They may not have “started” the genre, but they were the first to tick all the boxes. The eels rejected every 1970s rock convention-professionalism, virtuosity, subject matter, image. Dave E.’s caustic vocals, complete with an aggressive lisp and a head full of snot, would become de rigeur a few years after the group disbanded. Meanwhile, the songs’ focus on car crashes, suicide, neuroses, and generally hating people were as far out of the mainstream as possible. The two eels tracks that do approach the subject of romance couch it in terms of not really caring that much about it (“Jaguar Ride”) or placing it in the context of a grisly murder (“Silver Daggers”). Also consider John Morton’s signature guitar sound, a nails-on-chalkboard tone with brutally free soloing inspired more by Albert Ayler than the blues or aspirations to technical facility. Ditto Dave E.’s clarinet playing and affection for lawnmowers and vacuums during live performance. They were notoriously violent not only among themselves, but towards audiences, police, and anyone unfortunate enough to be around them when things went south. Then of course there are the leather jackets, the clothing festooned with rat traps or safety pins. And no bass player, why bother. There is simply no other “proto” band to have had all these pieces in place circa 1973-1975.
Yet it is a mistake to consider the eels exclusively in such a context. Yes, the eels could and did shock anyone who encountered them, but they also had great songs. While both Dave and John were visionary writers, they also had rhythm guitarist Brian McMahon, a melody and riff machine who wrote many of the band’s signature songs. And they were no one-trick pony. Although much of the band’s material is appropriately high-energy, there is also the downer eels-morbid, harmonically risky, and in full existential crisis. Although it’s not a focus of this compilation, the eels also had a penchant for completely free improvisation. Over the last forty plus years, there have been several electric eels compilations. Spin Age Blasters is quite simply the best one ever assembled, every single key track is here in it’s best version, properly mastered by John Golden, and sequenced with an eye towards both flow between tracks as well as individation between sides. A true monster of an album.