[22 January 2014]
Have you ever found yourself in a bar where the vastly male population is focused on The Game? And has it reached the point where the boozy camaraderie, loud, profane, and intimate, could turn violent at any moment? That a free-for-all fracas is one misunderstood (perhaps) expression of fraternal love away, and that you might take a lager-soaked punch in the jaw for minding your own business?
That’s pretty much the music of Australia’s Cosmic Psychos. I mean this as a compliment. The Psychos make working-class punk that’s as dumb as it is gloriously sweaty; topics include drinking, girls, wankers, motivation, drinking, having no money, breaking things, and telling people to fuck off (they’re basically to post-punk what Slade was to glam and AC/DC to metal).
Nowadays, the Cosmic Psychos create dependable pub-rock for working class yobbos, but recent re-releases by Goner Records of their first EP and album (bundled as Down on the Farm/Cosmic Psychos) and their second cut, the Sub Pop-released Go the Hack!, showcase a young band figuring out what to do with all this aggression and sound. The music is often deliriously hooky; singer & bassist Ross Knight cranked out fuzzy & funky basslines, and then-drummer Bill Walsh created a solid 4/4 beat with just enough flair to be interesting. But their secret weapon was the furious guitar work of Peter “Dirty” Jones; his crashing and swirling solos, heavy on the wah-wah, kept the music interesting until he left in 1990. Jones took long solos on his own, under verses and choruses, and his cheerful ineptitude inspired a legion of stoned stumblebum axemen, many of whom lived in Seattle, to experiment with their own pedal collection.
That doesn’t make Down on the Farm particularly listenable, however. It’s loaded with a dare-you-to-like-us spirit that’s a lot more fun to talk about than experience. It kicks off with “Custom Credit”, which blends a sub-Stooges drone with Knight’s amusing, off-the-cuff lyrics (“You drive me up a wall – I ain’t no spider!”), and segues into “Down on the Farm”, which takes its inspiration from Minor Threat progressions. You can see why Kurt Cobain sited them as an influence, but the songs don’t offer much more than would your basic high school band of self-styled dirtbags. It isn’t until Jones starts in with his guitar work that the songs start to wake up; his stumbling spiral of distortion and squelchy feedback is a lot more fun and intriguing than Knight’s deliberately bored vocal.
“She’s a Cat” is the most straight-ahead punk cut here – at 2:33, it feels right, even if lyrics like “She’s a cat / She’s a pig / I wouldn’t have her any other way” aren’t likely to change anyone’s world. But “Crazy Woman”, a nearly 8-minute “jam”, is the worst of the lot – Knight’s sub-sub-Morrison vocals become more grating and lifeless as they go, and Jones fails to achieve true skronk. But “Gangrene Dream”, the closer, is interesting; it provides an unintelligible (to me, anyway) psychodrama over a great fuzzy bass line, droning and poking at the listener like the soundtrack to an especially troubling mescaline trip.
But it isn’t until you get to “Decadence”, the first cut on Cosmic Psychos, that you feel the band finding their own footing. Like many of the cuts on the album, it has a sloppiness that borders on grating, but Knight drops the insouciance for an urgent approach rooted in American hardcore. “Going Down” and “No Complications” are lean and hard, giving Jones a solid foundation for his guitar anti-heroics. “Rain on You” is as proto-Stooges as it gets, but Knight infuses it with a grunty sense of humor not all that far from what Megadeth was offering around the same time.
Even better, the self-titled album found the Psychos experimenting with their own sound. “Jellyfish” fuses metallic slop with a ‘60s-garage psychedelic edge, and the ramp up from mid-tempo groove to full-fledged hardcore is sonically thrilling. “Tell Me That You Love Me” is another garage-y throwback, and “Rambo” threatens to do away with melody and rhythm altogether until the feedback-drenched soundscape gives way to some rather fantastic hardcore.
It’s still not necessarily an easy album to like, however; Knight spends a lot of energy being about as off-putting as he can be, limiting his audience to high-school lunkheads who get off on lyrics like “I wanna be like / David Lee Roth / Forty girls can / Suck me off!” They tend to drive the joke, and the songs, deep into the ground well past their shelf-life; a two-minute-thirty time limit would have done these boys nicely. But the fan of gallows humor and fuzzy punk discord might find this racket interesting; even when the off-the-cuff, deliberately dumb n’ macho attitude of the boys fails the music, there’s a spirit that cannot be denied. It’s not surprising that Sub Pop was eager to see if the Cosmic Psychos could find their own voice on their next album.
Did they ever. Go the Hack! is where it’s at, man. Trust me on this. I know the purists love the early stuff, the demos, the raw magic of the live-in-the-studio cuts, but it took producer John Bee to give the lads the base and backbeat these songs really need to come alive. If Down on the Farm and Cosmic Psychos capture a noise-rock trio in its infancy, Go the Hack! captures the moment these boys became rock stars. And they do it without losing an ounce of drive and testosterone.
In fact, the opener “Lost Cause” is as delightfully dumb as anything on the first two albums; you can smell the chips and beer as they yell the “She’s a lost cause, she’s a lost lost cause” refrain. But the song is more alive than anything we’ve heard on Farm/Psychos – it’s danceable, it’s joyous, it’s the reason you go to punk clubs. “Rip’N’Dig” follows this with another onslaught, and as Knight’s silly vocals take center stage (“Another beer and another bong / I’m off to the Amazon!”), you feel like the witness to a band (and a singer, for that matter) finding its voice.
That’s not to say they abandon their influences, of course. “She’s Crackin’ Up” lets that 60s edge in, and it’s glorious; without sounding streamlined or (heaven forbid) mature, they allow their disparate sounds to form a unit. “Out of the Band” features a Ramones-on-meth groove and a hilarious vocal as each Cosmic Psycho gets kicked out of the band. And “Alright Tonite” features something like a melody and a vocal restraint against the working-class rock n’ roll, and the results are almost…romantic? (Nah, that can’t be right.)
Even when Go the Hack! falls back on so-dumb-they’re-dumb lyrics (“Back in Town”, “Go the Hack”), Knight, Jones, and Walsh form such an exciting unit – and Knight so successfully comes off as both friendly and don’t-fuck-with-me-dangerous – that the Cosmic Psychos feel alive and vital. It’s a shame that for all their acclaim (everyone from Buzz Osbourne to Eddie Vedder has cited them as an influence) they never quite commanded the attention of their grungy acolytes; then again, this music is much more at home in a smelly bar on a Friday night than a stadium.
I have to give a number rating, which is never easy, but it’s downright impossible in this case, as the quality gap between these cuts is profound. Down on the Farm/Cosmic Psychos is manna to the Cosmic Psychos completest, of course, but to the rest of us, it’s a curiosity, an intriguing slice of grunge prehistory with a few nuggets amidst the ooze. But Go the Hack! is essential, a pure punk n’ roll ode to all things yobbos hold dear, a 30-minute slice of social distortion that feels at home in any aging punk’s collection. But if you must have them both, do yourself the favor of listening in chronological order, so you can witness the birth of a great band from its own primordial soup.