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If Punks Ran the Disco

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"Dear God: I knew you would eventually punish music geeks my age for the garage-rockabilly-retro faddism we have committed, and I was ready for the lash. Still, don't you think turning the music underground into one long flashback to the junior-high dance is laying it on a little thick?" On the other side of the Abbey Pub's bathroom door, the pitiless DJ pitched another 80s pop smash into my fiery pit. He was a very old-school DJ: he seemed to believe "mixing" still means "when one recording ends, put on another and start cheering for it."

"DANCE!" commanded DJ Beelzebub.

"WHOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" roared the lake of fake IDs, and I was off on another slog down memory lane, starring Olivia Newton-John as Virgil.

Inspecting the bags under my eyes, I handed out a smoke to an extremely wired 20-year-old who claimed to be homeless, but my samaritan gesture brought me no mercy, only louder mass karaoke from the leg-warmered, fingerless-gloved, dragon-suit-sporting crowd outside. At that moment I'd have taken Jerry Falwell's Special Room for Homos over the retro-trash inferno aptly named the Rusty Nails Movieside Dance Party.

I was there for headliners Gravy Train!!!!, a dancing, rapping, synth-banging quartet of personas named Chunx, Funx, Drunx, and Hunx, who hid backstage throughout the openers. Though they're fond of fishnet and ass boogies and averse to instruments of string and skin (dead skin, anyway), they're a real band all right; the only song among the poppy treats on these sleazebags' album, Hello Doctor, that they didn't write from scratch is a parody of karaoke-as-art. Their merch guys, thirtysomethings who joked that they'd heard the same ten songs every night of the tour, insisted that Gravy Train!!!! ain't electroclash: "They're just lumped in with the scene."

The show started at nine. As I waltzed in at ten-thirty a band of pretties was playing with a wall of feedback that would've bored an 18-year-old on acid; the crowd watched with fittingly folded arms. But when the first retro DJ got on, the underground kids started screaming for the worst crap that ever swamped the radio. Whuh? Did Cobain bang all that smack for naught? Thinking this a brief intermission, I hid in the bathroom, just like I did back when this stuff was big in a nonironic way. Since my dad insisted on oldies in the car, bless him, I've rarely heard an 80s dance hit without a backup chorus of flushing crappers. If you're going to have a flashback, you may as well go all the way.

I had been enjoying Hello Doctor just fine in the sanatorium of my apartment, where plenty of work wanted attention. So why was I here? Morbid curiosity, of course, plus a hypocritical good-sport spirit born solely of my reluctance to admit that "those damn kids" may no longer be a phrase that applies to me. Most important, the album backs up the merch guys' claim: Gravy Train!!!! ain't electroclash. They're punk rock. And the best time to see a punk rock band is when you're infatuated with their debut platter.

Arguably electroclash itself is a branch or part product of punk. Sure, the scene half-seriously celebrates crap an 80s rocker would've pitched garlic at, but the aesthetic tie is there and was on full display that night. There were spikes and collars and ripped shirts (mostly prefab, but the 24-karat safety pin will always be with us); the party's ringmaster advertised the Dickies on his chest. And original electroclash music is catchy and noisy. And lo, the politics: between acts the ringmaster reminded the audience to revolt or something, and the Pink Bloquers were there with their standard-issue feminism, though wearing their uniform tees tight. Also political humor: between DJs we saw short films, one a Teletubbies parody wherein Bush II appears as the face of the sun and blasts fire from his eyes at fuzzy bunnies.

The good little punk scenester has long been saddled with the obligation to display radical (or at least real screamy liberal) politics, the shrillest harpers being hipsters who aren't musicians, or aren't very clever ones. But who ever heard of a good little punk rocker? There are some damn fine political punk tunes, but they're not dutiful message songs (see Anti-Flag, if you remember 'em): they're rather a product of personal frustration and confusion (see Stiff Little Fingers' "Tin Soldiers" or the Dils' "I Hate the Rich" or the New Bomb Turks' "Born Toulouse-Lautrec"), and they tend to be simple and danceable. Rail against the man all you like--punk's best and worst contributions to music have always sprung from a reactionary spirit. As glam-punk revivalists the Black Halos proclaimed way back in 1999, with perverse glee: "Round and round and round it goes / Getting harder to shoot my load / Nothing's really dangerous, it's a retro world!"

By reactionary I don't mean "smash an immigrant with your Les Paul," of course, I mean "don't fix what ain't broke." The Ramones' achievement wasn't daring to say "fuck the man"--they'd have needed a Tardis to beat Ben Franklin to the punch in bringing rebellion to American pop culture. The Ramones shone rather in their wussy intuition that the Shirelles had it right already: keep it simple, stupid, both musically and politically. The idea's practical (a simple song structure works better than a puzzler because more people can understand it) and Zen: If you try to write a great song about a political issue, you'll express only desire to write a great song about a political issue. Furrow your brow instead over the rock-song format, and any personal rage against the machine will erupt organically, since playing hard music is a perfect physical vent for hostility. If you're an angry bastard, what comes out may not be Maoist but skinhead or Screeching Weasel; if you aren't full of p 'n' v after all, you might as well generate genuine fun.

What ain't broke in music is subjective. But there's keeping it simple, and then there's sentimentality. Electroclashers themselves would likely admit, with that so-bad-it's-good smirk, that their songs--carelessly stitched from scraps of easily remembered material--aren't much more than an excuse to dress up in the outfits their cool aunts wore to school. It makes sense that films get screened at an electroclash happening, which itself is more like a D & D version of The Breakfast Club than a rock show.

And electroclash's form of fantasy playacting seems a harmless, if annoying, way for nonmusicians to feel deeply included in the scene. Where punk band leaders tell envious half- or non-assed artists to blow off I-wanna-be-a-star steam by starting their own bands (and thus clogging the market with ill-conceived waste and Fugazi covers), all the DJ asked of the kids was to get up onstage in their funny clothes and dance. Rather a relief. I just didn't think they could keep enjoying such a loud one-note gag for hours.

But why are they Gravy Train!!!! fans? (Lumped in with the scene or not, the band got by far the best audience response of the night.) If you like punk rock, Gravy Train!!!! seem such obvious ringers in this crowd. I expected their live act to reveal them as standard-bearers for Ramones-style formalism (the kind I've always dug, as in "I dig," as in maybe my problem with 80s music isn't that I'm old but that I think my dad is cool): the belief that basic pop-rock song structures are good enough for just about anybody. That it isn't innovation for its own sake that counts, it's mastering your humble craft. That, in fact, it's best to cultivate a Neanderthal facade and then nail that unforgettable hook no one figured you could.

And ooooooooh yeah. In the middle of explaining to some cute blonds why I was chain-smoking in the bathroom, the beat of "Hella Nervous"--not Gravy Train!!!!'s best song but a driving set opener--sent me screaming onto the dance floor. Like most songs on Hello Doctor, it's a sub-four-minute minidrama of lust: here band leader Chunx, a hot, bitchy bottle redhead, segues from biting her nails with desire for the tall guy with a small wiener who's sucking her muff "like a vacuum cleaner" to seething with jealousy over an ass-challenged female rival to hitting on the rival herself. The other songs slide further into kink: humping pews, semiconsensual three-ways, fruitful mating with hamburgers.

As I'd hoped, the band played most of the synth lines in real time onstage, accurately reproducing the manic stoopid polish of the album while thickening the sound. And as a front man Chunx has all the suck-me Catholic-girl charisma of Holly Vincent without the coy power-pop preciousness. Better still the gang rotates duties, dancing, humping, singing, and pounding out chords; freakishly tall Hunx or blond amazon Drunx will lean over Funx (the comparatively mousy lead keyboardist) to play a duet with her like they're a bunch of monkeys all trying to hide behind the same tree. The lewd interpretive dances share the deceptive looseness of the music: the players seem as wasted and horny as their characters, but they hit their marks together. Ironically Drunx--who has almost no track credits on the album and sucks at a beer bottle for the duration of the show--stands out though she rarely says a word. If she's half as pissed-up as her shtick suggests, the way she still nails beats and poses inspires a twisted admiration.

They're all such pros that their feigned ineptitude is funny as hell. Rap cascades are followed by forced rhymes like "Doesn't it feel goo-ood / With a lady and a dood?"; the vocals on the karaoke parody are not out of tune but sung in a different key from the accompaniment--such a blatant pisstake on the electroclash ethos that I can't believe Gravy Train!!!! is welcome at this crowd's party. "Punks" who are proud of being truly incompetent aren't getting the joke.

Still, electroclashers have done prep-school punk one better--and more bearable--by taking the politics out of the lyrics entirely, giving lip service only when they aren't actually playing. They don't pose as the oppressed; they insist they're unassailably happy with a noseful of blow and are, further, entitled to snort it as pointlessly as they want as long as someone in the room is sporting a No Blood for Oil shirt.

And hiding in this scene Gravy Train!!!! do the Ramones two better in the 60s-girl-band-emulation department. They aren't just sissies, they're a cocksucker and a bunch of girls; plus, though like the Ramones they assert masculinity through competence, they abandon the Ramones' attempt to claim forefathers via too-blatant updates of Beach Boys songs (by which "In My Room" becomes "Sitting in My Room"). Instead the heroine of "Hella Nervous" brings a butch tool to bear on the girlish jealousy of "It's My Party" (the Leslie Gore song it sounds like): she uses her own lusty gaze to steamroll around the problem, claiming the feared rival as another sex toy for herself.

OK, so Gravy Train!!!! can, in 2003, still bend gender without putting you to sleep. But how else is this band punk? ask the housebound rockers to whom I'm still those damn kids. They could also be the world's gayest rap band--only that funky beat's just too damn aggro. (Oof, did I just call Public Enemy somebody's punk? Better lock the door, Chuck D'll come to bonk me in the head with his nerd specs from junior high.) In my teens I read innumerable zine rants penned by people old enough to have something better to do than argue over whether an apolitical band that didn't bring guitars onstage--there are a couple electric guitar lines on Hello Doctor, but not enough to make dragging a rig on tour worthwhile--could possibly be deemed punk. This debate tends to brings out other criteria of punkitude, and I can't think of one Gravy Train!!!! is missing: energy, short songs, bad attitude, booze abuse, pseudosloppiness, a low-budget aesthetic with high entertainment value, flamboyance, and a rabid fan base (take a peek at the message board on their Web site) despite mainstream critical inattention or slights.

The last seems important, and Gravy Train!!!! nail it: the Onion preview I read of this show sounded hopeful that the stage performance would carry the songs, which, the reviewer complained, are all about sex and food. How's that for a simpleton pose to fool the squares? Yes, the lyrics are about food, of which all mammals must consume obscene amounts, and sex, to which most humans at least aspire. Trivialities or universal themes? If he still cared, Richard Meltzer would have a field day with that one. I say they swim the river Punk. What's more, they add a ripple as they go beyond obliterating the distinction between boy and girl bands to hacking away at the one between het punk and queercore. I guess these kids have something like sexual preferences, but their stage personas are eager to molest anybody cute and willing to spread.

So yep, it was all I'd hoped for and less: the set, begun half an hour before bar time, was too short for thirsty ears. Maybe this was the openers' fault, but maybe they were allowed to drag on for a reason--Gravy Train!!!! hasn't got much in the way of a catalog. Lazy bastards or obsessive rewriters and choreographers? Or "leave 'em wanting more"? I'm such a square I can't decide. After a screamed-for wee encore, party people and rockists alike got kicked to the sidewalk, where to my surprise there was no standing around cawing about what a great show we'd seen. After great punk shows at O'Cayz Corral in Madison, before the venerable hole burned down, I remember standing in the street for a good hour, screaming praises and copping feels. Outside the Abbey the kids just got in their cars or cabs and zoomed away from me: if the party was still going it was going elsewhere.

Then last weekend, my affair with Gravy Train!!!! was interrupted when a friend basically bribed me to drag my ass out again and go see a band called the Epoxies, a rapid-fire pop-rocking guitar-synth-bass unit led by Roxy Epoxy, the warmest-hearted new-wave princess ever to grace a stage. Holy fucking shit, I thought, as I was rendered speechless for the fifth song straight: the torch has been passed--to a band that actually plays on a punk roster, so they don't have to hide out backstage and develop (understandably) bitchy personas. And it became obvious that electroclash has given us yet another boon: having found a common enemy in the underground, the Epoxies' punk, goth, and new-wave impulses can play in the same sandbox without spitting in each other's eyes. Electroclash, you have reunited the real aliens. Merci.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Danielle Jackson.

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