Figures of Light is an American proto-punk band formed in 1970 by Wheeler Winston Dixon and Michael Downey. Their latest project, the CD "Drop Dead," was recorded in Brooklyn, New York at Mitro's Studios, June, 2011, and produced by Mick Collins of The Dirtbombs, featuring fifteen new tracks from the group. It was released on Norton Records on November 13, 2011. To celebrate the release, they appeared live with The Sonics, The A-Bones and others as part of the Norton Records 25th Anniversary All Star Spectacular at The Bell House, in Brooklyn, on November 13, 2011. The CD of "Drop Dead" was released on May 18, 2012, in a newly mastered edition, with a different edit for one of the songs, "You're Just Another Macaroon."
David Solomons, the British rock critic, was present for the Bell House show and reported in the journal Freq that "kicking off with the brilliant “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme," it’s apparent that [. . .] these are still the same men that were spitting out punk rock two years before The Ramones had even formed and when CBGB’s was still a dingy country music club [. . .] with dancing and pointing and shouting breaking out sporadically in the audience, the band rip through other cuts from their new album, "Drop Dead": “World of Pain,” “My Box Rocks” and the superb “15 Minutes of Fame.” The final [cut] is “It’s Lame,” now chromium polished [. . .] Dixon spits it out with venom, as Downey is all over his guitar like a spider, and the band pump out some serious attitude. By the time the band walk off stage, sweating and delighted, the audience are cheering “One more!”, it seems like a vindication of all those years ago when Figures of Light fought so valiantly in the punk trenches but, in the end, had to reconcile themselves to seeing the medals given out to those who came considerably later. It’s been a strange journey over many decades for Figures of Light to get here from there, but tonight anyone who’s anyone in New York in 2011 knows exactly who was keeping the punk spirit alive in the city in the early 1970s."
Figures of Light's second album, Drop Dead was released in November, 2011. Critic David Solomons, again writing in Freq, commented that "across 15 tracks of pure Rock & Roll precision, Figures of Light put their theory into practice, and give a masterclass that should, by rights, be put straight onto the National Curriculum. Kicking off with “My Box Rocks,” with its walking bass, grating guitar and arch lyric, Drop Dead contains Figures pearl after Figures pearl like a Liz Taylor necklace. “Fifteen Minutes of Fame” shows something of Dixon’s 1960s association with Warhol’s Factory, and (depressingly) seems even more timely and relevant in 2011 as it would have in 1967. The magnificent “Black Plague Blues,” dating from the band’s first concert in 1970, tells a sorry tale of bacterial infection, replete with both a short and nasty Collins guitar solo and the signature Dixon /Downey rhyming scheme that manages the not inconsiderable feat of both rocking and being amusing at the same time: as Dixon disarmingly puts it, “Our songs retain their mordant sense of humour.” What also never ceases to amaze is what a great voice Dixon has, never too technical, but rarely missing a note, disdainful and derisive, yet always subtle, never breaking a sweat.
“With A Girl Like That” sounds almost as though it could be prime-era Mary Chain, a calm central point in a life or death clash of fuzz and melody, nodding both to the Velvets on one side and The Ronnettes on the other. “Is It A Dream?” could sit comfortably on White Light, White Heat, with its Collins-inspired backwards Pretty Things guitar line a beautiful curveball thrown in on top. And how can you resist a stonewall dancefloor stomper with harmony vocals entitled “Mellow Out”? By the time the album concludes with the gloriously wry racket of “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You,” (“thanks very much for your input”), one really wonders at the strange path that has lead Figures of Light over the decades into recording the album, and amazement that, unlike so many others, they have made such a [great success] of it. As Michael Downey succinctly puts it, “If you’d have told me this would happen five years ago, I would have said that you were nuts."
The Blog to Comm website published their own review of Drop Dead on February 18, 2012, adding that "once again original members Wheeler Winston Dixon and Michael Downey are joined by A-Boners Miriam Linna and Marcus the Carcass, not to mention ex-Gories Mick Collins (who also produces) on guitar, and as you've probably guessed by now the results do reflect the typical standards this blog has stood by since the very beginning. Rolling Stones '64 meets The Velvet Underground filtered through The Stooges and pureed into the Ramones, a group who weren't even around when the Figures of Light chopped up televisions on stage which only goes to show you how psychic Dixon et. all were. Amazingly enough, this group of fifty 'n sixty-year-olds sound just as teenage and as growly about the world around 'em as the Fleshtones did in '77 which is no mean feat especially in these decidedly anti-rock 'n roll times!"
Japanese rock critic Yoshiharu Ohkoshi agreed, saying that "One could easily believe that Drop Dead consists of unreleased music originally recorded in 1972; it’s that raw and rough. Although it has been 40 years since It’s Lame was released, the original spirit of Figures of Light is still alive, and the urban, avant-garde, garage-like Velvet Underground style explodes in your ears like dynamite, with fifteen new cuts. The result is totally cool. Drop Dead is unquestionably one of the best albums of 2011. Although I have been listening to it repeatedly, I can still listen at least 50 more times easily. Highest possible recommendation!"
Figures of Light's first album,"Smash Hits," was released in late July, 2008 by Norton Records, containing new studio material recorded on July 7, 2007 in New York, live material from the December 15, 2007 Southpaw "comeback" concert, a chunk of their infamous 1970 TV smashing concert, plus some early, rare demos. The CD is also available as a download on iTunes, Amazon, Juno Records and other sites. Writing in The Los Angeles Times on July 30, 2008, critic Jason Gelt wrote a rave review of the "Smash Hits" CD, titled "Figures of Light Reunite and Reignite," which chronicled the band's long history, noting that "with a catalog of stripped-down two-chord songs inspired by the likes of the Stooges, The Who, Blue Cheer and the Pretty Things [ . . .] Figures of Light – a frenzied four-piece that embodied punk rock before the phrase existed – played its inaugural concert in the summer of 1970," praising the band's new CD as "long overdue," and noting that "thirty-six years after the band tore apart the stage [during their first gig], their edge remains as sharp as a hatchet."
Steve Terrell, writing in the Santa Fe New Mexican on October 23, 2008, agreed that "this is primitive rock 'n' roll at its most stripped-down. Even the new recordings capture the lo-fi spirit. Like the punk rock that would erupt after the original FOL folded, the songs are full of a certain nihilism and angst leavened with wicked humor . . .my favorite cut has to be 'Seething Psychosexual Conflict Blues.' Dixon sings, 'Sometimes I feel like a woman; sometimes I feel like a man/I got these seething psychosexual conflicts I just don't understand, oh no!' . . . also worthy is 'I Got Spies Watching You,' a reckless rocker with a cool tremolo guitar that was recorded as a demo at a Lincoln, Nebraska, studio in 2007. It's all raw, crazy, and irresistible to those of us who like it that way."
Critic Doug Sheppard, in issue 28 of the pop journal Ugly Things, described Smash Hits as "a full-length [CD] oozing raunchy rock ’n’ roll vibes like blue cheese dripping from the sides of a black-and-blue burger. If anything, the newer recordings like 'Gimme Gimme Gimme' and 'Seething Psychosexual Conflict Blues' are even punkier than the old, and if they don’t convince you, then a crazed 1970 live track called 'Ritual TV Smashing Finale' —literally smashing 15 television sets over full-throttle screams and primitive rock ’n’ roll—will."
Ed Post-Mortem, writing on the GaragePunk Hideout website on August 28, 2008, also waxed ecstatic, stating that "Smash Hits" "has to be one of the best rock 'n' roll releases of the year. When 'Gimme Gimme Gimme' and it's snotty delivery came through the speakers I felt like I was socked hard in the gut, left gasping for breath and stunned . . . whether it's me, you, or some Hives / Strokes hipster wannabes getting the beating, this record [is] punk, half a decade before Punk, covered in sharp two-chord fuzz, seething with angst and frustration, and rooted in garage trash . . . [the band] sounds like they could hold their own face to face with any of the garage punk outfits around today."
As the Blog to Comm website enthused on August 9, 2008, "I have been waiting for this particular release to come out ever since I got hold of the Figures' reissued single that Norton put out two years back (in fact, I was waiting for it even before Norton announced it was going to be released, psychic that I am!), and now that the thing's here and safely nestled within a stack of digital wares begging to be reviewed this weekend all I gotta say is...BOSS JOB, NORTON!!!"
Savage Magazine, from Stockholm, Sweden wrote that "Smash Hits" is "unbelievably great! cool pre-punk from around 1970 to ’72, returned to life in 2007 with a live show and some new recordings of old songs – and still sounding great! This truly is a find! For fans of the Pagans, Aussie punk, DMZ...you’ll love this!" And in Shindig!, Lenny Helsing added, "personal highlights are the original ‘It’s Lame’ and the no-nonsense genius flipside ‘I Jes Wanna Go To Bed’. Of the fresh offerings, ‘Seething Psychosexual Conflict Blues’ is cool trash, but it’s ‘Black Cadillac’ and the desperate-sounding edge of ‘Angeline’ that do it best. ‘Ritual TV Smashing Finale,' cut live in ’70, is mayhem, and has to be heard to be believed."
The band's first single, "It's Lame," was released in 1972, and re-released on Norton Records in 2006. With a style of two chord rock prefiguring The Ramones by several years, the band performed gigs for two years in and around Rutgers University before disbanding in 1972. "It's Lame," has been described as " . . . one of the ultimate proto-punk basement rock singles of all time . . . [l]ike the dinosaur etched into relief at Angkor Wat, it shouldn't be there. It's either 6 years behind its time or 27 years ahead . . . They cite the Stooges and the Velvet Underground as influences . . . During their first gig, where they played such unreleased material as 'Why Not Knock Yourself Off?', 'Seething Psychosexual Conflict Blues' and 'Black Plague Blues,' they rode up to the stage on a motorcycle, played their songs and destroyed 15 television sets . . . They sound nothing like the 1st Captain Beefheart LP, Debris, The Electric Eels or Memphis Goons, but if any of that appeals to you, you shouldn't be caught dead without this . . ." by Mike Sniper of the Terminal Boredom website.
Shortly after the re-release of the single, in an article on protopunk bands in issue 26 of the pop journal Ugly Things, critic Johan Kugelberg cited “It’s Lame” as “the K-2” of pre-punk records, calling it “a new holy grail [. . .] this masterpiece [takes] its rightful place alongside DMZ and The Electric Eels in the macro- and micro-cosmos of extended adolescent osmosis. Barrage Norton with emails demanding the release of the live tapes!” In the British magazine The Wire, Bryon Coley also wrote a rave review of the single in February, 2007, calling "It's Lame" "an amazing lost single from [a] 1972 New Jersey duo who sole admitted influences were The Stooges and the The Velvets . . . an astounding piece of proto-punk attitudinalism, making contemporaries like the vaunted Hackamore Brick sound like The Beatles. File this somewhere between early Modern Lovers demos and Half Japanese's first recordings as a trio. It's that good."
The first concert of July 23, 1970 was recorded in stereo, complete with the television smashing finale. Listening to tapes of their first concert, Norton Records producer Billy Miller commented, "you guys make [the Velvet Underground's epic 17 minute song] Sister Ray sound like Richard Harris's [60s pop hit] MacArthur Park!" In March 2007 critic Jill Hubley wrote that the band's first single "was raw, loud, and nothing like the prevailing music of the time. Dixon and his band had their own vision and interpretation of the times, and they’d be damned if they weren’t going to make it heard . . . Without the snarling closeness of the vocals, the music might sound aloof—merely sloppy rather than out of control. As the song progresses, there are many mixed metaphors, a rhyme scheme that would make Shakespeare cry, and an overabundant use of reverb . . . It’s also incredibly catchy, the instrumentation serving as a glorified metronome to which you can keep your head bobbing steadily . . ."
In the February 2007 issue of Mojo, the British pop monthly, Figures of Light's first single was described by Ian Harrison as "a treat . . .throbbing with real 1972 mockery and boredom . . . 'It's Lame' casually dimisses everything with Holden Caulfield sang-froid, sounding like a surly cousin of The Electric Eels' "Agitated" and rejoicing in two false endings. A whiny B-side does much the same job with Bo Diddley chugging and lots of guitar distortion." In the 2006 Pazz and Jop year end poll in the Village Voice, David Sprague, rock critic for Variety, voted "It's Lame" the number one pop single of 2006, beating out Kelly Clarkson and Gnarls Barkley.
On July 7, 2007, the core members of the band reunited in the N.Y. Hed studio under producer Billy Miller of Norton Records to record a batch of new and old songs, including "Gimme Gimme Gimme," "Nothing to Do," "Seething Psychosexual Conflict Blues," "I'm So Sick of Everything," and "Angeline," backed up by Miriam Linna on drums, Marcus "The Carcass" Natale on bass, and Matt Verta-Ray on lead guitar. On December 15, 2007, Figures of Light performed live for the first time in 35 years at the Brooklyn, New York club Southpaw, as part of the Norton Records Holiday Spectacular.
Their work was featured on the The Daily Rind Podcast for the week of August 4, 2009, and on October 4, 2009, the Spanish-language website Wateke Salvaje! offered another rave review of Smash Hits, commenting that "one of the most infamous [examples] of American proto-punk, [Figures of Light] picked up the baton from those who planted the seed and in essence projected the future of rock. Rescued from oblivion by Norton Records, [their first] CD Smash Hits combines live recordings of the band’s first concert in 1970, with tracks recently recorded by two of the original members of Figures of Light, accompanied by the ever-popular A-Bones. A succulent collection recommended for diehard fans of primal American punk."
The Turkish website United Valley Music Crisis also praised the CD in a review posted on November 9, 2009, noting that when the band was founded in 1970, "they didn't know that they were proto-punk, needless to say" and commented that the CD was well "worth the wait." In December 2009, Savage magazine, in Sweden, conducted an interview with the band. In May 2010, their song "Seething Psychosexual Conflict Blues" was featured in a special CD as part of issue 156 of the British music magazine Uncut. An essay on the band's history is forthcoming in British musicologist David Solomons' book, "Ain't It Fun?"