Is this the shape of punk to come?
I have a confession to make. While I often listened to hardcore in high school in the presence of friends, I didn't own more than a few Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies tapes (though plenty of Dead Kennedys, but their entire output is not hardcore, despite the usual categorization). So when a friend told me I had to see the Fucked Up show in Paris, I was a bit suspicious. But I trust his instincts, and I went. Thus, the following review is from someone who heard them for the first time at this concert. I liked them so much that I bought a CD of their singles collection and a T-shirt emblazoned with a quote by Tom Jones.
On the way to the show I wondered who the hell was going to be there. I rarely see any semblance of punk in Paris, and in the few bars where you can find those signs, there's no guarantee that such people will all be at a show that costs 15 Euros. I was a bit surprised then, maybe even refreshed, to find a mostly very non-punk-looking audience of about fifty people. This was the first of many expectations that were pleasantly shattered at this concert.
If you are sick of the commoditized aesthetic uniformity of how certain music genres are visualized in public -- the long hair or the short dyed hair, the baggy pants and baseball caps or the tight trousers and fedoras, the tattoos and piercings -- you will find Fucked Up refreshingly provocative in their confident, well, plainness. Of the three guitar players, two were so clean-cut they could move from the punk club to the country club without anyone detecting anything. The drummer was wearing a black sleeveless "We Gotta Know" T-shirt, and the bespectacled nerdy female bassist was decked out in a blue sleeveless vintage dress -- no tattoos or piercings were at all visible. That is, of course, until your eyes turn to lead singer Damian (or Pink Eyes -- they all use pseudonyms), who showed up in tracksuit pants and a T-shirt that was quickly thrown aside.
While the rest of band may fail to make an impression, front man Damian is unforgettable. He is a big man. Not overly tall, perhaps 5'11'', but boasting remarkable girth, and sporting a couple of tattoos, one being the band's logo. A couple of songs into the set, his antics -- mad pacing, jumping about, screaming until his veins pop right out of his neck -- produced an abundance of body coolant, covering the crowd in his sweat. Later, after un-shirting himself, he took empty plastic beer cups and smashed them on his forehead and his belly so that they stuck like suction cups. They would last a couple of songs before he bounded off the stage in search of more, usually on the floor but also on the three or four side tables of the room. But it was still too hot for Damian, so he stripped down into his Fruit of the Looms, a good faded black, in which he remained for the rest of the show.
Musically, Fucked Up are loud. And yes, they do have a hardcore streak. But it’s the vocals that are the most hardcore aspect. Charismatic lead singer Damian seemingly has a lot to scream about, but I can't say I understood most of what he was howling about. I gathered it was about the virus of complacency and the courage to take a stand. I'm down with that. When you step back from Damian's Henry Rollins’ yowl and start thinking about the instruments and sound, the band’s music does have some steady punk drumming to it, but the layers of (three) guitars, bass, and drums conspire in ways that often sounded more like complicated ‘90s indie rock. The song’s time signatures and lengths have little in common with hardcore's strict one to two minute blasts.
Reading about them before writing this review, I learned that this is a band that has always provoked critics and audiences, from album sleeve art, to lyrics, and sound. Perhaps their ultimate musical statement was on 2008's Year of the Pig, where they featured an 18-minute long song. Several of their songs take time to build, have lengthy interludes, and rounds of choruses. Towards the end of the show I found myself bopping to "Crusades", with its catchy chorus (like several other of their songs) that lends itself to audience collaboration -- the microphone is repeatedly pointed at us -- and its melodic driving guitar arrangement that left me thinking of the fabulous climax of Superchunk's "The First Part". It is aggressive, yet the sharp vocal edge is sometimes blunted. The whole thing is very loud -- the club's sound guys asked them to turn down their amps three times and forbade them an encore.
Their hardcore cred reared its head during their last number, a cover of Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown". Not only did they cover it, they let a fan come on stage to sing/growl it, apparently because he had shown the band his breastplate tattoo of the same title. He lasted about thirty seconds before losing his way and Damian saved him. This is just one instance of what could be stressed as Fucked Up's radical democratic ethos, talking with the audience between songs and inviting them to participate in the vocals. I wondered if they often invite audience members to play the instruments too. They stopped just short of that at this show.
Is this the shape of punk to come? On the one hand, shows I saw in the week prior to this Fucked Up performance made me wonder if something is culturally afoot in alterna/independent music culture. In the mid-‘70s, punk rebelled against the elite virtuosity of the artist on stage who was significantly distanced from the adoring audience. The idea was, as the punk 'zines said, anyone can do this. Go start a band. Singers would engage in spitting contests with the audience, and would bound into the crowd and dance with them, sometimes getting the shit beat out of them in the process. Shoegaze and other forms of indie rock, to say nothing of post-rock, rebuilt that barrier between performer and audience member.
But during all three shows I saw within seven days -- The Fleshtones, King Khan and the Shrines, and Fucked Up -- a different, more interactive relationship with the audience was manifest, albeit in different ways. The Fleshtones were ironic about their feigned arrogance. They leapt into the audience and challenged their dance moves. King Khan flipped off the audience (and they him in kind), squirted beer on them, and ran out and danced with them, but it was playfully sincere. Fucked Up's Damian also broke down the audience/performer barrier, handing them the microphone, giving them hugs, even French kissing one guy. There is something punkishly revivalist about it all.