The Mummies were a four piece American garage rock band from San Mateo, California. They are known for their defiantly lo-fi production values (dubbed ‘budget rock’) and their shadowy true identities, hidden as they were beneath ragged though effective Mummy costumes, reminiscent of those made iconic in Universal’s classic films.
The 1960’s weren’t all peace, love and understanding in the musical breeding grounds of the Pacific Northwest and California. Hundreds of bands appeared across the United States and Canada with vague understandings of chord progression and cheap instruments that were begged for stolen and borrowed but with boundless energy, attitude and fuzz – all recorded in decidedly primitive conditions. This then, is garage rock, one of the furthest-reaching, in terms of influence, musical movements of the latter half of the 20th century. The first wave, began in the early 60’s largely leaving the charts untroubled but the likes of The Kingsmen, with their ever-enduring censor-worrying “Louie Louie”, the more surfy twang of Link Wray and the costumed Paul Revere and the Raiders gained impressive enough followings.
By the early 70’s, many of the bands had already drifted into more traditional forms of employment but were introduced to a new generation by Patti Smith’s guitarist, Lenny Kaye, who assembled the seminal collection “Nuggets”. The famous quote says that Velvet Underground only initially sold a handful of records but everyone that bought one went on to form a band; the same can be said of “Nuggets”, though I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest all those bands were better. The sound of the punk movement can clearly be heard in these earlier bands. Two bands in particular on the record had a distinctive and arresting sound; The Wailers and The Sonics, both from the Tacoma area of Washington.
By the early 80’s garage rock was still the genre of choice for disaffected kids wanting to form a band with limited budgets and with little classical training. If anything, garage rock was now even scuzzier, more obnoxious and louder but still maintained the tradition of simple catchy guitar riffs, repeated choruses and trend-eschewing though instantly recognisable fashions, sometimes aping those of their musical forefathers.
England had Thee Mighty Caesars (previously Thee Milkshakes, later Thee Headcoats – ‘Thee’ is a byword in garage lexicon), headed by cantankerous genius Billy Childish. America had The Mummies. Headed by the guy in the Mummy costume with the three other Mummies.
Horror and music had enjoyed success in partnership since the 50’s and 60’s – artists such as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Screaming Lord Sutch (biggest hit: ‘Jack the Ripper‘) and Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett (‘Monster Mash‘) had all enjoyed success by borrowing imagery and sounds from recognisably ghoulish sources but it wasn’t until the horror-infused lyrics of The Flesh Eaters and Glenn Danzig’s The Misfits that entire careers were built solely on such a premise. The Mummies couldn’t really care less.
Rebelling against pretty much everything, The Mummies consisted of Trent Ruane on organ and vocals, Larry Winther on guitar, Mazz Kattuah on bass and Russell Quan on drums. Their DIY approach to the band encompassed their homemade costumes (which, in fairness, rather suggests that might be a shop for such things), much of their equipment (the bits that worked), their transport (a daubed upon Pontiac ambulance) and their songs a mixture of the grimy, two minute classics which had inspired them and suitably authentic-sounding originals. Their desire to remain anonymous was in keeping with their disdain for stardom, fame and selling out to The Man.
Their first record “That Girl” appeared on 7″ on the short-lived Pre-BS label. A frazzled mix of potty-mouthed lyrics, whooping and twanging Link Ray-ish guitar (if he’d been in a car accident), it was all done and dusted in a minute and a half, if you listened to the crackle at the beginning and the end – as a reward, you got another three tracks too. Further records appeared across a myriad of labels, most notably Estrus, to whom they returned most often. The singles were often released in eye-wateringly small runs, or at least they purported to be – my own collection suggests this may not quite have been the case.
These early singles were collected together as their first album, “The Mummies: Play Their Own Records!”. released on Estrus in 1992. It was an instant success, in the sense that no-one died and they didn’t all quit immediately. A brief flirtation with Crypt Records nearly caused unparalleled disaster as, when the label sent across an engineer to assist with the recording, there was the very real threat of it sounding professional.
Sent on his way, the album appeared as a bootleg, whereas the band re-recorded the material and released it under the title “Never Been Caught”. Further issues arose with Regal Select beer threatening to sue the band for the use of their logo on the “Shitsville” single whilst the band went on the offensive against Sub Pop, incensed that the toast of the season had approached them to release a single as part of their incredibly popular (and now valuable) Singles Club. The resulting two-fingered response consisted of a mock-up sleeve with Sub Pop’s label crudely drawn on. The label, helpfully, saw the funny side.
More singles poured out, including split singles with the likes of the horror-monikered but not be-clad The Wolfmen (packaged in a delightfully 50’s-style comic book), as did a tour with Thee Headcoats, with Childish later to declare them to be “the only garage band I like”. It wasn’t enough to save the band and they split before the release of their live album, “Party at Steve’s House”, which was neither a live album nor recorded at Steve’s house.
Throughout their career they released nothing but vinyl, the British release of “F*ck CDs, It’s The Mummies!” doing the describing for me. Even video footage exists – occasionally copies of their New York Loft Party gig in December 1991 appear . Much effort is given to attempting to play a full-size keyboard like an accordion, eat a microphone and generally alarm an audience who look a bit like they’re looking for means of escape.
Some ten years later a CD finally appeared, “Death By Unga Bunga”, the irony being that it sounds every bit as trashed and battered as their vinyl releases. Very occasional live appearances at garage festivals have occurred since but there’s every chance these every-living fiends will take to the stage once more.
Two warnings – R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck’s recent cover of “You Must Fight to Live (On the Planet of the Apes)” – their finest moment – is a disgrace, as are the coat-tail-riding innuendo-and brass-laden Here Come the Mummies who are not to be confused with the Pharaohs of Fuzz in any way whatsoever.
A final note from the band’s website:
The Mummies don’t tweet, twat, connect, share, like, friend or give a damn.
Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia
With thanks to Russell Quan. For all your Mummies needs, sorry you’re too late. Look at their website http://www.themummies.com/index.php
John Peel session 1994: