|Origin||New York City, United States|
|Genres||Avant-rock, experimental, free improvisation|
|Duck and Cover|
Skeleton Crew was a United States experimental rock and jazz group from 1982 to 1986, comprising core members Fred Frith (guitar) and Tom Cora (cello), with Zeena Parkins (harp) joining later. Best known for their live improvisation performances where they played various instruments simultaneously, they also recorded two studio albums Learn to Talk (1984) and The Country of Blinds (1986).
Skeleton Crew originally began in 1982 as an unnamed quartet, but before their first performance, two of the band members (Fred Maher and Tim Schellenbaum) suffered collapsed lungs within two weeks of each other, leaving ex-Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith and improvisational cellist Tom Cora from Curlew with the choice of continuing or abandoning the project. They chose to continue, agreeing to play all the instruments on stage themselves. Frith played guitar, violin, keyboards, bass drum and hi-hat while Cora played cello, bass guitar, homemade drums and other contraptions enabling him to play instruments with his feet.
Performing like this was a challenge for them and made the resulting music unpredictable, but as an improvising duo, this pleased them. It gave rise to a rhythmic tension not present in a group with just one drummer. Frith told DownBeat magazine in 1982:
In 1982, they performed extensively in Europe, North America and Japan, refining their double one-man band act with each new concert. Later that year Dave Newhouse of The Muffins helped out for a while playing saxophone and part of a drum kit. Two limited edition cassette tape recordings of some of the trio's live performances in 1982 were released in 1982 and 1984. After Newhouse left, they continued touring as a duo again. In October 1983 they joined Duck and Cover, a commission from the Berlin Jazz Festival, for a performance in West Berlin, followed by another in February 1984 in East Berlin. In December 1983 Skeleton Crew performed at the 1st Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada.
Later in 1984, Skeleton Crew began work on their first studio album Learn to Talk in Switzerland. The LP (with sides named "Side Free" and "Side Dirt") featured music that was both sparse and raw and consisted of cynical and humorous "songs" interspaced with cello, guitar and violin instrumental fragments. It conveyed the energy of their live performances. Tapes also featured throughout the album: Ronald Reagan saying "We're still free in America", cut-ups of Sousa's "Washington Post" and TV ad clips. Tapes had also become a part of their live act.
By now, Skeleton Crew had become "quite competent" with their one-man-band act. Later in 1984 Zeena Parkins, playing electric harp and keyboards, joined the band and remained until the end. As a trio, they made their second studio album The Country of Blinds in 1986 (again in Switzerland and produced by ex-Henry Cow member Tim Hodgkinson). Here the music was richer and more rhythmical than their first album. The songs were more developed but the cynical edge of the first album remained. Soon after the recording sessions the group decided to split up. Frith explained why:
Frith and Cora re-united again as Skeleton Crew in 1995 in the Netherlands at the Koeinverhuurbdrijf Studio, Purmerland to record a CD-ROM Etymology, a sound sample library of sonic sounds and wire manipulations.