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Retro Girls Go Gore Crazy

The Norwegian band Mensen model themselves after '70s bands that began with the letter R, such as the Ramones and Radio Birdman and the Rubettes (Mensen's lineup: Mary Currie, Christine Ford, Lars Fox, Tiny West; promo copy lists no producer, but I suspect Sven "Boethius" Fowley). I haven't decided whether Mensen represent the fecundity or the sterility of reiterating '70s glam-punk. Their CD Delusions of Grandeur (Gearhead) is very good on the many tracks where the melodies are very good, and is entertaining throughout. But even more than on the Fabulous Disaster CD, the music is hamstrung by unrelenting drum oom-whomp and nonstop power chords. In music where the rhythm has no integral relation to the melody, the melody has to be greatly beautiful all on its own to keep things interesting, and greatly beautiful is not a frequent achievement. Bands such as the Ramones were frequently greatly beautiful, but they lived and died on their melodies, and when the melodies weren't compelling, the rest of their music wasn't either. So really I think this power-chord-plus-march-beat template is a dead end unless the melody can have more to do with the bass, drums, and guitar.

Thug Murder: a Japanese punk band. The booklet for their CD, The 13th Round (TKO), translates the lyrics into English. About two-thirds of the way through I realized that the singer was singing in English, actually, and that I wasn't reading a translation but the words themselves. So then I had great fun trying to match up voice and lyric. There was a relationship of some sort, just not the one I'm used to. Maybe this was the singer's punk equivalent to free jazz: You sing not the word itself but a sound that takes into account the word. So you're free of the word but not indifferent to it.

The music is derived from Clash-Pogues-Rancid-Dropkick Murphys. I remember when I first heard The Clash LP in 1978 it sounded like something new in music: more deeply British Isles than any hard rock I had ever heard. It was haunting, yet it hooked right into the march beats that punk was introducing into rock while also hooking into the band's Chuck Berry and New York Dolls rock'n'roll heritage. I'm surprised that so few groups since then have done anything with this type of sound, which the Clash themselves eventually abandoned. Thug Murder have three tracks or so that achieve a bit of Clash beauty, though they don't take it anywhere new, except to give it not only a Clash-like vocal squall but a Japanese accent. They can't sustain the beauty for the length of the CD, though they do sustain the squall.

Fabulous Disaster, heroines of cocksucking lesbian government agents everywhere
photo: BJ Papas
Fabulous Disaster, heroines of cocksucking lesbian government agents everywhere

Of course—obvious point—punk women back in the day like X-Ray Spex, the Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Raincoats, etc., took the lesson of bands like the Clash and Sex Pistols not to be "sound like the Clash and Pistols" but rather "invent your own sound." The Slits, for instance, at first made me think of escaped madrigal singers from the zoo, and it took me many days to figure out what the hell they were doing and how great they were. Whereas now we have all these non-inventors going back 20, 30 years for their sound, yet sounding good too. There's no law that says they can't sound good. And maybe bands like—especially—the Gore Gore Girls imitate an old sound of unruliness and recalcitrance and somehow come up with the energy of that unruliness, even if they do seem to be following punk rules and don't seem to have paid attention to any music from the last 30 years. (But then again, I don't know that my writing has taken in any new styles of rock criticism in the last 30 years. I mean, why should it? Why should I want it to? If someone told me that my rock criticism seemed more like 1971 than 2001, I'd feel complimented.)

It seems to me, though, that the styles that these new retro gals are going back to had never been all that firm and established back in their original day. So the retro bands are not maintaining old ways but rather reasserting ways that never quite happened. Which is to say that they go back to moments of transition that in history had never been the transition to anything—or perhaps had been the transition from lashout to lifestyle. But lifestyle is a disappointing outcome for punk.

In inventing their own music, real post-Pistol punks like the Raincoats inspired thousands of bands to make bohemian music for living your life rather than for changing your life—which in the long run led to music that's disappointing in comparison to the promise of punk's early years. So you could say that maybe some retro punk is going back further, back to the promise, and maybe in copying old sounds it is somehow getting that promise into the music. But promise of what? For Fab Disaster it's maybe that hard rock can, for about the sixth or seventh time in its history, re-insert tunefulness and playfulness into itself. (And maybe it can one day come halfway near to the energy and spirit you get every day on Radio Disney.) The Fabs' music contains interesting possibilities. The close harmonies genuinely hit my pleasure button, but close harmonies often shut down a lot of rhythmic and melodic excitement, since the easy way to use them is to sing in unison and stick to the chord. Basically the Fab Dissers get their rhythm by pasting a hard beat underneath. But the song I love the most, "Red Blister," happens to be the one that breaks into vocal interplay, which makes me hope that maybe they could evolve into geniuses like Brian Wilson and figure out how to get the voices to do harmony and rhythm and interplay all at once. But to do so they'd have to stop being true to their punk school and instead take in everything from doo-wop to Destiny's Child, with no guarantee that the results would sound better. Maybe what they do now is what will work best for them, after all.

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