, July 9th, 2012 10:49
Rock & Roll may never die, but it's certainly been looking a bit peaky of late. Indeed, anyone with a love for fearless Marshall stack magick and an eye on the mainsteam has seen it suffer such an unquanfiable amount of indignities recently that it sometimes seems impossible to identify with almost all of its modern-day variants. Bands like Steel Panther and movies like Rock Of Ages labour the point of their own outrageousness and effervescent hilarity to the point that they ultimately end up as much fun as a long-distance National Express ride with only Dirty Projectors' David Longstreth and Billy Corgan for company. Guns N' Roses fans of yore can now be heard singing the praises of cretinous post-Nickelback fare like Black Stone Cherry and Theory Of A Deadman. Worse still, The Darkness have reformed, now as then proving that their championing of good old-fashioned values like "flamboyance" and "showbusiness" can be as depressing as the shrinking-violet Bombay Bicycle Clubs of this world.
How does an adventurous lover of the libidinous swagger of good old rama-lama find their way out of this predicament with their dignity intact? Well, the answer appears to come from a shower of distinctly suspect gentlemen from Norway (and now England) in their late thirties and early forties (although the "dignity" thing might be a moot point): perambulators of the Nigel Tufnel-sired fine-line-between-clever-and-stupid for so long that even they can't remember which is which anymore, and good thing too; a band who've taken both the glories and the sheer wretchedness of rock and rendered both as a midly distressing yet life-affirming descent into a netherworld of gaudy glam strut, Black Flag bile and piledriving AC/DC groove. Turbonegro is the band, and the audaciously entitled Sexual Harassment, last seen barnstorming the Norwegian album charts at No. 1, is their greatest album in some fourteen years. This development is all the more surprising given that a couple of years ago this band, who've battled through more than their fair share of trials and travails, looked finished. Their charismatic former frontman Hank von Helvete, loved for his fey bully-boy demeanour and bizarre onstage non-sequiturs as much as his voice, would be impossible to replace for most, and his departure to glam-goth supergroup Doctor Midnight And The Mercy Cult after a second high-profile battle with drug and alcohol abuse (via the Scientology-affiliated Narconon program) had many fearing the worst.
Yet if London rockers were doing double-takes aplenty when it was announced that Tony Sylvester, ex-frontman for post-Iron Monkey reprobates Dukes Of Nothing and dapper man-about-town, was to be the replacement, these have only been superceded in extremis by witnessing the style with which he fills these large boots. A more sandpaper-throated vocalist than Helvete, he manages to bring his own distinct identity to the trademark Turbonegro blend of menace, malice, absurdity and high camp, arriving at a vocal persona not unlike some nightmarish amalgam of Bon Scott, GG Allin and Sid James. What's more, the injection of new blood into the ranks has audibly charged the band's energy and vitality; on 2007's Retox the band bore the distinct air of a party at around 7AM, when only the heavyweights and the plain foolhardy are going the distance. Sexual Harassment has hammered back the clock ten hours chez Turbonegro, and the chink of ringpulls is heavy in the air.
One of the most laughable classic rock anthems in the canon will always be Elton John's 'Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting'. Yet the paradox at the heart of this baffling slice of raunch is also an essential parallel for Turbonegro's charm; the sheer outrage of the idea of dear ol' Reg raising hell as part of a motorcycle gang, just as much as the sheer chutzpah of Phil Lynott's boorish yet irresistible machismo on Thin Lizzy's 'The Rocker', is at the heart of this band's mysterious ability to turn base cliche into gold. Sexual Harassment, like all of Turbonegro's best work, embodies the ludicrousness of great rock music in a way that's always too full-blooded, sincere and unsettling to come over as overly-ironic pastiche. Not a lot of bands could get away with giving a song the chivalrous title 'Shake Your Shit Machine', or indeed 'You Give Me Worms', yet it's testimony to the strange hinterlands that Turbonegro stride, where CBGBs meets the darkest days of 70s Top of the Pops, that they effortlessly turn both these sentiments into anthems of equal parts abjection and abandon, bubblegum and Beelzebub. Similarly, if the balls-out opener 'I Got A Knife' bears more than a passing resemblance to the underclass aggro of Poison Idea, then 'Mister Sister' proves that The Sweet's 'Sweet Fanny Adams' played at 16RPM can be occasionally preferable to its correct speed.
As may seem unsurprising for any band whose fan club organise themselves into denim-clad faux-Hell's Angels gangs, Turbonegro can be a perplexing and intimidating proposition for the uninitiated. Moreover, any folk not put off by the album's title may still be confused by the chasm between the band's transgressive image and the glam-pop candy at their heart. Yet more so than ever, it's more fool them. Sexual Harassment, in all its spittle-and-cum-flecked glory, may not be reinventing rock 'n' roll for these inhospitable times, but it certainly knows how to give it a damn good seeing-to.