Grimy, blue-collar rock and roll... or is it? Dirty Faces' Get Right with God would be the most intense and powerful straight rock record of the year. That is, if it really were a straight rock record.
Hidden Complications of the Common Denominator
What the Dirty Faces do doesn't look complicated. On stage, they're working an ancient rock and roll formula, pitting a charismatic frontman -- that's T. Glitter giving Iggy a run for his money up there -- against extra-large guitar riffs and churning bass refrains. It's a big band. The current line-up has six core members (with two former members appearing on the album). Two of them, including the lead guitarist, are women, giving an interesting twist to the macho, strutting sound that the band slyly subverts. It's a sound that's shocking in its simplicity -- shattering beats slowed to dirges on the slower songs, garage chords cranked for maximum impact on the faster ones. Yet underneath there's a whole worm can's worth of weirdness and complication. Kid Millions from Oneida (and also Brah Records, which has released the last two Dirty Faces records) calls them "the best rock band in America," and he's got a point.
If you look at it one way, this veteran Pittsburgh band delivers the most basic kind of blues and soul inflected rock, a direct and primal descendant of bands like MC5, the Stooges, ZZ Top, and AC/DC. Yet this is also a band now in the midst of a three-record tirade against Bush America, taking on the state (2003's Super American), the church (this year's Get Right with God), and global business (the still-in-the-works Underground Economy), and its lyrics carry the crazed, messianic intensity of a Rimbaud poem. "I'm just watching the war... from above", Glitter mutters in a feral snarl, over a late-night haze of jazzy piano and slack-jawed drums, and it's everything you want to know about god and man in post-insurgent Iraq.
Brains and brawn together... is that a contradiction or a strength? T. Glitter shrugs the whole issue off. "Music is one of our food groups, and rock is the common denominator, I think. It's a place that everybody can stand on and feel good about. That comes very naturally to us. And we just happen to be lucky enough to be blessed with brains... at least, some of us," he adds. (We are talking by phone as the band nears Kansas City in the tour van, and this last bit is obviously for the benefit of the other passengers.)
The risk, the menace, the substance-fueled sense of danger, though, is just as much a part of Dirty Faces as the intelligence. Damaged poetry, self-destructive art, it's not an act, but an integral part of what they do. At least, that's what long-time friend and fellow Pittsburgher Doug Mosurock says when asked about his first impressions of the band. "I first heard them because I lived in Pittsburgh and went out to bars when shows were happening. Those dudes are older than me, but we'd occupy the same spaces a lot," he writes.
A loose collective that became known as Rickety Worldwide grew up in Pittsburgh's ungentrified neighborhoods, where musicians and artists lived together in four and five bedroom houses -- the "rickety houses" that became a synonym for a scene. "Bars in town started hosting 'Rickety Thursdays' -- It was $1 to get in, and I think $1 drafts," says Mosurock. "They set up 'new wave cabaret' nights where everyone involved or on the peripherals would form tribute bands for the night. Tehran, Iran was the best Duran Duran cover band ever."
"The Faces were right in the middle of this whole thing," he adds. "They've had about 18 lineups, the only constants being T. Glitter and Mike Bonello (Tricky Powers), the bass player. [It was a] bunch of dudes who played like they drank whiskey and did drugs for a career, and cut themselves off just long enough to get onstage and get through a show. It was like that. They were kind of the greatest band in the world, and yet there's no real way to describe them or what they were doing. It was fairly punk, in the '75 NYC/Clevo sense, but flaming out hard."
Mike Bonello says that the first line-up of Dirty Faces came about when members of the Johnsons -- T. Glitter and Ernie Bullard among them -- decided they needed an outlet for their punk rock songs. "The Johnsons... were kind of more like slower and more psychedelic, folk rock kind of stuff," he says. "The Faces were just going to play punk rock shows. We had like eight songs for the first year and a half. Just slammin'. Eight songs. Twenty minutes."
It was at one of these early, intense shows that Dirty Faces first hooked up with Oneida and immediately recognized a kinship. The two bands could hardly sound more different, but they had something fundamental in common. "It's an energy thing. I think that basically those guys go for it. We try to go for it. We play with a lot of intensity and energy. So it's more of an energy level thing than a similarity in the music," says Bonello.
"Our show with Dirty Faces at the 31st Street Pub in Pittsburgh was definitely the first rock show by our peers that totally blew our collective minds," Oneida's Kid Millions recalls. "Bobby has said it well in the past: we were just embarking on a 2.5 month tour. It was our first. The Dirty Faces' laser vision of shambolic, one-step-away-from destruction and off-handed, brutal wit just devastated us. We stole a few things from them... and went on our way expecting that we'd get our asses schooled across the country. Not happening. The Faces were the one band and the one scene that inspired what we did in Brooklyn when we returned."
Listen to "Token Punks"
Whiskey and Revelation
Dirty Faces released Covered in Lime on their own Rickety Records in 1998, a record described by Index magazine as "classic Rust Belt punk, a frenzied take on drug use and crumbling relationships in a city where everybody knows everybody." Their second, More Lies, followed in 2002. In 2003, Super American, the first installment of their three-part trilogy came out on Oneida's then-new record label, Brah, and Get Right with God followed this year, an apocalyptic cocktail of violence, lust, disillusion, drug-fueled abandoned and spiritual quest.
The album art, a disturbing sketch of lambs suckling on an angry wolf, intimates one of the album's premises, the incursion of the religious right into American life and politics, but T. Glitter insists that the album's title is not intended as irony. He's reluctant to provide details (and rightly so, as How Not to Sound Like a Twat 101 has a whole chapter on not talking to journalists about religious experiences), but says that he's had some sort of awakening in recent years. The phrase "Get Right with God" means something specific and real to him. "I don't like to spell it out. I feel like everybody... I don't want to speak for anyone else, but I've felt in the last year something akin to a religious experience. I can't say that it's necessarily ironic, but it's certainly not being dogmatic either. "
Still, making Get Right with God was no morning in church. The initial sessions fell into alcohol-addled disarray and finally collapsed. "A lot of the songs weren't completely worked out, but we're used to that. We're used to sort of going in and having it all fall together," says Glitter. "But I think there was enough stuff and there was enough chaos in the studio that it just wasn't fruitful, that we just kind of stopped and waited for a month. Too much whiskey, I think." A month later, things finally came together in a way that Kid Millions calls "a miracle," the sessions that resulted in their best record ever.
"This is their undisputed 'classic' record. Like a Sticky Fingers," says Millions. "There was so much strife that went into making the record -- an aborted session, outright plagiarism, stealing, drunken dissolution -- it's not as crazily dark and experimental as Super American, or as raw as Covered in Lime, a pre-Brah release, but it captures a confident side of the band that hasn't been represented yet."
"Before I heard the record, everyone was saying 'It's a really good record' -- as if they were maybe damning it with faint praise," he adds. "Then once I heard it... my mind was blown. It's a triumph. If you know what kind of shit the band went through to make this shit, you know this album is just a miracle."
Glitter was heavily into Bob Dylan during this period, as well as hip-hop, two influences that may not show up in any literal way on the record, but that permeated his approach to recording and production. "Watching the War from Above" has, maybe, a little of the burning rage and raw poetry of Dylan's "Masters of War", while the hip-hop shows up in the slammed out beats and unfiltered realism of the lyrics.
Or maybe that's just reaching. "Everything gets filtered through your head so that, for me at least, what I'm making doesn't come out like [what I'm listening to]," says Glitter. "At least, I hope it never does. But somehow in my mind it makes sense. It’s not in a recognizable way, but I'll be listening to a lot of like... my idea of what things should sound like might come from a sound that I hear in the production on a hip-hop record, so I'll think that I want to incorporate that somehow. It never comes out that way, but that might serve as the initial impetus."
Listen to "Blood on the Dancefloor"
In the end, you can't understand Dirty Faces without thinking hard about Pittsburgh, a union town decimated by the Rust Belt recession of the 1970s, a place that is fanatical about the Steelers (see the Faces' hard-charging "Rocky Bleier"), but is also the birthplace of Andy Warhol.
"It's the type of city that always feels like it's not getting respect, or it has felt like that for a long time, since the decline of the economy there, that whole story, the 1970s and all that, but it's... it also adds to the oasis aspect of it," Glitter says. "There are a ton of really creative people there, a ton of bands and galleries, and tons of stuff going on physically there. People don't necessarily realize that there's a lot of quality stuff going on there. It is a small city, but it's got a lot of stuff going on."
And, like Pittsburgh, Dirty Faces are easily underestimated, written off as cock rock crossed with garage soul, the sheer intensity and intelligence of their work glossed over, the drugs and alcohol brought to the fore. "Of course people underestimate them. [People] do not want to take them on their own terms, or really understand the broad range of influences that are at play... but you know, that's no surprise," says Millions. "They are from a part of the country that gets no respect, they have trouble getting it together to play shows and book tours, and heads just aren't ready. At some point, this band will be discovered."
When? Well, now would be good. Check out Get Right with God and prepare to be blown away.