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The History of the Young Aborigines

In a January 2003 conversation with Beastiemania.com, founding member of the Young Aborigines, Jeremy Shatan cleared up a lot of the confusion about the group that would later lead to the formation of the Beastie Boys. The story begins when Jeremy Shatan and Michael Diamond were in seventh grade. “Michael Diamond’s older brother David, and my older brother Greg, had been great friends. Therefore it seemed fitting that Mike D and I clicked too. Pretty quickly our friendship began to focus on our growing interest in music. At the time, Michael was already taking drum lessons and I was still trying to learn piano. In fact, we were in the Walden Jazz Band together (note: Walden was the school we went to.) When the whole ska revival happened which included bands like The Specials, The English Beat, & The Selector, I even thought of taking up the trombone but never did.”

Kate Schellenbach Sketch

Original sketch by Kate Schellenbach

Before long John Berry joined up with Jeremy Shatan who then in turn introduced him to Michael Diamond. The three then formed a tightly bound friendship that would later become the core of the Young Aborigines. “Sometime around 7th or 8th grade, John Berry came to Walden. I hit it off with him immediately. It helped that we both lived above 96th Street, which back then was considered somewhat of a no-man's-land. After a while, I got the idea of introducing them to each other. So we all got tickets to see Joe Jackson. A punk group called the Members happened to be the opening act. As soon as they started in, John began pogo-ing madly in his seat and he kept on throughout their entire set. At the intermission, John Berry went to the bathroom and Mike D turned to me and said, ‘What's up with this guy? He's totally insane!’ I said, ‘No, no, he's cool, he just has a lot of energy.’”

As time went on, we were all hanging out and spending more time together. And logically since John Berry was learning guitar and Mike D had the drums, I suggested that they get together and play music. So the first sounds of what would later become the Young Aborigines were just guitar and drums, with me in the background making snide comments. It just seemed natural for me to get a bass guitar and join the group. Pretty shortly after getting an instrument and taking a few lessons, I was jamming with Mike and John. We wanted to make music that was a stew of all the stuff we were listening to. Groups like the Gang of Four, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Joy Division, the Raincoats, Young Marble Giants, and dub reggae were what we were into at the time. Due to the fact that my neighborhood was full of Cuban immigrants who played fantastic salsa, I also wanted to add a little Latin influence to the mix. We came up with the idea that the music should be primitive in some way, which is how we came up with the Young Aborigines as the name of the band. I even bought a record of Australian Aborigine music for inspiration!”

Kate Schellenbach, who later went on to be in the Beastie Boys and Luscious Jackson, was the next addition to the Young Aborigines. “Mike D and John befriended a group of girls they dubbed the "bag ladies." They chose that name because the girls dressed almost in rags just like the homeless women around New York, who carried all their possessions around in shopping bags. Kate Schellenbach was one of them, as was Jill Cunniff, who both later went to be in Luscious Jackson. Kate wanted to play drums, so we asked her to be the percussionist in the Young Aborigines. Using a combination of Mike D's old drums, a conga drum, and other stuff that was lying around, Kate played standing up. She looked just like Maureen Tucker in the Velvet Underground.”

Now that the four members of the Young Aborigines had come together, it was time to compile the material that would become their repertoire. “After awhile we started assembling a set of songs. Our songs were not written in the conventional sense. Instead they usually arose out of a sort of collective improvisation that began with one member's idea. For example, I might come in and say, ‘Check out this bass line.’ I'd play for a bit and then John would start working on a contrasting guitar part. Michael would proceed to find the rhythm and begin assembling a drum pattern which Kate then would interlock with him. However once the songs were finished, there was almost no improvisation. No one played solos. Maybe in the end, I would have a few licks that I could add in at the end of the song and Mike would have an extra fill or two to spice things up.”

“One of the things we would do at the end of rehearsals was play a song I called "Asshole". This consisted of me playing guitar, John on bass, Kate at the kit and Michael on the mic. This was the beginning of his being a front man. His "singing" was mainly consisted of shouting "Asshole!" and insulting each member of the band in turn. It was a good way to blow off steam before putting down the instruments and dancing maniacally to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall or Uprising by Bob Marley and the Wailers.”

In the book American Hardcore: A Tribal History, author Steven Blush states that the Young Aborigines had various singers. Although the book has other inaccuracies, such as misspelling Shatan’s last name, that fact is not far from the truth as Jeremy Shatan explained to Beastiemania.com. “John wrote lyrics to several of the songs, but was not really interested in singing. This led to our auditioning practically anybody who was interested to sing in the band. For example, Jill Cunniff tried out as did some of the girls from Walden. Yet in the end we were never really satisfied. We gradually started to accept the idea that we would be an instrumental group. This led to our performing without a vocalist in our two live performances, both of which took place on the same night.”

In the liner notes of the Some Old Bullshit, Mike D briefly mentions the two shows that the Young Aborigines performed at. Fortunately for us at Beastiemania.com, Shatan was able to recall more details. “Somewhere around this time, in the summer of 1981, we got a gig at 171A. Then somehow we got another gig for the same night, opening for a more established band at another club. The first show went especially well, mainly because the audience was almost entirely made up of friends. Michael Diamond's brother, Stephen, got it all on tape. The entire set was recorded including the obnoxious guy sitting next to him who said, ‘That was nice!’ in a nasal voice after every song. The rest of the night was a bit of a blur due to exhaustion. However, I remember getting home at about 5:00 a.m. and just sitting in my chair for an hour. Then my dad came in and asked me to make him breakfast.”

Just as the Young Aborigines were on their way to getting more gigs the band began to fall apart. “After our big night, things seemed to just dissipate. Mike D had met another kid named Adam Yauch in the clubs. They both were into hardcore, as was John somewhat. Adam and I got along fine, but there was not really a place for both of us in the band. While Adam liked what we were doing and respected my playing, he was not interested in sounding like what we were playing. I still remember showing him how to use his thumb and pluck strings for that funky Larry Graham effect.”

“Eventually what happened was that the Young Aborigines would rehearse and then Adam would show up and what later became the Beastie Boys would play. I would usually go home and do homework at that time. Frankly, I was not into the ‘hard, fast rules’ type of stuff that they were playing, which was heavily influenced by bands like The Necros. Then I went away for the rest of the summer and when I came back things had just continued with the Beastie Boys while the Young Aborigine's had been shelved. In time, they were gigging all over the place, most memorably at The Kitchen, a legendary avant-garde performance space. Then Polly Wog Stew came out. I wasn't too into that sound, but I thought it was pretty funny. I had dinner with Mike D sometime after that and I remember him telling me that they had just recorded this song where they really fucked up the bass sound and had made a prank phone call to Carvel. I still think "Cookie Puss" is pretty damn amusing.

 


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