see all the photos from this event here
Drop Dead Festival
Knitting Factory, New York City
Friday September 3 to Sunday September 5 2004
~review and photos by Uncle Nemesis
(black and white photo of Ausgang by Joan Geoffroy by way of Mick Mercer)
Friday September 3 - bands in order of
In a pot-holed side street somewhere in downtown Manhattan, people with weird hairstyles are gathering. Not that thereís anything particularly astonishing about the hairstyles in this context: this is, after all, New York City, where sporting a hairstyle with attitude is almost the law. Nor, for an exactly similar reason, is there anything astonishing about the condition of the road surface, come to that. But this crowd is here with a purpose. Itís getting on for opening time at the Knitting Factory, and that means the Drop Dead festival is about to kick off.
What is the Drop Dead festival? An event dedicated to all that is horrorshow in post-punk music, thatís what. The official programme of events - a mini-fanzine assembled in time-honoured cut Ďní paste style - makes a point of casting the genre-net as widely as possible. Psychobilly, deathrock, gothabilly and batcave are all namechecked on the cover, alongside a bunch of other genres that Iíve never heard of - and which I canít help suspecting were made up on the spot. Monster surf, anyone? Funeral jive? Devilish garage? Gothic boogie? Curiously, the umbrella term under which all this stuff shelters - the expression Ďpost-punkí itself - is not mentioned. Ah, what the hell. In matters such as these, Billy Joel is my guru. Itís all rock Ďní roll to me.
The Knitting Factory is not the Enormodome.
But, as a two-stage, three-level venue itís substantially larger than the
venue for Drop Dead 2003, which took place in CBGB - a legendary club with
all the right punkish credentials, but definitely somewhat on the small
side. This yearís festival has also been expanded in time as well as space.
Itís now a three-day extravaganza, rather than 2003ís one-day event. That
means, of course, that there are many more bands lined up to play this
year than last. Over 40 of Ďem, if youíre counting, and while the bill
seems a little vague at times - several bands which were announced in advance
mysteriously fail to show, while several other bands which were not announced
do play - you certainly canít quibble with the quantity. On close inspection,
a good chunk of that impressive 40-plus band line-up comprises psychobilly
outfits from NYC and beyond, and these, of course, attract their own audience.
Itís the influx of the psychobilly crowd that has made this yearís move
into a larger venue possible, and while the marriage between the deathrockers
and the psychobillies may be a bit of a shotgun wedding in some respects,
at least itís a better match than, say, the EBM scene would be.
"...proof that individuality and a no-shit contemporary attitude can co-exist with a musical style in which roots and rules are sometimes treated with too much reverence."
Theyíre followed by...another rockabilly
outfit. A collection of gentlemen in black suits arrives on stage. These
are the Memphis Morticians, who in spite of their name come from right
here in New York. By now, the venue is filling up, although itís noticeable
that the overall crowd splits into two distinct audiences: the deathrockers
and the Ďbilly fans, without much crossover between them. At any rate,
most of the deathrock-ish punters take one look at the Memphis Morticians
and head downstairs to the second stage where horror-punks Kastle Grey
Skull are about to start up, leaving the
Morticians to play to what I suspect is essentially their regular crowd
of home-town fans. The band cook up another regular-flavoured rockabilly
stew, albeit a little heavier on the spooky seasoning; thereís a load of
reverb on the vocals for that down in the morgue at midnight feel, and
even a sudden microphone breakdown doesnít stop the bandís flow. The bass,
I note, is metal. Not metal in the Judas Priest manner (although that would
be...interesting): itís a conventional double bass in all respects except
itís made of metal, not wood. It seems to produce the usual plunk-plunk-plunk
sound, however, which is a slight let down. Iíd hoped that the band would
use their unusual instrumentation to do something off-message with that
olí rockabilly racket, but like so many bands in this musical area they
stick closely to the blueprint. So, weíll file Ďem under fun, but no surprises.
Nice suits, mind.
"Yes, this is more like it: the spirit of Drop Dead boiled up and distilled into a slug of sonic firewater."
Now weíre four bands in. Whoís next? I see yet another double bass being hauled on stage. Hmmm. Looks like weíre in the rockabilly zone again. That means Drop Dead is currently running at a rate of 75% rockabilly, which Iíd say is perhaps a little too high for comfort. If we get just another collection of cheery quiff-merchants merrily trotting out all the regular sounds, Iím going to the bar. Fortunately, my misgivings are unfounded, because the band which appears before us is Speed Crazy. They may sport the regular three-piece Ďbilly line-up, but they do something decidedly different with it. From the kick-off of the very first song, itís clear that Speed Crazy certainly donít believe in treating that hoary olí 50s aesthetic with any surplus respect. They conjure up a mad blast of noise thatís as fast and loud as a dragster, a great rush of a Ramones-ish rampage that seems utterly incongruous coming from a three-piece band. I find myself looking around for the extra guitarist, convinced that just one guitar canít create *that* massive, overdriven sound. Nope, what you see is what you get. Three people, three instruments, and a big, big, sound. Speed Crazyís secret weapon is their stand-up bass player, who spends much of the set whupping and pummelling and hauling her bass about the stage like sheís breaking in a bronco. She jumps on it, picks it up like it was a guitar, and even plays it behind her head. Itís as if sheís learned how to play a double bass by watching Jimi Hendrix videos. In all of this craziness, her pounding rhythm never stops, and she even takes time out to provide an occasional lead vocal. Good stuff, and surprising stuff, too: proof that individuality and a no-shit contemporary attitude can co-exist with a musical style in which roots and rules are sometimes treated with too much reverence.
A trio of good olí boys mill about on stage,
setting stuff up, strapping on guitars. This is Deadbolt. Itís as if ZZ
Topís roadies decided to form a band. They look like theyíve just barrelled
in from the local bikersí clubhouse. I bet if I glanced outside Iíd see
their chopped hogs, in ratbike black, lined up
in the street. Their sound matches their look - a dirty olí blues grind,
guitars riffing like a V8 ticking over. But thereís more to Deadbolt than
you might at first discern; theyíre more than just an oily bunch of rockers
in leather and shades. They play it all very straight, never letting on
by so much as the twitch of an eyebrow that thereís anything remotely humourous
about their show, and yet at intervals throughout the set they inject little
vignettes of silliness, odd flashes of knowingly parodic tomfoolery. The
guitarist, maintaining an utterly deadpan expression all the while, produces
a can of hairspray and touches up his quiff. He casts a critical eye over
his band-matesí hairstyles, and kindly offers them a swift bit of hair-maintenance
too. At times, the band simply stop playing to allow a burst of a pre-recorded
50s crooner to erupt like a ghost in the wires, whereupon the drummer stands
up, grabs a light, and sings into it like a manic Elvis impersonator. Then,
after a few bars of this, the band simply swing back into their low-rider
blues as if nothing unusual has happened. Itís all a bone-dry parody that
also works if you take it at face value - and, looking around at the audience,
Iím not at all sure how many people get the joke, and how many are just
rockiní along for the ride. Not that it really matters. Deadbolt, masters
of poker-faced rock Ďní roll pastiche that they are, work both ways.
" Itís like a tribal war dance breaking out before our very ears and eyes, and I donít mean in any contrived Adam Ant novelty-gimmick kind of way. "
Fast forward to 2004, and Ausgang are back. They look better than any 80s vintage band has any right to look, sporting as they do a stripped-down, contemporary, rock Ďní roll gangster image. The mohawks and big hair of the 80s are gone - and so, Iím relieved to note, have the blue denim dungarees. This is a band thatís clearly more about the here and now than any retro schtick. But before we proceed, let me clank the caution bell. I donít want to piss on anyoneís party here, but the way in which the US deathrock scene seems to have instantly hailed the reformed Ausgang as conquering heroes before theyíd actually conquered anything strikes me as a little odd. Awarding the band top star status before the 2004 version has even proved itself to be any good is surely just a little previous. Maybe itís because I was there that Iím not quite so starry-eyed about 80s stuff as those who werenít. I sometimes feel the way the US scene fetishises the British post-punk era rather misses the point. It wasnít all good, you know. Some of it, in fact, was rather crap. And call me a cynical old bastard if you will, but no band is going to get any back-slaps from me just because they have a bit of old-skool history behind them. All of which means that as Ausgang launch into their set to roars of approval from the crowd, Iím standing there, arms folded, wearing my most implacable ĎOK, then - impress me!í expression.
And bugger me but they do. Ausgang tear into a set of songs that sound as crisp and fresh as new laundry. Itís all in the rhythm: a huge great pounding rumble of bass and drums, like the cavalry coming over the hill. The guitar stabs and thrusts, and, over the top of everything thereís that crazy vocal, half way between a yelp and a yell. Itís like a tribal war dance breaking out before our very ears and eyes, and I donít mean in any contrived Adam Ant novelty-gimmick kind of way. Nope, Ausgang slam into their mad rhythmic tarantella like theyíre psyching themselves up for a head hunting expedition, pushing and pulsing as if intent on inducing other states of consciousness. The bandís visual identity is weirdly at odds with the thump and pound of the music, in that aside from vocalist Max himself, an energetic master of ceremonies throughout, nobody moves much on stage. Thereís certainly no gratuitous leaping around, as you might expect from the insistent urge of the music. Instead, the assembled musicians remain as impassive as an army band, generating a stirring sound while contriving to remain unstirred themselves. Thereís an Ďexperimentalí moment of bowed guitar - not, perhaps, an idea that can be taken too seriously in these post-Spinal Tap times - but for the most part itís a good old bash through Ausgangís greatest hits, and thatís just what this audience requires. Yes, I think this is a comeback - if indeed it *is* a comeback, not just a temporary regrouping for a few gigs - thatís going to work. Consider my cynicism well and truly trampled underfoot.
Ausgangís exhibition-standard thrash through their big beats would surely be a fine way to top off the first day of Drop Dead. But theyíre not the headliners. That honour goes to Cult Of The Psychic Fetus. Iíve heard a lot about this band: theyíve been represented as an impressively gung-ho bunch of psycho-rockers, but Iíve never seen them in the flesh nor heard a note of their music. All I know is the reputation. So, I station myself at the front and await blast off. Here they come - a collection of purposeful rock blokes toting guitars, and, on vocals, a man who looks like heís taking time off from his job as the butler at Castle Dracula. The band eases into a downtempo spooky croon of a song - aha, I think to myself, theyíre lulling us into a false sense of security; any minute theyíll hit the gas and really start rockiní. But the second song is also a downtempo spooky croon, the vocals an indecipherable mumble in the mix. Iím confused. Whereís the bunch of madcap rockers Iíd been led to believe Iíd encounter? The set continues, and it seems every song is a kind of lounge lizard-ish rock Ďní roll ballad, the vocals smoothly oozing out like spilled treacle while the guitarists stand back in the semi-darkness of the underlit stage, strumming their instruments with all the indifference of the rehearsal room. Itís...just a bit underwhelming, Iím afraid. There doesnít seem to be any real energy on stage - just a detatched, indifferent desire to trundle through the set with as little effort as possible. If youíve never seen Dave Vanianís Phantom Chords I suppose you might reckon Cult Of The Psychic Fetus to be fairly good, but they really donít catch fire for me. Itís a bit of a Zombina And The Skeletones experience, in a way: a band which seems to have a big publicity effort behind it - or, at least, plenty of fans and friends who push the line that hereís a band that really rocks - and then you see Ďem for yourself, and realise that, in fact, they donít. Nope, sorry, Cult Of The Psychic Fetus canít hold my attention. Itís now the early hours of the morning, and thereís a whole other day of bands to catch in a few hours, as the second day of Drop Dead commences. Time to get some sleep, I think. I leave while the band are still on stage. Maybe they cut loose and caught fire at the end of their set: maybe they injected some speed and passion as soon as I was out of the door, and brought down the house with a vintage performance of rock Ďní roll madness. But you know what? I doubt it.
Out into Leonard Street, then, and uptown
through the eerily silent night to the hotel. New York may be the city
that never sleeps, but the area around the Knitting Factory certainly seems
to take a nap in the small hours. Weíll be back to do it all again tomorrow...