Review: The Melvins – “Mangled Demos From 1983”

Mangled Demos From 1983 — the latest bit of punk nostalgia from the ever-prolific Melvins — begins, unexpectedly, with what turns out to be a minor revelation: an early 80s radio broadcast of Buzz Osborne, Matt Lukin and Mike Dillard playing a couple of live songs during an Elks lodge fund-raiser near Montesano, Washington.

The tracks, in more ways than one, are vintage Melvins, their unique sense of performance humor already encapsulated in a super-brief blast of punk noise meant to either taunt or tease their unseen and incredibly mainstream audience.

But the songs (a take on “If You Get Bored,” preceded by some sound-check snippets and a clumsy on-air interview) are also incredible for how they really set the stage for the music that follows.

Their appearance is a reminder of how, for many of us, punk really broke — in poorly insulated garages or basements in front of a small tribe of close friends, in the wood-paneled corridors of the local VFW lodge, in bedrooms as we arched our barely calloused fingers to hammer out that first distorted power chord.

The Melvins were no different and that, in and of itself, is a sight (and a sound) to behold.

While some degree of Melvins demos and bootlegs from the pre-Dale Crover days have surely crept into their share of anxious hands, Mangled Demos From 1983 is as authoritative and illuminating a document of the period as you’re likely to find. Beyond the Elks radio curiosity pieces, the disc is essentially a 20-odd-song demo the trio recorded in Olympia, Washington suburb Mud Bay with, as Osborne calls them in the lengthy liner notes, “two ex-hippie looking beer jockey characters,” “former flower children” and, simply, “real fuckheads.”

Though the band is already in the fine form they’d display on their full-length C/Z debut 10 Songs around three years later, there are some differences, the most notable of which is Dillard’s appearance on the drums.

Crover has grown to become a vital force in his 20-plus-year run with the band, lending the group a thunderous force only supplemented by Osborne’s six-string attack.

Dillard, though, is far from a toss-away and he anchors some later Melvins staples (“Snake Appeal,” the Houdini stand-out “Set Me Straight”) with a sometimes-surprising sense of dexterity and aggression.

Bottom line: this is a disc with some incredible early performances and better than lo-fi studio attention (even if it is in less-than-ideal surroundings). Those expecting lesser works or half-hearted demos cut from the recent Ipecac reissues of 10 Songs or Gluey Porch Treatments will be pleasantly surprised.

Also worth the price of admission alone is Osborne’s stream-of-consciousness history-narrative, which talks trash about his Northwest upbringing and neighbors, gives the play-by-play about drug use/drinking, Metal Church, Lukin (the first of Melvins’ long line of rotating bassists) and others, and, yes, briefly touches upon how Mangled Demos is set largely outside Osborne’s friendship with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic.

Context aside, though, some of the record’s finest moments are when the band gets down to business, like the stop-start Dead Kennedys punk of “Pencil” (represented, like some songs on the disc, only by clip art icons), the punch and drive of “Star Inside Circle” or “The Real You,” the KISS-tinged grunge of “Matt-Alec” (a familiar bootleg offering), and the lightning-fast refrains of “Forgotten Principles,” one of the best documents of how vicious an outfit Melvins could be before they cranked down the speed to sludge levels in the ensuing Boner Records years.

The group’s individual style was still being forged during the majority of the 1983 recordings but, even when they sound like a variation on your local garage punk outfit, they still sound damn good.

The record is not without its curious moments (the rehearsal arguments/chatter, included Prick-style, of “Bibulous Confabulation, an echo-chamber metal take on “Forgotten Principles”) but they flesh out the picture.

And, as with so many of other glimpses at the musical world of The Melvins, it is most definitely worth taking a look. – Delusions of Adequacy, June 15, 2005

About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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