Formed in 1973, the first edition of Destroy All Monsters was formed by University of Michigan art students Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Niagara (Lynn Rovner) and filmmaker Cary Loren. They performed in the Ann Arbor area from 1973–1976, and their only release was a one-hour cassette of their recordings available only through Lightworks magazine. Their early music was influenced by Sun Ra, Velvet Underground, ESP-Disk, monster movies, beat culture and futurism. Their sound was experimental, psychedelic, darkly humorous and droning.
On New Year's Eve of 1973, the first Destroy All Monsters concert was held at a comic book convention in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At the time the instruments were a violin, a sax, a vacuum cleaner and a coffee can. They performed a demented version of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and were asked to leave after ten minutes. The group performed "guerilla style", setting up free at parties and playing for food along Ann Arbor's frat row. They used modified instruments, a drum box, tape loops, hot-wired toys, cheap keyboards and broken electronic devices. Aside from the comic convention, the group's only formal gig in this era was at the Halloween Ball at the University of Michigan art school in 1976.
Kelley and Shaw left the band during the summer of 1976 to attend graduate school at CalArts in Los Angeles, California. Both have gone on to lead successful solo careers in the art world. Their work is held in major collections around the world.
We reveled in the death of rock. We gave up straight rock instrumentation by playing mostly old electronic cast-offs, tape recorders and noise makers, but we felt no qualms about using standard rock instruments either - or playing rock cover versions, albeit very fucked up ones. We had slightly artistic and avant-garde pretensions, we were in your face but we also had a sense of humor - albeit a very sour one. And as with the punk rockers, there was a definite class affiliation which we were unwilling to give up, even if we weren't very happy about it. We would, or could, not adopt totally the ultra-cool ironic and commercially packaged stances of Kraftwerk and Roxy Music. The pure noise we cranked out was still moving to us; there were vestiges of the uplifting psychedelic rock aura left about it. Though this might have been apparent only to us and not the average listener. We could hear it. We still were, after all, a Detroit band. We had our cultural pride. And, I was not particularly interested in making sense. All the best bands of my youth were ones that were full of contradictions: Captain Beefheart, the Stooges, the Doors, the Velvet Underground, early Pink Floyd. All of these bands were simultaneously ironic and heartfelt, funny and serious, pop and experimental, lowbrow and highbrow. They were hard to figure out.
Destroy All Monsters in actuality never was one band but an agreement between two bands to share a name and sometimes perform together. On one side were Cary and Niagara, and on the other were Jim Shaw and I. Cary and Niagara were more interested in song structures and had a love of pop trash, glitter rock and gloom and doom Mansonesque imagery -very "witchy". They were fans of Bowie, T Rex, Roxy Music, the New York Dolls and such. Jim and I were more interested in pure noise and had little interest in bothering with song structures or pop licks, except as simple book-ending devices for the noise - like free jazz players, Coltrane for instance, would use pop standards such as Disney tunes to build off of and eventually fuck up and distort. Our tastes were somewhat different. Jim had a soft spot for gothic sweetness. He liked to listen to the death folk of the Incredible String Band, John Fahey, and the more depressing folksy Led Zepplin songs, and even pomp rock like Yes, which I could not stomach. Yet we did share a love of psychedelia and Sun Ra. At this time I was listening mostly to free jazz: Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, the Art Ensemble, etc, and to German psychedelia and trance music: Popul Vuh, Can, Terry Riley. But there were a few things all of us could all agree on, and that was the noise rock of the first MC5 album, the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground. Those bands allowed for both the factory-driven pulse of metal and the electric wail of pure noise. Cary and Niagara began to write songs, Jim and I set up a situation where there was constant noise improvisation.
In 1995, the original members staged a reunion tour, and since then have appeared in various exhibitions and music festivals. Among the exhibitions in which Destroy All Monsters have been included: “Theater Without Theater, “ MOCBA, Barcelona, Spain, (2007); “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967,” MCA Chicago (2007); Exhibition and archives at the Magasin Center for Contemporary Art in Grenoble, France, (2006); and “Art>Music (rock, pop, techno)” at Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia (2001).
After forming in 1974, Destroy All Monsters played in the Detroit and Ann Arbor area for a few years. They managed to develop a quite a reputation in the area—a notorious one, to be certain—despite their lack of official recordings. On New Years Eve, they gave their first public concert at a Comic Book convention in Ann Arbor. Rather, they insisted on giving their first public concert. Uninvited, they crashed the event, set up, and played. Instrumentation included a violin, a saxophone, a vacuum cleaner, and a coffee can. After performing a deranged version of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," they were asked to leave the venue. "We were designed to be a 'fuck you' to the prevailing popular culture," says Kelley.
Despite negative reactions from parts of the community, DAM continued to perform in Ann Arbor, playing "guerilla style" by setting up for free at parties and playing for food along frat row (State Street). Continuing their experimental trend, they used modified instruments, a drum box, tape loops, hot-wired toys, cheap keyboards, and broken electronic devices. They continued to play at open parties held at God's Oasis, attracting small audiences of at most fifty people. The only official performance they had after the Comic Book convention incident was at the Halloween Ball at the University of Michigan Art School, where they performed a minimalist version of "Shaking All Over." They were not well received in the Ann Arbor community; in fact, "our music was pretty much despised," admits Kelley.