Hampton Grease Band may have ultimately been a band easier to appreciate in concept than to listen to in practice. They are also, for most listeners, a band that's much more fun to read about than to hear. For a brief period, though, they were offering some of the wackiest rock ever to be found on a major label. Clearly influenced by both Zappa and Beefheart, but more grating and even less accessible to the rock underground, they took early-'70s avant-rock aesthetics near their extremes. This guaranteed an eternal cult reputation for the group, but also ensured that their commercial success in their own time was virtually nil.

Hampton Grease Band began as a blues-rock-oriented outfit in the late '60s in Atlanta, where the underground rock scene was barely big enough to support them. They managed to carve a reputation at a local underground club, as well as by playing support to psychedelic/progressive acts like the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, and the Allman Brothers. The group steadily developed a more original sound, emphasizing intricate, Zappa-esque guitar lines and Bruce Hampton's off-the-cuff, non-sequitur lyrics, usually shouted in a throaty, scratchy wheeze that made Beefheart sound like Pavarotti. The band often betrayed the Zappa influence in their theatrical, sometimes confrontational stage show, in which Hampton would throw chairs at the audience, or sing while standing on a pizza. They polarized audiences, to say the least; they were pelted with cups of ice at one memorable gig that found them playing to a crowd of 10,000 as the warm-up act for Three Dog Night (a bill that must have been devised by Salvador Dali).

Hampton Grease Band generated enough of a reputation, though, to pique the interest of Columbia Records, whose curiosity incited Allman Brothers manager Phil Walden to sign the group. The Grease Band quickly recorded two albums worth of material that could in no way be construed as having money-making potential. Half the songs, to begin with, weighed in at around the 20-minute mark; the silvery guitar work of Glenn Phillips and Harold Kelling often took its cues from improvised jazz, while the songs lurched unpredictably between melodies and tempos, all executed with impeccable finesse by the musicians. The crowning touch was Hampton, whose amelodic rants cross-bred soapbox preachers with bleacher bums. The lyrics took the Dadaist bent of Zappa/Beefheart to more inscrutable levels, most notoriously on "Hendon," with Hampton reading many of the words off the label of a can of spray paint. Phillips's silly faux-Latin miniature "Maria" was a much more radio-friendly novelty, but Hampton Grease Band were obviously going to be a much tougher sell than the Allman Brothers.

Confronted with the tapes, Columbia reacted most unpredictably, deciding to make the band's debut (and, as it turned out, only) record a double album, Music to Eat. Legend has it that it was, at the time of its release, the second-lowest selling LP in the Columbia catalog (beaten only by a yoga record). Columbia itself didn't help matters by marketing Music to Eat as a comedy album. Shortly after its release, Hampton Grease Band began to disintegrate, with the departure of guitarist Harold Kelling. Despite a well-received show at the Fillmore East with Frank Zappa, CBS dropped the group, which then signed with Zappa's Bizarre/Straight label. It seemed like a logical combination, but nothing came of it record-wise, and the band finally broke up in 1973 when Hampton left to, ironically, unsuccessfully audition for a job as Zappa's lead vocalist.

All of the members of the quintet that recorded Music to Eat remained active in music, especially Hampton (who recorded albums with the Aquarium Rescue Unit) and Phillips (who has released nearly a dozen instrumental records, including some for the influential alternative rock indie label SST). As is so often the case with the most interesting cult bands, interest in the band actually grew in the decades after their breakup, culminating in the reisse of Music to Eat on CD in 1996 -- on Columbia, the same label that had dumped them when they supposedly sold less copies than anyone else who had ever recorded for the company. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi