Sunday, 10 July 2011

Night Birds - Fresh Kills Vol. 1

"I met a wave head-on as it broke and took the cold shock running. My feet kicked out behind me and I swam straight out for a quarter mile. There the kelp-beds stopped me, a tangled barrier of brown and yellow tubes and bulbs floating low in the water. I hated the touch of underwater life. I turned on my back and floated, looking up at the sky, nothing around me but cool clear Pacific, nothing in my eyes but long blue space. It was as close as I ever got to cleanliness and freedom, as far as I got from all the people. They had jerrybuilt the beaches from San Diego to the Golden Gate, bulldozed super-highways through mountains, cut down a thousand year of redwood growth, and built an urban wilderness in the desert. They couldn’t touch the ocean. They poured their sewage into it, but it couldn’t be tainted. There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean couldn’t cure. Except there were too many Ararats, and I was no Noah. The sky was flat and empty and the water was chilling me. I swam to the kelp-bed and plunged down through it. It was cold and clammy like the bowels of fear. I came up gasping and sprinted to the shore with barracuda terror nipping at my heels." - Ross MacDonald, The Drowning Pool

I once read an article about Monty Python which posited as its main point the idea that while everyone cites Monty Python as an inspiration, it wasn't actually that directly influential for the things that are cited as revolutionary about it. Its formal innovations and deconstruction of the sketch show genre were so complete that no-one else could risk doing things like letting sketches bleed into one another without being accused of simply aping the Pythons and so if it did have influence on the many who cited it, then it was more in its general tone, its anarchy of spirit.

The same, for me, can be said of the Dead Kennedys. I think Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is quite possibly the greatest punk album of all time, and everyone I know loves it, but you won't find much that sounds like it. You'll find dozens of bands trying to be The Clash or The Sex Pistols, hundreds trying to be The Ramones, thousands trying to be Hot Water Music or NOFX, but not many people seem to be reaching for a sound resembling DK. That's partly because they did not have one definitive sound, they were constantly shifting and experimenting with genres and sounds, but FFFRV is what you might call the 'classic' sound and there's just not that much that resembles it.

(Of course, they're not unique in bringing in surf influences to punk. The Ramones covered Surfin' Bird and later spawned their own gimmicky but fun hanging ten tribute band The Ramonetures and The Livingbrooks later took this early Beach Boys feel of some Ramones stuff a lot further. There are the eponymous Surf Punks who are actually kind of a precursor to the goofy careless genre-hopping sarcasm of The Dead Milkmen. A bunch of early skatepunk has the odd surfy song or cover (like JFA, despite their Yodaesque cry of 'Surf punks we're not!'), then you have the other side of surf bands drawing in punk influences, like rock and roll fighters The Tijuana Bibles, garage-surf trash women The Trashwomen or intergalactic travellers Man or Astroman? but none of these bands sound much like Fresh Fruit (though The Ramones are obviously a formative influence on it.) )

And then here come Night Birds with Fresh Kills Vol. 1 which is a collection of their previously released seven inches, and everyone who hears them goes "Wow, it's just like DK!" They're not solely drawing from DK though, they clearly have a bit of Adolescents in the way they underpin their choruses with lots of aaaaaaahs on the backing vocals. The mid-tempo darkness of Living in the Middle calls to mind something like the Drunk Injuns' Mental Holocaust and its naked desire to aurally paint the trudging threat of a mind slipping into itself. They seem to be dedicated to recreating the beachviolence noises of this particular branch of the early 80s punk sound I initially assumed that must've been a California band, but they're actually from New Jersey.

The combination of surf sounds into punk subverts it. In general, in surf-rock the sun, sand and sea all roll together into a friendly fun day out with wholesome smiling faces, white teeth, tanned skin. The whole odd little subgenre of beach party movies like Beach Party, Gidget, Bikini Beach and Muscle Beach Party. "Help save the youth of America/Help save them from themselves/Help save the sun-tanned surfer boys/And the California girls" as Billy Bragg sang. The addition of punk rock is a horror movie take on the genre, like The Horror of Party Beach, but extending that horror past just a guy in a dodgy suit preying on women in bikinis into a pervading sense of danger and loathing and psychosis that threatens to consume the world. This surf/punk melding paints the sun as a burning ball of oppressive heat burning your face, not a happy smiling greeting to the day, the sand as dirt, grit thrown in your eyes, the sea as malevolent energy personified, a place of drownings and shark attacks, breakers crashing down on your head. It drags the surfers out of the sea and into the city and then gets them fucked-up on pills, mugs them and leaves them wandering about the supermodernist nightmare of Los Angeles descending into madness, the joy of a Ventures or Volcanos song rippling round the edges of their mind until they're subsumed into the underclass of the city, spanging for changes and humming the Hawaii 5-0 tune into the cracks on the sidewalk like they're worm-charming for that wave to come wash it all away.

Night Birds are doing nothing new. They have songs about being in thrall to b-movies that echo the grindhouse cinephilia of the Misfits and The Lillingtons. They're writing first person serial killer songs. Surf-punk instrumentals. Paranoia and social detachment. Apocalyptic fantasies of mega-tsunamis. It's all been done before, but they're so tight and well-constructed that you really want to listen to it, and like I said, the fact that the sound they're mostly going for isn't actually one that was done that much, as familiar as it sounds.

Punk rock has this odd mixture of being associated with this mad lunge towards a dystopian brutalist future in a lot of its early iconography and the way it was drawn into the whole cyberpunk literary movement and its high-tech/low-life obsessions, but also in its classic sound and simple song structures it's defiantly retrograde a lot of the time. It's stripping down the virtuosity of classic rock, laughing at the archness of metal, kicking the shit out of the self-involved pomposity of prog screaming "THE ONLY THING THAT SHOULD BE PROGRESSIVE IN ROCK MUSIC IS POLITICS!" Night Birds are this sort of snotty manic musical necromancy, a perfect example of the desire for safety and security within a sound that is built of unsafeness and insecurity in its thrash and violence. The aping of a past sound which engages with it perfect sincerity and never lapses into gimmicky parody. This is just pure concise 80s hardcore style punk rock, and at a time where we're building Reagan statues in London, watching Thatcher in the cinema, rioting in the streets against the Tory cunts, what could be more perfect? I can't wait for the full-length.

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