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The Boston Phoenix Hard As Hell

Gluecifer, the Hellacopters, and Nashville Pussy reclaim the legacy of rock and roll

By Carly Carioli

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  After "Smells like Teen Spirit," the term "hard rock" fell quickly out of favor and into a period of marked disuse, largely because teen spirit suddenly smelled a lot better than it used to. Heavy metal would eventually survive in cockroach-after-the-Apocalypse fashion; but hard rock, on the other foot, began to fester like a pair of old sweaty socks hastily ditched in a gym locker.

In the popular imagination, Nirvana's triumph in 1991 became a delayed vindication of punk's failure in 1977, and in the rush to rewrite the history books in punk's favor, the dialectical view kicked hard rock -- Zeppelin, too bloated; Floyd, too soft-druggy; AC-DC, too Australian -- to the curb. The result: a decade that ended, on the radio at least, a lot more boring than it began.

So when in 1997 the Norwegian band Gluecifer declared themselves not only a hard-rock band but in turn the "#1 Kings of Rock," they were making a conscious distinction between themselves and the recent history of rock and roll -- and one that was not completely unfounded. In America, punk generally means Blink-182 and MxPx if you listen to the radio, or Avail and Blanks '77 if you're a regular visitor to the all-ages circuit. Either way, a certain entrenched orthodoxy is the order of the day. If the tempo meter and Marshall rush on Gluecifer's '97 breakthrough Ridin' the Tiger (White Jazz, import; it still hasn't been released in the US) read punk, there was also an undeniable breach of decorum in the riffs and fiery guitar solos lifted from Kiss and Mötley Crüe -- and maybe even from some of their fluffier-haired bretheren. This was a conscious effort to rewrite the secret canon of underground rock and roll, where the winners hadn't ultimately been the Sex Pistols and Nirvana but Ted Nugent, Glenn Danzig, and Zodiac Mindwarp -- all of 'em, right up to Gluecifer themselves, rightful heirs to the legacies of Chuck Berry, Angus Young, Keith Richards, Lemmy Kilmister, and Ron Asheton. And there's no small irony in the fact that in the year 2000, the label currently responsible for bringing Gluecifer to the attention of US audiences -- via the band's first contemporaneous US album, Tender Is the Savage -- is Sub Pop, the same one to lay most of the groundwork for Nevermind.

In addition to Gluecifer, Sub Pop also has the Hellacopters -- whose 1996 debut, Supershitty to the Max, launched the current wave of Scandinavian rock-and-roll excellence -- and is the distributor for the Scooch Pooch label, which boasts discs by Norway's Retardos and Peepshows as well as Sweden's Backyard Babies. This last band, with former Hellacopters guitarist Dregen, injected the gutter glam of Guns N' Roses into the working-class hard-luck punk of Social Distortion on their 1997 album Total 13 (re-released in the US in 1999); the result was one of the best unsung discs of last year. Dregen also cooked up a live-in-the-studio EP under the name Supershit 666 with Hellacopters frontman Andersson, producer Tomas Skogsberg, and singer Ginger Wildheart of early-'90s UK glam-grunge holdouts the Wildhearts. And though the Supershit disc is mostly inspired noise, Wildhearts bassist Danny McCormack has a new band called the Yo-Yo's -- their debut, Uppers and Downers, is on Sub Pop, natch -- who sound like a cross between Def Leppard and English oi!-pop vets the Toy Dolls, with a glistening summery sheen and multi-part backing harmonies out of the Mutt Lange playbook.

It's getting hard to keep track of all the players without a playbook. In the span of four years, the stylistic leap made by the Hellacopters and Gluecifer has spawned a vast international underground bolstered by easier access to imports via the Web. The largest effort to date to document this particular movement has been the Caroline-distributed Tee Pee Records' 13-volume CD-compilation series A Fistful of Rock N Roll, of which six volumes have rolled out so far, with more coming every other month into 2001. The series was put together by Sal Canzonieri, guitarist for the ridiculously prolific New Jersey garage-punk band Electric Frankenstein, who assembled about a third of the series's 195 tracks by visiting MP3.com, typing in searches for "MC5" and "New York Dolls" under "influences," and scouring the results. What he's come up with is something like an instant Nuggets or Pebbles or any of the other multi-volumed compilations of amateur '60s garage bands -- though here we have a thing still in motion, compiled as much from existing CDs and singles as from unsigned nobodies floating in the digital ether. The first half-dozen volumes include tracks by the Quadrajets, Murder City Devils, the Toilet Boys (recently signed to Roadrunner), D Generation, the Black Halos, the Gaza Strippers, Zeke, the Supersuckers, Streetwalkin' Cheetahs, the Dwarves, the Lazy Cowgirls, the Go!, the Upper Crust, Zen Guerrilla, the Bobbyteens, Gluecifer, Hellride, Turbonegro, and the Nitwitz -- none of whom is completely unknown. But there are new discoveries from all over the globe -- from Italy and Spain and Germany and France; from Bloomington, Indiana, and Huntsville, Alabama, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania; from Australia to Toronto and from Finland to New York City. Exactly what unites all these folks remains somewhat elusive, although Canzonieri and his cohort spend dozens of column inches in the liner notes trying to nail it down.

"Punk rock and roll," writes Canzonieri, coining a phrase, "has emerged as a genre of music that seamlessly mixed together both heavy hard rock song writing and raw punk rock energy . . . spanning across metal, punk, and garage rock fans and uniting them into a single entity . . . with stoner rock to its left and street punk to its right." Leaving aside the bad style and some not-quite-accurate history, you can see what Canzonieri's after -- a broad new formula and a subtle historical revision that restore the unpopular hard rock that got purged when grunge moved in. "Punk rock & roll and I are both children of the late '60s," writes Joe "Tex" Selby in the notes to Volume 5. "We're both products of an era in history when the world around us was basically on the verge of literal collapse. And, like me, punk rock & roll doesn't always like to own up to the truth about all of its ancestors and will only acknowledge those forebears that are either flattering or amusing."

Tex seems to be describing garage punk before the Hellacopters' Supershitty, an album modeled -- by the band's own admission -- directly on riffs from Kiss, AC/DC, and the obscure Stooges/MC5 spinoff called Sonic's Rendezvous Band, whose scant official output (one single) was at the time completely out of print. Implicit in the success or at least the novelty of the Hellacopters -- and of Gluecifer and Turbonegro and the Backard Babies, the frontline wave of the Scandinavian invasion -- is that hard rock had become as rarefied a taste, and as rarefied a discipline, as punk was in the hard-rock '80s, that even the actual Kisses and Iggy Pops of the world had lost confidence in the tenets of their craft, and so a restoration was in order.

The Hellacopters abandoned the metallic distorto-overload white heat of their first two albums and began chasing down the idiomatic, blues-tempered hard rock staked out in the post-Stooges, pre-punk Detroit of the '70s by Bob Seger and the Rendezvous Band -- a lost language if ever there was one. Leaner than the boogie metal of Fu Manchu and looser than anything that has passed for punk in 20 years, the 'Copters were practically a no-frills jam band -- a description that would've also fit the '73 Stones -- on their last full length, Grande Rock. In the past year they've regained a little fire in the belly and become, at times, something like a Sonic's Rendezvous Band reunion, with SRB guitarist/songwriter Scott Morgan joining for a couple of excellent singles; Morgan also fronts the Hydromatics, a side outfit featuring members of the Hellacopters and fellow Scandinavians the Nitwitz.

In the meantime, it's been left to Gluecifer and an army of next-generation practitioners to carry the banner for the metallic hard-rock/punk fusion the Hellacopters ignited four years ago. Produced by punk veteran Daniel Rey, Gluecifer's Tender Is the Savage is the best of the recent lot, with a flair for sharp, concise hooks and arena-ready flash -- like a less hallucinogenic Monster Magnet -- and singer Biff Malibu evoking a little worn-weary Robert Plant, a little Rob Tyner white-souled call-and-response. Waiting in the wings, without an American record deal as yet, are the Hellacopters' Swedish labelmates Psychopunch, whose We Are Just As Welcome As Holy Water in Satan's Drink (White Jazz, import) punctuates AC/DC-styled riffage with some of the best pop-metal hooks to come down the pike since the Offspring.

Although Sub Pop has thrown its lot in with the Scandinavians, and the audience for hard rock/punk rock and roll is growing, it's difficult to imagine any kind of Nirvana-like uprising. In part, that's because rock and roll is no longer the dominant sound of young America -- hello, Ms. Spears and Mr. Shady -- and because the kind of rock and roll made by the Hellacopters, as well as by their American counterparts, can seem a kind of syndrome of premature middle age. The Hangmen -- who come the closest to an American version of the Scandinavian rock version of American hard rock -- had been kicking around Los Angeles since the mid '80s, playing a cross between Sunset Strip leather metal and Hollywood punk and releasing a couple of forgotten, watered-down albums on Capitol. Frontman Bryan Small spent a decade persevering through revolving-door line-ups and a heavy drug habit, recovering just in time to take advantage of a rock-and-roll underground almost perfectly suited to his abilities. The first two tracks on Metallic I.O.U. (out this Tuesday on Acetate Records) -- a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Stooges' semi-official final-gig bootleg Metallic K.O. -- strikes a tone between the Supersuckers' sneering and the kind of snotty, sleazy, coked-up Chuck Berry riffs that used to be a dime a dozen on Hollywood Boulevard. The second half of the disc sounds as if Mudhoney had grown up in glitzy LA instead of flannel Seattle -- the mirrored road grunge left untraveled.

Like Small and Hellacopters frontman Nick Andersson -- who'd already enjoyed a decade-long career in the well-established Swedish heavy-metal band Entombed -- Nashville Pussy leader Blaine Cartwright hit upon his fusion of Motörheaded speedpunk late in life, after spending several fruitless years playing guitar in a decent but almost entirely ignored hillbilly trash-punk band called Nine Pound Hammer. Cartwright envisioned Nashville Pussy as an old-fashioned rock-and-roll revue of the type once headed up by James Brown and Ike & Tina Turner and Kiss -- a well-paced, seamlessly rehearsed pyrotechnic spectacle. The Nashville Pussy stage show -- a little fireblowing, a little lesbo smooching, a lot of cleavage -- was exactly that, and if you didn't know what was coming, it would scramble your eggs and knock your knees into next week. The second time you saw them, it was like a Broadway show.

As a result, it was easy to downplay their debut album, Let Them Eat Pussy (Amphetamine Reptile, later reissued on Mercury), and even easier to ignore their second album, High As Hell (on TVT; a Grammy nomination couldn't keep Mercury from dropping them, even as Ryko/Palm Pictures snapped up Pussy imitators Speedealer). That High As Hell is a much better album -- stretching out into Skynyrd-inspired Southern-rock rave-ups, tightening the corners of their foursquare hick-punk tantrums -- has been of little consequence. They've been repeatedly paired on the road with heavy-metal bands and the accompanying teenage audiences -- Marilyn Manson, Slipknot's "Tattoo the Earth" festival -- without really connecting. (The only bill they seemed to fit over the past couple years was a small-club tour with Motörhead and Gluecifer; worse, firebreathing bassist Corey Parks recently threw in the towel.) The smashmouth rock and roll that Nashville Pussy, the Hellacopters, and much of the punk-rock-and-roll crowd remember as the soundtrack to their innocent youth has yet to spawn a true turn-of-the-century equivalent. So much so that these days Eric Oblivian, of the late Memphis trash-bluesmen the Oblivians (another unsung punk-rock-and-roll band who died without attracting much of an audience), runs a label called Goner, and the label has a slogan that reflects as well as any the new reality of the teen-pop- and rap-metal-dominated marketplace: "If the kids don't hate it, it ain't rock and roll." By that measure, Nashville Pussy might be the best rock-and-roll band on the planet.

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