • Jim Harper—snare drum: 1981
  • Mark Harrison—guitar: 1984–1985
  • Linda Heck (later of Linda Heck and the Train Wreck)—bass: 1984
  • Jessie Mae Hemphill—snare drum: 1981
  • Eric Hill—synthesizer: 1979–1980, 1989
  • Douglas Hodges (aka Tall Cash)—drums: 2001–2002
  • Teenie Hodges—lead guitar: 1990s
  • Michael Hurt (also of The Royal Pendletons)—bass: 1999
  • Rick Ivy—trumpet, vocals: 1979
  • Cathy Johnson—backing vocals, dancing: 1979–1981
  • Ross Johnson—drums: since 1979 on a number of albums and live shows
  • Amanda Jones—backing vocals: 1984
  • Jules Jones—backing vocals in studio and live shows: 1979
  • Via Kali—tango dancer at live shows: 2006 onwards
  • Kye Kennedy—lead guitar: mid-1980s touring
  • Gabriele Kepplinger—backing vocals: 1991
  • Little Victor—guitar, harmonica: 2005
  • Laurent Lanouzière—bass: 2002–onwards
  • Michael Lo (real name: Michael Rafalowich)—bass: early 2000s, 2011–onwards
  • Andrew Love (also of The Memphis Horns)—saxophone: 1990s
  • Vickie Loveland—backing vocals: 1991
  • Tammo Lüers—guitar: 1995
  • Randall Lyon—theremin: 1991
  • Olivier Manoury—bandoneon: 1995
  • Bob Marbach—piano: 1991, 1995
  • Lisa McGaughran (also of The Hellcats/Memphis including in one compilation as Lisa Burnette)—backing vocals, bass: 1984–1990
  • Ron Miller—bass: early 1980s
  • Billy Mitchell—drums: 2013
  • Jack Oblivian—bass, organ: 2000
  • Robert Palmer—clarinet: 1989
  • Giovanna Pizzorno (also of The Hellcats/Memphis—drums: first sporadic tours began 1986; steady member since early 2000s
  • Jon Ramos—bass: 2002
  • George Reinecke (also of Busted Flush)—lead guitar: 1980s and 1990s
  • Will Rigby (also of The dB's, Steve Earle) – drums: 1980, 1999
  • Jimmy Ripp—guitar: 1983
  • Roland Robinson—bass: 1992
  • Kurt Ruleman—drums: 1984—1989
  • Raffaele Santoro—keyboards: 2010 onwards
  • Harris Scheuner—drums: 1989
  • Jim Sclavunos—drums: since about 1982 on a few albums, beginning with Blow Your Top
  • Jim Spake—saxophone: 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1995, and occasional live appearances
  • Brendan Lee Spengler—keyboards: 2000
  • Ken Stringfellow—bass: 2011
  • Nokie Taylor—trumpet: 1991, 1995
  • Nina Tischler—backing vocals: 1991
  • Kip Uhlhorn—synthesizer: 2013
  • Lorette Velvette (real name: Lori Greene; also of The Hellcats/Memphis and The Kropotkins)—backing vocals: 1984–1990; guitar: 1984 briefly
  • Misty White (also of The Hellcats/Memphis and Alluring Strange)—drums: 1988
  • Vincent Wrenn—synthesizer: 1979–1980
  • Abe Young—bass drum: 1981

Discography[edit]

  • Behind the Magnolia Curtain, 1981 (re-released 1994 and 2011)
  • Blow Your Top EP, 1983 (re-released 1994 and 2011)
  • Now!, 1984 (Frenzi C37 cassette tape and later rereleased on vinyl)
  • Shake Rag, 1985
  • Sugar Ditch Revisited EP, 1985 (re-released 1994)
  • Swamp Surfing in Memphis (various artists), 1986
  • The World We Knew, 1987
  • Play New Rose for Me (various artists), 1987
  • Red Devil, 1988 (re-released 1994)
  • Live Atlanta Metroplex 10-3-87, 1988
  • Midnight in Memphis (live), 1989
  • Return of the Blue Panther, 1990
  • Life Sentence in the Cathouse, 1992
  • Unreleased Sessions, 1994 (recorded 1980)
  • Deep in the Shadows, 1994
  • Shadow Dancer, 1995
  • Disappearing Angels, 1996
  • 2 Sides of Tav Falco, 1996
  • Love's Last Warning, 1996 (best of collection)
  • Shadow Angels & Disappearing Dancers, 1997
  • Panther Phobia, 2000
  • Live at Subsonic, 2002
  • CONJURATIONS: Séance for Deranged Lovers, 2010
  • Behind The Magnolia Curtain—Lore & Testament Vol. I, (re-issue) 2011
  • Live In London At The 100 Club, 2012
  • Tav Falco's Wild & Exotic World of Musical Obscurities, 2014 (Various artists collection compiled by Falco; includes a track by Panther Burns)

References[edit]

External links[edit]