How do you know you’re dating a punk rock fag hag? When the first mix-tape she woos you with comes complete with four Pansy Division songs, that’s how.
And how do you know you’re a conflicted mess of confusion and ever so slightly crass? When you decide you love Pansy Division, but see huge similarities between marvelous Pansy Division albums like Undressed and Deflowered, and the Macc Lads’ Beer’n'Sex’n'Chips’n'Gravy, that’s how.
Formed in San Francisco in 1991 by refugees who had taken the Village People’s advice to heart, Pansy Division were the first openly homosexual rock band I can remember, since Tom Robinson first told the world he was glad to be gay. Yes, there were some obviously gay rockers around, but none that were open and honest about their sexuality. Pansy Division were more than honest, they were completely, utterly and unapologetically in your face about it. And why not?
Why not? Well, perhaps because for the same reasons that all those obviously gay rock stars refused to jeopardize their careers, or their privacy, or that all those more arty icons (Bowie, Reed, Uncle Tom Cobley) who have flirted with homosexuality have since returned to the straight and narrow.
Anyhoo, after 15 years and seven albums, the still not entirely moribund Pansies and, no doubt, their new(ish) record label, Alternative Tentacles, have finally decided to release a definitive collection. Of course, The Essential Pansy Division is by no means the Best Of, but it is the band’s own selection so we should respect their decision to leave out a number of inch-perfect cover versions, including “Breaking the Law” (Judas Priest) and “Rock’N'Roll Queer Bar” (a reworking of a Ramones classic).
A further missing cover, “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other”, was originally written in the ‘80s by Ned Sublette, although many people think it’s a Pansy Division original, and it should surely have been included here simply for the Bareback Mounting props that are instead all going to Willie Nelson.
Whatever the merits of the decision to include only self-penned songs, the omission of Pansy Division originals as fine as “Versatile” and “The Story So Far” just seems downrightх um… perverse. Similarly, the sequencing of The Essential Pansy Division can only be described as “interesting”. And here, of course, “interesting” is a word that means effing odd. Most curious of all is the decision to open with “Who Treats You Right?”, a merely likeable slice of Joan Jett big beatery from the band’s most recent and ultimately disappointing album, Total Entertainment. When it’s so obvious that this compilation should have started with either of the next two, truly essential, tracks, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the purpose of The Essential Pansy Division is to re-promote the band’s debut Alternative Tentacles product.
But let’s put such cynical asides aside, because those next two tracks reveal exactly why Pansy Division were essential. “Fem in a Black Leather Jacket” is all rumbling bass and chiming pop punk perfection, while the shamelessly metallic “Anthem” does pretty much exactly what it says on the label, explaining first that “We can’t relate to Judy Garland”, proclaiming that “With loud guitars, we’re gay and proud” and then touching on the (small p) politics that have always informed Pansy Division:
“Closeted rockers, we’ve heard of a few
They won’t risk their careers to come out to you
We have no such deceptions, no such ploys
We make it clear we want to sleep with boys”
Although they’ve played with genres from time to time, Pansy Division at their best have always combined elements of ‘60s pop and ‘70s punk into an irresistible cocktail that was outrageous, touching, funny and real in roughly equally measures. Despite its many omissions, all of these elements are displayed richly on The Essential Pansy Division.
Consider, for example, the solo Bragg-like take on “Denny”, who wears his heart not on his sleeve, but in his tattoos. Or the matched pair of “James Bondage” and “Vanilla”. The former, written by bassist and vocalist Chris Freeman, is all “Teenage Kicks” on amphetamines, S&M games, 007 inches and a gold finger up the singer’s ass, while guitarist, vocalist and principal Pansy Jon Ginoli’s “Vanilla” explains that “I know about ropes and whips, handcuffs and nipple clips, but thats something I’m going to skip, I’m vanilla”.
Other classic Pansy Division songs here include “Headbanger” (guitar by Metallica’s Kirk Hamnett, from the EP For Those About to Suck Cock - We Salute You), the glorious “Bunnies” (“it’s a never-ending non-stop boy fuck”), and “Cocksucker Club”, but this genuinely essential band have never been all about lewd humor and nailed-on punk rock. Check out the beautiful and fragile pop rock of “Spiral”, “Boyfriend Wanted”, and, best of all, “Deep Water” for proof. And then come home to the definitive Pansy Division moment, “Dick of Death”, which is nothing to do with any kind of disease and all about size: “I looked into his eyes and let him sodomize me with his dick of death.”
Thinking about it, I suspect “Dick of Death” was the trigger that led me to odd-couple Pansy Division with the Macc Lads. Compare and contrast Pansy Division’s “Dick of Death” (“when it’s soft it’s nearly hung down to the floor”) with the Macc Lads’ “Failure With Girls” (“it’s three foot four even when it’s limp”).
A uniquely English phenomenon of the mid-80s, the Macc Lads combined poppy metal punk rock with outrageously explicit, misogynistic, and homophobic lyrics of quite the funniest kind. Yet they certainly shared more common ground with the openly queer Lookout Records ground-breakers Pansy Division than anyone might expect, including a cutting sense of wit, a very neat way with words, and, yay, more hooks than a bass fishing tournament in Texas. Whisper it gently, but there was always something very self-parodying and downright camp about the Macc Lads. And, as Pansy Division have been known to remark, “A cowboy may brag about things that he does with his women, but the ones who brag loudest are the ones that are most likely queer”.