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"I've been listening to music by Charles Manson for a long time, and I really like his songs," reveals Ang, vocalist for Denver's Scramblehead. "Charles Manson is interesting in the sense of his situation as a whole, and the man himself is a very interesting story, also. I decided I wanted to redo his songs because that's what I feel is really good music."
The members of Guns N' Roses apparently agree: They chose to include Manson's "Look At Your Game, Girl" on their last album, The Spaghetti Incident. (The decision earned the band almost as much bad press as Timothy McVeigh.) But Scramblehead's fascination with Manson is much more all-encompassing. Instead of occasionally covering material written by the man convicted of masterminding the murders of actress Sharon Tate and several other Los Angelenos during the late Sixties, Ang and his fellows--guitarist Dunlop, drummer Zero and dancers/backup vocalists Rise, Valentine and War--focus on it exclusively. All of their numbers feature Manson's lyrics set to their own music.
And what music it is. On Valley of the Bugs, Scramblehead's new album, the group, which formed in 1992, offers up a furious alloy of industrial guitar, driving percussion and Ang's disturbing, distorted singing. The last effect is achieved through primitive means. "A lot of bands that you could classify in this genre, like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, use distortion in their vocals, but they all sound the same," Ang says. "I wanted to have real distortion, not from some $2,000 sound box. So the receiver on my mike is actually a CB-band walkie-talkie that's hooked directly up to the PA."
The disc's cover sports another Manson touch--a photograph of the bandmates brandishing heavy artillery, in imitation of Manson family members like Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Susan Atkins. "In a lot of documentaries, the girls would have these weapons," explains War, who is pictured with an M-16. "It was also a big part of the murders, and a big part of the family life was having weapons around. They were convinced that the end of the world was coming." She predicts that the arsenal may soon become part of the act's show: "We don't use them on stage because you need to have a permit--but we're in the process of working that out. We'd like to use real weapons and possibly even blanks at some point."
Such props would be perfectly in keeping with Scramblehead's in-concert approach, which can be safely described as provocative. The players perform in Manson-influenced outfits and controversial adornments, like swastikas drawn onto their foreheads. On one occasion, War boasts, these costumes so incensed clubgoers that the bandmates had to run for their lives. "Apparently these people didn't know what was going on and freaked out," she says.
A more common response to Scramblehead's live assault--a solid block of time that does not include pauses between songs--is quiet disbelief. "People are more speechless than anything else," Ang notes. "When the show ends, everyone is just kind of standing there in awe. In one sense, you can't really tell what the reaction is. In another sense, I don't think they really know what to say."
According to Ang, upsetting the middle-brow masses is "all part of the game, part of the fun. We're heckling society." But he insists, somewhat disingenuously, that Scramblehead is interested in more than mere shock value. After pointing out that the group's recent CD-release party included a screening of the 1976 documentary Manson, considered by many observers to be a fairly evenhanded look at its subject, Ang argues that Manson is a historically relevant figure who shouldn't be forgotten. "The O.J. trial was the largest in U.S. history only to the Manson trial," he claims. "Also, the Manson trial was the most expensive at the time. And what's most fascinating is that Manson wasn't even there for the two nights of killings--he wasn't even present. So in the sense of legal issues, Manson wasn't even the guy who killed all those people." (Manson was convicted of nine counts of conspiracy to commit murder. He was sentenced to death, but that penalty was reduced to life in prison after California courts revoked capital punishment.)
Still, Ang's historical objectivity goes by the wayside when he talks about Manson, who, he's proud to say, has heard about Scramblehead. "He knows that we exist," he maintains. "Blue, who is one of the only members of the Manson family not in jail, still speaks highly of him on talk shows and stuff. She heard Valley of the Bugs and wasn't that fond of it because of the style of music. She said it sounded 'angry,' but she's probably kind of angry herself.
"We haven't had any direct contact with him," Ang goes on, "but he's allowed to make collect calls now, so maybe he'll get in touch with us. You never know."
In the meantime, War states, Scramblehead has gained a measure of acceptance closer to home. "My mom just smiles and nods now," she says. "She still won't come to a show, though.
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