They weren’t there to turn the One Model Management’s New York holiday party into a free-for-all of flinging fists. Left-wing rock band Living Things were actually hired to play the event.
The trendy Hiro Ballroom was filled with runway hotties and other beautiful people, including Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen and Bryan Adams, and Living Things were rocking the rafters when a drunk member of Brooklyn band — and former Living Things tour partners — Vietnam grabbed the mic. The New York Post reported that the guy shouted, “I really liked you guys in the Special Olympics,” but according to Living Things lead singer Lillian Berlin, the heckler said even more offensive things.
“After yelling this sh–, the guy scratched me in face and we all piled onto him,” Berlin clarified a couple of days after the rumble. “If it wasn’t us, it was going to be a crowd of 500 pounding his face in.”
It wasn’t the first time the St. Louis quartet’s views have caused a ruckus. The band’s anti-administration, anti-capitalist and antiwar rants and stage antics — which have included burning photos of George Bush and hiring a dominatrix to appear in a Donald Rumsfeld mask — have earned them a reputation as troublemakers. They even scared their former label enough to drop them before the release of their U.S. debut record. A year later, the disc was picked up by Jive.
“When any person or artist has a particular strong opinion about something, it always attracts problems,” Berlin shrugged. “My mother was a political activist for many years and I noticed from her how people get rubbed the wrong way when you’ve got a very firm stance on something. But it definitely gets their attention too. I just want to help make it so America gets back to its roots of being a traditionally somewhat good country. These days everything is so driven by big business and money that the American dream has been completely shoved under a blanket.”
Living Things — Berlin, bassist Eve Berlin, drummer Bosh Berlin (all brothers) and guitarist Cory Becker — couch their strong liberal views in fiery torrents of punk, hard rock and alt-rock that are equal parts MC5, Rolling Stones, Nirvana and Jesus and Mary Chain. The band’s current disc, Ahead of the Lions, is filled with equal doses of melody and fury.
“Socially aware issues are what inspire me to write songs and what move me to get up onstage and scream my head off,” Berlin explained. “And I’ve learned that the best way to captivate legions of people is by making rock music that they can easily grasp. I started out writing songs that were like the essays I write — collegiate and complex. I found it doesn’t work in a song because half the country is very blue collar, and you have to present things to them in a very simple way.
“That’s why George Bush works so well in America as far as the way he communicates,” he continued. “Bush speaks exactly their lingo. So I feel like if you’re going to do something in entertainment, it’s got to be graspable. We’re not trying to be a band that 10 people will listen to. We want as many as possible to listen to what we’re doing because we’re trying to move people to get out there and make a change.”
However, his means of communicating has led to criticism from even those with similar views. They describe his approach as unproductive and uncouth, and argue that instead of underscoring his points, he’s discrediting himself by supporting the opposition’s position that he’s childish and disrespectful. “Well I don’t think you should be disrespectful to anybody, but our elders who are running America are being extremely disrespectful to kids who are 18 to 23 who are fighting in Iraq,” Berlin countered. “They’re over there fighting a war that is basically a lie and they’ve got their lives on the line. It’s heartbreaking.”
For their February tour with the Vacation, Living Things plan to be more creative and less confrontational. Instead of burning pictures of politicians, Berlin wants to distribute his fanzine The Blackout Generation and hold an open-discussion forum before the shows. He eventually wants to make the shows more like communal political events. “I want it to be this kind of gathering where there are musicians, artists, poets and filmmakers traveling together as an entourage,” he explained. “And I want to have them all express their different views from the stage. Also, I want to do some performances on a train with people going from one city to the next and do some shows for people outside of governors’ mansions.”
In addition to touring unconventionally, in the coming months Living Things plan to finish their second album, which they started working on when they were between record deals. The plan is to have the disc out in October. While the songs will be as visceral and incendiary tracks like “Bom Bom Bom,” “I Owe” and “Bombs Below” from Ahead of the Lions, they’ll have a different, more sophisticated groove. “We’re gonna have horns and piano and stuff,” Berlin said. “We got to work in Nashville with people who used to work on old Rolling Stones records and we were listening to a lot of the old Sun recordings when we were writing those songs. So it’s going to have more of an old-time rock and roll boogie to it. But it’s still gonna sound like Living Things. I don’t think anyone who likes Ahead of the Lions will be disappointed.”