A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … there was no public discussion of same-gender marriage, Ellen DeGeneres was an obscure, closeted stand-up comic, TV shows with the term “queer” in the title were non-existent, and Matt Shepherd hadn’t yet encountered Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. No, this wasn’t the Protestant Reformation, but rather the blink-of-an-eye-close early ‘90s. The US economy was foundering in the wake of the Cold War’s implosion, early adopters browsed the Web, and AIDS was a frighteningly precise death sentence for its victims.
Into this atmosphere bounced the delightfully naughty songs of Pansy Division, a pop-punk quartet formed in the City by The Bay in 1991, embodying a nascent movement in rock some would label “queercore”, in that it featured openly gay musicians singing about their lives in sometimes graphic language, boldly going where the recording industry did not want to go. Pansy Division joined other outfits like Extra Fancy, Slojack – whom I saw live in 1997 – and Fifth Column as brazen buccaneers testing the limits of what rock fans would tolerate. In Mike Carmona’s documentary Pansy Division: Life In A Gay Rock Band, just out on DVD, the band’s long, bittersweet odyssey is revealed for the first time, and it’s essential viewing for trend-following pop culture vultures.
Pansy Division – their name possibly a satirical derivation of the fabled Joy Division – came together as a byproduct of the distaste the members felt for the dominant musical influences of young homosexual men: throbbing disco and Broadway show tunes. Founder Joe Ginoli envisioned an outfit drawing instead on the Buzzcocks, Ramones, and early Lennon/McCartney. These guys wanted to rock, but without jettisoning their gay sensibilities, and decided they had to fashion their own unique soundtrack.
Lead vocalist and Peoria native Joe Ginoli, guitarist Joe Reader, and bass player Chris Freeman crafted a simple, elemental power-pop, often playing fast enough to be labeled “punk”, and wedded this sound to lyrics equally joyful and salacious, recording their first album as a demo. With snarky, post-modern ditties like “Bill and Ted’s Homosexual Adventure” and “Rock ‘n Roll Queer Bar” – a hilarious redux of the Ramones’ chestnut – the band accepted that major label attention was as likely as a Miami blizzard.
Still, there was interest from pioneering San Francisco-based indie label OutPunk Records, and the band embarked on a 23-day tour in 1993. Not surprisingly, their lyrical content made them politically dangerous at that time, and the boys felt a bit of apprehension, stoked by hostile audience hecklers at a few gigs.
The sun shined on them, however, and a steadily growing fan base drew the attention of the much larger Lookout Records, who had in their stable soon-to-be superstars Green Day. In fact, Billie Joe’s band recruited Pansy Division as an opening act for their global 1994 jaunt, and this proved a watershed event for the group. By the end of this tour, Pansy Division had played the legendary Madison Square Garden, noticed a dramatic rise in record sales, and were mentioned by Kurt Loder in an MTV “Music News” report. None of this prevented audience jarheads from taunting the band in many cities, however.
Soon after, their next disc, Pileup – amazingly, the first released on CD – hit stores, and the band’s videos were placed in rotation on MTV’s late-night “alternative rock” showcase “120 Minutes”. Pansy Division then sent up the AC/DC classic “For Those About to Rock, We Salute You”, with “For Those About to Suck Cock”, hilariously packaged in a sleeve featuring a drawing of male genitalia resembling a cannon. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett played on their cut “Headbanger”, and they performed with idol Rob Halford – the out and proud frontman of Judas Priest – at the San Diego Gay Pride Fest.
The band would soon slam into an unexpected glass ceiling. Lookout Records was sold to a larger organization, whose brass looked askance at the group. A hellish European tour – causing illness and injury – further demoralized the band, and they decided on an indefinite hiatus, choosing to do the occasional concert here and there.
Extras in this DVD package amount to a single feature: concert footage, and lots of it. The bonus disc contains nearly two hours of live performances, which grows tiresome, and such overkill is a must only for avid fans. We’re shuttled to Montreal, Frisco, Cincinnati, San Diego, and finally, the hip L.A. hangout Spaceland, where they perform a gig three years to the day before the tragedy of September 11. Their acoustic live-in-studio performance in San Franciso breaks up the monotony a bit, featuring just two members in a quiet setting.
Life In A Gay Rock Band took the Best Documentary Audience Award at the Chicago’s Gay/Lesbian Film Festival, and it is an amusing, breezily empathetic examination of the trials – including a almost hapless quest for a permanent drummer - of a trail-blazing group which may have to settle for seeing others reap the fruits of their labors. The film represents advocacy journalism, in the same vein as the LGBT public affairs program In the Life.
Carmona never depicts – onscreen – critics of the band, but also refrains from suggesting that their music, sonically speaking, is great, or even distinctive. It’s not, but that may be beside the point. Pansy Division are, without question, to be respected for their courage in presenting their obsessions – however shallow they sometimes are – in a frank, in-your-face style, and making no apologies for this. Ideologically, the group’s bratty frat-pop – arguably a gay reboot of the curiously homosocial Blink-182 – never departs from established queer stereotypes, but there remains a definite subversiveness in their R-rated homoerotic merriment.