By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
To achieve godlike status, a rock group must have more than just songs -- it must have a concept. The Rolling Stones had satanic decadence; Devo had its "new traditionalism." David Bowie changed his model for every album, which, paradoxically, became a concept in itself. During its tenure in the '80s, Savage Republic envisioned something even more grandiose, using songs, graphics, and live concerts to create a fictitious country. This new land incorporated elements of Middle Eastern culture and often alluded to violence and upheaval -- aesthetic choices that have had an eerie resonance over the past year.
Savage Republic guitarist Ethan Port was staying at the Marriott World Trade Center hotel in New York last Sept. 11. "A couple months later ... I realized that it was ironic that I used to be in a band that incorporated all this sensationalistic imagery," Port says during an interview at his current Hunters Point studio. "The first Savage Republic album depicts university professors getting executed in Iran, and I wore a T-shirt of that image all the time. I even had one in my suitcase at the time [of the attacks]."
Beyond its use of prescient imagery, Savage Republic was one of the first bands to marry Middle Eastern and Mediterranean folk music to punk ideals, industrial beats, and Germanic guitar drones. The resulting sound wound up influencing such art-rock contemporaries as Sonic Youth and Jane's Addiction and presaging later groups like Godspeed You Black Emperor, Mogwai, and locals Tarentel. Defunct since 1989, the act is reuniting for a short, one-time tour this week, coinciding with S.F.'s Beyond the Pale music festival and the recent reissue of Savage Republic's out-of-print catalog. The mysteries of the Republic are about to be rerevealed.
Savage Republic emerged from, as Port puts it, "the fatalistic, yet anything-is-possible," punk scene of early '80s Los Angeles. Initially three UCLA art students -- guitarist Bruce Licher, vocalist/guitarist Phillip Drucker (aka Jackson Del Rey), and drummer Mark Erskine -- and a 17-year-old punk bassist named Jeff Long, the group began by banging on scrap metal and musical instruments in the campus utility tunnels and parking structures. Following a name change from Africa Corps to Savage Republic (a term used later to describe Ayatollah Khomeini's fundamentalist regime), the band released four LPs, one live effort, and one EP, rotating members in and out and in again. Keyboardist Robert Loveless joined in 1982, followed by Port, guitarist Greg Grunke, bassist Thom Fuhrmann, and drummer Brad Laner. "Savage Republic was like a bad California marriage, because the band kept breaking up, and everyone's old partners kept coming back into the relationship," Port explains. "For some reason, we never thought that this was a stupid thing to do."
While the players' relationships were inconsistent, the concept remained the same. "Some of the mythology of Savage Republic was quite intentional, coming from Bruce's design choices," explains Port. "It was mostly unspoken, but we really felt like we were creating this soundtrack or telling the story of the Republic with the music." Song titles such as "Trek," "Siege," and "Spice Fields" suggested historical narratives, while sleeve photos depicted the members in desert plains and train depots. Other tunes -- "Lebanon 2000," "Moujahadeen," "Exodus" -- clearly referenced the turbulent Middle East. The band adopted the Nazi Afrika Corps logo, but cleverly replaced the offending swastika with the crescent moon and star of Islam. "That was vaguely about the invaded reappropriating the symbol of the invaders," says Port. "We had a total L.A. approach: The graphics look really intense and historical but have no specific political meaning."
For those graphics, Licher learned letterpress printing, which he discovered in a class offered at the Women's Graphic Center in Los Angeles. Using old metal plates with raised lettering and images, he hand-printed illustrations on recycled chipboard, lending an otherworldly, arcane feel to fliers and record sleeves. When the band's debut, Tragic Figures, came out in 1982, the graphics and the noisy "exotic" punk music -- distinguished by Egyptian-influenced guitar scales, metallic percussion, and heavy, distorted bass -- made the album one of the most collectible records of the underground. While Savage Republic's emphasis seemed to be on making a unique racket, there were also several effective anti-authoritarian rants, including the somewhat tongue-in-cheek "Kill the Fascists" and the sarcastic tirade "Real Men," which later appeared in the film Silence of the Lambs.
"The original idea with the first album was to make a record that looked and felt like it came from some other culture," explains Licher via e-mail, "so that when someone was flipping through the record bins (remember those?), you'd pull it out and wonder, '"Where the hell did this come from?' I think that because of the graphics it made people approach our music expecting something different than the other music that was out there, and I think we delivered on that."
(Over time, Licher would put out a whole catalog of gorgeous releases on the band's Independent Project Records, including Camper Van Beethoven's Telephone Free Landslide Victory, which was nominated for a Grammy for best album art. IPR later became a renowned design and print press, which Licher still runs from his home in Arizona.)