Albums revisited: Nitzer Ebb’s Ebbhead at 25: The only way from here is down.
By: Peter Marks
After years and years of toil out there in the trenches, Bon Harris and Douglas McCarthy hit the prime time with their fourth effort ‘Ebbhead’.
While their following album would be given an ironic title by the band and a less than kind one by most of the fans, everyone was pretty much on board for what they released in the fall of 1991. A friend of mine and I had seen the ‘As Is’ ep in a record store window a few months back and had been religiously playing the damn thing non stop since.
I think both the Ebb as well as their labels at the time Mute and Geffen knew that this was the hour in which Nitzer Ebb would cross over into the mainstream as far as possible. How else do you explain the massive media blitz, tour and myriad number of singles which followed?
Now it’s no small thing to undertake the sort of tour I saw them on over the summer of 1992. Previously they’d only experienced America opening for Depeche Mode on the World Violation tour but now the spotlight bore down on them as headliners; they did not disappoint in the slightest.
The bass boomed; Bon, along with Julian Beeston beat the hell out of their drums while Douglas gave it his all. By turns they entertained, enchanted, enraged and enveloped their audience in an atmosphere rich with detail which easily stretched to more than 2 and a half hours. Would an act do this now? God no. Those strobes punctuated the electrically charged theater I was at and the rippling, heavy stage smoke billowed over us; where is the youth? Right here, boys, right here.
I shouldn’t leave out their support Ethyl Meatplow who more than held their own on a fraction of stage space. This would have been before MTV picked them up so no one had heard songs like “Devil’s Johnson” or “Close To You” yet, never mind a beauty like “Queenie”. You could feel the collective chills coursing through the audience when they played “Tommy”… happy days indeed, sweetheart.
Jumping back a bit to the album’s release now. Preceded by the single for “I Give To You”, this English duo chucked out their previous sound with rapturous abandon. Gone were the jazz influences and straight up stark electronics; if you loved ‘That Total Age’ then this was a shock to the system. They’d written actual songs on ‘Ebbhead’ and gotten some fellow named Alan Wilder to produce it. Flood naturally came along for the ride as co-producer but really went mental on their singles, such mixes as I’d never heard out of the band. Their cover of the Stones “Stray Cat Blues” came in not one but three differing versions, each one somehow sleazier than the last.
On the LP tunes like “Sugar Sweet”, “Djvd”, “Time” and “Trigger Happy” displayed an entirely different side to this act; no one was jumping up and down in the clubs for what they’d done with ‘Ebbhead’. What we had here was one for the bar scene, I’d imagine those over 21 lost their shit hearing what was on offer here. There’s a distinctly after hours feel to what this fourth LP was drawn from, the sort of insidious propensity towards unsound activities and paranoid xenophobia is hinted at repeatedly especially on the opener “Reasons”:
“Overrun by one/overrun by the other/the city is aching from 2000 years/the city is rattling with a million fears/reasons/they’re lookin for reasons/they say in these seasons, the season is death”
When they stated in interviews that they’d been changing up their sound by adding orchestrations, choruses and refined song structures people were incredulous. I remember several friends of mine regarding ‘Ebbhead’ as some kind of sell-out on the Ebb’s part; there’s always that element to any fan base who despise when a band they consider as “theirs” breaks out from the underground and achieves broader success. I sympathized then, I just laugh now. If that was the case then clearly it was overdue, these two had been doing club tours and the like since 1982. Nine years in the shadows was long enough and oh by the way, even if you didn’t care for the album then surely the singles had enough to lure your ears.
“Godhead” came in several formats and contained live tracks from the band while on tour which were riveting. If you’ve not seen Nitzer Ebb live then you haven’t lived. They don’t just play venues, they own them for the duration of their show. The concluding single for “Ascend” also was given the full push by appearing on all formats (yes, even cassette) and sported mixes which found Flood running wild in the studio with his equipment. One other word about this single, the cassette version was for years the only place you could hear Vince Clarke’s remix; if you tracked down the double 10″ you were treated to a remix of “Lakeside Drive” which was unavailable elsewhere until 2010’s ‘In Order’ digital release.
The choice was clearly an easy one for me: track it all down.
A quarter century later, ‘Ebbhead’ is still a glorious listen. Varied in tone and theme with a complexity to the music which they’d never dreamed of previously. The pressure to maintain this momentum would take a terrible toll on the band and result in their eventual implosion at the end of the ‘Big Hit’ tour but they’d be back. They continue to perform live as of this writing and whether or not they give us another album after ‘Industrial Complex’ is anyone’s guess. The biggest question I have these days is what those others who were fans back then think about all this now, do they even have their respective copies or did the kids and marriages do away with all that.
For a brief while Harris and McCarthy took us along for the ride along neon drenched main drags through burnt out cities ripe with excess, drowning in skin and bathed in sin. It’s where a lot of us found ourselves in love… sick love… lovesick… sick, sick love.