There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
unk’s not dead,” insisted graffiti once scrawled from Wisconsin Avenue to King’s Road, and for strollers on the latter the motto makes some sense. The leftist flourishes of the earliest Britpunk bands seemed merely an attempt to find some substance as confrontational as the style, but Thatcherism soon caught up with the phenomenon. After 15 years of Conservative Party rule, post-Clash city rockers face a harsh new Criminal Justice Bill that would criminalize outdoor raves and other youth-culture activities that annoy the Tory constituency. Latter-day punks and fellow travelers have counterattacked, the Family Cat with “Bring Me the Head of Michael Portillo,” a musical threat to a right-wing Member of Parliament, and SMASH with “(I Want to) Kill Somebody,” which identifies Prime Minister John Major and prominent reactionaries Jeffrey Archer and Virginia Bottomley as marked for death.
The Clashiest of the latest brigade of British neopunks, SMASH nonetheless recognizes “Kill Somebody” as a passing tantrum. It was released in July on a single that was supposed to be on sale for one day only, and is not included on the suburban London trio’s debut EP or its new album, Self-Abused. There’s little on either that’s likely to warm John Major’s chilly heart, but most of SMASH’s politics is of the personal variety. Central to these discs are “Real Surreal” and “Revisited,” tracks that appear on both in different versions. (So does a third song, “Lady Love Your Cunt”—title courtesy of Germaine Greer in her fire-breathing days—but that one’s appearance on Self-Abused is hidden and uncredited.)
Both tunes are about one of the band’s principal inspirations, the suicide of a pal of singer/lyricist/guitarist Ed (semisecret surname: Borrie). “Back to where my friend died,” are the first words of “Revisited No. 5” and of Self-Abused, while “Real Surreal,” which opens the EP, spins the same subject more obliquely: “You were real surreal man/And it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand/That a table’s not a table/It’s a chair you said/And I’m not sad and you’re not dead.”
Though “Altruistic” ‘s apocalyptic claim that “If my dreams aren’t realized/I realize I am a future suicide” rings false, these songs’ frank longing for a lost friend is characteristic. Drunk on its own guitar swagger, the trio is sometimes grandiose: “Barrabas” sprints through some offbeat biblical interpretations, “Reflections of You” howls that “my endorphins taste like heroin,” and the heartbroken “Drugs Again” concludes that “I could only be one or the other/A junkie or a lover.” (And does Ed really begin “Another Love” with “Bob Dylan sucks my dick”?) But most of these songs are personal and humane, reflecting a desire for intimacy that doesn’t turn sour even when it fails. Such breakup songs as “Oh Ovary” (SMASH thinks childbearing is cool) don’t stoop to misogyny, and “Reflections of You” insists that “there’s something of you in everything I do.”
The album was supervised by one-time Wedding Present producer Chris Allison, and it sometimes emulates that band’s surging dynamics and even, on “Bang Bang Bang,” its melodic style. Both the original “Real Surreal” and the expanded one on the album are basic Raw Power, but most of Self-Abused‘s songs are trickier than that; this isn’t the nursery-rhyme punk of Green Day and the like. Working with the basic rock-trio instrumentation and some canny backing vocals, the trio has given these songs depth and sweep to rival their punch. (Not until that clandestine “Cunt” does an extra instrument become prominent, and it’s just a piano.) At first, the album may seem to storm past at a blurry velocity, but repeated listenings reveal diverse textures.
That reflects the significant growth from SMASH to Self-Abused. The band’s early work showed it capable of playing urgent but ordinary punk songs, either plugged or unplugged—and sometimes with a quick transition from one mode to the other. There are a lot more transitions on the new album, however, with guitar noise that approaches the lyrical and Salv’s rattling bass invoking funk and dub. (The official bio says the members of the trio met while all coincidentally buying copies of the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack,” although other accounts dispute this.) If Self-Abused isn’t as galvanizing as The Clash, that’s partially because such intricate tracks as “Altruism” and the title tune are already galloping in the direction of Sandinista!—overreaching and overstated, but smart, powerful, and even visionary.
Although they’re the first rockers banned by a British town council since the Sex Pistols, SMASH labelmates These Animal Men reject the term “punk,” and have substituted one of their own: “collision-pop.” With their interest in sports togs and amphetamines, the Men owe a few things to mod, but they haven’t studied the Pete Townshend songbook as carefully as Paul Weller did. Indeed, the Men’s taste for punk that goes pop—along with a resemblance between the voices of Pete Shelley and TAM’s Boag on songs like “You’re Always Right”—suggests the Buzzcocks more than the Jam (though I’d guess they’ve heard the Only Ones too, and not just for the “Another Girl Another Planet” intro to “Flawed Is Beautiful”).
TAM’s sloganeering (and eye makeup) is more obvious than SMASH’s, and its early output can easily be reduced to the two songs that begin the band’s introductory EP, Too Sussed?: the title track and “Speeed King,” a hymn to the quartet’s favorite drug. Those two are melodic and suitably expedited, but the pop moves of songs like “Jobs for the Boys” are dubious: Neither lines like “Don’t have to wait until that second time/Before you commit your sex crime” nor the limp “la-la-la” ‘s underpinning them are convincing.
The Men have pursued those questionable instincts with (Come on Join) the High Society, their debut album, to surprisingly cogent effect. Originally set to be released in the U.S. this month but now scheduled for January, the album was produced by Dave Eringa, who did the Manic Street Preachers’ arena-punk Gold Against the Soul. (Lately the Manics seem to be following TAM, notably with a single titled “Faster.”) Bigger on crescendos than collisions, songs like “Empire Building” and “Ambulance” boast melodies as lush as their sound, and both recall the first golden age of British production-pop, the late ’60s.
TAM still does the fast, short, would-be anthemic ones such as “Sharp Kid” and “This Is the Sound of the Youth,” but they sound as much like early Sweet as early Generation X or Sham 69; the title song is Boomtown Rats or post-Bowie Mott the Hoople, which means just a step or two away from Queen. Like Blur, the Men seem interested in any period in which British pop was a worldbeater, whether Merseybeat or glitter or punk.
This is a less assured (and less felt) work than Self-Abused, and there are some things the band attempts here that it should just forget; it utterly fails to pull off reggae, for example, even just for a short bridge of the audaciously titled “This Year’s Model.” Still, the album finds the quartet’s music frequently upstaging its poses, which isn’t something that could have been predicted on the basis of Too Sussed? The messages of songs like “Ambulance” may be shallow, but their glossy tunefulness verges on the profound.
SMASH appears Nov. 1 at the 9:30 Club.