I have to be honest and say that conventional electric blues has always left me cold. At one extreme indulgent guitar noodling topped and tailed by tried and tested song structures, at the other musicians singing about how tough they had it on the streets and a limo parked round the back of the venue. There has, however, been a wonderful re-invention of the genre in recent years by bands such as Bite The Buffalo, The Greasy Slicks and Blindman’s Bastion that has seen it blown apart with an infusion of garage band swagger, punk attitude and scuzzy re-invention. Now you can add Them Dead Beats to that list.
Like their contemporaries mentioned above, they have taken the heart of the genre, the mechanics and the soul of the music and injected it with a dose of steroids, speed and industrial strength lager to create a break away movement which, whilst tipping its hat to the music that gave it birth, expresses itself in much more muscular, ragged and raging terms.
Them Dead Beats are what might have happened if punk had originated in New Orleans in the fifties or if Robert Johnson had gone to a London art college in the mid seventies, a glorious glimpse of alternative history and a wonderful hybrid of genres, places and times. On the surface you could argue that it is hardly breaking new ground, but I disagree. It is not by storming barricades that change happens, it is by re-energising existing formats, by running genres headlong into each other and seeing what survives the fallout and also by not being too reverential about your chosen musical field. They say familiarity breeds contempt. Good!
The other day I was asked why a local gig guide I write never featured any blues artists. As I reeled off a number of live shows that featured bands with blues elements that I had written about, the reply in each case was “that isn’t blues, that’s rock” or something similarly dismissive. In hindsight I realise that it was the age-old case of a blue purest and someone with a wider generic brief trying to find common ground. Never going to happen. To me blues should be dark and dirty, earthy and emotive, raw and if required, raucous. Just like Gold Phoenix. Admittedly they make blues in the same way people like The Jim Jones Revue make blues or like the MC5 made rock and it is in just such a primordial stew that this 5 track EP has been steeped.
A snarling soundclash of balls to the wall, riotous rock and roll and thrashed out blues grooves, the result feels like an unreconstructed gang of tearaways that might have been making music at any time since “teenage music” first arrived in the 1950’s to terrify parents everywhere. If you want a quick taster of the scope of the band then Mortal Man, the song that closes the e.p. says as much about Gold Phoenix as you will need, a slow burning, emotive paean to the limitations of the human condition and one that eventually burns out in it’s own intense blaze of glory.
All the other songs sit somewhere along that same grunged blues – garage rock axis, swinging one way then the other but being fully aware of what they do best and sticking to the formula. And that said it’s a formula that has served contemporary music well for the last sixty years so why look to change it now, especially when you can still use it to turn out songs that are this great, this raw, this brutally down to earth. I thought that The Greasy Slicks were the only young band not ashamed to take all the things that, in my non-purest opinion, made blues great, but I can now add Gold Phoenix to the short list.
If I’m honest I was at their gig mainly to catch support act The Greasy Slicks, a band that seemed to channel that same retro-rock/blues collision that Burning Tree did so well. But even on a cold, Monday night in the parochial backwaters of a West Country railway town, Swindon to be exact, music can still remind you it pays to keep delving into dark corners in search of your next favourite band. The fact that even in my impoverished state I came away clutching a handful of merchandise, including a vinyl album not even by them, says something about how much of a musical high I was on.
Recently I have been trying to write one line reviews in my head whilst watching live bands, theirs went something along the lines of “Paul Westerberg being clubbed to death in a back alley by The MC5,” and I think as a soundbite that tells you all you need to know. But let me expand.
This is blues ramped up and rocked out and put through the blender. It’s garage rock that tips its hat more to The Sonics than Sonic Youth. It’s punk by people who actually bothered to learn their craft. And they learnt it well. As a live outfit they look the part. To us Brits, this is what a band from the American underground should look like. Part truck stop grime, part bohemian mystique, part struggling muso, part street corner hustler. And not only do they look the part, they sound it too and thankfully the raw fury of their live show is captured on this album.
Okay, they aren’t reinventing the wheel and you may say that you have heard this all done before. Maybe, but I would argue that you haven’t heard it done as well as this before. One of my yardsticks for judging music from this noisy end of the spectrum is to ask myself “ What would Lester Bangs think?” I reckon he would love it…or not, you could never tell with that fickle old bastard.
A couple of observations. Music that you readily relate too often has an element of the familiarity about it. Nothing ever changes but the shoes. Uh? What I am getting it is that when you put on a night of live music featuring young, fashionable, cutting edge bands, it is great to realise that the band that played to the biggest crowd, had the most purchased CD of the night , the band on most peoples lips were one who were effectively channelling a long tradition of electric blues rock given only the gentlest tweak for the modern market. That band were The Greasy Slicks.
Whilst so many bands are looking to create their own sound through convoluted vocal styles and cross genre fusions with an eye on the fickle fashion of the youth market, The Greasy Slicks wear their “art on their sleeve”. It is a sound that has been wielded before from the likes of BB King to Led Zeppelin to Burning Tree to The Hoax, proving that great music does stand the test of time and people serious about such music, no matter how complex their hair style or how skinny their jeans can’t help but be drawn to it.
The three tracks on their latest release, Into The Night, tells you everything that you need to know as it moves from Page-esque muscle riffs on the title track to the country punk beats of Messing With My Head to the more chilled and contemporary Wild Ones, all with total ease.
There is a famous quote that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But I would add that those who do remember the past are free to take its finest moments, hone and refine them and use them to build bridges into the future. The Greasy Slicks do just that.