Jesus Lizard fans love to swap war stories. They’ll tell you about how bassist David Wm. Sims almost impaled them with his headstock during one of his trademark gyrations, how guitarist Duane Denison stomped on some poor crowd-surfer who launched into his amp, or how vocalist David Yow — having already partially half-exposed his junk roughly a dozen times — grabbed a male fan standing at the back of the stage and smooched him square on the mouth. (The latter actually did occur during a 1997 Lawrence, KS, gig I attended; the victim happened to be one of my best friends.) Or they might tell you with perverse relish how the Lizard epitomize a rock subgenre known as pigfuck. (AllMusic.com helpfully refers to TJL’s sound as “scathing, disembowelling, guitar-driven pseudo-industrial noise.”) This kind of sordid mythmaking isn’t likely to end anytime soon. The fact is that grime and raucousness are entertaining — just ask the publisher of Mötley Crüe bestseller The Dirt.
But the problem with that approach to Lizardology is that it reduces the Chicago-via-Austin quartet to some sort of three-sheets-to-the-wind novelty act, the post-hardcore equivalent of John Belushi in Animal House. Was Yow an often wasted and/or naked loose cannon onstage? Sure. (There’s even a 1994 live clip where he takes a beer bottle to the head and goes down midsong, apparently out cold, only to get up minutes later, stride to the mic and mock-haughtily sneer to his bandmates, “I’m waaaaaiting.”) Did the band contribute to the development of so-called noise-rock in the early ’90s? Undoubtedly. They wrote some of the scuzziest, most obnoxious songs of their day, e.g., the Denison slide feature “Nub,” which could easily soundtrack a raunchy pole dance. But “noise” implies clutter, excess. The Jesus Lizard were, at their core, an incredibly spare band — four perfect elements (v, g, b, d) jelling in the classic Zeppelin mode.
What the tabloid version of the Lizard glosses over is how sly they were, how elegant and versatile. How Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly combined heft and swagger as well as any rhythm section since Jones/Bonham (“Gladiator,” anyone?); how Denison translated the stylized twang of classic rockabilly to a precision snarl fit for the woolly rock underground (check out those mesmerizing chords at about 2:30 in “Monkey Trick”); how supposed buffoon David Yow could really, truly sing when he put his mind to it (see: the gorgeous “Zachariah”). Now, three years on from the triumphant reunion tour that’s likely to be the band’s last, and just a few weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of the classic Lizard LP Liar, it seems as good a time as any to trade the scribbly TJL caricature for a more nuanced portrait.
The thing about the Jesus Lizard’s records is that they aren’t just souvenirs of their legendary live show. Sit with the discography as a whole and you get plenty of the band’s patented art-blues pummel, but you also start to grasp what made the Jesus Lizard not just a key presence during its early-to-mid-’90s heyday but one the truly great rock bands, full stop. More specifically, you see that the classic narrative of the band — indie glory years, major-label decline — needs some retooling. The Jesus Lizard never released a skippable record; even their strange, industrial-tinged swan song, Blue, adds compelling wrinkles to their saga.
Before we dive in, a little context. The story of the Jesus Lizard is the story of two cities and roughly five bands. In mid-’80s Austin, Davids Yow and Sims were riding high in Scratch Acid, a caterwauling, piledriving quartet whose work served as a blueprint for TJL. (No Lizard study is complete without Scratch Acid comp The Greatest Gift.) Duane Denison was working with Big Boys singer Randy “Biscuit” Turner in the eccentric, way-underrated art-punk band Cargo Cult. The two bands shared bills, and after Scratch Acid broke up in 1987, Denison tapped Yow — Scratch Acid’s original four-stringer — to play bass in a new project he was starting. Yow wanted to sing, so he drafted Sims for the bass role; the Jesus Lizard was born, abetted by a drum machine and named after a reptile that runs on water. Sims split for Chicago, where he’d join Scratch Acid drummer Rey Washam and former Big Black frontman Steve Albini in Rapeman, and Yow and Denison tagged along. After one strong album, Rapeman broke up in ’89, the same year the Jesus Lizard released their first EP, the drummerless, Albini-produced Pure. Yow put in a call to Mac McNeilly — whom he’d met when the Atlanta-based drummer’s former band 86 played Austin — and McNeilly headed to Chicago to try out in the summer of ’89. It must’ve been a smooth audition; the Jesus Lizard we know and love made its live debut on July 1 of that year.
Over the next five years, the Lizard toured heavily and issued four LPs on Touch and Go, in the process earning a reputation as the premier exponent of shitkicking independent rock. They shared bills with Nirvana, Helmet, Melvins, Sonic Youth, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and countless other heavies of the day. In ’95, the Lizard joined the Lollapalooza tour; on the Cincinnati stop, Yow exposed himself as per usual and landed in jail. The following April, TJL issued their Capitol Records debut, Shot. Mac McNeilly left the band near the end of ’96, opting out to spend more time with his young kids, and the Lizard continued on with drummer Jim Kimball, who had worked with Denison in the noir-jazz side project Denison-Kimball Trio. The band released one final LP, Blue, on Capitol in ’98, and the following March, in Umeå, Sweden, they played the last show of their initial lifespan.
Almost exactly a decade later, the original lineup of Yow, Denison, Sims and McNeilly reconvened for a pair of All Tomorrow’s Parties gigs. They spent the rest of that year touring Europe and the U.S., vindicating all the old-timers who swore they’d never seen a better live band. Touch & Go celebrated with awesome-sounding reissues of the first four Lizard LPs; make sure you get ahold of those if you’re listening along. (Speaking of the reissues, they’re studded with bonus tracks — some great, some inessential — but for the purposes of this list, I’m considering original track listings only.) The Countdown starts here; lamentations regarding the exclusion of the “Puss”/”Oh, The Guilt” split in the comments.