On Halloween night, 1997, the stage at Jay's Upstairs was wrapped in a large, mysterious curtain. All of a sudden, it was torn down and there stood Spanker's Cindy Laundrie in all her glory, standing in a chicken wire cage wearing a gruesome mask made of human hair. Obscured only slightly by the chicken wire, Bob Marshall brandished his drumsticks in only a leather g-string. The crowd yelled, "Spank Tank! Spank Tank!" and, almost immediately, the dark, smoky room was besieged by crushing guitar, lumbering bass and drums, and Laundrie barking out the line, "You claim you're the superior race/but really you are nothing but a milkshake with a face." It felt like doomsday, with a grin. Heads bobbed to punishing chords and sing-a-long lyrics all night long, as Laundrie barked out: Kneel! Sit! Kneel, sit, stand!"
Spanker's reign lasted just four years, from late 1995 to 1999. The Missoula rock scene had suffered a few aneurisms and revivals. This was a revival, starring many bands including Spanker—a speedy, demonic, tongue-in-cheek metal band with a penchant for the theatrical. That was all a decade ago, of course. These days, Marshall and Laundrie are married and co-own the beloved artisan pizza joint Biga Pizza. Bassist Mike Cote plays music and works as a construction contractor. Guitarist Brian Vogan lives in Seattle making rock and roll for kids and playing at libraries (he's opening for an upcoming "Thomas the Train" show). In fact, none of them have really stopped playing music. Laundrie is part of the heavy rock duo, Vera. Marshall plays drums for Volumen, which, at 12 years old, is now the longest living still-standing rock band in town. It was only a matter time before Spanker would take another breath. This week's show with vintage rock bands Humpy and Sasshole means a wild ride down Missoula's rock and roll memory lane.
That lane inevitably snakes back to the scene at the now-defunct rock dive called Jay's Upstairs, which put Missoula on the map for touring underground bands from ever corner of the nation. Bands ate free soup and stew from the bar's backroom crockpot. Musicians got three official free beers, plus numerous free unofficial beers. Any conscious band could sign up for a slot during the week and some nights were particularly haphazard: a hippie drum group followed by a punk band, followed by metal, and interrupted sometimes by Red, the street reverend who mounted the stage with a bible and yelled "Burn!" to the delight of the crowd. It wasn't always harmonious, but it was a kind of democracy.
"You were sort of treated like a rock star at Jay's and then you kind of became one," says Laundrie. "People were supportive. It was like a catalyst."
Spanker started out with a gentler side, but as the cold winter of 1996 rolled around, the band members recall that Vogan "went into a trance" and started writing songs with a thicker, darker tone.
Vogan's parents let them practice in the basement, though his dad—a country musician—would often get them to listen to Sons of the Pioneers on their breaks.
"My parents were really supportive, but I couldn't understand that old man music that my dad was playing," says Vogan. "Now I've come back around to really appreciating it—it's actually more like what I do now. But even then, he still gave me positive feedback and let us jam in his basement forever."
The band often took practice tapes home to study their parts, and that helped create their tight sound. They put out a cassette tape and a 7" record, and they recorded 10 songs, three of which made it on a Jay's Upstairs compilation album called Ram it Home. But signature songs such as "Bloodlines," never got recorded.
It was an era of live music, and Spanker played Jay's Upstairs at least once a week for awhile, mostly to the same crowds.
"We ended up with 50 songs," says Marshall. "Every time we played at Jay's we wanted to have a new song because it was the same people going out every night. We wanted to give them something new."
"That also led us to make songs that were two minutes long," adds Vogan. "Both because we were getting them out there quickly but also because of the attention span. My own attention span was like that of flea or something."
It wasn't just about new songs, it was about new ways to perform. For one show, Spanker transformed the stage into a rocket ship and Cote wore a microwave on his head. Other shows used gratuitous amounts of lighting and fog. It worked for the dingy, uncivilized world of Jay's but not always at other venues. One night the band played a downtown warehouse for a University of Montana art department party. Cote and Laundrie were art students at the time and so they asked to play the party, along with the innocuous dance band The Big Sky Mudflaps. Dressed in fatigues, Spanker took the stage. They'd decorated it with large homemade trees they'd stapled together to look like a jungle. As they dove into their grindcore set, the audience dissipated.
"We were playing so fucking loud and everyone was so put off," laughs Cote. "Everyone left and we ended up turning it down to four or five, really quiet. And then people started coming back in just before the Big Sky Mudflaps played."
Marshall proposed to Laundrie at Jay's Upstairs.
"I told him not to, but then he did," she says. "I crammed the ring on and kept drinking, and the next day my finger was so swollen and big. I was going to get on an airplane, so I actually had to get the ring sawed off."
Marshall still has the VHS tapes from some of the crazier shows. He's kept fliers and articles featuring Spanker. He still has the band's dressing room sign from a 1998 show at the University of Montana when they played with hardcore D.C. band Bad Brains. It remains one of Spanker's favorite shows of all time.
Some of the best bands never really die. According to the band, this week's Spanker reunion show isn't a death rattle or even an epilogue. It's a resurrection. Not only do they have new material, the bandmates claim they're reformed and plan to play out more often. Apparently, the allure of the old Spanker days was too much to resist.
"We were super into it back then," says Marshall. "I mean it was everything to us. I remember feeling like, 'This is all that matters.' And, after all this time has passed, I'm realizing now more than ever that it is all that matters."
Spanker plays a reunion show with Humpy, Sasshole, and guests at the Palace Saturday, May 21, at 9 PM. $5.