“The things I don’t remember, they coulda been a capital crime” - Ain’t No Valentino
First of all, let me point out up front that I am not talking about Uncle Slam, the crossover-thrash band from LA. While I have nothing against backwards baseball caps and white hi-top sneakers (not true), Uncle Slam existed in their own sweaty-dude universe, many crooked miles away from these cats. I mention this because whenever I talk about Uncle Sam in casual conversation – which happens everyday, pretty much (also not true), people often get the two bands mixed up. And sure man, thrash metal is ok. I was wicked into it in 1983. Kill ‘Em All and Show No Mercy were pretty crucial when I was 14 years old. But then Hanoi Rocks taught us about the Stooges and the MC5 and all that guitar shredding seemed pretty meaningless. Same thing happened to Uncle Sam, matter of fact.
I realise that it gets said a lot in this column, but it’s pretty mystifying how thoroughly this band has been erased from the rock’n’roll history books. In fact, if you don’t know any of these dudes personally, you probably have no idea where they are at this point or maybe that this band even existed. And, I mean, their first album cover was a photograph of a vagina. If nothing else, that seems like the kind of image that would stick in people’s minds. But here’s the thing: if there was ever an American Smack – ie a band that incorporated 70s era glam and paint-the-walls-with-puke debauchery with all the spit’n’snarl of punk – it was Uncle Sam.
Like the Chesterfield Kings – who shared a member with the equally great post-Uncle Sam outfit The Veins – Uncle Sam started out as a garage rock band from Rochester, New York who were bitten by the proto-glam/punk bug and got exponentially bigger, louder, and uglier from there. But while the Kings went nuts for the New York Dolls, for Uncle Sam it was The Stooges and Love It To Death-era Alice Cooper. They copped the slither from one and the industrial-strength wallop from the other, but there was also flecks of all kinds of hip shit in their sound, from the sleazy garage-rattle of The Cramps to the boozy darkness of The Doors. I mean, these characters knew what was up.
Heaven Or Hollywood was released in ‘87. That’s the one with the cover of the woman about to shave her lady-parts with a straight razor. Came with a sticker you could peel off. The dudes were still living with their moms at the time and selling them from their kitchen table, so it was all kinda embarrassing, but if there’s one thing that rock journalists like, it’s gratuitous nudity, so it got ‘em noticed. So did their live shows, wild displays of hardcore, booze-fuelled midnight madness with Alice-y props (live rats!) and the kind of high-flying, hair-whipping rock’n’roll abandon that got ‘em comparisons to Guns N’ Roses before most people had even heard Axl and the boys. And people were into it, man. They sold 10,000 copies of that record all on their own. And it sounded great, too. Mean and gnarly and rock-as-fuck.
But then singer Scott Cessna split. He didn’t like rats, apparently. The bass player, Dave Gentner, took over on vocals. He was a better singer anyway. They released a follow-up album, 1990’s Letters From London. They look like long-haired heavy metal creeps on the cover, which probably threw people off, but the album is a classic. Cessna’s slurry drunk vocals allowed Uncle Sam to waver between gritty garage rock and the burgeoning world of arena-rattling flash metal, but when Gentner took over it brought ‘em to a whole new level. His distinctive glam rock whine upped the glamour ante significantly. Letters from London sounds like what might happen if some Victorian English dandy in a monocle and top hat joined a blood-guzzling garage band from Detroit. Do you get what I’m driving at, man? It’s a great fucking record. It’s exactly what you’d hope an obscure long-haired rock n’ roll band in 1990 sounded like. Nobody bought it, really, but everybody should’ve. Anyway, the downward spiral was already in effect. It cost a lot of dough to keep a band in operation and on the road in those days and without a hit or even any significant buzz, Uncle Sam barely limped past 1990.
I’m not sure how any of this happened but in ‘91 or so, the band took their love/lust for ol’ Coop to alarming new heights when they recorded the ghoulish Fourteen Women…Fifteen Days, a serial-killer themed concept album produced by notorious rock n’ roll villain Kim Fowley. Uncle Sam had already broken up by the time it was (sorta) released in 1993 to a bewildered public. And while it is thoroughly demented – up to and including the cover, featuring the band in bloody drag – it’s still a great collection of rock n’ roll songs. If you are in the market for hand-clappy murder glam, Fourteen Women will do the trick.
But it did not do the trick for Uncle Sam. They were never heard from again. Vocalist Dave Gentner went on to form The Veins, who might’ve been even better than Uncle Sam, and who endured the same level of pitiable obscurity for the next ten or so years. And that’s really it. They just fucking quit and went on with their lives. You would to, if you were them. I mean, christ, imagine being the east coast GN’R for 15 minutes and then nothing for twenty years? But both Uncle Sam and The Veins produced some seriously fantastic rock’n’roll records. That’s the takeaway here. Root around on the internet and you can find them all in a few hours. You won’t regret it. They might’ve, but you won’t.
Next week: Kix are for Kids