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Art for punk's sake

San Francisco's dearly beloved Mutants rise up from the ashes to infect a new generation

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In a career predicated on unpredictability, it's only fitting that San Francisco punk pioneers the Mutants have risen from near-death and are coming to Colorado under the auspices of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art.

A vital force in the San Francisco art-punk scene, the Mutants headlined shows with the likes of Dead Kennedys, Flipper and the Avengers. But while those opening acts would achieve lasting notoriety, the Mutants followed their own star-crossed path to become a brilliantly idiosyncratic footnote in punk-rock history.

"The punk scene was about do-it-yourself, and the Mutants, we tried to do it ourselves," says Paul Fleming, who played bass and keyboards on the band's lone full-length album, 1981's Fun Terminal. "Lord knows, we wrote ungodly amounts of material — really good material — but we didn't have enough production wherewithal to make good-sounding records. We'd get seven people, who all had opinions, into the control room, trying to do a mix, and it was just insane."

The songs that were documented showcase a strangely uplifting combination of quirky angst and hooky spaghetti-western twang. With expressively enunciated vocals by frontman Fritz Fox — plus backing singers Sue White and Sally Webster, who unfortunately won't be at the Denver show — the Mutants had more in common with X, Magazine and the B-52s than with the more agro approach of bands like Black Flag. From the anthemic "New Drug" to the punk-noir "Twisted Thing," Fun Terminal tapped into a uniquely San Francisco tradition of Beat poetry, New Wave invention, and art-school imagination.

Not coincidentally, the majority of the Mutants attended San Francisco Art Institute. "It started as kind of a performance-art piece, kind of a joke," says Fleming. But to the surprise of everyone — including much of the band — great songs were soon pouring forth on a weekly basis, as were gigs with bands like Public Image Limited, the Slits, Iggy Pop, and the Talking Heads.

And then there was the downside. An opening slot on what was to be Joy Division's first American tour fell through due to Ian Curtis' suicide. "We showed up for sound check at the club, and they said, 'Well, Joy Division isn't getting here, because, uh, something happened.'"

Band members also began succumbing to the all-too-familiar trappings of the musician lifestyle. "Somehow everything just kind went south on us," says Fleming, who's been clean and sober for decades. Sessions at Robbie Robertson's Malibu recording studio ground to a halt. "We were going through money like crazy, and there was this sense of failure and doom hanging over us." After the album was finished in San Francisco, the label sat on it for six months.

The photo on Fun Terminal's cover serves as an homage to the era: a seedy arcade next to the band's loft headquarters, which was just across the street from the Trans-Bay Terminal.

"Everything on that block was called Terminal-something; the Rexall up on the corner was called Terminal Drugs," says Fleming with a laugh. "And it's all gone now. It's old San Francisco, and it's all gone."

But not the Mutants, who've reunited for sporadic gigs around San Francisco. Fleming, who recently released a solid album of his own called Twitch and Shout, credits the Internet.

"We've cleared out so many of the gatekeepers, and it's really kind of the culmination of that whole do-it-yourself era," says Fleming. "It's amazing, all these years later, to have people interested."

bill@csindy.com

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