Exhuming a Classic: OLD’s Old Lady Drivers
I recently saw a news post from Hammerheart Records heralding the release of the timeless grindcore classic Old Lady Drivers from OLD. If you read that sentence and thought to yourself, “How is this album a classic if I’ve never heard it?” then you and I are in the same boat. Thankfully, OLD’s take on the nascent grind scene of the late 80s is still widely available and streaming in full on Spotify, so grab your grave-robbing kits; we’re going to exhume a “classic” together.
Old Lady Drivers was the 1988 self-titled release from Alan Dubin and James Plotkin’s (at the time) joke grindcore band. Plotkin’s prior act, 80’s also-rans Regurgitation, had just broken up, so he and mouth-of-Sauron-turned-vocalist Dubin teamed up to create a satirical grindcore band to lampoon the state-of-the-practice. Like all good satire, though, the end product is surprisingly convincing in a very Jonathan Swift-ian fashion. It’s deranged, repulsive, and somehow not only fits in perfectly into the musical climate of the time but also acts as a sort of harbinger for ideas that would only become concrete decades after its creation.
Upon first glance, Old Lady Drivers looks like an 80s grindcore record through and through, albeit one with a bizarre fixation on ladies of the elderly persuasion and the bizarre medical and memory foibles they experience. The song lengths are short. The guitars buzz and rip with the requisite amount of thin production and sharp, punky riffs. Dubin’s vocals shriek and pop over manic drumbeats riddled with frantic, and even at times sloppy, blasts and d-beats. As a grindcore record, Old Lady Drivers is a reminder of what this burgeoning scene was all about: young kids trying to outdo each other by playing faster and more violently. In these regards, Old Lady Drivers is a perfect facsimile of the scene it was meant to humorously critique.
However, it doesn’t take long for the deranged genius of Dubin and Plotkin (who would go on to form bizarro drone metal act Khanate) to peek through the cracks between the grind elements. “Total Hag” starts out with a snarled chant over heavy distortion not dissimilar from Napalm Death’s “Apex Predator – Easy Meat.” “Tracheotomy Peashooter,” after a few cycles of drum battery and unhinged howls, breaks into a bruising wall of hyper-fast drum rolls over heavy distortion that reminds me of the almost ritualistic outro of Pig Destroyer’s “Hyperviolet.” “Wisdom Lost” contains an almost progressive rock riff with a much more outside-the-box drum approach backing a bizarre chant of “Where are my dentures?” before a cowbell leads to a full-blown arena rock riff. The grind then comes back only for the next track to morph into a gonzo cover of Eric Clapton‘s “Cocaine.” These are just a few examples of how weird things get, and by the end of “Screaming Geezer,” the 15th and final track, the Death-esque progressive guitar passages and Nuclear Death-like gibbering vocals seem tame compared to some of the other, stranger waters tread on this album.
What’s perhaps more impressive then is that Dubin and Plotkin, in addition to Jason Everman (Nirvana, Soundgarden) on bass and Ralph Pimentel on drums, were able to make such an impressive travesty of grindcore that somehow sounds shockingly ahead of its time. There are trace elements of future releases from many of the aforementioned acts and others, including Cattle Decapitation, Fantomas, and Godflesh, littered across this record. It’s both an interesting historical artifact that shows how far the genre had progressed by 1988 and a startling crystal ball that seemed to divine how metal would develop in future decades.
Interestingly, what stands out most to me about Old Lady Drivers is the way that it sounds like a joke from a number of highly talented musicians who, in the course of its creation, realized that they wanted to do something more. This seed would germinate on OLD’s next full-length, 1991’s Lo Flux Tube, a twisting, disorienting pipework of avant-garde metal with a crushing industrial atmosphere not unlike the ground covered by Godflesh on Streetcleaner.
Lo Flux Tube is fascinating but decidedly un-grindcore, and the band would never again return to the ultra-violence found on Old Lady Drivers. For that reason, perhaps, it should be a mandatory listen for adventurous metal fans everywhere. I can understand, though, if the gimmicky lyrics about elderly women or if the suspect traces of musical prowess are turn-offs. If Old Lady Drivers is a classic grindcore album, it’s certainly not because of its dedication to genre norms. It’s legendary status owes entirely for its ability to encapsulate the past to predict the future in the world of metal.
If you like what you’ve read, keep an eye on Hammerheart’s Bandcamp page for info on the re-issue.