Feast Your Ears

The Eat offers a taste of Miamiís proto-punk past

In a city with no memory, few local bands are remembered by anyone except members and their friends. Even fewer are mourned by out-of-state fans, and virtually none gain admirers posthumously. One exception to all of these rules is the Eat, a Miami punk band that formed in 1978 and was more or less done by the early Eighties.

The quartet's music was purposely obnoxious and sometimes technically deficient. It was released on a handful of records and cassettes characterized by middling recording quality and hyperlocal — that is to say, almost nonexistent — distribution. So why has a San Francisco-based record label reissued on CD not only the band's entire back catalogue, but also a bonus disc of from-the-vault live cuts recorded around Miami?

This past June, the two-disc compilation It's Not the Eat, It's the Humidity dropped on Alternative Tentacles, the label run by Jello Biafra, former frontman for the legendary punk outfit the Dead Kennedys. It was an event fueled by accidental luck, the influence of a series of bootleg punk compilations of blurry provenance, and a fetishistic record-collecting community.

And, of course, by the stomp and kick of the songs themselves. Under the murky engineering mix, the Eat's work forms a snarling wallop baptized in both blues-rock and power pop, often something like the New York Dolls sped up and stripped of the glitter. It's Not the Eat is an audio snapshot that happily connects Miami to the swift changes in rock music wrought by the onset of punk.

The Eat began when teenage brothers Mike and Eddie O'Brien moved here from Long Island with their family; they both played guitar and a little bass. Glenn Newland learned the bass from Eddie. Eventually for drums they found Chris Cottie, who had toured with the notorious outlaw-country crank David Allan Coe. Newland later quit and was replaced by Kenny Lindahl.

They started out playing covers, mainly of power pop groups like Cheap Trick and Sparks, and gradually added originals; still, they had grand illusions of stardom. "We knew, or at least I knew, that we had absolutely no commercial potential," Eddie O'Brien told the zine Brain Transplant in 1997. "Our motivation was just to annoy people, which we probably succeeded at."

Eventually, in 1979, the band put out 500 copies of a seven-inch single featuring two live recordings, "Communist Radio" and "Catholic Love." The second, God Punishes the Eat, followed in 1980 (1000 copies were pressed this time). An EP, Scattered Wahoo Action, appeared on cassette in 1982 (fewer than 300 were produced originally; it was re-released on vinyl in 1996 by Dutch label Wicked Witch). By 1983 the band had gained a sizable local following, but it nevertheless was kaput.

Then came Killed by Death, a series of mostly bootleg compilations of ultra-obscure early punk recordings. Volume two, released in 1989, featured the Eat's "Communist Radio," sandwiched among tracks by bands with names like the Mentally Ill and the Nervous Eaters. The record helped to fuel a vinyl collector's run on the original seven-inch. Prices reached into the hundreds.

The band reconvened for the surprise 1995 EP, Hialeah, and two reunion shows at Churchill's, one each in 1996 and 1997. Chuck Loose, a local artist and former drummer for Miami punk band the Crumbs, recalls both the shows and his discovery of the band. "I remember reading something back in the Eighties that Jello Biafra wrote in [the hallowed Frisco ur-zine] Maximum Rocknroll about how great their singles were, and it was weird because nobody down here knew about them," he says. "I went to a place called All Books & Records in Fort Lauderdale and I found a copy of God Punishes the Eat for like $3.50. And I remember going to San Francisco that same year and going to this tiny record collector shop and they had both singles on the wall. God Punishes was going for $100, and 'Catholic Love' was going for $200."

Loose wrote to Cottie. They quickly forged a friendship.

"Absolutely they were an influence [on the Crumbs]. We used to cover 'Communist Radio,'" Loose says. "Musically they were really skilled, but deceptively so. When you listen to it, it's like, 'Oh, this is catchy punk rock!' But then you're like, 'What the fuck is the drummer doing?' The second thing is that the band was really funny. Their lyrics were witty and clever, and referenced a lot of really cool, obscure South Florida stuff — like the racetrack in Hialeah."

Then Cottie unexpectedly passed away in 2004.

All of this made the band's oeuvre ripe fodder for Biafra's occasional Reissues of Necessity series. The first disc of It's Not the Eat compiles the original "Communist Radio" seven-inch, all of Scattered Wahoo Action and Hialeah, and assorted random studio tracks. Loose created the album artwork.

The second disc features recordings of four different shows at Miami venues. The most shocking discovery here: 15 tracks taken from a September 26, 1981 show at Hollywood's Polish American Club, as well as four from the 1996 Churchill's gig.

The music on the main disc stands on its own, even if the tracks vary wildly — wildly — in sound quality. Opener "Communist Radio" is a sparkling moment of American-style punk rock, essentially a stripped, dumbed-down, dirtied-up pop nugget; the audience can even be heard cheering at the end.

The rest of the 30 tracks proceed similarly. Classic rock and roll forms the core of the songs, which sometimes dart back into power pop or almost psych-garage turf. Most are crowned by Ebola-catchy, yelp-along pub-rocky choruses.

Granted, it's not always completely original. At the end of my first spin of the quick-hitting, minor-key "Mary Mary," I immediately hit repeat. Part way through the second listen, I realized why. The chords were familiar. I had also heard the aggro guitar strumming, even the drumming style. They were all on one of my all-time personal favorite songs, "Ever Fallen in Love" by the Manchester, England punk group the Buzzcocks.

At other times on the disc, though, the Eat exhibits an almost depressing unpredictability. Depressing because it's the sort of experimentation and format-hopping that would soon be stunted by the advent of MTV, corporate radio, and the Internet. For instance, the 12th track, "Sub-Human," is standard brat-punk. But it's followed by the unexpectedly saxophone-driven "Nixon's Binoculars." There's an in-your-face tone that foreshadows the New York-style post-punk of, say, the Talking Heads.

Above all, It's Not the Eat, It's the Humidity is an aural portrait of a band doing its thing on its own terms. The foursome refused to play the era's standard bar-band covers, refused to dress like its more New Wave-style peers, even refused to practice much. Regardless of personal preference for the sonic outcome, the recordings' underlying attitude of devil-may-care joy, stardom or conformity or whatever be damned, is enviable. Anyone picking up an instrument in this town would do well to take note.

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