These confounded retro garage bands. It’s getting to be quite a chore to defend them sometimes. Take, for example, the Rip Offs. Play it for your average Aerosmith fan and he’s gonna think it’s the most horrible thing imaginable. To him it sounds like evil cacophony. So, as a rock ‘n’ roll emissary, it’s up to you to try to explain 10 years’ worth of arcane punk rock trivia that will somehow justify anyone finding any merit with the Rip Offs: “See, the guitar player Jon Von was in Mr. T Experience but he found their sound too poppy, plus Dr. Frank would only let him sing one song per album but it was consistently the best song on every album so he quit or maybe got canned and then he started the Rip Offs. Blah, blah, bling bling bling blah.”
It’s futile. There’s a list a mile long of bands through the ages whose genius lies far beyond the facile: Urge Overkill, Meat Puppets, Hawkwind, even Missoula’s own Judy Rosen Parker. If someone doesn’t get it, there’s no use trying to explain it. Why even the venereal—ahem, that’s venerable—Ramones were written off in their day by critics who didn’t “get” their bizarre New York trash aesthetic. Now these selfsame critics are scrambling to appear to have “gotten it” retroactively, as if they’d been hip to it the whole while.
And so we find that much of today’s music is abstracted several times over from its origins—not that that’s a bad thing. Just that it can easily flummox the feebler intellect or diffident listener. It’s meta-music, and it’s used more often as a jumping-off point, because few among us have the time and resources to scour record stores for Sonics and Troggs albums, not to mention listen and disseminate the information contained within, when you can just as easily start off from the here and now. Yesterday’s Sound Today, baby!
Enter Fu Manchu or the Swingin’ Neckbreakers. They put it all on the table, and you needn’t be an effete rock history scholar to dig it. Well sure, it takes some appreciation of late-’70s SoCal culture to properly grasp Fu Manchu, but we’ve all seen “CHiPs,” right? Beyond that, what’s there to get? Nothing! It just rocks, pure and simple. Nobody needs to know what label it’s on, what member used to be in what band or is married to whom, or where they stand on NAFTA. Of course, this anti-aesthetic argument is slightly complicated by the fact that the sticker on the front of the Fu Manchu album says “The most conceptually perfect band since the Ramones,” (and slightly ironic because they do a Devo cover on this album, and everyone knows that Devo are the most conceptually perfect band since the Ramones), but we’ll let that slide.
Whether or not they’re a conceptually perfect band is of no consequence to the average listener. Fu Manchu is a study in gargantuan riffles (like riffs, only less annoying to say) and stoner speak-singing. You wonder how guitarist Scott Hill can come up with even one of these behemoths, let alone five albums’ worth. In fact, it’s too hard to properly describe the nature of Fu Manchu’s music without devolving into a series of rehashed “heavier than a …” similes or churlish monster truck references, so kindly take the following to heart: The stuff is heavy.
But if you’ve been tracking Fu Manchu’s progress for a while now, you’ll no doubt notice that with the addition of former Kyuss drummer/songwriter/producer Brant Bjork, the songs focus more on repetition and texture over sheer ass-waxing power. The production style reins in the guitars a bit in favor of a more cogent low-end growl with intermittent reverb- and vibrato-soaked passages. But don’t lament, reader, for there’s still plenty of juicy ground guitar chuck to be found.
Some may say that they’re a derivative Black Sabbath revue, but Fu Manchu are quite obviously a vast improvement on the theme, so, if you’ll permit a small digression: I say it’s time we dispose of Black Sabbath altogether. You heard me. Destroy them and render them into glue or Presto-Logs or whatever. They’ve outlived their usefulness and overstayed their welcome. Their constant break-up/Bud-Light-reunion-tour cycle is casuistry! Moreover, Ozzy is a grotesque, unamusing excuse for an aging metal avatar. So let us quit spoon-feeding it to each incoming class of rocker freshmen and start exposing them to The New Way. The sooner bands start ending their sets with Fu Manchu covers instead of “Paranoid” or—cringe—“Sweet Leaf,” the better off we’ll all be. You’ll see.
Now then, with the Swingin’ Neckbreakers, it’s the same deal: nothing to befuddle, no in-jokes, nothing to really “get.” Their songs are clean and hook-laden. Masterpieces, every one. They are indeed the Creedence Clearwater Revival of modern garage rock, albeit without the hokey backwoods bluesman affectations (which is to say they don’t use the word “chooglin’” in their songs) that made dirty ol’ John Fogerty seem like kind of a fraud. Neckbreaker Tom Jorgensen has Fogerty’s yowl down, but makes it a good deal more menacing without sacrificing tunefulness. And the inclusion of a recorder and a neo-Farfisal organ on a garage album has gotten to be quite cliché, but on “Mystery Woman” and “Us Against the World,” respectively, they are utterly undowithoutable.
Put either record on at an after-hours party at a decent volume, crack a Zima, then sit back and watch the dereliction unfold: Full frontal nudity, ill-advised head shaving, people urinating in planters, Doritos getting stomped into the carpet, girls sitting on their boyfriends’ shoulders. Yeah, your neighbors are gonna like these records real bad.