Cool Jerks Force Rhythm


Thunderbirds Are Now! are what the DNA-Mars side of the old No New York no wave compilation should have been: fast-spazz singing, guitars falling from the sky, electrobeats in a crossfire with drumbeats, appliances flying everygoddamnwhere, synths erecting towers and heaving blobs of fire—and an organ playing the sillysoul sound, like we’re 1966 and headed for the shindig.

Track One: Flapping wings, beating heavily. A female cosmonaut says something in Russian. Track Two: Diamond-hard phone blips, then the guitar hits, and the singer charges out of the gate, spitting fuzz. “I got a fflllfflldorf with no self-control.” Blips played like guitar solos. Guitar solos played like blips. Track Three: You drive directly to hysteria, then brakes squeal and you meander. So you’ve forced the rhythm, then upended it. Track Four: The hysteria bush is flowering early in the season. At dusk, a soap-opera organ gets caught in a maddening time loop. Track Five: The funny drummer. Maracas. Speed jive.

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief is more feverish than the Fever and moves with a jerky motion, like the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk,” which Track Five cops the riff from.

Then in Track Six the guitar crashes. Drum whomps the oom-whomp. “Don’t make us kick the can.” Isn’t the correct word “bucket”? Don’t make us bucket the can? Guitarist picks continuously at a cuticle, humming to himself as he does so.

Reviewing the Feelies back in ’78, John Piccarella tossed off the phrase “perpetually forced rhythm,” describing a beat as it had evolved: the Velvets going pound-pound-pound-pound in unison on “I’m Waiting for My Man” through to the Ramones doing the unison pummel against a double-timed backbeat. Piccarella’s idea was good but didn’t achieve what he’d intended, which was to differentiate the punks and protopunks from the rest of rock. Too much rock had already been pounding away similarly—e.g., almost any of the Yardbirds-Kinks rave-ups that were copied by thousands of garage and FM-rock bands, not to mention Charlie’s whacking the four-four on “Satisfaction,” Dylan’s voice hammering the beat on “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and so on—and too few of the punks were sticking to the Ramones rhythm.

Track Seven: Now here’s a gentle one, for the ladies. The mating dance of intergalactic swans, who try to nuzzle while operating cell phones. They give up the attempt, as phones are ill-equipped for feathers. Track Eight: A dignified clank, then grasshoppers scurry in and out of the singer’s mouth. The guitarist instructs them in steeplechase technique. One grasshopper, weary of chasing steeples, lights out for Hawaii, playing trumpet for a tour-boat orchestra. Track Nine: Porgie Tirebiter drops in from an old Firesign Theatre album. A saxophone flaps its arms in welcome.

Anyway, I want to liberate Piccarella’s idea by making it vaguer, making it about a feeling rather than a particular beat. How the rhythm hits you! Forced rhythm can be any rhythm, because any rhythm can be forced, whether it’s rock or ska or an Irish jig. Forced doesn’t define a particular genre so much as a strain in a lot of genres, from jazz to techno. You play it too fast or too slow or too compulsively or too rigidly. You go frenetic, or bear down, or try to mesmerize. Instead of merely getting us into a groove, you give us a groove that pulls us down or pushes us around: the Joy Division drones; the Madness kick into ska; the Contortions stampede through James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself;” and the fidget-funk of the first Talking Heads LP, before they settled into their style. Heirs to all of this, Thunderbirds Are Now! exert pressure willy-nilly, from bass grinds to quick blips.

Track 10: Requisite frantic vocals, at auctioneer’s speed. Rhythm section resembles a border collie herding mosquitoes. Track 11: The bass player insists it’s his turn to operate the steam shovel. “School’s out, oh yeah, home alone!” The steam shovel dances with the guitar in celebration. Track 12: Guitarist snaps rubber bands compulsively. Singer masks his fear by pretending to be a stuttering rockabilly. A brief respite, then someone spills a jar of electrobeats, and they clatter all over the kitchen floor.

Thunderbirds Are Now! are just one among many rockers stretching and twisting the beat (Rapture, Lightning Bolt, P.O.D.). And in the greater world people are revving and raving it up into 2step and merengue, and screwing and chopping it down to molasses. It’s all putty in our hands.