One of the most powerful and punishing rock bands of the '80s and '90s, the Laughing Hyenas merged the deep-focus throb of the Stooges with the bluesy, scuzzed-up post-punk of the Birthday Party and Pussy Galore. At first, the band specialized in noisy, menacing dirges overlaid with the tortuous, throat-shredding vocals of frontman John Brannon, best heard on 1989's You Can't Pray a Lie and 1990's Life of Crime. As time passed and their lineup shifted, the Hyenas' blues connections became more and more explicit, looking back to the Rolling Stones and original sources like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters on 1995's Hard Times. The Hyenas weren't quite prolific enough to take their place alongside similar indie stalwarts like Royal Trux or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, but they cast a long shadow over the Midwest independent scene in the years that followed and would enjoy a revival after their catalog was reissued in the 2010s.
The Laughing Hyenas were formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1985 by vocalist John Brannon, formerly of iconic Detroit hardcore band Negative Approach, and guitarist Larissa Strickland, who'd been playing her instrument for a scant six months and had previously sung in a local group called L-Seven (not the L7 who later went on to grunge-metal fame). The two added bassist Kevin Strickland and drummer Jim Kimball, and quickly made a name for themselves on the Detroit-area scene. Signing with noise rock specialists Touch & Go (who had released Negative Approach and L-Seven's work), the Laughing Hyenas issued their six-song debut EP, Merry Go Round, in 1987 with production by a pre-Nirvana Butch Vig. The full-length You Can't Pray a Lie, also produced by Vig, followed in 1989, and the group went on tour supporting Sonic Youth as well as performing steadily as a headliner in the Midwest.
1990's Life of Crime was hailed by many as the Hyenas' most fully realized album to date, but it proved to be the original lineup's last hurrah. Kimball and Kevin Strickland both departed to form the roots-punk outfit Mule with P.W. Long in 1991. Brannon and Larissa Strickland regrouped with a new rhythm section of bassist Kevin Reis and onetime Necros drummer Todd Swalla. The new version of the Hyenas were still finding their feet when they cut the Crawl EP in 1992, but further turnover ensued when Reis decided he couldn't tour as extensively as the band wanted. He was in turn replaced by Ron Sakowski, also a former member of the Necros. After honing its chemistry via heavy touring, the band finally returned in 1995 with Hard Times, which eased back on the force of their heyday in favor of a leaner approach more clearly informed by the blues. After touring in support of Hard Times, the Hyenas split up in late 1995.
In the late '90s, Brannon and Sakowski came back with the aggressive hard rock act Easy Action, which issued a self-titled debut in 2001. Jim Kimball went on to collaborate with Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison in the Denison-Kimball Trio, and signed on as the Jesus Lizard's drummer in 1996, staying in the band until 1998. Larissa Strickland dropped out of music, and passed away on November 4, 2006. In 2018, Jack White's label Third Man Records, in tandem with Touch & Go, launched a series of remastered vinyl reissues of the Laughing Hyenas' entire catalog. ~ Steve Huey & Mark Deming