Back in the early 80s I’d hear the storming, shrieking “Caucasian Guilt” by San Francisco minimalist art-punk duo NOH MERCY on KFJC, and it would scare the hell out of me. “I didn’t put no JAP in a CAMP!!!”. An enigmatic song and band to say the least, I’d only been able to gather bits & pieces about them over the years. They were a 2-female duo, and two of their tracks were put on one of the Earcom 7”EP comps put out by Fast Records in the UK. I believe there’s a lone photo of them in the “Hardcore California” book which I read and read again at least 1,000 times in the 1980s. Found a photo or two on internet message boards nearly 10 years ago when I was writing something about Noh Mercy for my original music blog Agony Shorthand. That’s about it.
Now there’s this. A complete-works CD, all from 1979 – ten studio songs, plus four August 1979 live tracks from the Catalyst in Santa Cruz (which is still there, hosting shows to this day). I bought a copy, and immersed myself in it this past week. While not an “easy listen”, its sharp-edged experimentation marks it as something weird and wholly original & of its time.
The San Francisco of 1979 wasn’t just slamtastic punk rock bands – there was a dark, often synth-laden underground both on the Ralph Records side of the fence (Residents, Tuxedomoon) and more punk-friendly acts like Chrome, Factrix and many others. I fit Noh Mercy in with the latter, along with gay/political cabaret a la The Cockettes, spoken word attack-acts, revolutionary pre-Reagan-era doomsday rhetoric, and a general theater of the absurd.
With only two women playing, one of whom (Esmerelda) who just loses herself in her vocals, it’s bound to be pretty minimal. Most are just drums and vocals; some guitar scrape and vocals; a couple are analog synth & vocals. All are biting, angry and a bit obtuse. The liner notes confirm art-drenched damaged souls at the helm; women who came to San Francisco as an escape from a previous life and found it to be a place where they could be whatever they wanted to be, and even find an audience for it. Great stuff.