[1 March 2004]
As far as Ann Beretta‘s sound is typical American punk, they demonstrate why I personally prefer typical old school British punk to typical American punk from any era.
Both American and British punks rage against the Man, but even relatively generic British punks show an awareness of class seemingly lost on most American punks. British punk, spawned from the European financial crisis of the ‘70s, had an economic emphasis largely lost on Americans, who suffered relatively less from the turmoil of the times. And without an economy or culture in turmoil, punk didn’t catch on in America the way it did in Britain. At least until Nirvana (and the aftermath of our current leader’s one-term father), true punk without the ironic New Wave sheen was still a relatively underground taste.
In the 15 years between the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, American punks raged against the vapid conformity of the culture at large. Given ample fuel by the Reagan Administration, the best of the American groups painted funny, frightening portraits of hollow men. If the Clash called for class warfare, X could be even more frightening because they presented a wasteland where the war for a nation’s minds had already been fought. And lost. Like survivors picking through the carnage, American punks hacked and prodded at the bodies and tried to scavenge something worthwhile.
The flop side is that it’s easier to slip into vagaries when talking about cultural, and not economic, warfare. When ranting against the rich, there’s a material and artistic focus that can be given simply by talking a quick look around and deciding what one wants that one can’t afford (“I sure wish I could buy a guitar like the one I saw that guy in Thin Lizzy playing”). When ranting against culture, it’s an invisible line between the haves (who think) and the have-nots (who don’t). Even trickier is that if one is too self-confidently and -righteously sure that one is in the former group, one ends up in the latter.
Without the seething have-not rage of the British punks and lacking X’s warped vision, the spiritual drive to match buzzsaw guitars with is harder to come by. Even groups as educated as Bad Religion (Dig that vocabulary!) can, despite their obvious knowledge of what they speak, seem stiff or even preachy. The Sex Pistols chanting “No future!” in unison is still the possibly definitive cry of punk, not Greg Graffin spitting out his interpretation of Malthus and the coming population explosion.
So Ann Beretta are real punks who want revolution (as the album title notes), but they’re hard-pressed to say why the revolution is needed or what sort of revolution they mean (and if George W. Bush doesn’t give them specifics about which to sing, I fervently hope I never learn what would). Certainly, it’s not just musical revolution, as they stress more than once, notably on “Better Half”, which ends: “Turn the radio on, turn the radio up / Play the song that’s never gonna go away / We live our lives not to waste away / It’s better to burn out than fade away”.
The statement is punkish by context and openness, but rock bands have been touting similar mantras ever since they first inherited them from hard-drinking, hard-living bluesmen. Even KISS took up the stance, if only as a marketing ploy (What’s “Rock and Roll All Nite” if not a call to carpe diem?). Of course, KISS didn’t fill their albums with sympathetic encouragement to outsiders the way Ann Beretta fill this album. When they tell a runaway “All I need to say is anything to make a change to keep our dreams alive”, it’s the obvious response, one much more predictable and much less detailed and interesting than Steely Dan tempting “Janie Runaway” with a birthday in Spain. But “Janie Runaway” is the superior song not for its immoral shock, but because it outlines a believable, albeit disgusting, relationship. Ann Beretta offers reassuring tropes (“If you hold me close, don’t be afraid”) with full sincerity, while Steely Dan outlines all the repulsive specifics and paints two people-not-symbols.
Ann Beretta, like many well-meaning punk bands, encourage the usual virtues of personal independence and wariness of authority and even sympathy for others, but they take up these burdens too self-consciously, seeming to think the righteousness of their cause is reason enough to justify the existence of their art. But if that’s true and those virtues are enough to justify art, when was the last time you listened to anything by Rod McKuen? I don’t remember when I last did, but I listened to Steely Dan last week.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/annberetta-three/