Written by Mikael Funke
[Edited by Johan Bergqvist]
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ritz, Stockholm, January 1988: I remember it quite well. A bunch of guys in ill-fitting clothes, like something picked up from a third grade thriftstore, get on stage. The crowd, trying to look blaze, pretends not to notice. Some sounds start to emit as the band plugs in their instruments, and suddenly the bass pumps out the first bars of Ring My Bell. Guitars creep up behind it - wah-wah-tones spilling out of the PA. Then, on a given signal, the drums crash in and an explosion of sonic distortion lunges out and hits the crowd like a shockwave.
The band members stand in contorted postures, holding their instruments in a cramped grip, faces hidden behind greasy hair. They look as though they're ready to blow up. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a figure rushes on stage holding a mike. Head shaven, eyes bulging and only wearing tight silvery pants and some weird bicycle shoes, he's the instant focus of attention. Like a rowboat on a stormy sea - he's letting the music throw him around. Frantically trying to communicate something, emotions filled with anger that he can't articulate - which makes him even more frustrated. The volume is extreme, beyond loud, and when he puts the mike to his mouth, the voice is barely audible. For me, the next 40 minutes are just a total blur.
But I do recall the ending: the singer on his knees, trying to connect the mic to the cord, the two having been separated during his wild leaps. Finally he gives up and lays on his back, head sticking into the bass drum, screaming the last words into the drum mike. Me and my friends are trying to rip off one of his shoes, but security grab me by the shoulder and the pain makes me stop. Strange, it wasn't like me to try a stunt like that. Then again... Union Carbide Productions wasn't your ordinary band either.
During the eighties, style was everything. In fashion, films, design and - of course - alternative music. The Swedish scene was relatively new, but everyone were quick to check out what was "in" and what was "out". During the end of the decade the goth-inspired look was "in". You listened to German industrial music, dyed your hair black and applied the posture of "the tortured artist". It was also okay to champion The Cure, The Smiths or any other English band that gave misery & self-pity a face. And whatever you did, you had to make sure not to blow your cool. Bands appeared on stage like ghostly figures, the singers usually being utterly silly, applying one theatrical cliché after another. And the audiences were happy to comply, standing glumly in front of the stage, many doing their best to outpose the musicians. Oh what fun times we had, in the eighties! Luckily there were exceptions. Union Carbide Productions was a major one.
Here were five guys from Gothenburg who dressed either as slobs or in suits, wore their hair long and uncombed or shaven to the skin. The music was loud, vibrant and - unlike most bands - full of groove and energy. UCP fused the Detroit Sound of The Stooges and MC5 with the weirdness of The Fugs and Captain Beefheart. They let the Stones, Doors and other great sixties acts shine through their songs long before Primal Scream. UCP was the band that did everything right in the wrong time. Time - and luck - was not to be on their side, but like all great bands, vindication and justice somehow finds a way. Now then, let's take it from the beginning.
Gothenburg is the second largest city in Sweden: a seaport town known for its footbal team and lousy winter weather. It's here that that saga of Union Carbide Productions begins. In the early eighties, teenager Ebbot Lundberg was one of a bunch of skate punk kids. He nurtured a taste for American hardcore, listening to bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat and The Adolescents. In 1981 Ebbot met future UCP guitarist Patrik Caganis at a U.K. Subs gig. Caganis had a liking for the same hardcore stuff, and the guys began to hang out, finally forming a band of their own. "We started this punk band, Sure Tråkings Trio, where we did our own numbers with Swedish lyrics and mixed them up with covers. Among others we did Rise Above by Black Flag and Tush by ZZ Top. Ebbot sang and played bass while I was the guitarist", Caganis remembers.
Between -83 and -84 Caganis spent a year as a high school exchange student in Minnesota, and had the chance to really see some of the happening US bands in Minneapolis. "I went to gigs with Husker Dü, Replacements and Soul Asylum, although at that time they called themselves Loudfast Rules. Experiencing these bands as a musician was a great inspiration, and it really made me want to make some mind-blowing stuff myself", he recalls. Back in Sweden and fueled by the music of the vibrant Minneapolis scene he and Ebbot continued trying to get things moving, although they had dropped the moniker Sure Tråkings Trio. But it wasn't until the fateful meeting of two other Gothenburg music freaks in the spring of -86 that things gelled.
Björn Olsson and Henrik Rylander played in Heartbeat City, a band named after a song by The Cars. Björn was the guitarist and the source behind much of the music, and had no interest whatsoever in the punk or harcore scene. He'd consumed a steady diet of Captain Beefheart, Zappa, The Stooges, MC5 and no-nos of the time like Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival and America. Henrik handled drums and had delved into industrial stuff in the group Pleasure & Pain, and cited Captain Beefheart drummer "Drumbo" (John French) as a major influence. The music was raw and loud, but tinged with an experimental edge. At gigs, most people reacted with dumbfound surprise or just tried to ignore them. One that didn't was Patrik Caganis: "I saw them live and while everybody seemed to hate them I thought they were really cool, especially Björn, since his body and face were completely covered in silver paint!".
But it was through Ebbot Lundberg that Caganis finally in the spring of 1986 ended up playing with this eccentric combo. Ebbot: "They had tried out a friend of mine, Emrik, as a singer. He didn't want to stay but tipped them of that they might try auditioning me. So we met up and it was decided that me and Patrik would show up at their rehearsal place and see if it would work out." And work out it did. "Everything just came together from day one. Patrik's guitar fit in great with the riffs I had made, and as soon as we had jammed something together Ebbot started grooving along, making up lyrics as the melody came out of his head. We took our name from a battery I had, made by the Union Carbide Corporation. Although we changed Corporation to Productions, to mimic Walt Disney Productions", says Björn Olsson. After a while Ebbot also brought in the long time friend Per Helm on bass. Actually a drummer, he easily caught on to Rylanders back-beat oriented playing, and the two provided the group with a fluid and dynamic rhythm section that set Union Carbide apart from many contemporary garage acts at the time.
Besides music, the band members also shared the idea of having good times - and lots of it too. After being thrown out of the rehearsal place, which was at Björn's job, the band set up camp at his parents' house. "At the time everybody except one guy lived with their parents. Many of us had a similar background, coming from well to do suburban areas of Gothenburg. After we started rehearsing at my home my parents quickly disapproved of our activities" remembers Björn. Besides playing, the new-found friends partied a lot, and it was after several alcohol-related mishaps that the band members families called a parent meeting with all the band members! Ebbot: "That's a classic episode. I mean, it was pathetic. We were in our early twenties, and our parents sat there and said we had a bad influence on each other, and that we must promise to calm down and stop drinking! We just sat there and giggled. After the meeting we went out and got pissed out of our minds." Worried parents or not, UCP continued to evolve and started to write songs in a furious pace. The so far unreleased Senile Man became the first of many numbers UCP quickly penned in its first year of existence. The band had their live debut on June the 14th 1986 at a local "Save the Forest" festival in Gothenburg. UCP drove the sound technicians nuts by turning the volume way up and kicking over an amp that hit a guy in the head. A rowdy crowd of skate punk friends also added to the chaos, and the live standards for UCP were thus set from the start.
At the end of -86 the band recorded three songs at Music-a-Matic Studio in Gothenburg: Financial Declaration, Summer Holiday Camp and So Long. They had no record deal, and paid for the sessions themselves. One tape with these songs was sent to Carl Abrahamsson in Stockholm, then editor of underground fanzine Lollipop. "One day I received an unusually polite letter saying a cassette was on its way with 'Union Carbide'. I paid no attention to this weird name until I finally received the tape in question: A splendid mix of Detroit frustration, pure energy and unrefined teenage angst. Lyrics dealing not with anger at society and the old clichéd rock slogans but something decidedly more genuine... Here were kids who sang about having too much money, too much time and too many options in life", Abrahamsson remembers. He quickly got in touch with the band, and was actually in January -87 the first to release UCP on record with a fexi-disc of Financial Declaration included in an issue of Lollipop, today a real collectors item. Like a lot of people he was struck by their performance on stage: "Live, they were unparalleled. Ebbot tossing and turning and really hurting himself. Not a pathetic clone of past gods but rather the desperate madman looking for attention and a fight. Drum and bass pumping mechanically in strict order and guitars whining through wanting wah-wahs. In the first few gigs I saw people were too baffled to even consider dancing. I don't think they could even understand what they were up to live themselves. They just nervously entered the area, grabbed their gear and got started... No thinking, no fearing, no hesitating. When they played, they meant it. I remember one concert in Berlin, packed house, lively crowd. As always, there were people shouting insults - loudly - but instead of shouting back Ebbot and the band just started playing the next song (Maximum Dogbreath if I'm not mistaken). The sheer aggressive power of the brilliant performance pushed the hooligans violently back. Needless to say, they loved it."
At the end of April -87 the band finally landed a deal with Radium Records, a small but vibrant local label that was run by a group of musicians and artists, cultivating a Warholesque Factory scene doing music, films and art exhibits. The label, now defunct, released and nurtured many interesting Swedish acts such as Sator, Stonefunkers and Blue for Two. CM von Hausswolff, then one of the people running Radium remembers how he found the people behind the music full of attitude. "I thought they were very intelligent and egocentric people - perfect qualities for a genuine artist. These guys had a lot of confidence. And integrity - which in their case wasn't a bad thing. At that time nobody else was doing what they were into, and having a reputation as spoiled rich kids with outrageous behavior didn't exactly help them make friends with the media or the music biz. A lot was exaggerated, but not all. And we really didn't mind if there was a scandal here and there. It was good to have when we wrote the bios", he muses.
Radium released the debut In The Air Tonight in September -87. Before that the band had made a tumultuous and much talked about gig at the prestigious Hultsfred festival in southern Sweden. Henrik Rylander: "We got there with 30 of our friends, all wearing backstage passes saying 'Union Carbide Productions'. Since everyone of them had the same idea as us about partying the band got blamed as soon as someone with our backstage pass was found out of his head, sleeping in the grass or doing some other crazy stunt." And the gig? It lasted for about 30 minutes, collapsing when "manager" Johan Kugelberg rushed the stage with a saxophone, intent on joining in, only to be wrestled off by Ebbot.
In The Air Tonight is perhaps the most energy-filled album ever recorded in this country. I bought it when it came out, and it hit me like a ton of bricks from the first note - 10 years later it still does. Dave Wyndorf of Monster Magnet has called it "The fourth album the Stooges never made" and people like Sonic Youth, Jello Biafra and REM have praised its untamed energy and total rock n' roll assault on the senses. From the opening bars of Ring My Bell to the closing cacaphony of On The Beach the record is a tour de force of total physical and mental aggression. The guitars howl and scream in anguish, the riffs - one meaner than the other - churn out endlessly and Ebbot growls like a pitbull terrier. Saxophones and some frantic piano on notably Ring My Bell and Cartoon Animal add an extra touch. It's as if the frustrations and feelings of a whole generation is crammed into every note. In -88 UCP played gigs in Sweden, and also did short stints in Holland and Germany. New in the folds was Adam Wladis, who had replaced Per Helm on bass. He was brought in by Henrik Rylander, the two having played together in Pleasure & Pain. The same year Radium brought the band over for some showcase gigs in New York and Boston. For those who saw them, the experience was ecstatic. Among the impressed in the audience were people such as Foetus, Lydia Lunch, Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore and Jello Biafra. One who definitely recalls the gigs is CM von Hausswolff, who engineered the stateside visit: "They played CBGB's and Siberia in New York as opening acts, and the main attractions sorely regretted letting these young Swedes get on stage first. I mean, Carbide just pulverized them. Ebbot running around naked, sticking a beer bottle up his rear, UCP was a tough act to follow", Hausswolff reminisces.
Ebbot too has his own very personal impressions of the event: "After a while I took the bottle out of my butt and continued singing in the nude. Since it was hot on stage I suddenly felt an urge to drink some beer. There were a bunch of bottles on the stage and I just grabbed one close to me. One second before I put it to my mouth a terrible stench told me exactly which bottle I had picked up, and disgusted I threw it away."
These chaotic stunts were typical of UCP, and were not always limited to the stage. Having a mutual fancy for mischiveous behavior and provocative humor, the band members often reveled in creating strange and ambiguous situations. For example some of them enjoyed letting people believe they were gay. "We used to have heavy make out sessions in bars and toungue-kiss when we got drunk, especially if there were skinheads around, since they especially took offense. When we played in Germany I once told reporters that Björn had had a sex-change operation. Immediately we got a crowd of transvestites and transsexuals at the next gig, eyeing out Björn really good", smiles Ebbot. There are more tales of debauchery and general indecent conduct caused by UCP, but they are too many to mention and in some cases too gruesome to print. So let's stick to the music for a while.
The next album - Financially Dissatisfied Philosophically Trying - took its title from a Mick Jagger quote, and was recorded in September -88. Original bassist Per Helm was called back just weeks before recording, due to Adam Wladis parting company with the band. Now the music was more structured and the arrangements intricate and complex. Psychedelic influences filtered in, with acoustic guitars and sitar used extensively on some tracks. Born In The 60's chronicled a generation bereft of ideals and visions, content with just spending the money.
Here Comes God - with its mystic sitar intro - made fun of the "third reich n' roll icon" and Down On The Farm displayed a gentler side of the band, somewhere along the lines of The Stooges' I'm Sick Of You. Overall the album shows a darker and moodier UCP: Ebbot toning down his growling and instead singing in a more longing and melodic voice. As if to make the point clear, the cover was black (except for the UCP-logo - a white flower), with an inner sleeve photo of the band gathered around a Rolls Royce belonging to Björn's father, looking introspective and lost in thoughts. "We wanted to make a new record that reflected the times we lived in, and specifically the way we lived and perceived it then - a yuppie world where we roamed around creating mayhem, just accepting the absuridy of it all", explains Ebbot.
The album was released in early -89 and many, including several band members, consider it their best effort. At the same time UCP experienced a serious loss when guitarist Björn Olsson and - again - bassist Per Helm for different reasons decided to leave the band. Björn had clashed with the others over musical direction and songwriting input, while Per Helm felt that the wild side of the band took too much attention away from the music. The remaining members however went on, and quickly recruited replacements. Ian Person, formerly of punk band GBG Boys was brought in on guitar, and Jan Skoglund, also an ex-punk rocker from local band Injection, filled in on bass.
With the new line-up complete the band continued to move away from the naked aggression of In The Air Tonight. Live they were as loud and over the top as ever, but on the next studio offering, From Influence To Ignorance, UCP displayed less distortion and a more classic 60's heritage, drawing from bands as Stones, Love and The Doors. Golden Age is a beautiful almost ballad-like song, wrought with the same sense of sadness as a really good Neil Young tune. Baritone Street has a jazzy beat similar to what The Doors managed to conjure on certain tracks. The album was recorded in October -90, and released in April the following year.
By now a sense of fatigue had begun to creep up on everyone, and high spirits weren't so easy to maintain anymore. UCP toured a lot in Scandinavia and continental Europe but didn't sell enough to make a proper living. In Sweden the media refused to take them seriously, and the records never quite got that oh-so-important rave review. Still the band played on, appearing at big festivals across Europe during the summer of -91. After Radium due to financial troubles in 1990 was bought by established Swedish label MNW things might have changed, but unfortunately the next album - called Swing - was to be beset by problems and turn out to be their last.
Swing had all the possibilities of breaking the band on a wider scaler. Grunge had brought the focus away from posing and smarth fashion, and put guitars and punk attitude on the map again. Through Cargo records in the US, the band got in touch with alternative legend Steve Albini, mainman of noisemakers Big Black and producer of amongst others The Pixies. Albini agreed to produce, so UCP flew over to Chicago in the summer of -92, hoping careerwise this might solve the case for them. Adding to the sense of renewal was keyboard player Anders Karlsson, permanently giving more texture to UCP's sound. The sessions with Albini proved disappointing though. "We played music that had a blues based rock n' roll feel to it, and he wanted to produce us like a typical alternative band. That just didn't work. And he mixed the songs in just one or two days, so everything was very stressed and rushed through", says Ian Person.
Dissatisfied with the result, they returned home to Gothenburg and remixed a majority of the tracks themselves. The former albums had been produced by the band itself or by Ebbot Lundberg. The two first in cooperation with Henryk Lipp. Now an outsider had been given a chance, but straying from the proven path had failed. Swing was released on December 4th 1992. Despite the marred production there were highlights, Waiting For Turns has a guitar riff Keith Richards would have given up drugs for, and Chameleon Ride in turn borrows from the verse of Pasolinis' 120 Days Of Sodom coupling it with slower parts, making it full of nice contrasts.
Worth mentioning is also that UCP during its existence recorded cover tracks for compilation records, the best being without a doubt a version of Black Sabbath's Planet Caravan for a Sabbath cover album.
The failure of Swing, and the continued lack of commercial success finally made UCP decide to call it quits. One last farewell tour of Sweden was organized in the fall of -93, again bringing in original guitarist Björn Olsson in the band. Oddly enough it was Patrik Caganis he replaced, who at this time felt a need to take a break from the rock n' roll circus. Union Carbide played its last concert on December 4th 1993, exactly one year after the release of Swing - and strangely enough the same day Frank Zappa passed away. Sweden's most staunch rock n' roll machine had grinded to a halt. The party was over.
So, was it worth it? All the excruciating tours, lack of commercial breakthrough and internal strife that at times threatened to split the group? I think so. [...] Not many of the acts from the eighties are remembered today, even less remaining a musical influence. Union Carbide managed to do both. Always sticking to their own vision, not jumping the bandwagon of trends, Carbide eluded commercial success but claimed instead a lasting legacy both at home and abroad. Somehow the story of the band is like that of its unofficial "mascot", the now deceased Gothenburg inventor and eccentric Erling Cednäs. All true Carbide fans know his face from the band T-shirts UCP sold on their tours. A big smiling mouth, huge nose and shining eyes. Erling mostly resembles a car salesman in a 50's commercial spot. And it was during the 50's that he was busy in Gothenburg, trying his luck at inventing different products. He's reported to be one of the first to patent 3D-glasses, and like Leonardo da Vinci thousands of drawings and the designs, one more elaborate than the other, were created from his feverish mind. Poor Erling didn't get the recognition he deserved though, and finally went bonkers. Suffering from paranoia he installed various alarm devices and fences around his house, more and more turning into a mad genious figure out of a James Bond movie. Many years after his death the building outside the city center stood abandoned. That is, until a bunch of skatepunk musicians moved in, bringing their friends over to their strange new home. And among those were the members of UCP, who immediately took a liking to the life and times of its former owner. Ironically the band somehow sufferend a similar fate - creating wonders, then being ignored and unrecognized and finally (almost) going crazy, the end being a merciful release (at least for the band).
Well, perhaps the analogy is a bit pretentious. This quote from Björn Olsson sums it up in a more direct fashion: "Union Carbide Productions was just an extension of our personalities, and through the music we created our own world. A kind of 24 hour party, or ever-ongoing theater play. Sometimes things got out of hand, but at the end of the day I think everyone always put the music first. When we played together, and all the bullshit was put aside, it was just this complete sense of freedom."
So. There you have it.