No Wave Archeology: Digging Out the History of the Stick Against Stone Orchestra’s Get It All Out
Pittsburgh might be a town where legends are made, but this isn’t a sports story. It begins in the summer of 1981, when longtime friends Richard Vitale and Brook Duer decided to channel their post-punk proclivities into a slightly different breed of band. Already a seasoned rhythm section (Vitale on drums, Duer on bass), what they needed was a group of like-minded players with an ear for everything from West African drumming to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. In essence, they were looking for an energetic sound with a percussive kick, and they found it during basement rehearsals with a ragtag six-piece outfit that eventually emerged as a high-octane ensemble called Stick Against Stone.
Named for the primeval roots of music itself, the band was founded as a leaderless collective—no doubt a holdover from the democratic social ideals of the ’60s, and juiced considerably by punk rock’s anti-con agenda—but there was no denying that singer John Creighton was the de facto frontman. Oozing with talent and charisma, he could belt out a rock star lead vocal as naturally as he could fold himself, on flute or saxophone, into a complex horn line. “A lot of people have a tune that’s stuck in their head,” friend and designer John Gallone observed years later. “Creighton seemed to have a gamelan stuck in his. He was always thinking about different types of music.”
By 1982, Stick Against Stone had quickly built a solid rep on the insular Pittsburgh underground for its multi-hued and unpredictable live set, which was steeped in the propulsive sound of punk-funk, art rock, dub reggae and group improv. The band also seemed to absorb some of its cues from New York City’s “no wave” scene—especially the work of James Chance and the Contortions, Liquid Liquid and Defunkt—but with a defiantly original take that was more akin to situationist musical theater with a socially interactive twist. In short, SAS played straight-up party music that conveyed an underlying rebel message.
“Everybody was well informed about what was happening in New York and London,” recalls original saxophonist Bob Wenzel. “We were all haunting record stores and buying imports and off-the-wall stuff, and listening to Talking Heads, Fela, ska, reggae and everything else we could get our hands on. But beyond that, I always got the feeling that John was gonna continue on as a one-man wrecking crew to raise the consciousness of people on social issues. He was very committed to reaching out to people.”
If you’ve already asked yourself, “How come I’ve never heard of these guys?”—well, you can probably guess what happened next. The band managed to record a few studio sessions and live shows, but never an official full-length release, and after withstanding several lineup changes, including the departure of Creighton in ’83, Stick Against Stone was on the ropes. At a Rock Against Reagan show in Baltimore, they connected with Bad Brains, which led to a brief stay in Brooklyn and, a few years later, a series of (still unreleased) recordings with Bad Brains’ lead vocalist HR. They even opened a few shows in California for the Dead Kennedys and the Minutemen. But by the end of the ’80s, after they’d relocated to San Francisco to give it one more go, the members of SAS were scattered to the four winds.
Looking back, the breakup might have seemed inevitable. In April 1985, while living in Oregon, the band members received the shocking news that John Creighton had died in Pittsburgh of a heart attack. He was only 30 years old. His self-professed mission to “work with musical tools to promote ideas of social change,” to make music that “should be popular, exciting, of high artistic standards, and composed and performed by musicians in a dynamic and egalitarian manner,” as he wrote in 1982, had been cut short. The dream had faded…or so it appeared.
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Fast-forward to 2006, New York City. Will Kreth, a self-starting entrepreneur and tech guru (in 1992, he was the first official hire at Wired magazine), had recently founded MediaGroove—a multimedia production company with a sharp focus on adventurous, undiscovered music. Kreth had first encountered Stick Against Stone back in 1983 in Eugene, Oregon, and he’d been so impressed with the band that he offered to mix their live sound and book some gigs. It was a short-lived arrangement, but it left a lasting impression.
“They had mojo,” Kreth recalls. “In my estimation of the time, they had it. They were young, hungry, aggressive, political—they had a vibe and a message, and they were totally owning it. I didn’t know where they came from, or exactly where they were going, but I knew what they were about was something I was interested in.”
Now, many years later, Kreth became intently curious about where they did come from, and what they sounded like in their early years. First he tracked down original bassist Brook Duer, who still had a clutch of cassette tapes of Stick Against Stone’s earliest studio and live recordings.Kreth was mesmerized and haunted by Creighton’s voice, to the point where he decided to make a documentary about Creighton and the band. Meanwhile, founding drummer Richard Vitale had resurfaced in Oakland, California, and was fired up to learn about Kreth’s documentary project and his interest in reviving the music. With the master tapes lost to posterity, Kreth selected and cleaned up 14 cassette-based tracks for release as The Index of Directions (MediaGroove, 2010). After nearly 30 years in the shadows, Stick Against Stone finally had its debut.
“You know, it’s one thing to have the recording,” Vitale said at the time, “but the truth is, this music was meant to be played.” And he had a point. Kreth had already begun scouring New York’s avant garde scene for players who might be able to breathe new life into the music. The basic idea was to build a Stick Against Stone Orchestra from the nucleus of the old band, in the hopes of rekindling John Creighton’s original vision: If you want to inspire people to get up and groove, you’d better bring a sound, a style and a message that kicks some collective ass.
Of course, as we all know, fate can be inclined to throw some unusual curveballs, and in the summer of 2010, Kreth took one to the head. Just as he was gearing up to record some new tracks with Vitale at a Manhattan studio, he learned that the 51-year-old drummer had died of a massive brain seizure at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. Down but not out, Kreth drew some inspiration from a concert he caught at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and decided the project could continue if he had a musical director to handle the logistics. Eventually he met with guitarist David Terhune, one of the co-founders of Loser’s Lounge, the roving tribute to American pop music that’s become a proving ground for some of the city’s top musicians.
“I’ve gotta be honest,” Terhune quips, “when I first heard the music that Will gave me, I was taken aback. It sounded really eclectic and complex, but I was impressed with the concept, and I saw it as a personal challenge. If I could accomplish this, and actually translate this music so that people could play it, and it all made sense, I thought I would have personally achieved something, as well as helped out this band that did create some really great music. When it’s played live, it’s very strong and powerful.”
The resulting album, Get It All Out, takes its title from one of the last songs John Creighton wrote and recorded before he left Stick Against Stone in 1983. (It’s also the title of the documentary, due in 2014.) From the opening frenetic strains of “Everybody’s Song (The Music Business),” which features original SAS singer and clarinetist Geraldine Murray, it’s immediately apparent why this band worked up such a cathartic sweat—and such a devoted, if insular, fan following—during its brief ’80s heyday. In Creighton’s lyrics, there’s a timeless sense of youthful rebellion (“I want to be awake now,” Murray sings on the infectious samba-jazz workout “Moonlight Finds a Face”), and strength in numbers (as singer Mark Rinzel intones, “Don't be afraid of the power of the circle,” punctuating the languid avant-funk groove of “Medicine Wheel”), while the music itself oscillates between tribal percussion (“Wasted Lives”), Fela-like horns with a Gil Evans twist (“Elephants”), ska-minded punk (“Face Down”) and straight-up funk (“Get It All Out”) without ever sounding forced.
In the end, it helps to have musicians with the ability to render such a complex tableau. After Kreth managed to sign on some of the original SAS members, Terhune recruited an impressive cadre of players to complete the picture, including singer Cedric Lamar, Burnt Sugar’s Paula Henderson on baritone sax, the Lounge Lizards’ Michael Blake on soprano and tenor sax, session ace Jesse Krakow on bass (Shudder to Think, Time of Orchids), and drummers Tony Mason and Denny McDermott (the latter known for his stint with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen). It’s a veritable cavalcade of talent, but amazingly, everyone sounds fully invested in the “power of the circle” that is Stick Against Stone.
When asked how it feels to play this music again, saxophonist Bob Wenzel marvels at the efforts of everyone involved. “The creative impulse was always there,” he observes, “but the way this orchestra has seized upon the music, and not only revived it but taken it to heart, you can almost say they own it now. It’s been passed down in the same way that it was created—in a collective way. Everyone has been won over by the material, and I look at that as being the legacy of what went into it. John was into this collective approach to creation and performance, and reaching out to people, and Dick always played drums with a propulsive style that really pushed us all forward. And basically, I think they’d both be tickled pink if they heard this today.”