There’s nothing messy – but plenty that’s electric – about the Electric Mess. They came into my life about 7 or 8 months ago, as though heaven-sent, when some of their core members emerged to be the “Five Hoarses” in Willy Nilly. Since then they’ve become friends and collaborators, so I make no claim of objectivity in the rave you’re about to read for their new self-titled CD. (On the other hand, just because they’re my friends doesn’t mean I’ve taken leave of my critical senses either. And, nice as they are, the odds are pretty good if they were, say, a James Taylor cover band, we wouldn’t be having this one-sided conversation).
The Electric Mess is what used to be called a garage band. These were the (mostly) one hit wonders who had their heyday circa 1965-67, and were influenced by the angriest, most primitive-sounding British groups like the early Kinks, Yardbirds, Animals and Rolling Stones (the Who didn’t really smash into the American consciousness until later in the decade). Their American muses included the recently electric Bob Dylan, and countless rockabilly and blues acts which had come before. Most of the garage bands seemed to ape the tinny, echoey sound producer Andrew Loog Oldham gave the early Stones, a crude, unpolished noise that gave the impression the musicians were playing in a garage. This, and the fact, that many of the bands were hatched in the suburbs by bored, angst-ridden middle class kids who literally practiced in the family garage, are the obvious origins of the name of the style. The uninitiated are hereby directed to the compilation album Nuggets, long the sonic Bible of all things garage.
But you no doubt know this already. I bring it up merely to put in relief the rather interesting phenomenon of five distinctly grown up people, with substantial 9-to-5 jobs, (and none of whom have garages) getting together and creating the convincing illusion that they are suburban teenagers from the LBJ era. I’ve given up asking why such miracles happen. The members of the Electric Mess will merely tell you they like this music; for whatever reason, it speaks to them. And that’s a pretty decent answer. After all, who wasn’t an angry teenager once? I often think of the classic garage tune “Just Like Romeo and Juliet”, or the Tommy James and the Shondells song “I Think We’re Alone Now” – numbers clearly inspirational to even such a non-garage artist as Bruce Springsteen. It’s an evergreen theme. Somehow or other, Shakespeare himself put himself into the shoes of Romeo and Juliet when he was already an established, well-fed Elizabethan institution.
The Electric Mess, then, are playing a role. (Viddy their unsmiling faces on the new album cover. “No need to look sullen,” said Ed Sullivan to the Doors, but sullenness, Mr. Sullivan, was their act). The original garage sound emerged organically from a specific time and place. It was a countertrend to the peace and love motif we usually associate with the 60s. And it’s remained with us, underground, ever since. “Proto-punk” is the other name given to the music. It knows no time. It is eternal. Look at Alex Cox’s version of The Revenger’s Tragedy. He didn’t “update” anything. The spirit was already there. And it’s this spirit, above all, that the Electric Mess are invoking. After all, by most measures, rock and roll has been dead for 40 or 50 years. All that has come since has been restatement, a formal exercise in a long dead form, quatrains in Latin, the stuff of Petrarch. There is no “older generation” for rock and roll musicians to rebel against. If Elvis were alive, he’d be 75 (there’s a rock couplet right there). Nowadays the divisions aren’t chronological, they’re philosophical. Half of us aspire to nothing more to making a pile of cash, or at the very least, fitting in. The other half wouldn’t mind making a pile of cash, but not at the cost of selling their souls. The promised rock and roll revolution has proven to be show biz. But so what? The frustration of youth is a legitimate and necessary color in the emotional spectrum. We can revisit it, as Shakespeare did, and activate our old bones in rhythmic sympathy. The Electric Mess is “Now” because their message is timeless.
And what’s the message? The squares were right when they first put it down: it’s one that predates civilization. It’s the sound of Angry Young Men. The message is, “I have hormones! I wanna beat somethin’! Somebody (my boss, the government, my old lady) has been lying to me, and that shit ain’t right!” I firmly believe that if the twenty-somethings of the Middle East were all to form garage bands, al Qaeda would not be a problem in the world today.
And here is where the Electric Mess gets more than interesting. Apart from the excellence of their music, the Electric Mess are also intriguing because their front “man” is actually the drag king Esther Crow, performing as Chip Fontaine. This is a level of theatricality of which Jean Genet would approve. Who can better play a beardless young angry man than a certain kind of woman? This is another turn of the screw. Patti Smith had appropriated Mick Jagger’s act, but she never said she was Mick Jagger. Yet, though Crow is an actress, I’d hesitate mightily to say that she’s an actress playing a rock and roller. The impersonation is too good. No, she is inhabiting that role, just as surely as Brando inhabits Stanley Kowalski. Her performance isn’t the act of a dilletente. She’s more authentic than most men who attempt to play the role. Which is especially ironic given the misogynistic nature of most of the material. It’s the nature of the beast, of course. Outraged bemoanings of betrayal are the fabric from which these tapestries are woven. Yet it’s a brand new kind of experience to hear a biological lady sing songs like “You’ve Become a Witch”, “Trash Talkin’ Woman”, and “Don’t Wanna Be Your Man”. It would take a commentator far more feminist than me to sort out all the complications of such a multi-layered statement. Besides, I know these guys…so I know that the only statement they’re interested in is – bottom line – “This sounds real cool”.
That’s the essence of formalism, and this is where these guys really shine. When we were seeking musicians for Willy Nilly, I’m fairly confident that I dismayed my producers with my unrealistic insistence that we find musicians who were really authentic. When it comes to this stuff, I really am a ballbreaker. You either “get it”, or you don’t. More often than not, artists purporting to capture the sound of a bygone era inadvertently pollute it with anachronistic techniques. The bass playing and vocals on the soundtrack to the film version of Hair, for example, make me crazy – they are the sounds of the wrong decade. When I was talking to the Electric Mess’s bass player Derek Davidson the other night he volunteered the same example. I hadn’t prompted him. He had merely heard what I had heard and we happen to be among the tiny minority who care. So, not surprisingly, the Electric Mess’s debut CD is authentic to the max, making zero concessions or sops to contemporary taste. It sounds like Nuggets. Pure and simple. The integrity behind it, the fidelity to a certain aesthetic is a joy to behold. “I’m not in this for the money,” Derek told me the other night. He just wants it to sound right. And it absolutely does.
So. If you like the sound of pipe organ fillips, fuzzy guitars, crashing cymbals, and songs with titles like “Mondo Bongo”, don’t bother looking backward. The Big Sound for the Future is Right Now, Baby, But You Gotta Go Right Here.