Snakefinger

Snakefinger — aka Philip Charles Lithman (June 17, 1949 — July 1, 1987) — was an English guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter who headed two albums (1972–74) by rustic-rockers Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers.

He backed The Residents on their 1978 release Duck Stab / Buster & Glen and singed to Ralph Records for the 1979–82 albums Chewing Hides the Sound, Greener Postures, and Manual of Errors.


Background

Lithman was born in Tooting, South London, where he first emerged as a blue-rock hopeful in Junior’s Blues Band. In 1971, he moved to San Francisco, where he linked with The Residents, who named him ‘Snakefinger’ based on a photo in which his finger resembled “a snake about to attack his violin.”>

Back in London, Lithman linked with JBB colleague Martin Stone, a late-period Action member who cut two album’s with that band’s spin-off, Mighty Baby. They formed the duo Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers and cut their first album, Kings of Robot Rhythm, with backing by Brinsley Schwarz and White Noise mastermind Dave Vorhaus. Chilli Willi became a quintet on their 1974 release Bongos Over Balham, released on Charisma offshoot Mooncrest Records. (After their 1975 breakup, drummer Pete Thomas joined Elvis Costello‘s backing band The Attractions.)

In 1976, Lithman returned to the US, where he shopped demos for a year in Los Angeles. He then situated in the Bay Area, where he re-linked with The Residents and co-wrote one track (“Sinister Exaggerator”) on their fifth album Duck Stab / Buster & Glen, which credits him with “slithering almost everywhere.” As Snakefinger, he joined their label, Ralph Records.


“The Spot”

In August 1978, Snakefinger debuted with the single “The Spot” on Ralph Records. He self-performs the song, backed only by percussionist Don Jackovich, an artist later identified as the original drummer of The Residents, who co-wrote and produced the single. The Residents perform the b-side, “Smelly Tongues” (a remake from their first album, Meet The Residents) with backing by Snakefinger.

A. “The Spot” (3:00)
B. “Smelly Tongues” (2:24)

Ralph pressed 35,000 copies of “The Spot” on clear blue vinyl. This was the first non-Residents Ralph release (cat# RR7805) apart from the 1976 single “Aphids In the Hall” by Schwump (the moniker of theraminist Barry Schwam).


Chewing Hides the Sound

Snakefinger released his first album, Chewing Hides the Sound, in 1979 on Ralph Records. It features ten songs performed with and co-written by The Residents, including “Jesus Was a Leprechaun,” “The Vultures of Bombay,” and “Picnic in the Jungle.”

Side One bookends with covers of Kraftwerk (“The Model”) and Ennio Morricone (“Magic and Ecstasy”). Additional musicians include bassist Phil Culp (“Here Comes the Bums”) and Tuxedomoon saxophonist Steven Brown (“Vultures of Bombay”).

A1. “The Model” (3:39)
A2. “Kill the Great Raven” (3:05)
A3. “Jesus Was a Leprechaun” (2:00)
A4. “Here Comes the Bums” (2:51)
A5. “The Vivian Girls” (2:59)
A6. “Magic and Ecstasy” (2:51)
B1. “Who Is the Culprit and Who Is the Victim?” (2:59)
B2. “What Wilbur?” (2:35)
B3. “Picnic In the Jungle” (4:00)
B4. “Friendly Warning” (2:39)
B5. “I Love Mary” (2:33)
B6. “The Vultures of Bombay” (3:06)

The Residents co-produced the album in sequence with their own 1979 release, Eskimo. Ralph lifted “What Wilbur?” as a single (b/w “Kill the Great Raven”). Chewing Hides the Sound was Ralph’s second non-Residents album release after Winter Songs, the second album by the Art Bears, an offshoot of Henry Cow.

In 1980, Ralph lifted “The Model” as a second Chewing single, backed with “Talkin’ In the Town,” a non-album Residents collaboration.

B. “Talkin’ In the Town” (2:32)


Greener Postures

Snakefinger released his second album, Greener Postures, in October 1980 on Ralph Records. He’s backed once again by The Residents, who co-wrote all the songs apart from “I Come From An Island” and “Trashing All the Loves of History.”

Tuxedomoon violinist Blaine L. Reininger plays on “Don’t Lie.” The tracklist conjoins the final two songs as “The Picture Makers Vs. Children of the Sea” (listed separately on the LP label).

A1. “Golden Goat” (4:07)
A2. “Don’t Lie” (3:29)
A3. “The Man In the Dark Sedan” (4:32)
A4. “I Come From an Island” (3:20)
A5. “Jungle Princess” (3:48)
B1. “Trashing All the Loves of History” (3:08)
B2. “Save Me From Dali” (2:29)
B3. “Living In Vain” (3:41)
B4. “The Picture Makers” (4:00)
B5. “Children of the Sea” (5:27)

Ralph lifted “The Man In the Dark Sedan” as a single, backed with the non-album self-performed original “Womb to Worm.” The single also appeared on Celluloid (France) and Missing Link (Australia, backed with “The Model”). The Ralph issue came in a sleeve illustrated by cartoonist Mark Beyer.

The Residents co-produced Greener Postures after their 1980 release The Commercial Album, a collection of forty songs (all one-minute each) with appearances by Snakefinger.

Snakefinger formed a backing band with bassist George B. George and drummer Jonny B. Ryan. They embarked on a tour that hit Australia, where Lithman suffered a heart attack that required six months of hospitalization.


Manual of Errors

Snakefinger released his third album, Manual of Errors, in 1982 on Ralph Records. It features two songs co-written with The Residents (“Bring Back Reality,” “Eva’s Warning”) and four solo numbers: “You Sliced Up My Wife,” “I Followed George’s Dream,” “Yeti: What Are You?” and the epic “Private Universe / The Life On Nebulov.”

He’s backed by George, Ryan, second guitarist Miguel Bertel, and late-period Magic Band keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, who co-wrote “Beatnik Party.” Errors also contains covers of Nino Rota (“Shining Faces”) and avant-psych pioneers The United States of America (“The Garden of Earthly Delights”).

A1. “Yeti: What Are You?” (4:01)
A2. “Beatnik Party” (3:42)
A3. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (3:00) originated as a psychedelic song by The United States of America; written by keyboardist Joe Byrd and singer Dorothy Moskowitz and featured on their 1968 self-titled album.
A4. “You Sliced Up My Wife” (1:59)
A5. “I Followed George’s Dream” (5:16)
B1. “Bring Back Reality” (5:06)
B2. “Shining Faces (“I Am Nino”)” (2:19)
B3. “Eva’s Warning” (4:33)
B4. “Private Universe / The Life On Nebulov” (7:25)

Snakefinger co-produced the album with Drew Feldman, who worked on Manual of Errors in sequence with Ice Cream for Crow, the final album by Captain Beefheart. Manual was engineered by Richard Van Dorn, a recent soundman for jazz acts (Schawkie Roth, Orquesta Batachanga) who played in the seventies novelty groups Dick Bright & His Sounds of Delight Orchestra and Little Roger & The Goosebumps (behind the 1978 parody “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island”).

Manual also credits one Baby Minehoff Wedonit (assistant engineer) and states “Mr. Feldman’s Casio modified by Richard Marriott,” the future Club Foot Orchestra director.

Manual of Errors sports artwork by “Man In the Dark Sedan” sleeve illustrator Mark Beyer, whose artwork also appears on early eighties sleeves for Monte Cazazza and the French avant-garde act Ptôse (Ignobles Limaces). He later created The Adventures of Thomas and Nardo, a series of animated shorts that ran on MTV’s Liquid Television.

(more to come…)


Discography:

  • “The Spot” / “Smelly Tongues” (1978)
  • Chewing Hides the Sound (1979)
  • Greener Postures (1980)
  • Manual of Errors (1982)
  • Snakefinger’s History of the Blues (1984)
  • Night of Desirable Objects (1986 • Snakefinger’s Vestal Virgins)
  • Snakefinger’s Vestal Virgins: Live in Chicago (1986)

Sources:

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