Holly Beth Vincent should have been Chrissy Hynde. Like that near-perfect Pretender, Vincent was an American expatriate desperate to play music in her native land, yet she, too, had to travel to London to finally get her Ramones-influenced band Holly and the Italians off the ground. And after her first album, 1980’s The Right to Be Italian, she should have been christened the prototypical riot grrrl. Her album of blistering punk-pop was far more memorable than anemic offerings by the Go-Go’s or the Bangles.
But it was not to be. Limited airplay, a general disdain for anything labeled “punk” and a record-buying public still convinced that disco drove the culture, guaranteed Vincent’s efforts would fall on mostly muffled ears. Distraught and still owing her record label, Virgin, another album, Vincent hooked up with producer of the moment, Mike Thorne (known for producing Wire’s early albums and for his evocative work with electronic-pop outfit Soft Cell), fired her band, employed studio musicians (including a violinist???) and turned down the high harmonic guitar fuzz, and ended up delving deep inside herself to craft Holly and the Italians, 10 songs about her own tired, tentative feelings. Like a dour, less demented Phil Specter, Thorne placed Vincent’s strong yet subtle voice inside a dense, dirge-like Wall of Sound that threatened to overwhelm the listener with its intricacy and intensity.
From the very first track—indeed the very first sound you hear—you know this is going to be a sonically complex outing. Instead of the Dee Dee-inspired countdown on Vincent’s debut album, “Honalu” starts off with a huge opening chord, a tuneful town crier announcing the new kid in town. As the bass drags us back into the rhythm, we recognize that the razor wire guitar work of The Right to Be Italian has been ditched for a lush, almost luminescent feel. Soon, a basic three-chord pattern begins and Vincent introduces her introspective meditation on fame and isolation over a plucked- string staccato, accented by trumpet.
Identity, particularly that of an individual disillusioned by the quest for fame, will be the main focus of this album. The title suggests the unresolved nature of Vincent’s feelings; she uses both her solo-artist calling card and the name of her previous band as almost interchangeable monikers. But the album is not introspective. If anything, Holly and the Italians is a work of extrospection, with Vincent presenting her fans the full panoply of stereotypes and symbols of rock excess to see which ones resonate the loudest.
On the original vinyl release (not the recent CD re-release, which alters the track sequencing substantially, destroying the thematic arc Vincent was after) the pretender to the tone throne of “Honalu” is followed by the sinister sexuality of “Dangerously”. Lamenting a lost lover, Vincent’s voice sounds tired and tentative, her studio band backing her with a percolating punk/funk menace that underlines the destructive nature of the relationship. Thorne adds ambient details throughout, mixing the drums to drown out some or all of the instrumental intricacy. Yet he also highlights the song’s beautiful bridge with a crazy cacophony of strings and keyboards, elevating the drama to dizzying heights. “Uptown” continues the ominous melancholy. As Bobby Valentino’s plaintive violin wails, Thorne’s truncheon tendencies lighten, allowing Vincent to sell the sentiment, her haunted voice wrapping around the ethereal lyric: “Uptown she’d rather be / Pretending like she used to / Forgetting everything / Remembering what she wants to.”
After the ersatz upbeat attempt at a boy-girl groove with “Cool Love” (Is Spreading Around)”, Vincent delivers a convincing coda for the first half of the album with “Just Like Me”. While the chorus “She hangs around / This girl I found / She’s just like me” seems to suggest a simple story of a kindred spirit, yet lines about lingering in bed, pulling each other close and avoiding gossip suggests alternative lifestyle leanings that were still a career-ending death sentence in 1982. Accordingly, “Just Like Me” is kept languid and loose, as easily interpreted as a call for companionship as a confession.
Side two starts with an odd choice—a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s 60s anti-war hit “For What It’s Worth.” The video for the song depicted a trench-coat clad singer avoiding ominous men out to arrest her for non-specific crimes, suggesting that Vincent may have intended a critique of the diminishing punk movement and how record labels and the media step in to rob performers of their place. With most artists feeling like felons when it comes to their demanding, dictatorial labels, Vincent’s variation on this classic seems more prescient than perplexing.
After the sonic boom of “We Danced”, the song that most resembled the original Italians incarnation (even if, as rumor has it, a backing vocal by Joey Ramone was removed at the last minute over rights issues), “Revenge” is kind of a letdown, a call-and-response rant containing too many instrumental tricks (the tiny, tinny bash of minihat hits, an irritating violin hook) to keep us grounded. Thorne’s busy backing takes away from another of Vincent’s more personal lyrics, a story of a one-time success now drowning in a sea of her own creation, and from her most powerful vocal work. Gone is the languid, almost lazy tunefulness on other songs; instead, “Revenge” reverberates with a strong, revitalized Vincent.
With “Unoriginal Sin”, Holly and the Italians reaches an emotional zenith that few albums of its era can match. From the outside, the lyrics suggest typical teen angst, something Vincent excelled at on The Right to Be Italian. The word “love” is prominent throughout the chorus, and Vincent again turns up the yearning in her voice. But something more subversive is going on here—allusions to madness, death, “all the leather in Texas” and “her lips on my skin”. Even the title tantalizes: if original sin is the weakness of the flesh, then what is Vincent singing about that makes her vice so different? Thorne’s sonic backdrop heightens the drama, a clever combination of upfront rhythms and echoing accents that constantly expand the scope of the song’s emotions. As the track builds to a careful crescendo, everything this album stands for—loss, hope, hatred, desire, sadness, confusion—are contained in a six-minute masterpiece that Vincent would never surpass.
The last song on the original release, “Samurai and Courtesan”, is an appropriate send-off, an appendix to Vincent’s various muses. The driving, pulsating pound of bass and drums is accented by muted, jangling guitars, while Holly’s lyrical allusions suggest gender roles (warrior and whore), sexual and interpersonal independence (“wild horses splashing in the surf”) and an eventual union of spirit and sensibility (the song’s couple are back in their roles of master and servant, both heading for a concept of ‘oneness’). Indeed, everything about Holly and the Italians argues for a resolution between divergent elements, be they issues of identity and self, or social standing and classification. Unlike The Right to Be Italian, which basically celebrated sex, drugs (and drug dealing) and good old American punk rock and roll, this second schizophrenic outing wants to coalesce punk and pop into a single, signature sound. It would be nice to say that Vincent parlayed the creative payoff of this album into a successful solo career. But when fans failed to support her new attitude and album, Vincent more or less disappeared.