In the industry-ruled, fashion-conscious L.A. music scene (especially in the '80s and '90s), bands relegated to the rock & roll margins lived an oxymoronic existence. They were transient and yet immobilized; invisible in a world stuffed with cameras, microphones, and careerist contemporaries. Before a starry-eyed Midwesterner decided that it was worth the risk, packed up a guitar, and headed west, he or she would have done well to hear the cautionary tale of the Hangmen. Perhaps the major-label letdowns, the years of strung-out obscurity, and oppressive poverty were worth it for the Hangmen, but young rock hopefuls couldn't have been prepared to let the years spent toiling in obscure clubs -- performing in front of only a handful of friends at best -- be their own reward. The reality that exists underneath the palm-tree-and-sandy-beach fantasy of "making it" in the City of Angels is personified by this band that spent over a decade defining the gritty Southern California rock underground.
It all began in 1984 when Missoula, MN's Bryan Small left Boise State University and moved to L.A. in order to form his own rock band. Inspired by the musical stylings of X, the Stooges, and Gun Club, Small soon had a band together and a major buzz after the outfit began pounding the clubs with their nasty proto-blues/punk. Despite his group's wily rock leanings, Small found himself caught up in the hair metal feeding frenzy of the late '80s, and soon the Hangmen were signed to Capitol Records, a company like many others, desperately attempting to unearth the next Guns n' Roses. The group's self-titled debut hit record store shelves in 1989 and Small was living his dream. Unfortunately, things quickly turned sour, and would stay that way for a long time. The Hangmen, produced by the legendary Vic Maile (the Who Live at Leeds, Motörhead Ace of Spades), lacked the tough, street-fighting rock 'n' raunch of the band's live performances. Although it eventually became a bit of a collector's item, the watered-down recording couldn't sate their label's appetite for radio hits. Sales were flat and the group was quickly bounced from Capitol. Undaunted, guitarist/vocalist Small shook up his supporting cast and kept at it. This refusal to quit would eventually define the Hangmen. The group was again signed by a major in the early '90s, but was unable to release anything before being dropped a second time. A record was submitted to Geffen, but the label of Nirvana, Hole, and White Zombie couldn't appreciate the maniacal Stooges-meets-Stones rock revivalism. Except for some occasional underground tape trading among obsessive music fans, this sophomore effort would never see the light of day.
That should have been the end of it, but Small refused to buckle. What followed was literally a decade of near nonexistence for the Hangmen. Despite some serious hurdles, Small kept the group together and, after cleaning up a debilitating drug habit and stabilizing a strong band roster that included Angelique Congelton on bass, Todd Haney on drums, and guitarist Jimmy James, the Hangmen were once again turning heads in the L.A. underground. In 2000, 11 years after their debut hit the streets, the Hangmen made a hard rock splash with Metallic I.O.U. This time, the band put out a record that did justice to their frenetic live sound and rebellious reputation. Distributed through indie label Acetate Records, Metallic I.O.U. was a critical triumph that featured material from the phantom Geffen record ("Bliss," "Downtown") and plenty of new tunes as well. The seamless collection boasts material written over three decades, which speaks to the timeless quality of the Hangmen's revivalist, heavy blues/rockabilly. More performances followed, including a tour with the Supersuckers (a band that approximates the Hangmen's sound more than any other). In 2001, Small and his cohorts recorded a live disc in Hollywood featuring old favorites, some new material, and a vocal performance by the Supersuckers' Eddie Spaghetti on "Coal Mine." This third release, We've Got Blood on the Toes of Our Boots, also appeared on Acetate the following year. A tour was completed with Social Distortion in 2002 as well. Strangely, the Hangmen waited nearly 15 years to enter their most prolific and accomplished period, but nothing came easy to Small and the legendary underground rock outfit he created. ~ Vincent Jeffries