The Boston Phoenix
April 16 - 23, 1998

[Music Reviews]

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Sleazy does it

The noise and poise of Pussy Galore

by Carly Carioli

Pussy Galore This is the kind of band that Pussy Galore were: the best thing about 'em was their album covers and their song titles. And the way their out-of-print albums have languished on the walls of used-record stores -- accruing dust and fetching increasingly inflated prices while the band's alumni have gone on to greater or lesser degrees of infamy in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Royal Trux, the Honeymoon Killers, and Free Kitten -- has served PG's legacy well. In fact, now that every Dick and Harry can actually afford to hear 'em -- thanks to Matador, which is reissuing the, uh, seminal PG troika, Right Now! (1987), Sugarshit Sharp (1988), and Dial M for Motherfucker (1989) -- the value of these albums, as measured both in dollars and in (sub)cultural capital, is likely to decrease sharply.

Up till now, the only evidence of Pussy Galore kept continuously in print has been Corpse Love (Caroline), which collects the three EPs (Feel Good About Your Body, Groovy Hate Fuck, and Pussy Gold 5000). On those projects, Julia Cafritz, Neil Hagerty, and semiotics student Spencer (his future wife and Boss Hog member Cristina Martinez also made sporadic appearances) gave the world "HC Rebellion" (taking the piss out of DC's self-righteous hardcore scene) and dismantled, song for song, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, an in-joke that probably deserved to be heard by a wider audience. That's not to mention offend-at-all-costs blows like "You Look like a Jew," "Cunt Tease," and the self-referential "Asshole." But aside from their malignant conceptual genius and a few Groovy Hate Fuck songs, the disc is pretty much an unlistenable cacophony of feedback, tossed-off white-noise tangents, and tangled, out-of-tune guitars; it's like cats fighting over a vacuum cleaner as broadcast over a bad AM transistor set.

And though they'd never again get quite as potentially offensive as they were on Groovy Hate Fuck, their music wasn't quite the dead end that Corpse Love would lead you to believe. Lacking Sonic Youth's renegade melodic dissonance and the comic-book B-movie shtick of White Zombie (who were considered PG's contemporaries back then), they in effect reverse-engineered a new kind of lo-fi scum rock from collections of obscure '60s garage-punk singles like Back from the Grave and Nuggets -- trying to preserve some semblance of the disorienting experience they presumed audiences must have had 20 years earlier listening to cheaply recorded, poorly played, but primitively ecstatic rock and roll.

On those terms Right Now! is a success -- but it's still a mess to listen to. With 19 songs whizzing by in 33 minutes, it's too restless to be formulaic, but it's nonetheless a cumulatively monochromatic experience, beset by a harried monotony broken only by tongue-tied jolts of what sounds like pure frustration. Only occasionally does it seem that guitarists Spencer, Hagerty, and Cafritz are playing the same song, and even then they're not playing it for keeps. In keeping with their AM fixation, there's nothing in the way of bass range on the album; the guitars are tinny and crackling, with former Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert's metal percussion sounding variations on tin-can plink (as opposed to the Stooges primitive roar and oil-drum thud). Ringing and muffled, this was to be PG's signature sound -- a cranky, trebly, begrudging sonic aesthetic that informed an entire school of underground post-garage rock and roll. "White Noise" sets the tone: it sounds like someone trying to learn (or unlearn) "Wooly Bully," the guitars just out of tune enough to make it feel lagging and laconic, an old overworked 1-4-5 riff that's finally been allowed to communicate how bored it is with itself. Yet Spencer and Cafritz are aroused by it, shouting: "I wanna feel gooood!" And then it's over -- barely a verse and a chorus -- before it's really even begun.

PG take longer to put the other songs out of their misery: the band keep cutting away in the middle to deliver shrieking beat-downs or pausing for blunt one-note repetitions. These mid-song jump cuts almost guaranteed that no matter how many times you listened, it would still sound vaguely confusing and wrong. Their music defies mainstream assimilation, which is either (depending on your view of these things) its ultimate charm or its fatal flaw. As befits a band whose source material was largely discarded singles, Pussy Galore might have been the first significant rock-and-roll group whose entire recorded output sounded like outtakes. "Rope Legend" could've been a bootleg Birthday Party rarity; "Pussy Stomp" (Spencer: "Shove that pussy in my face!") sounds like a lost Cramps B-side. Listening to Right Now, you get the feeling Pussy Galore couldn't write a riff tune without feeling guilty about it. They may have felt good about their bodies, but they'd internalized rock's inferiority complex to the point that they could barely speak without cringing. At times it seems like the sound of paralysis, of being so stymied by the possibilities and consequences of every little riff and gesture that they crumbled every time they tried to play. The sound of trying to fail, and failing.

The centerpiece of the seven-song, 18-minute Sugarshit Sharp -- recorded sans Neil Hagerty and adding future Boss Hog dude Kurt Wolf -- is a cover of industrial forefathers EinstŸrzende Neubauten's "Yu Gung" that became one of the band's most posthumously referenced songs, thanks to its sample of Public Enemy's "Don't Believe the Hype." It's the closest they ever came to heavy metal: still jagged and perforated, but with a concussive thrust and searing, propulsive snarl. The remaining six songs sound like a dry run for Boss Hog, the slashing, punkier outlet Spencer formed the following year with Martinez, Wolf, and Honeymoon Killer Jerry Teel. The most straightforwardly rocking set Pussy Galore ever put together, Sugarshit Sharp shows them on the verge of becoming the party band they claimed they wanted to be -- if you've heard modern-day permutations like the Chrome Cranks, the Oblivians, and Guitar Wolf, this is the Pussy Galore disc that'll make the most sense.

They reverted to more confusing form on 1989's Dial M for Motherfucker (during its recording Cafritz got fed up and left, publicly calling Spencer an asshole on her way out the door), which is widely considered their best album. (It may be outdone, though, by Live: In the Red, a recently released 1989 concert with sound quality and no-filler performances that are at least as good as those on any of their studio albums.) Aided by a faux blaxploitation cover, and Shaft-style female backing vocals on "Solo=Sex," Spencer makes his first real foray into the jive-ass hustler persona he'd refine in the Blues Explosion. It retains the lumbering feel of Right Now!, of vaguely related but mostly disparate guitars fencing angrily, occasionally falling into begrudging agreement. There's still plenty of cut-and-paste bullshit -- like "Kicked Out," a church-organ-and-foghorn-tone moaning noise interlude that eventually distends into a mediocre garage-punk dance tune. And though they've clearly embraced the artier side of the trash spectrum, they've still got "Dick Johnson" and "Eat Me" to keep the sleaze flag flying high.

Thing is, Pussy Galore were never viable enough to provoke anyone outside their insular corner of rock and roll, and by 1989 the illusion of their revolutionary offensiveness had greatly dissipated -- the big culturally important obscenities in America were going on in hip-hop, where 2 Live Crew were kicking up a storm. Not unaware of this, PG sampled the oh-so-appropriate 2 Live Crew chorus "Hey we want some Poo-say!" on Motherfucker's opening track, "Understand Me." The album begins with a parody of self-censorship in which Spencer explains he means pussy as in poontang, not pussy as in cat. You have to listen carefully to hear him, though, because his voice is all distorted and random words are bleeped out. Which is vintage Pussy Galore -- manufacturing their own misunderstandings, tailoring their own transgressions. Here Spencer's asking to be taken at his word, at face value, fairly begging for someone to be offended, or at least to get down and party. When the song finally kicks in, it's as close to the Blues Explosion as Pussy Galore ever came, but there's not quite enough there to achieve either goal.

Spencer, Hagerty, and Bert went on to record Pussy Galore's final album (still out of print), Historia de la Música Rock (1990), as a trio. It was a startling departure that proved they were ready to treat the Stones seriously, as on a relatively faithful cover of Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" and the "Sympathy for the Devil"-leaning closer, "Drop Dead." But fans must have wondered why they had suddenly opted for restraint. Spencer finally got to fulfill his garage-rock fantasies by putting out the first Blues Explosion album on Crypt Records, the label that had released the Back from the Grave series. Eventually he boned up on funk, blues, and soul -- and learned how to play guitar. The JSBE's latest, Now I Got Worry (Capitol), proved that maybe all PG really needed was a backbone to connect. Bert would end up in the Chrome Cranks with former Honeymoon Killer Jerry Teel. Cafritz went on to form the two-guitar free-form noise duo Free Kitten with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.

Hagerty, meanwhile, inherited the role of poster boy for junk and noise in Royal Trux, his long-running Stones-signifying art-noise band with Bam-Bam-haired pincushion Jennifer Herrema. A string of albums with an even looser sense of coherence and more explicitly unhinged cut-and-paste philosophy than Pussy Galore -- though with occasionally more rewarding results -- somehow got them signed to Virgin in 1995. After a pair of uproariously difficult major-label albums -- the office joke about the last one was that Royal Trux had spent so much time trying to imitate a truly bad rock band, no one could tell the difference anymore -- they returned to Drag City, where they've just delivered the punchline to the Virgin deal by making their most listenable album to date. Accelerator bleats with the usual midrange tape-hiss-addled fuzz guitar, masked Casio, and organ, but beneath the sonic strychnine of their lo-fi veneer lie readily graspable proto-psychedelic gems. "Now you know I'm ready!", Hagerty and Herrema declare on the opening track -- and sheesh, it's about time.

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