½ GENTLEMEN / NOT BEASTS is one of the most important and influential albums in the history of underground rock.
But when the men behind Half Japanese - brothers Jad and David Fair - made it in the late 70's, they didn't even expect to sell any copies. "The idea was that we could give one to each of our friends, and we'd probably have a big stack of them left that we could use as gifts as life went on and we met new friends," says David. "I never imagined that there would actually be a market for them."
Anyone listening to ½ Gentlemen for the first time might share David's surprise. The music is bracingly original and brashly unorthodox - an electrifying mix of crashing songs and raucous experiments that so ignores the conventions of rock and roll, it could make you forget they ever existed. Such rejection created complex, challenging songs, but for Half Japanese, it was a pretty simple choice. "We had no interest in playing the way that everyone else did," David insists. "Right from the start we decided to just play the way that we play. So it wasn't that we couldn't play our instruments. It was just that we played them in a different way"
Indeed, though ½ Gentlemen often seems primitive and unstudied, it never sounds lost. Half Japanese clearly knew what they were doing, and their songs had purpose even when careening out of control. They put real work in too, taking more time to record ½ Gentlemen than any other album in their now-vast discography.
The Fairs diligently labored in a make-shift home studio whose walls and ceiling they'd covered with egg cartons. They played thrift store guitars (which they would smash at shows) and drums pieced together from two separate kits. "We would record in the morning a little bit, then take a break and watch the Gong Show and have some lunch' recalls David. "After that we'd head back upstairs and record some more."
The effort the Fairs put into ½ Gentlemen came from an odd kind of perfectionism. They played each song until it felt finished, which could happen on the first take or much farther down the road. "Some of the songs might have been recorded a hundred times" recalls David. "There would be false starts and then I would mess up the vocals or something. We never really made any attempt to play the song the same way, so there would be very different versions of certain songs. We would just do them over until we did a version that seemed like the right one."
This process created a wide variety of music in a stunning range of styles. Some tracks on ½ Gentlemen are deconstructed rock songs, retaining shards of melody like debris after an explosion. The approach was simple: If l played guitar and did vocals, then Jad would play the drums," explains David. "lf Jad played the guitar and sang, then I would drum" Other tracks blow up rock and roll by confronting it directly, covering tunes by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and other musical monoliths. "We took their lyrics and made our own sounds to go with them," explains David. "There was no point in making it sound like the original version because that had already been done. If someone wants to hear it that way, they already can."
Perhaps most intriguing are tracks on V Gentlemen that eschew melodic structure altogether. "A lot of the songs with names that sound like noises were done in the evening by Jad" says David. "We had some toy synthesizers and tape loops and stuff. So many of those songs were made of patterns. Filled with noisy collage and repetitive minimalism, cuts such as "Shhh-shhh-shhh and "Rrrrrrrrr have as much in common with experimental composers like Steve Reich as they do with avant-rock damagers like the Fairs' heroes Destroy All Monsters. They also serve as apt bridges between songs, as if the band's concepts were boiled down to their purest essence before being built back up into garage-punk blasts.
Deconstruction and reconstruction might seem like a heady task for two young men banging away in their house. But for Half Japanese, ½ Gentlemen / Not Beasts was more than just entertainment - it was a vessel for radical ideas. If anything can be music, why not make it what you want? "Jad and I had both already done visual art, so when the band started it seemed to me like a different kind of art,'' says David. "We just played any way that sounded good to us, Our art was to make it a new way. that was our way.”