On this edition of the Tomboy Musicians Series, we hit the 80s Manhattan underground post-punk clubbing scene and discover the timeless groove of the Bush Tetras fronted and founded by Cynthia Sley and head guitarist, Pat Place as we find out more about this iconic cult band of tomboy proportions.
As I’ve written, espoused, glorified and raised toasts before to how new wave and punk helped carve a path so women could dominate rock n roll many times in this series, we’ve yet to give credence to another iconic punk band to have been spit out of the gutters of Manhattan’s dance punk scene, led by the charismatic Cynthia Sley and Pat Place.
Like The Slits, Au Pairs, KLEENEX, Talking Heads and ESG, the Bush Tetras came out of an urban punk music scene that embraced an individualistic, minimalistic, yet raw sound without seeing much commercial success. That however, hasn’t made them an insignificant blip on the punk music radar. No – it has in fact, boosted their rep to iconic cult status. Not too bad for a band front woman, Cynthia Sley once described as “an anomaly of a band.”
Like ESG, the Bush Tetras came out of the underground oblivion of the Manhattan club scene enjoying radio play on college radio in the early 1980s. They meshed fun rhythms and dissonant guitar riffs to create a sound that had the goth soul of Siouxie and The Banshees and the dance sensibilities of Blondie.
The post-punk band’s line-up was made up of Pat Place (lead guitarist), Cynthia Sley (lead vocals), Dee Pop (drums) and Laura Kennedy (bassist), who died in 2011, after a long battle with liver disease.
It was a ripe time for up and coming rebel female punk bands who were gaining notoriety in underground clubs all over Europe. Pat Place from the band recalls, “The scene I came up in had bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks with Lydia Lunch, DNA, Mars, and UT. There were other women in the scene, more so than in the straightforward rock scene, and when I formed Bush Tetras with my friends Cynthia and Laura there were other girl bands. The Slits were already around, and we did a few gigs with the Au Pairs and the Raincoats. We were all around at the same time, but we played more with Gang of Four than we did with those female bands.”
But the movement of bands that came out at this time was not as cohesive as the New Wave movement of the 80s where goth and gender-fluidity combined seamlessly with synthesizers and electro-pop beats. While post-punk bands like Bush Tetras, ESG, Au Pairs, Delta 5 and The Slits were conveniently lumped together, no one band sounded like the other, except their in-your-face attitudes and 3-chord riffs.
In an interview with Boxx Magazine, Pat Place says, “We were all kind of rubbing off on each other and hanging out. It was a really fun time. It’s what you did at night: You’d go to Max’s Kansas City or CBGBs, and see these other bands play. The bands were a reaction to punk and New Wave, which is why they called it Post-Punk or No Wave. The sound wasn’t pop or punk, it was its own thing and it was really kind of anarchistic and nihilistic. No one really knew how to play, and it was avant garde noise music. There was a lot of that going on at that time.”
Pat Place together with Cynthia Sley were the original founding members of the band, with Place bringing her signature rhythmic and distorition guitar sound to the band’s music. Prior to her joining the band, Place was the founding member of another No Wave band, The Contortions where she had honed her sound.
Couple the distortion with Sley’s monotonous half-spoken, half-sung Ian Curtis-like vocals in songs like “Cowboys in Africa”, “Too Many Creeps” and “You Can’t Be Funky” and the band began to garner interest from audiences who were caught in the musical transition between their Joy Divisions, Sex Pistols and Human Leagues.
With buzz surrounding the group, Bush Tetras scored two dance hits in the U.S. in the early 1980s with “Too Many Creeps” which peaked at No.37 on the Billboard Dance charts in 1981. That was later followed by another minor hit “You Can’t Be Funky/Cowboys in Africa” which peaked at No. 32 in 1982.
It was right after they had gotten a taste of success that the band suddenly decided to go their separate ways in what became their first split.
Place, Sley and Pop joined other groups before reuniting in the mid-1990s to release the album ‘Beauty Lies’ in 1997. In 1998 they recorded an album titled ‘Happy‘ with producer Don Fleming that was not released until 2012. The album sounded more sophisticated and veered away from their earlier sound, embracing a more 90s grunge vibe.
In 2005, they added bassist Julia Murphy and resumed performing in New York City. They toured Europe in summer 2006.
When Pat Place was asked if the band would reform to perform to a new generation of fans, Pat replied, “I feel as if we have established a niche in history, and I think that has a lot to do with the Internet, which has helped a lot. We did get back together in the ‘90s and made a couple of records and were playing shows then. But yeah, it does seem as if people now are really interested in the No Wave scene and now when we play, half to two-thirds of our set is stuff from the early days.”
Well, that certainly sounds like good news to us at Tomboy Tarts as we’ll definitely be stoked to attend a show if the band ever reforms. Their music comes from an amazing era to not be appreciated by newer generations of music fans. We just gotta “Stand Up and Fight” to get them back onstage.