[14 October 2003]
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Photo credit: Stephen Stickler
Maybe the guitarist. Not the bass player, and certainly not the drummer, but if it came down to it, I guess I could picture the guitarist on a motorcycle. At least he smokes cigarettes and has scruffy hair. The other two look like they just stepped out of a Gap ad—skinny, solemn looking, handsome yet alarmingly gaunt, certainly not the “rebellious” type. So what gives with the name?
It refers to the music, dummy. There is a dark, mysteriously enticing aura surrounding this band’s burly brand of post-goth punk rock (I made that up) that bums you out while making you groove and sweat. Most of the so-called “It” bands are little more than overhyped studio creations set upon an unassuming public by faceless, corporate monsters, bands that couldn’t dream of passing the acid test of the live show. But Black Rebel Motorcycle Club hardly follow suit—seeing them live more than proves that they’re worth the time. I was lucky enough to learn that first hand three years ago in a half-empty club in Grand Rapids. A friend of mine’s band opened up the show and since I got in free, I felt obligated to stick around for the headliner, at that point unknown to me. What I saw was a no-frills three-piece rock band with a penchant for dramatic mood swings; here’s a song to make you dance, here’s one to help you cry, here’s one to make love to.
They haven’t changed too much in terms of presentation; this stop was your typical black T-shirt and leather outing, heavy on mood lighting and stage fog. BRMC started with the first two cuts off their new record, Take Them On, On Your Own, “Stop” and “Six Barrel Shotgun”, concise examples of how the band has changed aesthetically. BRMC’s early songs featured a single voice, either bassist Robert Turner’s low baritone or guitarist Peter Hayes’ complementary rock star yelp. The result would be either a Jesus and Mary Chain-ish hymn (Turner) or an up-tempo balls out barnburner (Hayes). The new songs imagine the band as having a single voice—the guys are sharing leads, harmonizing, riffing off each other, you know, singing!
This approach reinvigorates all their oldies. “Red Eyes and Tears”, for example, as well as “Rifles” and “Love Burns”—three songs off the first record that have become bigger and better things—were intensely wrought onstage. “U.S. Government” riled us all up, its incessant tom-tom-tambourine pulse providing a rare and wonderful opportunity to watch goth kids dance. Hayes and Turner chopped away gleefully, gradually bringing the song to its deliciously quiet outro, a soft, chanting refrain, “you’re gonna make it / you’re gonna suffer.” Whether this was in reference to our current political climate or simply a wry comment on the lecherous music business, you can decide for yourself; it’s a comforting thought nonetheless.
They closed the set appropriately with perhaps their best-known cut, “Whatever Happened To My Rock and Roll?”—which, by the way, is a damn good question. The song is one of Hayes’ screamers, smoke, muscle and electric hellfire wrapped up in three-and-a-half minutes of ravaging guitar skronk. A noticeable departure from most of their work, it perhaps defines BRMC the best. They sing about giving their soul to a new religion (rock and roll, naturally), then questioning it when it fails them, or lets them down. This band is not merely a studio creation as some claim. Sure they sound like other bands, who doesn’t? There should be a rock and roll mandate that all bands end their sets with “Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll?”—only then will we ever get an answer to that question.