A certain group of California shoegazers sang a couple of years ago, “Whatever happened to my rock and roll?” Nearly all of the rock music we hear on mainstream radio in North America is the same bland, suburban corporate rock music that’s been endlessly recycled since the grunge explosion of 1991, from the safe, bland, stiffly Canadian bores in Nickelback, to the pompous, Eddie Vedder-on-a-cross vulgarity of Creed. Metal music (oh, sorry, nu-metal) has been reduced to hordes of angry-for-no-reason aggro kids, with very little advancement in the genre in the past decade, while punk has been completely taken over by talentless little snots whose heavily marketed kiddie music is nothing more than ‘80s mousse-rock, only with more piercings and shorter (yet still fashionably-styled) hair. If you take a step back and look at all of pop music, and consider such stomach-churning displays such as the glorified lounge act of Norah Jones, the heretofore inconceivable sellout of Ms. Liz Phair, Madonna still desperately trying to tick people off, Toby Keith and Vince Gill’s right-wing country rhetoric, and the flaccid folk music of John Mayer, you’ll begin to feel your hope in rock ‘n’ roll music quickly dissipating, if it hasn’t completely vanished already. If ever the uptight world of mainstream pop needed a musical high colonic, it is now.
Enter Norwegian cult heroes Turbonegro. For the past decade, they’ve built up a fiercely loyal cult following with their searing blend of punk and metal (“deathpunk”, they like to call it), their hilariously over the top homosexual subject matter, plenty of shock rock makeup, and wild stage shows (which apparently involved a lit Roman candle sticking out of . . . no, I don’t want to go there). Led by mastermind Happy Tom (who plays bass while dressed as a lipsticked sailor) and flamboyant frontman Hank Von Helvete, Turbonegro also won fans from more well-known bands, including Metallica, Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl, and the Beastie Boys (a Turbonegro tribute album featuring the Queens of the Stone Age, the Supersuckers, and others, came out in 2001). After a straight-out-of-Behind the Music breakup in 1998 that involved heroin, alcohol, and an Italian psychiatric ward, Turbonegro made a triumphant return in 2002, are now set to release a new album, and thanks to the good folks at Epitaph Records, have re-released their seminal third and fourth albums for us all to enjoy in the meantime. As it turns out, their timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
“Now I’m back with a bang / Got my own leather gang / And all of them are men / And denim’s back again”.
Arguably one of the best punk albums to come out in the past ten years, 1996’s Ass Cobra is a ferocious half hour’s worth of some of the most intense, catchy, and funny music you’ll ever hear, and it doesn’t let up for a minute. Combining the gross-out humor of the Mentors, the darkly comic metal of the Stormtroopers of Death, the buzzsaw guitar of the Ramones, and the sing-along melodies of the Misfits (before Glenn Danzig started to take himself far too seriously), the album is relentless. Most of all, it’s Turbonegro’s flamboyantly gay schtick that separates them from the rest of the pack of punk bands, as Von Helvete, who comes off as King Diamond’s younger, overweight brother, takes the latent homoeroticism of ‘80s metal, be it unintentional (Accept’s “London Leatherboys”) or otherwise (Judas Priest’s “Eat Me Alive”), and elevates it to another level altogether.
This stuff isn’t subtle, but it’s both funny and exhilarating. The band also proves that they’re no mere novelty act: they can kick your ass from here to next Sunday. The viciously punny “The Midnight NAMBLA” is brutally comedic (“The fondler of the nobbler / The nemesis of the toddler”), complete with a deliciously nasty interlude of a weeping kid. “Denim Demon” is the most unlikely punk anthem, a song that would convince the most homophobic aggro punks to chant “Good head!” with abandon. Von Helvete gets more misanthropic later on, lashing out at his generation on the brilliantly titled “Hobbit Motherfuckers”, and just being a grumpy old man on “Turbonegro Hate the Kids” (“They’re not cool! / Get back to school! / Skateboard maggot! / Virus faggot!”). Best of the lot is the masterful “I Got Erection”, with its Misfits style goth punk melody and “whoa-oh” chorus, and those always-funny lyrics (“Every time I walk down the street / Eee-rec-tion!”). Part satire, part serious punk, and 100 per cent adrenaline-fueled insanity, Ass Cobra is an album that stops you dead in your tracks the instant you hear it, an unequivocal masterpiece.
“From the ashes of this golden age of confusion, the denim recruits came to be known as the apocalypse dudes”.
Though Ass Cobra is the one Turbonegro album that is most loved by punk purists, the more metal-oriented Apocalypse Dudes is every bit Ass Cobra‘s equal. The 1998 album is a big leap compared to the previous release, boasting more of a huge rock sound (it also features the six-headed snake logo of the Symbionese Liberation Army on the cover, strangely enough). Turbonegro were already a phenomenal band, but this time around, new drummer Chris Summers supplies massive, thunderous beats, and lead guitarist Euroboy steals the show with his decidedly un-punk guitar solos, shredding a la Steve Perry circa 1974. The band’s sound is still centered around punk melodies and riffs, but Apocalypse Dudes contains plenty of doses of classic glam rock like early Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and most notably, the party rock of early ‘80s Finnish glam legends Hanoi Rocks.
When you hear the first couple minutes of the opening track “The Age of Pamparius”, you hear the change in the band’s sound instantly. A six minute cross between the progressive rock of Yes and the flashy riffs of glam metal, it starts off with an extended piano and synth intro, as well as a hoity-toity solo by Euroboy, but Turbonegro never take themselves too seriously, and as the song kicks into full gear a minute and a half later, it turns into a ridiculously stupid ode to keyboardist/percussionist Pal Pot Pamparius’s pizza restaurant, as Von Helvete hollers, “Gonna bake some motherfucking pizza tonight!” “Selfdestructo Bust” continues in the same punk vein as Ass Cobra, but the slicker production and Summers’ drumming take it to another level, while “Get It On” joyously rips off the Ramones’ “I Just Want Something To Do” (“Gimme deathpunk baby / And I like it!”), as Euroboy lays down a fabulous Ace Frehley solo.
Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of flaming gay fun here, on songs such as “Rock Against Ass”, “Rendezvous With Anus”, “Prince of the Rodeo” (“Fornicator of the lasso / Sperminator of the asshole”), and the roaring “Good Head”, which comes complete with a long, Spinal Tap-like false ending. “Don’t Say Motherfucker Motherfucker” sounds as good as its title indicates, while the guitar solo harmonies by Euroboy on “Zillion Dollar Sadist” serve as a sly tribute to Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies”. Best of the lot is “Back to Dungaree High” (the awesome song titles never end with these guys), a blistering garage rocker that beats modern stoner rockers like Fu Manchu, Nebula, and Queens of the Stone Age at their own game.
Very few albums that come out in 2003 will sound as refreshing, as disgusting, as high-octane, as pure, silly fun as these two reissues. Who knew that the one Scandinavian band that would come over and blow our heads apart wouldn’t be a bunch of nattily clad, hip young Swedes, but instead a group of veteran, flabby, butch Norwegians? In the end, they might not save rock ‘n’ roll (though they come awfully damn close), but Turbonegro are going to die trying. These albums might be five, seven years old, but this is a perfect time to reintroduce Turbonegro to the masses, and bring back a sense of fun to a genre that seems to have been taking itself far too seriously lately. After all, everyone needs an ass cobra every once in a while.