Hugely influential across grunge, punk, and sludge spheres (recognised by Nirvana, The Melvins, Henry Rollins, Unsane, and Jane’s Addiction, among others), Flipper formed in San Francisco, in 1979, by former members of Negative Trend, The Sleepers, and Rad Command. Continuing erratically until the mid-1990s, the band later reunited in 2005, with Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic on bass, and currently features David Yow (The Jesus Lizard, Scratch Acid) on vocals. The group was named for his pets by original singer Ricky Williams (fired before the start of their recording career).
They were just heavy. Heavier than you. Heavier than anything…When they played they were amazing.” – Henry Rollins (Black Flag)
1979-1987 – Flipper Rules
From 1979-1987, the core Flipper line-up consisted of Bruce Loose and Will Shatter on vocals and bass, Vietnam War veteran Ted Falconi on guitar, and Steve DePace on drums. Together, they released a swathe of distinctive recordings, now considered essential by discerning punk fans.
This run started with the ‘SF Underground’ (Subterranean Records, 1979), and ‘Love Canal’/’Ha Ha Ha’ 7″ records. Nineteen eighty-one saw the release of the ‘Sex Bomb’/’Brainwash’ single (complete with handmade inlays), garnering Flipper much attention from the punk community. A re-recorded version of ‘Sex Bomb’ featured on the group’s first (and to my mind most effective) full-length release, ‘Album – Generic Flipper’ (Subterranean Records, 1982). ‘Generic’ was followed the same year by the ‘Get Away’/’The Old Lady that Swallowed the Fly’ 7”, also on Subterranean.
The band quickly attracted a large following, simultaneously angering a significant proportion of the San Francisco punk scene – their distinctive slowed-down discordance in stark contrast to the faster hardcore punk style emerging concurrently. Mark Arm (Mudhoney) later noted that one facet of Flipper’s appeal lay “in their ability to upset audiences while attracting their undivided attention and curiosity at the same time”. The group promoted itself with “Flipper Rules” graffiti around the city of San Francisco. Loose reports too that a whole street spent a week or two under their dominion, ‘Clipper Street’ rechristened ‘Flipper street’ by artful use of stickers.
Our music was very different and really stood out from the masses. Our stuff was slow, grungy, drudgy bass-driven kind of stuff, and obviously very different from the hard, fast, thousand-mile-an-hour songs that were, for the most part, being done by the hardcore punk bands at the time.” – Steve DePace (Flipper)
People used to come to all the Flipper shows at CBGB’s and they would bitch about Flipper, but they would sure as hell be there for every show.” – Carlo McCormick (Paper magazine)
Nineteen eighty-three saw live footage of the band interspersed throughout the film ‘Emerald Cities’ (which also credited Falconi, for ‘additional writing’), as well as a Boston radio station competition to air covers of ‘Sex Bomb’ by local bands. The latter proved so popular that it turned into a marathon 48-hour weekend broadcast.
The group’s 1984 follow up to ‘Generic’, ‘Gone Fishin’ (Subterranean) featured a cover photo of the colourful live-in van of Ted Falconi, which, with figures of the band and their instruments, could be cut out and folded. Also in 1984, the ROIR cassette label released ‘Blow’n Chunks’, a live recording of a Flipper concert at CBGB. Continuing the run of packaging gimmickry, the cover of the double live album ‘Public Flipper Ltd.’ (Subterranean, 1986) unfolded into a board game, complete with cutout spinner and game cards.
After extensive touring, the group finally fragmented in 1987, their future seemingly set when Will Shatter died of a drug overdose, on 9 December. The same year, a collection of Flipper singles and rarities, ‘Sex Bomb Baby’, came out on Subterranean.
1990-1993 – Post-Will Shatter
Replacing Shatter with John Dougherty on bass, Flipper re-emerged in 1990 with a new single, ‘Some Day’ (Subterranean), and began a series of live dates. In 1991 the group signed a controversial deal with Def American (giving up control of previous releases), through which they released a live album, ‘Nürnberg Fish Trials’, followed by 1992’s studio album, ‘American Grafishy’, and a tour.
‘American Grafishy’ diversified the group’s sound, to lukewarm reception, a fact overshadowed by Dougherty’s subsequent death by drug overdose. It was around this period the famous photos of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wearing a homemade Flipper t-shirt surfaced, bringing the band to greater public exposure.
This chapter met an abrupt end in 1993, when singer Bruce Loose broke his back in a car accident, officially leaving the band in 1996. For the next few years, personal relationships appear strained, with the group negotiating personal differences, trying to regain control over their back catalogue from Def American. Added strain came when DePace and Falconi recorded songs as Flipper for the albums ‘A Tribute to NOFX’, and ‘A Punk Tribute to Weezer’ (Cleopatra). The band proper also shelved plans to release an unfinished studio album from the mid-‘80s, to be called ‘Flipper’s Greatest Misses’, and featuring artwork depicting a dartboard pierced by syringes instead of darts. However, the group did manage to record a cover of Nirvana’s ‘Scentless Apprentice’, for a 2000 tribute album – the latter being known to cover ‘Sex Bomb’ at their early gigs.
In 2002, Bruce Loose (visibly movement-impaired following spinal surgery) performed a one-off gig in Berkeley, as “Not Flipper”. A few years later, in 2005, the original line-up (or near enough, Bruno DeSmartass replacing Shatter as he had for a 1982 tour), regrouped to perform two CBGB benefit gigs, continuing to perform throughout 2006. One concert – a Paper Magazine Party in New York – may be the source of Moby’s much-derided claim to have been a member of the band, as he joined the group for a one-off rendition of ‘Sex Bomb’. Krist Novoselic (Nirvana), who initially stepped in for several US shows and a UK tour (supported by The Melvins and including an appearance at the Thurston Moore-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival) replaced DeSmartass on bass in December 2006.
The years 2008-2009 saw the reissue of several of the group’s classic releases, including ‘Album’, ‘Gone Fishin’’, ‘Public Flipper Limited’, and ‘Sex Bomb Baby!’, on Domino (UK CD), 4 Men With Beards (Vinyl), and Water Records (US CD). May 2009 saw the release of the album ‘Love’, comprising all new material, which also came with ‘Fight’, a live album of both new and old tunes (both produced by Jack Endino). A September 2009 tour ended prematurely when Rachel Thoele (Frightwig) replaced Novoselic, who cited family responsibilities. Adding to the group’s misfortune, Loose suffered yet another back injury, in late 2009, leading to his replacement in the band by David Yow (Jesus Lizard/ Scratch Acid). This lineup continues to perform and release to the present day. Flipper rules!
I don’t want to rub it in, but if you missed Flipper, you really missed something good.” – Joe Pop-O-Pie (The Pop-O-Pies)