The story of Savage Republic starts like that of many early 80s bands: four college students surrounded by music (in that case, it was LA’s punk underground) deciding they should have fun and make some noise together. But that’s where commonality ends for Savage Republic - the noise they made together could count on a wide array of inspirations, but had no precedent. Their visceral, cathartic blend of punk, surf rock, industrial music, psychedelia, soundtracks and Middle Eastern nods would have no imitators either. It did prove eye-opening for many: the recently released reissue of Savage Republic’s debut Tragic Figures features fond memories and homages from friends and peers that were irretrievably struck by this proudly unique band, from Kendra Smith and Michael Stipe to Mike Watt and Nels Cline.
Hearing Savage Republic in the early 80s, The Vinyl District would note forty years later, “was a striking experience, and I venture ‘twas the case even for those deeply immersed in the period’s u-ground happenings. In short, they could hit the ear like a cross between Keith Levene-era Public Image Ltd and early Sonic Youth at their most strung out and textural, but with a substantial influx of industrial whack-clatter-general abrasion, and on top of that, a whole lot of tribal drumming."
When Savage Republic first got together, comprising UCLA students Bruce Licher, Mark Erskine, Philip Drucker (aka Jackson Del Rey) and Jeff Long, their favored practice space was one-of-a-kind, too. By then still calling themselves Africa Corps, they used to tune in and let loose in the concrete parking structures of their campus. It was an unusual setting that promptly attracted onlookers, fellow music-obsessed students and a few complaints. Most importantly, it had an enduring impact on the band’s sound and its meaningful relationship with the environment. As they started playing local clubs (Al’s Bar, The Anti-Club, The Whisky…), they managed to attract an audience that - quite surprisingly for the time - was equal parts art students and hardcore punk lifers.
Tragic Figures came out in 1982, just six months after Savage Republic had started making music together. It was a milestone not only in sonic terms; its unforgettable sleeve also marked a luminous starting point for Bruce Licher’s acclaimed career as a designer and letterpress artist. As Richie Unterberger would later write, “blending exotically tuned guitars with percussive textures rarely heard in rock, separate pieces could and did sound little like each other. The songs veered from noise chants and ominous early post-punk with angry screamed lyrics to haunting instrumentals that came off as post-modern surf music or soundtracks to the creepiest film noir. The artwork was as idiosyncratic as the vinyl. If you were looking at the cover for the first time, you might well wonder: Is this a record or a call to revolution in some unnamed country?”
One of the album’s tracks, Real Men, would make an appearance in the 1991 movie Silence of the Lambs, giving the group renewed notoriety. The 1983 single Film Noir had a rework of Mikis Theodorakis’ O Andonis (from the Z soundtrack) on its b-side, which led to Savage Republic developing a considerable and enduring following in Greece.
In the spring of ‘83 the band found themselves in the middle of the California desert, instruments at hand, playing Mojave Exodus, the first of the legendary Desolation Center concerts organized by Licher’s friend Stuart Swezey.
At the end of the year the group went in different directions, and some of the music that was by then in the works was eventually released on Jedda By The Sea, an album from Drucker and Robert Loveless’ new project 17 Pygmies. Reuniting in ‘85, Savage Republic were ready to unleash new acclaimed works into the world, like Ceremonial (released that same year), Trudge (an EP released only in Europe from late ‘85 recordings) and the double album Live Trek 1985 - 1986 recorded mostly on their mid-1986 tour across the US. The full-length Jamahiriya Democratique et Populaire de Sauvage followed in ‘88, while Customs was released shortly before the band’s early 1990 split.
In 1988, Melody Maker noted: “in their lyrical fascination for ghosts and stones, for metaphysical and physical forces, for the logic of mythical lore and elementary laws — both ancient and of their own making — Savage Republic are explorers of hollows and tunnels. But, if many of their ideas are rooted in shadows, they have always seemed to be striving to exorcise and excavate. Their struggle, however painful, is outwards, ever upwards in a bold, brilliant celebration”.