Long a sought-after collector's item, the Flesh Eaters iconic album has finally been reissued on LP and CD by Superior Viaduct.
"A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die" is an album with a reputation. The music is a whacked mix R&B, jazz, rockabilly, and African chants, pulled through the caustic strainer of 1980s L.A. punk.
Flesh Eaters' musicians came from some of the best bands of the genre and the era: D.J. Bonebrake and John Doe from X, The Blasters' Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman, and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, along with singer Chris Desjardins.
This line-up of The Flesh Eaters came together in 1981 in the midst of what's now looked back on as the "Roots Punk Revival." Legendary SoCal bands X, The Blasters, and Los Lobos were all exploring the music they grew up with — and so were many of their contemporaries, including The Gun Club, Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs, and The Cramps.
Slash Records, the fanzine turned label, was producing the debut albums of X and the Blasters. Lead singer Chris Desjardins, a Slash employee, was put in charge of the label's subsidiary, Ruby Records. His band, the Flesh Eaters, had existed in various line-ups since 1977, releasing a 45 and an LP of surfy LA minute-long hardcore on Desjardins' own Upsetter Records.
A big fan of R&B, Country, and the blues, Desjardins wanted to get in on what all his friends were doing. He recorded himself singing along to cassettes of African chanting while driving around the city. He then asked Dave Alvin (guitarist) and John Doe (bassist) if they could figure out chords to go with his vocals.
Desjardins is also a pop culture historian, and an expert in Japanese gangster films. Here's one of his lines from "A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die," a good one for Halloween:
Half of my kingdom is about to disappear,
sinking with no mercy in a glassful of beer
The clip joint boss bolted bronze to human lips,
but he made out the words, "I can still feel Jesus' kiss"
Bill Bateman was brought in on drums, Steve Berlin on saxophone, and DJ Bonebrake on marimba and other percussion.
It didn't take long for all of the songs to come together — Alvin remembers something like eight practice sessions. They recorded their album almost totally live, though you can hear raspy vocal overdubs here and there to skin crawling effect. It was released the same year. They played fewer than 10 live shows.
"It's an odd little collection of songs," Alvin remarks. No two tracks sound quite alike. There's "Digging My Grave", the Sonics-style garage rock rave up. "Satan's Stomp," a one-chord, jazzy meditation with Bonebrake on snare drum and Berlin wailing his lungs out.
Then there's "So Long," which transitions from African rhythm in the verse to rockabilly in the bridge, to a psych rock freakout reprise of the African rhythm.
"It was Chris's vision," Alvin concedes. "We were just there for the beer."
This isn't a band trying to fit a style or concept. They're simple songs, all revolving around some kind of R&B groove, that play to the strengths and musical knowledge of the band.
Everyone has their moment on the record. It sounds very spur of the moment, and when you listen to the live recordings, you can tell they never quite came out the same way twice.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the date the Flesh Eaters were formed. The story has been changed to correct the band's chronology.