Big Black

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Intro

An American Punk band formed out of Evanston, Illinois, active from 1981 to 1987.

Founded by singer and guitarist Steve Albini, the band's initial lineup also included guitarist Santiago Durango and bassist Jeff Pezzati, both of Naked Raygun.

Info

In 1985 Pezzati was replaced by Dave Riley, who played on Big Black's two full-length studio albums, Atomizer (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987).

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Big Black's aggressive and abrasive music was characterized by distinctively clanky guitars and the use of a drum machine rather than a drum kit, elements that foreshadowed Industrial Rock.

The band's lyrics flouted commonly held taboos and dealt frankly, and often explicitly, with politically and culturally loaded topics including murder, rape, child sexual abuse, arson, racism, and misogyny. Though the band's lyrics contained controversial material, the lyrics were meant to serve as a commentary or a display of distaste for the subject matter. They were staunchly critical of the commercial nature of Rock, shunning the mainstream music industry and insisting on complete control over all aspects of their career. At the height of their success, they booked their own tours, paid for their own recordings, refused to sign contracts, and eschewed many of the traditional corporate trappings of Rock bands. In doing so they had a significant impact on the aesthetic and political development of independent and underground / Indie Rock music.

In addition to two studio albums, Big Black released two live albums, two compilation albums, four EPs, and five singles, all through independent record labels. Most of the band's catalog was kept in print through Touch and Go Records for years following their breakup.

1981–82: Formation and Lungs

Big Black was founded by Steve Albini in 1981 during his second year of college at Northwestern University. Albini had become a fan of Punk during his high school years in Missoula, Montana, and taught himself to play bass guitar in the fall of 1979, his senior year, while recuperating from a badly broken leg resulting from being struck by a car while riding his motorcycle.

Moving to Evanston, Illinois the following year to pursue a journalism degree and fine art minor at Northwestern, Albini immersed himself in the fledgling Chicago Punk scene and became a devoted fan of the Post Punk band Naked Raygun.

He also DJ'd for the campus radio station, from which he was repeatedly fired for playing loud and abrasive music during the morning time slot as well as not filling out the necessary logs.

He also wrote a controversial column titled "Tired of Ugly Fat?" for the Chicago zine Matter, publishing confrontational rants about the local music scene which polarized readers into either respecting or hating him.

Albini began playing in college bands, including a short-lived "arty new wave" act called Stations that featured a drum machine. Seeing the advantage in a machine that could play incredibly fast without tiring, always kept a steady beat, and would follow commands exactly, he purchased a Roland TR-606 drum machine and began writing what would become the first Big Black songs.

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However, he was unable to find other musicians who could play the songs to his satisfaction, later stating in Forced Exposure that "I couldn't find anybody who didn't blow out of a pig's asshole." Instead, in the spring of 1981 he bought a guitar, borrowed a four-track multitrack recorder from a friend in exchange for a case of beer, and spent his spring break week recording the Lungs EP in his living room, handling the guitar, bass, and vocals by himself and programming the Roland TR-606 to provide the drum sound.

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Influenced by bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Killing Joke, and The Cure, the EP is described by Our Band Could Be Your Life author Michael Azerrad as "cold, dark, and resolutely unlistenable", with the lyrics describing crack addicts and child abusers, and Albini later regarded the effort as one of his few artistic regrets.

Albini named his new musical project Big Black, calling the moniker "just sort of a reduction of the concept of a large, scary, ominous figure. All the historical images of fear and all the things that kids are afraid of are all big and black, basically."

He used the Lungs tape to try to enlist other musicians to the project, briefly recruiting Minor Threat guitarist Lyle Preslar who was attending Northwestern, but the two proved incompatible as musicians. Albini passed Lungs on to John Babbin of the small local label Ruthless Records, who released 1,500 copies of the EP in December 1982 with random objects such as dollar bills, used condoms, photographs of Bruce Lee, and bloody pieces of paper thrown into the insert.

1983: Full lineup and Bulldozer

In early 1983 Albini met Naked Raygun singer Jeff Pezzati through mutual friends and convinced him to play bass guitar with Big Black. Pezzati recalled that Albini "knew a heck of a lot about, right from the start, how to release a record and get the word out that you have a record", and that "He jumped at the chance to have a band play his stuff." The two practiced in Pezzati's basement, and one day Naked Raygun guitarist Santiago Durango came downstairs and asked to play along. The trio clicked as a unit, Durango's ability to rework arrangements and tweak sounds helping to refine Albini's song ideas. According to Albini, "He ended up being absolutely crucial to Big Black."

Albini "sorta conned" small local label Fever Records into financing the next Big Black EP, bringing in drummer Pat Byrne of Urge Overkill to play on the sessions as accompaniment to the drum machine, which they dubbed "Roland" for album credits. Albini achieved a signature "clanky" sound with his guitar by using metal guitar picks notched with sheet metal clips, creating the effect of two guitar picks at once.

The Bulldozer EP was recorded with engineer Iain Burgess and released in December 1983, with the first two hundred copies packaged in a galvanized sheet metal sleeve in homage to Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box.

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Many of the EP's lyrics depicted scenarios drawn from Albini's midwest upbringing, such as "Cables", which described the slaughtering of cows at a Montana abattoir, and "Pigeon Kill", about a rural Indiana town that dealt with an overpopulation of pigeons by feeding them poisoned corn.

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1984: Touring and label signing

Even with Bulldozer released, Big Black drew very small crowds in their native Chicago. They began venturing outside of Illinois to play shows in Madison, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Muncie, transporting themselves and their equipment in a cramped car and sleeping on people's floors. Albini handled much of the band's logistics himself, setting up rehearsals, booking studio time, and arranging tours. With their reputation growing through small tours, he was able to set up a run of East Coast dates including performances in Washington, D.C. and Boston and at New York City's Danceteria, followed by a European tour on which they won acclaim in the United Kingdom's music press. Big Black simultaneously found themselves gaining popularity in their hometown, but felt embittered that the same locals who had snubbed them just months before were suddenly interested now that they had built a reputation outside the city, and the band actually refused to play in Chicago for some time.

Part of Big Black's local unpopularity stemmed from Albini and the vitriol he regularly directed at Chicago's Rock scene: by 1985 the Metro Chicago was the only club in the city that was booking punk rock shows and was also large enough to accommodate Big Black, but after performing there Albini badmouthed the club in an interview and found himself banned from it permanently. Compounding the problem were the band's aggressive, noise-driven sound and Albini's confrontational lyrics, which tested the tolerance of his white liberal audience by mercilessly satirizing racism, sexism, chauvinism, and stereotypes of homosexuality, sometimes using pejoratives like "darkie" and "fag" to drive home the point; this led some listeners to consider him a bigot.

"It meant nothing to us if we were popular or not, or if we sold either a million or no records, so we were invulnerable to ploys by music scene weasels to get us to make mistakes in the name of success. To us, every moment we remained unfettered and in control was a success. We never had a manager. We never had a booking agent. We never had a lawyer. We never took an advance from a record company. We booked our own tours, paid our own bills, made our own mistakes and never had anybody shield us from either the truth or the consequences. The results of that methodology speak for themselves: Nobody ever told us what to do, and nobody took any of our money." –Steve Albini

Looking for better distribution of their records, Big Black negotiated a deal with Homestead Records. Gerard Cosloy, who had befriended Albini through writing for Matter and gone on to work at Homestead, negotiated an unorthodox deal for the band: Big Black merely licensed their recordings to Homestead for specific lengths of time, rather than the label retaining the rights to the recordings as was typical. Further, the band took no advance payments, paid for their own recordings, and signed no contracts.

Durango later remarked that

"We came from a punk perspective — we did not want to get sucked into a corporate culture where basically you're signing a contract because you don't trust the other person to live up to their word. We had ideals, and that was one of our ideals."

The band members figured that if a record company were going to cheat them, they would be able to do so with or without a contract because the band couldn't afford to defend themselves.

Albini believed that Big Black had nothing to gain by adopting the usual corporate trappings of rock bands:

"If you don't use contracts, you don't have any contracts to worry about. If you don't have a tour rider, you don't have a tour rider to argue about. If you don't have a booking agent, you don't have a booking agent to argue with."

Handling the tour booking, equipment hauling, setup, and breakdown of shows themselves also meant that the band did not have to hire a booking agent or road crew with whom they would have to share profits. The lack of a drummer also meant one less member to split profits with, and since there was no drum kit the band did not have to rent a tour van to fit all of their equipment. Thus Big Black was able to profit from most of their tours. They embarked on a 1984 national tour of the United States in preparation for their forthcoming Homestead EP, utilizing the close-knit network of independent rock bands to learn of cities and venues to play.

1985–86: Racer-X and Atomizer

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Every Big Black release after and including Racer-X sees the band utilizing an E-MU Drumulator, as pictured above.

In late 1984, following the recording of the Racer-X EP, Pezzati amicably left the band due to his increasingly demanding job, the need to devote time to his fiancée, and the increasing popularity and busy schedule of Naked Raygun, of which he was still a member.

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Durango, meanwhile, opted to leave Naked Raygun to commit full-time to Big Black. Pezzati was replaced by Dave Riley, who joined Big Black the week of Racer-X's release in April 1985. Albini claimed to be aiming for a "big, massive, slick rock sound" with Racer-X, which was less frantic than Bulldozer, but ultimately felt that the EP was "too samey and monolithic." The band had already begun writing songs for their first full-length album by the time Racer-X was released, stating in the last sentence of the EP's liner notes that "The next one's gonna make you shit your pants."

Big Black's first LP, 1986's Atomizer, found the band at their most musically developed and aggressive level yet. Riley's Funk background brought a slightly greater sense of melody and danceability to the band, while Albini and Durango's guitar work was more violent than ever before. Michael Azerrad comments that "by this time Big Black had both refined the ideas first suggested on Lungs and exploded them into something much huger than anyone but Albini had ever imagined", while Mark Deming of Allmusic states that the album "upped the ante on the musical and lyrical ferocity of Big Black's previous body of work, an unrelenting assault of guitar sounds and imagined violence of all sorts." Albini later remarked that "we just had a higher-than-average percentage of really good songs." The lyrics on Atomizer presented sociopaths committing evil acts that most people only sometimes contemplate: "Big Money" deals with a corrupt police officer, "Bazooka Joe" profiles a shell-shocked veteran who becomes a contract killer, "Stinking Drunk" describes a violent alcoholic, and "Fists of Love" presents a sadist. One of the album's most controversial songs was "Jordan, Minnesota", about the 1983 scandal in Jordan, Minnesota that saw a large number of the rural town's adults indicted on charges of involvement in a huge child sex ring.

"Kerosene" is cited by several critics as Big Black's peak; an "epically roaming track" with "guitars that sound like shattering glass".

"Kerosene", one of Atomizer's standout tracks, is viewed by both Azerrad and Allmusic's Andy Kellman as the band's peak performance. Azerrad remarks on its "powerful rhythm ripped straight from Gang of Four and guitars that sound like shattering glass", while Kellman calls it "undeniably Big Black's brightest/bleakest moment, an epically roaming track that features an instantly memorable guitar intro, completely incapable of being accurately described by vocal imitation or physical gesture [...] It's Big Black's 'Light My Fire,' literally." Riley explained that the song was about the effects of boredom in rural America: "There's only two things to do: Go blow up a whole load of stuff for fun, or have a lot of sex with the one girl in town who'll have sex with anyone. 'Kerosene' is about a guy who tries to combine the two pleasures."

Atomizer was a polarizing record that was praised in the national press and became an underground success, surpassing the band's expectations by selling three thousand copies soon after its release. Big Black secured a European distribution deal for their records through Blast First, a label recommended to Albini by Sonic Youth, and met enthusiastic responses to their shows on a 1986 European tour.

The compilation album The Hammer Party, combining Lungs and Bulldozer, was also released through Homestead Records in 1986, but later that year Big Black had a falling out with the label and its distributor, Dutch East India Trading.

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According to Albini, Dutch East India's accounting practices were "always fucked. They would do every sleazy, cheap trick to avoid paying you, like send you a check that wasn't signed or send you a check that had a different numeral and literal amount." Homestead then asked to make five hundred copies of a 12-inch single of "Il Duce" for free distribution to radio stations. The band agreed on the condition that the single was not to be offered for sale, since the song had already been released as a 7-inch single in 1985 and, according to Albini, "We didn't want our audience milked for extra money to buy an alternate format." A few weeks after the single's release, Albini began seeing copies for sale in record stores outside of Chicago. He soon found out that the 12-inch single was being sold both in the United States and abroad as a high-priced "collector's item". Though Homestead claimed not to be selling copies, Albini telephoned one of the label's salespeople posing as a record buyer and was told that they would sell him copies, but not in Chicago. As a result of the deception, Albini and Big Black severed ties with Homestead and Dutch East India. Though the band was receiving lucrative offers from major labels, they chose to remain independent and signed to Touch and Go Records, Albini being good friends with label head Corey Rusk.

1987: Headache, Songs About Fucking, and breakup

Big Black's first release for Touch and Go was the Headache EP in spring 1987.

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The cover artwork for the limited original edition of the EP was a pair of forensic photos of an accident victim whose head had been split down the middle, and the record was packaged in a black plastic "body bag" to conceal the artwork from sensitive consumers. A sticker on the EP's cover read "Not as good as Atomizer, so don't get your hopes up, cheese!" According to Durango, "We didn't want to sit there and screw people. If we felt it wasn't as good, then we should just be honest about it." Indeed, Headache recycled many of the same sounds and themes found on Atomizer, showing signs that the band was lagging creatively. Durango later remarked that "I was feeling tapped out ideawise. At that point I think we had tried everything that we wanted to try, musically and in the studio."

"'The members of Big Black have often been asked why we chose to break up (the end of the band having been announced well in advance) just when we were becoming quite popular. The best answer then and now is: To prevent us from overstaying our welcome."Steve Albini

Tensions were also mounting within the band. Albini did not drink alcohol, so Riley and Durango became drinking buddies on the road while Albini was doing interviews and handling the band's logistics. Riley, however, was drinking to excess, and his behavior ruined several of the band's performances. During a key show at CBGB’s, he drunkenly smashed the drum machine. Albini also accused Riley of a number of other shortcomings including lateness to rehearsals, always needing rides, and "flashes of brilliance offset by flashes of belligerence." However, though he made a number of threats, Albini never fired Riley. Another problem facing the band was that Riley was now in college and both Albini and Durango had to keep day jobs, which limited Big Black's ability to tour. When Durango announced that he intended to enter law school beginning in the fall semester of 1987, the band decided to keep going until he began school and then call it quits. Despite enjoying increased press, radio airplay, record sales, and concert fees, the band did not regret their decision and eschewed the idea of commercial success. According to Riley, "Big Black was never about that. For Big Black to make any money, it wouldn't have been Big Black anymore." Being a lame duck band was also liberating, as the members no longer had to be concerned with the group's future. Albini wrote that he was happy to be breaking up the band before it grew too big:

I am now quite happy to be breaking up. Things getting much too big and uncontrollable. All along we've wanted to keep our hands on everything, so nothing happened that we didn't want to. With international and multi-format/multi-territorial shit, that's proving elusive. I prefer to cut it off rather than have it turn into another Gross Rock Spectacle.

With their breakup announced well in advance, Big Black recorded their final album, Songs About Fucking, half in London and half at Albini's home studio. Their final tours began in June 1987, taking them to Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and across the United States. They performed at the Pukkelpop festival in Belgium with Sonic Youth on July 22, Albini's 25th birthday. At a sold-out show in London for 1,300 people, Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis of Wire joined Big Black onstage to play an encore of Wire's "Heartbeat" (Big Black had released a cover version of the song as a single in conjunction with Headache). Albini wrote of the experience that "If I die right now it will all have been worth it." In the United States the band played in San Francisco, Providence, Boston, and New York City, concluding with their final performance on August 11, 1987 at the Georgetown Steam Plant in Seattle. At the end of this show the band smashed their instruments onstage.

Songs About Fucking was released shortly after the band's breakup and went on to become their most successful record, with an initial pressing of eight thousand copies. Mark Deming of Allmusic calls it "a scabrous masterpiece", while his colleague Andy Kellman states that "each [song] is incisive enough to render a razor as effective as a butter knife. In sum: yowl, ching, thump-thump-screech. Ugly characters line up in the songs like early arrivals at a monster truck rally." Critic Robert Christgau commented that "Anybody who thinks rock and roll is alive and well in the infinite variety of its garage-boy permutations had better figure out how these Hitler Youth rejects could crush the competition and quit simultaneously. No matter what well-meaning rockers think of Steve Albini's supremacist lies, they lie themselves if they dismiss what he does with electric guitars—that Killdozer sound culminates if not finishes off whole generations of punk and metal." Albini himself later considered the album's first side as Big Black's best output.

Post-Big Black

Following Big Black's breakup, Albini formed and fronted Rapeman from 1987 to 1989 and Shellac from 1992 onward. He also began work as a recording engineer, working with artists such as Slint, The Pixies, The Breeders, Pegboy, Urge Overkill, The Jesus Lizard, The Wedding Present, Superchunk, PJ Harvey, Nirvana, Bush, and Page and Plant. Some of his most well-known recordings include The Pixies' Surfer Rosa (1988), Nirvana's In Utero (1993), Bush's Razorblade Suitcase (1996), and Page and Plant's Walking into Clarksdale (1998). In 1997 he opened his own recording studio, Electrical Audio, in Chicago. Albini's recording style is characterized by the use of vintage microphones placed strategically around the performance room, keeping vocals very low in the mix, and using few special effects. He is also known for recording almost any artist who requests his services (usually at very low rates but deliberately charging high amounts to artists on major record labels), disliking being credited on the albums he works on (insisting on being credited as a recording engineer rather than a producer, if at all), and refusing to take royalties for his work (calling them "an insult to the band").

Durango, meanwhile, continued to play music during his law school years, releasing two EPs on Touch and Go Records as Arsenal and recording with Boss Hog. He then became a practicing lawyer, with clients including Touch and Go Records and Cynthia Plaster Caster. Riley was briefly a member of Bull but was incapacitated by a stroke in 1995, which was initially erroneously reported as a suicide attempt. Having lost the ability to walk, he maintains a blog about his experiences titled "Worthless Goddamn Cripple". In 2004 he participated in a musical project called Miasma of Funk, releasing the album Groove on the Mania! He has also published a book titled Blurry and Disconnected: Tales of Sink-or-Swim Nihilism.

In 1992 Big Black's catalog reverted to Touch and Go Records, who re-released their entire discography and kept their records in print long after the band's breakup. That October the label released the live album and video Pigpile.

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Recorded in London during the band's final tours, as well as the compilation album The Rich Man's Eight Track Tape, which combined tracks from Atomizer, Headache, and the "Heartbeat" single in compact disc format.

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The re-released version of The Hammer Party was expanded to include the tracks from Racer-X.

On September 9, 2006, Albini and Durango reunited with original bassist Jeff Pezzati for a Big Black reunion performance at Touch and Go's 25th Anniversary festival. Albini's touring schedule with Shellac did not allow time for the band to rehearse a full set, so they instead played a short set of four songs: "Cables", "Dead Billy", "Pigeon Kill", and "Racer-X". Albini explained that the performance was "not about Big Black wanting to get back together or even an audience wanting to see Big Black, it's that ... to not honor Touch and Go would be an insult by way of damning with faint praise", describing the label as "[not] just a benchmark for how a record label should behave, but how people should behave." During the performance he stated that "You can tell [this is] not something we had a burning desire to do, but we did it because we love Touch and Go [and] we love Corey Rusk [...] When history talks about rock music it has a tendency to skip from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana, [but] something started in the 1980s and you're seeing the evidence of it all around you", remarking that the label was "the best thing to happen to music in my lifetime, and we did this to say thanks". Though the band has been approached by promoters about doing other reunion shows, Albini has stated flatly "that is definitely not going to happen."

Discography

The discography of Big Black consists of two studio albums, two live albums, two compilation albums, four EPs, five singles, and one video album.

Studio Albums

1) Atomizer (Released: 1986, Homestead, LP)

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2) Songs About Fucking (Released: 1987, Touch and Go, LP & CD)

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Live Albums

1) Sound of Impact (Released: 1987, Label: Walls Have Ears, Format: LP)

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An authorized bootleg released through a subsidiary imprint of Blast First

2) Pigpile (Released: October 5, 1992, Label: Touch and Go, Format: LP & CD)

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Compilations

1) The Hammer Party (Released: 1986, Label: Homestead, Format: LP & CD)

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2) The Rich Man's Eight Track Tape (Released: October 12, 1992, Label: Touch and Go, Format: CD)

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EPs

1) Lungs (Released: December 1982, Label: Ruthless)

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2) Bulldozer (Released: December 1983, Label: Fever)

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3) Racer-X (Released: 1984, Label: Homestead)

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4) Headache (Released: Spring 1987, Label: Touch and Go)

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Singles List

1) "Rema-Rema" (Released: 1985, Label: Forced Exposure, Format: 7")

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2) "Il Duce" (Released: 1985, Label: Homestead, Format: 7" & 12")

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3) "Heartbeat" (Released: July 13, 1987, Label: Touch and Go, Format: 7")

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4) "He's a Whore" / "The Model" (Released: July 13, 1987, Label: Touch and Go Format: 7")

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5) "In My House" (Released: October 5, 1992, Label: Touch and Go, Format: 5")

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"Rema-Rema" is a Rema-Rema cover included as a one-sided single with issue No. 9 of Forced Exposure, and limited to 500 copies.

"In My House" is a Mary Jane Girls cover that was included with copies of the Pigpile video.

Video Album

Pigpile (Released: 1992, Label: Touch and Go, Format: VHS)

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Other Appearances

The following Big Black songs were released on compilation albums. This is not an exhaustive list; songs that were first released on the band's albums, EPs, and singles are not included.

1) The Middle of America Compilation (Released: 1984, Label: HID Productions, Format: LP)

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"Big Payback" (premix) "Hunter's Safety (Tommy Bartlett Dies in Pain

2) God's Favorite Dog (Released: 1986, Label: Touch and Go, Format: LP)

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"Every Man for Himself" "Crack Up"

3) Happiness Is Dry Pants (Released: 1986, Label: Chemical Imbalance, Format: 7")

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"Burning Indian Wife"

Members Name Check

  • Steve Albini – lead vocals, guitar, drum machine programming (1981–87, 2006 reunion performance), bass (1981-82)
  • Jeff Pezzati – bass guitar, backing vocals (1983–84, 2006 reunion performance)
  • Santiago Durango – guitar, backing vocals (1983–87, 2006 reunion performance)
  • Dave Riley – bass guitar, backing vocals (1985–87)
  • I The band's drum machine is credited as "Roland" on their releases.