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The best of the Bay Area's "costume rock" 

Wednesday, Oct 28 2009

While the rest of the country raids thrift store and drugstore bargain bins for sexy, dead, and dead-sexy looks every October, San Francisco is the proud home of the year-round costumer. We don't need Halloween on the calendar in order to don something truly ridiculous — by the time fall rolls around, we've already been in disguise through street fairs and parades, foot races, desert adventures, drag shows, and symphony galas.

The persistence of outrageous garb is more present here than perhaps any other music community (SF Weekly scribe Mike Rowell says he's often heard S.F. tagged "the costume-rock capital of the world"). For decades, our rock bands have been as clever (or, in some cases, as genuinely stupid) with their outfits as they've been with their music. Just in time for the biggest costume holiday of the year, then, here's a select list of the Bay Area's most (in)famously outfitted acts.

The Tubes ('70s)
An early collision of parody, punk, and performance art, San Francisco's the Tubes spent the '70s riffing on popular culture from a variety of guises. Frontman Fee Waybill was ever the actor's musician, remaking his alter ego to match the theme of the evening. He staggered around in platforms and flirted with various genres and monikers, including "Hugh Heifer" (country) and "Quay Lewd" (British pop). Some members of the Tubes transitioned to the silver screen, getting all costumed up for bit parts in Xanadu; Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure; and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains.

Crime ('70s)
The members of San Francisco's original punk act (which refused the punk tag at the time) dressed in full regulation cop uniforms, which they claimed were easy to come by at local uniform outlets. Self-identified as the city's "First and Only Rock 'n' Roll Band," the group was provocative in sound, attitude, style, and bookings. Fittingly, Crime's most notorious show went down at San Quentin, where word has it that the inmates weren't quite sure what to make of its raw, sneering sound. Band members have come and gone over the years, but you can still occasionally catch rare gigs (sans the cop look) from frontman Johnny Strike and drummer Hank Rank.

Caroliner ('80s-'00s)
Caroliner is one of the few acts to transform not only its members, but also the setting in which it performs, into an enchanted, multicolored wonderland. The freak-bluegrass noiseniks adorn the stage, their instruments, and themselves with beautifully creepy designs that merge the animal kingdom with psychedelic visual fantasies. Between the deeply rhythmic jams and the web of interconnected visual designs, Caroliner performances put fans in a blissfully bizarre-world trance.

The Residents ('70s-present)
The Residents have long been the deities of San Francisco's musical costume class, appearing only in their iconic giant eyeball heads, top hats, and tuxedos. The musicians refuse individual identification, instead working as a unit to push the way we experience genre-melding recordings and multimedia performances. No style of music is safe from the Residents, who have flirted with neoclassical pieces, the Beatles catalog, and "the effect of riding a carousel while on LSD."

The Mummies ('90s)
The garage-rock scene is very familiar with playing dress-up before the bands get onstage. While new-schoolers like Nobunny make a name from behind a simple giant bunny head, the Mummies earned their infamy in the '90s with even thriftier accoutrement. As we wrote last week, the band was as cheap and sloppily thrown together as the bandages its members used to dress themselves.

Phantom Surfers ('90s), the Phenomenauts ('00s-present)
Surf rock has arguably inspired more matching outfits among musicians than any other genre. In San Francisco, Phantom Surfers were the masked men of this instrumental style wave. With black raccoon eyes, little bow ties, and svelte dinner jackets, their look was as kitschy as their sound. A decade later, the Phenomenauts rode surf to the stars, giving their look and their tunes a sci-fi sheen. The band dresses like a modern-day Star Trek crew, with an arsenal of "Phenoma-gadgets" as props — many of which double as instruments. The Theramatic Helmerator is the group's one-of-a-kind spin on the Theremin, which creates essential space exploration melodies.

Pink & Brown ('00s)
John Dwyer has made a name for himself in San Francisco over the past decade. But one of Thee Oh Sees' frontman's earliest local music incarnations put him inside a dirty cotton-candy-colored body suit as the fleshier shade of Pink & Brown. Live, the noisy guitar-and-drums duo came off like freakish punk luge competitors, flying into crowds with instruments in tow, their head sweat soaked up by creepy DIY bankrobber masks of the appropriate color.

Knights of the New Crusade ('00s-present)
The Knights of the New Crusade fight the groupthink of religious zealots from behind the double-layered armor of smart-ass wisecracks and big-ass knight costumes. It didn't take long for the band's "secret" to leak: that these men in shiny silver uniforms are not, in fact, outspoken Christian fundamentalists but rather vets of the local garage-rock scene getting goofy with swordplay onstage. The fact that the Knights are signed to Alternative Tentacles shows that Jello Biafra has, in fact, retained a sense of humor.

The Grannies('00s-present)
What's more punk rock than a grandma? Well, unless granny is Vivienne Westwood, everything. But the heshers behind the Grannies match senior-citizen looks with adolescent jokes and straight-ahead riffage, their silver wigs banging in the wind as they chant the chorus to "My Middle Finger Says You're Wrong."

Mochipet ('00s-present)
Guitar-based music doesn't have the complete lock on costumes here. Daly City's Mochipet takes to the turntables from inside a giant furry purple dinosaur outfit. Sonically, the dude born David Wang gets as wild and woolly as his adopted skin, producing a masterful mix of dance music that pulls from glitch, dub, crunk, and hip-hop.

Here are more photos of Bay Area's most (in)famously outfitted acts

Who's missing from this list? E-mail your suggestions for your favorite costumed Bay Area acts to and I'll post the best ones to our pop-culture blog, All Shook Down.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz


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