Few bands showed as much dedication to the past as the Comateens.
They were one of those ‘80s bands that reminds you how much the era’s musicians rethought key motifs from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Motorcycles, neon lights, leather jackets, love-lorn pop, basic suits and doo-wop harmonies: These all made a comeback in the ‘80s for artists from Bruce Springsteen to Prince to The Clash and a bunch of new wave bands in between. But few bands showed as much dedication to the past as the Comateens, and a boxed set from the French label Tricatel sums up their little-remembered career.
The trio was made up of Nick North (bass), Oliver North (guitar) and Lyn Bird (synthesizer). Notably, the band decided against a drummer in favor of a drum machine, a practically avant-garde approach in that late-‘70s New York moment when they formed. Comateens were oriented towards pop and used their futuristic set-up to look back to a more experimental moment in rock music: its beginnings. 1980 – 1985 collects the three LPs they recorded: The Comateens (1981), Pictures on a String (1983) and Deal with It (1984). The set reveals the band exploring a variety of old-fashioned and new-fangled musical paths, with results that are historically interesting but aesthetically mixed.
The 1981 debut is an ambivalent piece of art, almost radically so. It attempts to re-chart certain chapters of rock ‘n’ roll history with new technologies by alternating between vintage or vintage-sounding material and hipper pieces of music that foreground the ramshackle sound of the drum machine. A couple of covers show the vintage side most clearly: The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” and Jack Marshall’s “The Munsters Theme.” The latter is more successful in bringing new energy to the table, using a deep-voiced synth pattern to channel some candle-lit gothic vibes. Tracks like “Ghost,” “One by One” and “All Ways,” on the other hand, rely on the drum machine’s metronomic precision as a backdrop for catchy, automatronic tunes about the loneliness of young life in the city. The album is a bit disjointed, but the trio’s ambition shines through.
Their sophomore LP, Pictures on a String, was their most danceable and consistently absorbing collection. It stands somewhat awkwardly at the intersection of disco, funk, post-punk and hip-hop, but the earworm melodies and dense orchestration help make up for Comateens’ pleasurably failed attempt to bridge every hip genre from the period at once. The title track manages the balancing act most gracefully by layering the electric slap of the TR-808 with the sound of distorted voices, a tittering synth line, the discordant skuzz of electric guitar and—briefly—the sound of bongos. The half-rapped lines here and on tracks like “Ice Machine” sound ridiculous, as expected, but that’s part of the fun of uncovering this artifact from a period when New York-based artists from many genres were converging upon the same venues.
Comateens had lost a good deal of their experimental, category-defying spirit by the release of their final LP, Deal With It. While Pictures on a String had allowed the band to seem a little edgier by relegating ‘60s elements to vocal harmonies and some Shangri-Las-style spoken monologues, these 10 songs reveal a bygone era’s squarest tendencies. Comateens are clearly feigning cool here, dressing up in the latest fads to deliver tired lines composed mostly from women’s names and calls of “hey baby.” The lack of edge in their voices—the three members split up singing duties—is all too apparent, and the shift towards a fuller sound, live drummer included, subtracts lo-fi fun from the equation.
Where did it all go wrong? The answers is equal parts commercial and personal. Comateens were signed to Virgin Records, and it seems likely that there was pressure to adjust their aesthetic for the changing times and send along a more positive message. “Resist Her,” Deal with It’s opening track, encourages lovers not to hold back but to give in and cling to the one they love. It’s a pop ballad that’s been power-washed down to a chorus of positive values and the hollow sounds of mainstream-rock-friendly drums, beaming synthesizer and bright burbles of guitar. This pastel brand of positivity contrasted sharply with Oliver North’s drug addiction, which would lead to his death by overdose-related heart failure in 1987. Virgin would later release an album, West & Byrd, by the band’s remaining members, but 1980 – 1985 ends the story of Comateens with the last album they completed as a trio. It’s a disappointing and ultimately tragic conclusion to the musical career of an act that aimed so enthusiastically for sounds from the past that had not yet been imagined.