Plan 9 — Psychedelia from Rhode Island
I must admit from the outset, this is not going to be a very objective look at Plan 9. For several years during the 1980s, Plan 9 was my favorite band. I went to lots of shows, travelled to see them, played opening slots for them with World of Distortion and other bands I was in, painted the back of my leather jacket with a psychedelic design promoting their killer Dealing with the Dead album, hung out with them and even had the opportunity, more than once, to join the band. Obviously, a fan! I will use this space try to convey why I thought so much of them, and why they were a unique band in their time space.
In The Garage
It all started when record collectors, Eric Stumpo and Deb DeMarco decided to form a band that would play their favorite music; ’60s garage/punk and psychedelia. Eric was teaching guitar at the time and recruited several students to form the band. By the time the lineup gelled, there were four guitarists, bass, Farfisa organ and drums! The repertoire at first consisted solely of covers of the ’60s garage punk 45s that Eric and Deb collected. In spite of the fact that this was the heyday of new wave and post-punk, Plan 9 was not alone with this concept. Around the same time, all across the US and in Europe, several collectors of garage/psych records had begun to form bands based on their collecting habits. This was the dawn of the ’80s garage/psych scene.
In retrospect, a large variety of the bands that sprang up did little more than ape their favorite music note for note. There were a few, however, utilized ’60s garage/psych as a basis for a more original or new sound. Plan 9 who resided in the relative isolation of southern RI, took this path.
Their first album, Frustration, (preceded by a now rare single, “I Can’t Stand This Love, Goodbye”/“How Many Times”) was released by Voxx in 1982. The A-Side of the album features fairly conventional versions of six garage numbers (“I Can’t Stand This Love, Goodbye,” “How Many Times,” “I Can Only Give You Everything,” “I’m Not There,” “Move,” “Flashback”) with some extended guitar soloing mostly from Eric. But it is the second side where they began to explore new territory. They took the Painted Ship’s teen garage classic “Frustration” and turned it into a 12 minute psychedelic journey. Although they retained the form of the song for the verse and chorus, the original tempo was slower and the keyboards were more prominent. But it’s the middle section where they changed course. Not just a simple guitar solo, but crescendos of sound, duelling guitars, tension and release, tempo changes; the works. This was pretty radical for 1981 considering that the majority of people in clubs still wanted to hear punk rock (or what they thought was punk rock). The album was also released in Germany with the title misspelled as Frustation.
Dealing With The Dead, their second album, brought the first batch of originals and a peek at the Plan 9 sound as it was beginning to develop. There are many people who consider this to be Plan 9’s crowning achievement. And while I think that was still to come, this remains one of my favorite albums of all time. It was here where the term psychedelia can really be used. There was a trippy vibe that is so often missing in so-called psychedelic music. Hard to describe, it was as if there was some magical coating that added a lysergic feel to the record. The mixes, that might seem a bit odd or dated now, contributed to this feel. Often times it’s the instruments buried deep in the mix that add to the vibe. On “I Like Girls,” Deb’s keyboards are mixed just loud enough to be heard. They provide that extra icing yet are hardly the focal point of the mix. Dealing With The Dead contained several songs that would remain part of their repertoire for several years. “I Like Girls,” “B-3-11,” and the title track all worked very well live. “Dealing With The Dead” in particular, has this other-worldly feel to it with the barely discernible vocals, mounds of guitar, reverb and the ever present crickets. On “B-3-11” something else becomes apparent. Eric’s lyrics are quite intelligent and quite different from the typical garage/psych band. Not poetry, not lyrical in the strict sense of the word, they tell a story, although not always directly. In later albums, many of his lyrics will tell the stories of characters who exist in the shadows of society. You can almost imagine them to be the characters depicted by R.K. Sloane on the cover art for this or several other albums he produced for the band.
I remember a big party that Eric and Deb hosted on Valentines Day 1985. Bands from all over the east coast came and played in this small building in Shannock, RI. It went on almost all night with bands playing constantly. Some of the bands I remember were, Dark Cellars (well, that was me), Hopelessly Obscure, Brood, Moguls (pre-Talismen), Animation, Crippled Pig (Eric’s former band), Creeping Pumpkin (I think) and plenty more that I’ve forgotten. The entire show was taped, but the tapes mysteriously disappeared. Outside it was really cold, you could see all the stars and there was this erie quiet. If it had been summer, there would have been crickets dealing with the dead.
The band was now playing together very well having gained experience touring. The fact that they all lived outside a major metropolitan area contributed to their uniqueness. They all lived in or around Shannock which is a very small town in southern Rhode Island not too far from the Connecticut border. In this setting, Plan 9 was able to develop on their own instincts rather than by being influenced by happenings in a big city’s club scene. They didn’t have to fit into one clique or another to survive. Alas, that could be troublesome as well. They would always be an out of town band…
Shortly after the release of Dealing With The Dead, New Rose Records released an album containing a collection of songs ranging from the Voxx recordings through 1984. This album contains some spectacular examples of Plan 9 at their psychedelic best! They included cover versions of the Shyres’ “Where Is Love,” MC5’s “Looking At You” (complete with searing guitar pyrotechnics) and a tripped out version of the Third Bardo’s “Five Years Ahead Of Your Time” (with a middle section that can only be characterized as a space jam). This album also included a few originals one of the best being by guitarist John DeVault called “Green Animals.” Although Eric and Deb did much of the song writing, John contributed a few spectacular songs before leaving the band to form Certain Logic. (Parts of this album along with all of Dealing With The Dead were reissued on CD by Criswell Predicts in 1993.) It was around this time, 1984, that members started to shift. John DeVault and Michael Ripa, left first. Brian Thomas, a Shannock resident, and Brent Hoiser from Virginia, replaced them. Steve Anderson was replaced by the superb jazz-inspired drumming of Evan Laboissonniere who remains one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen play live!
1985 saw the release of the live album I’ve Just Killed a Man I Don’t Want To See Any Meat on Midnight Records. Recorded at a variety of shows in 1984, this album featured special guests Kenne Highland and Jeff Conolly from their set at the Rat in Boston. (I was at this show, it was the second or third time I had seen them play live.) Although this album doesn’t recapture the real effect of Plan 9 live, it gives you a glimpse. This was the last record they released on Midnight.
In 1985 the band recorded the material that became the Keep Your Cool LP. I think that these songs represented their peak. The band had a lot of live experience, and as a result had matured. The material was top notch and had their distinctive signature sound. Keep Your Cool shows the band starting to move beyond their garage/psych roots and really establish their own identity. Overall, there was a stronger emphasis on songwriting, and diversification of sound. Yet there was still time for a serious guitar workout on “Street of Painted Lips” (which was always a crowd pleaser live!) while the instrumental “King 9 Will Not Return” mines different and more complex territory; signs of things to come.
In 1986, they produced the first (and only) Plan 9 video fanzine. Hosted by local celebrity, and budding singer Captain PJ, this two hour self-made video was a collection of live tracks and interviews. Some of the interviews make more sense if you know the cast of characters, but even if you don’t, you get to hear interesting stories about the band, meet most of the members and experience some hilarious moments. The live shows were shot at three different times. The Peppermint Lounge, NY in 1981 which was during the garage cover era. The two remaining shows were from 1985. Genos, Portland, ME in April, featuring Brian Thomas and Mike Ripa playing Dealing with The Dead era material. A show at HC Dons in Jackson, MS from November has Brent replacing Mike and the band performing material from Keep Your Cool.
Also in 1986, they released the excellent Anytime, Anyplace Anywhere EP, which had been started the previous year during the Keep Your Cool sessions. Thus while it sounds quite similar to the aforementioned LP, they had some additional time to develop the sound a bit more. Four of the five tracks sound very much like Keep Your Cool with fuller mixes. Two older songs, “Green Animals” and “Opium Nights” were finally recorded and are real standouts on this EP. The cover photo features a photo of Deb’s Uncle and his band Bobby Carle and The Blendaires who originally recorded “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere” for Decca in the late ’50s. This track featured guests Reid Paley (The Five) and Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, Belly and now on her own) for a vocal duet. The result is an interesting mix of styles that are not typically present in Plan 9.
1987’s Sea Hunt represented a transition album of sorts. To start with, it was recorded in Texas in the middle of a tour rather than at Trod Nossel, where all previous recording had been done. This album replaced nearly all of the lysergic trappings of their earlier work with a touch of jazz; noticeable mostly in Eric’s guitar playing. The songwriting on this album is again quite strong, especially the lyrics. A new drummer, Frank Villani, added a solid, more straight ahead feel to the band. A large part of the B-Side is taken up by the nearly 14 minute long Sea Hunt. All instrumental, this suite has several interconnected ideas of differing moods held together by a recurring theme. The addition of Betsy Sturdivant on saxophone added a new sound that was especially effective on the track “Sea Hunt.” The overall feeling of this suite is very relaxing. Almost as if you were on a diving expedition. The closing number, “My Secret Life,” has a very laid back feel with some nice jazzy guitar playing from Eric. It’s very difficult to describe this song, but it sums up the album very well and leaves you wanting more.
The next album, Ham And Sam Jammin’, was released in 1989, and brought another change in styles for Plan 9. This brought to the fore a problem facing them and many other indie bands who were simultaneously trying to appeal to a wider audience yet keep thier musical independence. Their style, combined with more complicated songs and cleaner production, made them appear to sound more commercial than most underground music fans were willing to listen to. Yet, at the same time, they were still way too far out in left field for the majority of music fans in the “mainstream” world. Thus Plan 9 was becoming confined to the status of a cult band; playing to a small group of extremely devoted fans. This album featured a new (albeit short lived) vocalist named Pip taking over much of the duties as well as a few special guests helping out. (Who exactly is Masharam Heller?) While this album is a far cry from their psychedelic work, it succeeds on its own terms largely because of the songwriting which is varied and interesting. Again the lyrics are well worth listening to. This was their last album for Restless, and the last recordings from the band until 1993’s “Around the USA” 45.
Like many bands, Plan 9 thrived live. I saw them almost every time they came to Boston from 1984 to 1988. I also travelled to Portland, ME, Worcester, MA and probably elsewhere to see them play. All told I probably saw them around 30 times, maybe more. While I really think the records stand on their own, when they were functioning on all cylinders live, it went way beyond anything that could be put down on tape in a studio. I saw them so many times that many of the shows run together. But other than the times I sat in with them, the one show that is absolutely plastered in my mind was the time they came to the Rat in the summer of 1986 and played “Five Years Ahead of My Time.” That song was kind of like their “Dark Star,” they just didn’t do it live! They played it for an entire set and kept it interesting, which speaks volumes about the band interplay at the time. Later on, I got a tape of them performing the song in Providence (also for an entire set) and it is stunning! That is the type of performance that made Plan 9 so different from the rest of the nouveau-psych bands in the ’80s. They weren’t afraid to take chances, stretch things out and unlike so many in the garage/psych scene, they were very strong musicians; something I think went over the heads of a lot of their audience. Another show, in 1987 I think, they came to Green Street Station in Boston with two drummers! While that set was obviously heavy on the percussive side, the drummers worked really well together, and as a result the rest of the band was on top of it that night. Then, they topped it off by pulling out “Opium Nights,” (their “St. Stephen”?) a Mike Ripa song that I had only seen performed once before. That song, which was overtly psychedelic to start with, took on a totally new dimension in the tag out solo section. I can still see the drummers pounding out the fills in unison. Then there were the interesting pairings. Opening for Hüsker Dü at the Channel in 1986 or Mudhoney opening for them in 1989…
After Ham and Sam Jammin’, the band dissolved for the most part. While they played some shows, they were far more sporadic and with different lineups. The final straw may have been when a European tour they were setting up fell through because a member unexpectedly quit the band. In recent years Eric and Deb have kickstarted Plan 9 again with Evan Laboissonniere. For a period of a year they were playing with the former bassist from Ultimate Spinach and recorded five new songs. Two of them ended up on the “Around the USA” 45, while a third was included on the Russ Meyer tribute album. In 1996 they recorded a new album.
Where Are They Now?
Tom Champlin left the band first in 1985, and then played with them off and on until 1988. He was last heard in the popular Providence band Jungle Dogs. Evan Williams left the band in 1988. For awhile, he and Tom tried to put a band together. In the end of 1990 he joined Medicine Ball. John Florence left the band in 1988 to go to school. After he graduated, he married his long time girlfriend Candy LeClaire. Evan Laboissonniere left the band in 1987 and played in some jazz groups before returning in 1995.
About this Story
This article appeared in 1997 as part of Update #5 of Vinyl Injections, the Stanton Park mailorder catalog. While it has been edited a little bit for typos and flow, the bulk of the article remains from the original. While Plan 9’s heyday was during the eighties, they continued to play and record for quite awhile after this was written. Several years back, they put together a web site which contains a lot of archive material.