Have we mentioned lately how much we love our readers? Well, it’s true. You guys rock. Thanks to you, we have a backlog of weird bands that should last us until at least 2013. So stick around, people! Or just go to our Submit a Band page, which is basically just one long spoiler for which bands we’ll be populating the site with over the next several months.
One reader who rocks especially hard is Mr. Ian Frost, who recently flooded the Comments section with a raging torrent of serious weirdness. Of all the bands Ian mentioned, the one that really jumped out at us (we’ll get to Buckethead soon, Ian, promise) was a British band called Whitehouse, who back in the early ’80s invented their own spin on industrial music, which they dubbed “power electronics.” And as anyone who’s read our posts on witch house, pornogrind and pagan Celtic folk metal already knows, there’s nothing Jake and I love more than peeling back the layers on an obscure subgenre. So let’s dive into this whole power electronics thing, shall we?
Power electronics uses synthesizers less as musical instruments than as pure noise-making devices, taking advantage of their wide frequency range to pump out ear-splitting, high-pitched shrieks coupled with bowel-melting bursts of bass. Over the top of this, they scream lyrics that are often just profanity-laced tirades—not unlike the sort of invective your neighbors will probably hurl at you if you play this stuff on anything louder than a well-insulated pair of headphones.
The man behind the band Whitehouse and power electronics is a fellow named William Bennett—no, not the former Drug Czar for the George H. W. Bush White House, although that is indeed a pretty excellent coincidence. No, this William Bennett was a teenaged guitar player in a post-punk band called Essential Logic who, around 1978, discovered early industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle and became intrigued with the idea of creating music that could, in his words, “bludgeon an audience into submission.”
While on tour with Essential Logic, Bennett met synth-punk pioneer Robert Rental, who sold the young guitarist “an uncontrollably vicious beast of a synthesiser which subsequently became the heart of the Whitehouse sound.” We’re pretty sure the synth he’s referring to is a strange little gizmo called the EDP Wasp, which was famous for having a black and yellow “keyboard” that was completely flat and therefore virtually impossible to play by touch. But for Bennett’s purposes, it was probably ideal, since he was mainly just interested in mashing down several keys at once and then twisting the knobs to get the most atonal squall of electronic noise the little keyboard could muster.
After releasing a single in 1979 under the name Come, Bennett formed Whitehouse in 1980 and proceeded to go on a recording tear, releasing seven albums over the next three years. He coined the term power electronics in 1982 in the liner notes for Whitehouse’s seventh release, Psychopathia Sexualis, one of several Whitehouse albums dedicated entirely to the subject of serial killers. You see, it wasn’t enough for Bennett that his music be brutal; he wanted the lyrics to be brutal, as well, even though they were usually completely unintelligible over the roar of all those maxed-out synths. Early Whitehouse track titles include “Shitfun,” “Rapeday” and “Dedicated to Albert de Salvo – Sadist and Mass Slayer,” a heartwarming tribute to the Boston Strangler. He was kind of a dark guy, that Bennett.
By 1983, Whitehouse had added two new members who would go on to be highly influential in the power electronics scene (and yes, by this point, it was a scene): Kevin Tomkins and Philip Best.
Although Tomkins contributed to two of Whitehouse’s most extreme albums, Right to Kill and Great White Death, he pushed the power electronics envelope even further with his own band, Sutcliffe Jügend, named after one of England’s most notorious serial killers, Peter Sutcliffe, and the Hitler Youth (“Hitler Jügend,” in German). This is one of their gentler numbers. As one reviewer of their 1998 album, When Pornography Is No Longer Enough, quite aptly put it: “SJ’s music would make for an extremely effective CIA interrogation tool.”
Best joined Whitehouse when he was just 15 and (being, you know, 15 and all) dropped out again just one year later. But he was a steady member of Whitehouse from 1993 to 2008, after which he quit to focus on his artwork and his own musical project, Consumer Electronics. From 2003 to 2008, Whitehouse performed frequently as the duo of Bennett and Best and underwent what one writer called “an unlikely vogue,” getting invited to lots of experimental music and noise-rock festivals and frequently cited as a major influence by younger, trendier noise bands like Wolf Eyes and Black Dice. They also developed a fondness for taking their shirts off—which is normally the worst kind of rock-dude cliché, but coming from two scrawny guys screaming things like “You look like a fucking bat, you old slut” over dentist’s drill synths, is downright confrontational and more than a little creepy.
Speaking of creepy: The other semi-constant member of Whitehouse, from 1983 to 2003, was Peter Sotos, an American-born writer whose work mostly explores brutal crimes committed against children. It’s probably to Sotos that the group owes its frequent use of spoken-word passages sampled from interviews with serial killers, rape survivors, and the parents of murdered or abducted children. Where Bennett, Best and even the rather intense Tomkins seem to be drawn to gruesome subject matter mainly for its shock value, Sotos seems genuinely, pathologically obsessed with it. There’s no proof that the man ever did horrible things to children himself (he was convicted of possession of child pornography in 1986, but the evidence was sketchy and his sentence was suspended), but he’s sure researched the subject with enough zeal to make you wonder if it’s all he talks about at dinner parties. Bennett has said that he and Sotos parted ways over “a notable difference in lifestyle attitudes,” which is kind of ominous coming from a guy who titled his band’s fifth album after a Nazi concentration camp.
A few other fun random factoids about Whitehouse: Their name is a reference both to Mary Whitehouse, a British conservative activist who did quite a bit of railing against indecent TV programming (like, you know, Dr. Who) in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and to a pornographic magazine and website, Whitehouse (formerly on Whitehouse.com), that satirically named itself after the famed prude. All of their ’90s albums were produced by Steve Albini, best known for his work with the Pixies and Nirvana. Currently, the band consists of Bennett and a young woman named Mimsy DeBlois, who may or may not be the same woman who appeared with Whitehouse under the name Loulou at a concert in Portugal in 2009. Here’s a clip from that performance. In a 2010 interview with British mag The Wire, Bennett revealed that he and DeBlois are changing Whitehouse’s name to Bad Girls Get the Fuck Over It (the interview’s not available online, but Bennett confirmed the name change on his blog). Or he might just be yanking our chains a bit.
Bennett has scrupulously documented every single Whitehouse performance—he calls them “Live Actions”—and cataloged all 178 of them on the website for his record label, Susan Lawly. We’ll leave you with a vintage video clip from Live Action 39, which apparently took place right here in Los Angeles back in 1984 at a now-defunct record shop called Bebop Records. That’s Kevin Tomkins and Peter Sotos working the Wasps and a very young William Bennett doing the screaming. This is supposedly taken from a documentary called D.U.I.—if anyone knows anything else about it, we’d love to hear from you. When we searched “D.U.I.” online, all we got were a bunch of Bobby Brown articles.