“ROCK IS DEAD!” reads the large type in ads for the upcoming Korn/ Rob Zombie tour. Right below are three textbites about rock’s dire state, drawn from prominent American publications, followed by $100,000 questions: “Huh? Who you gonna believe? Critics?” Yep, as my headbanger friend Carly put it, Korn and Zombie have mounted their tour to prove the critics wrong. Sort of like the 1973 Rock’n’Roll Animal tour, when Lou Reed hit the road to prove critics wrong by demonstrating that Lou Reed wasn’t dead.
Tuning in to the 41st annual Grammy Awards, though, you had to admit critics have a point. Madonna
really is still pretty cool, but rock seemed almost ancient, as in fiftysomething, as in Page/Plant and Tyler/Perry. Of course, the Academy never gave Zep props back in the day, so maybe the Grammys aren’t such a good gauge of rock’s relative vitality. But the charts aren’t looking all that healthy either. Unless you count the Offspring, who, like Korn, Zombie, and Manson, are really just rock as affectation, shtick, cartoon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the real rock’n’roll animals are living abroad these days, in out-of-the-way places where irony has apparently yet to be adopted as, um, “the dominant mode of rock’n’roll discourse.” (Hey, this is the Voice, right?) In Australia, for example, where a homegrown trio of stray Clash cats called the Living End hit number one last year with a self-titled debut that Reprise recently unloaded on the U.S. market. Or in Sweden, where four aspiring Iggys and a Star Wars stooge working together as the Hellacopters actually did win their country’s version of a Grammy for an album titled Supershitty to the Max in 1996, a disc that finally hit these shores a few months ago thanks to poster artist Frank Kozik’s Man’s Ruin label (firstname.lastname@example.org). Or in Norway, which has for the past decade nurtured the career of degenerate post-Dictators punks Turbonegro, whose nearly flawless epic Apocalypse Dudes got the Man’s Ruin seal of approval this year.
Australians have always had a soft spot for the hard stuff, booze and the American blooze being the forces that fueled Angus Young and his vice squad into arenas of the world. The Living End relies on a somewhat less volatile mix of punk and rockabilly to become the latest up-and-comers from Down Under. Sporting a stand-up bass, spiky flattop haircuts, and antisocial song titles like “Mispent Youth” and “Stay Away From Me,” they sounded like they couldn’t decide whether to do the Stray Cat strut or punk-rock pogo on two early EPs that were repackaged by Reprise last year as the double-disc Hellbound/It’s For Your Own Good. Fortunately for the tattoo industry, Sid Vicious invented punkabilly a long time ago, but the Living End played it like they though they might have invented it— in other words, like they meant it, not as the dumb white trash joke Americans like Reverend Horton Heat have turned it into. On The Living End, singer-guitarist Chris Cheney still sounds like he wants a Stiff Little Fingers-style Alternative Melbourne. Only now he’s willing to play some lame ska and sing like Green Day’s prefolk Billie Joe to get it. Which is too bad, because the single “Prisoner of Society” is the best ’77-vintage working-class punk since Rancid’s last batch of Clash City rockers, only with better guitar solos. It’s also a lot more palatable than Silverchair’s “London’s Burning.”
Up in Scandinavia, they’ve been digging back beyond ’77 to the real American stinky, sweaty, silly, and serious roots of punk— the Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, and Bob Seger. The Hellacopters cover two of the above (MC5 and, well, Seger’s “Her Strut,”— better known as the song with the lyric “they do respect her butt”) while channeling the spirit of the other two on Man’s Ruin’s latest foreign punk product, the aptly titled Respect the Rock USA. It’s a split CD that also features fellow Scandinavian devil-rockers Gluecifer, in case you thought Hellacopters were a fluke. Like the Ramones, four Hellacopters share a surname (Hellacopter; their piano pounder’s handle is Boba Fett), and they even sound a bit like the Johnny and Joey when they list all the things they don’t care about in Supershitty‘s “How Could I Care.” But they’re at their best when they’re copping “Search and Destroy” riffs and attitude in “Gotta Get Some Action,” blowing harmonica into a Johnny Thunders storm in “Random Riot,” or just digging up so much dirt that singer Dregen Hellacopter stumbles onto a line I still can’t believe Iggy didn’t think of first: “I’m in deep shit baby and I’m taking a piss.”
Turbonegro are no slouches when it comes to the rock’n’roll zinger either— “I’ve got a headache in my pants” reads like prime Bon Scott. And speaking of AC/DC, Apocalypse Dudes opens with a blast from the Young ones’ past, a For Those About To Rock allusion serving as an intro to a Turbo-charged number asking, “So you think you had a decent pizza?/So you think you had a real good pizza?/Well not like this!” before delivering an extralarge slice of cheesy cock-rock with plenty of pepperoni. As the title “Rendezvous With Anus” and the band’s Village-People-in-denim outfits hint, Turbonegro started out as Meatmen-style pranksters, but they’ve evolved into a band who kick ass more than they sing about it. Which is just another way of saying that the best rock is usually made by people who couldn’t care less whether rock’s dead, dying, or just in deep shit baby and taking a piss.