- Steve Dollar
This story was originally published on March 10, 1996
More a legend than an album, "Music to Eat" could be the Holy Grail of hippie rock.
Or, given the prescient 20-minute jams, complex arrangements and free-associated field shouts that define this 1971 double LP by Atlanta's Hampton Grease Band, maybe the Dead Sea Scrolls.
It's easy now to hear how the band's peculiarly Southern collision of visionary hokum and string-wrenching virtuosity prevails in contemporary acts as diverse as Phish and Sonic Youth.
Re-released after 25 years in oblivion, "Music to Eat" (Shotput/Sony Legacy) may finally find the audience that once ignored it, branding the album as the rumored second-worst-selling title in the Columbia Records catalog (A yoga instruction recording took first.)
"It is strange the way it just got buried, " says guitarist Glenn Phillips, who was 17 in 1967, when the Hampton Grease Band formed. "That really opened it up to people mythologizing. . . . I've had people come to me from all kinds of bands and credit us with stuff. Maybe it's like what they say about the Velvet Underground. Only 100 people bought the record, but they all went out and started bands."
The five-piece group took half its name from Bruce Hampton, whose high-pitched, abrasive vocals would take lyric inspiration from a geography text or the small print on a can of spray paint. "I learned it from (Thelonious) Monk, " says Hampton, who is finishing the debut recording of his latest act, Fiji Mariners. "Act crazy and no one will bother you."
"Grease" is what guitarist Harold Kelling uttered, for no known reason, when he happened upon musical hero Frank Zappa on a New York street. (Zappa was so impressed he invited the gang to ad-lib vocals on his album "Lumpy Gravy.")
"I've been trying for the last five years to put it out, " Phillips says. "But trying to get a record like this re-released is like going to the White House to get a stoplight put up in your neighborhood."
Atlanta producer Brendan O'Brien (Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Matthew Sweet) made "Music to Eat" the first item on the agenda for Shotput, one of two new record labels he operates under Sony sponsorship. "He negotiated for it arduously, " says Jeff Calder, the longtime Atlanta musician who coordinated the reissue, which includes vintage photos of the band making a ruckus at Piedmont Park and a hilarious, surreal history written by Phillips.
"We weren't thinking about much of anything, " says Phillips, who will release his latest solo disc on Shotput. "We were all incredibly self-absorbed and used the music to run from the problems we were having. There was a strong emotional drive and intensity, just an explosion of energy. People would either love it or hate it."