There was a time, in punk-rock's formative era, when pissed-off kids all
over America could be found stomping around in combat boots and army
jackets, with hair that suggested the handiwork of some military barber
who had been laid off for drunkenness, and, most importantly, a particular
kind of sneer on their faces. It was an imported sneer. Its inventor, or
at least popularizer, was Johnny Rotten.
I remember my first sighting of such types, briskly making their way in dual
formation down Brooklyn Heights' Henry Street. I stopped to look, impressed.
There were a couple of records under the arm of one of them; I made out the
Clash's Give Them Enough Rope. These two guys, while sitting in class
at school, would probably talk just like they did before they ever heard
"White Riot," but in the privacy of their own bedrooms they probably tried out
something resembling an English accent.
Listening to Idlewild's Hope Is Important reminds me of those guys and
girls (with their dyed red hair cut short, combat boots with knee-high black
socks, hanging around smoking cigarettes at lunch and talking about Tier 3 or
the Pyramid Club or the Peppermint Lounge or Danceteria), because there is a
similar kind of cultural import/ export deal taking place with this band
except, in a peculiar but satisfying twist, the goods are being shipped
in the opposite direction.
Hope Is Important starts out with a furious blast of punk energy
you can practically hear the singer's head banging against the ceiling
as he jumps up and down, going crazy. This being a British band, I expected to
hear that particular brand of class-antagonized punk rocket fuel that
blew the lid off everything back in the day (not that I was so in on it,
having been more of the Zeppelin-Stones-Beatles-Who persuasion at the time).
Idlewild are certainly an explosive cathartic band when they let it rip,
but as the record progresses a peculiar sound emerges from the sound of
guitar-driven thrash: an American accent. It's always interesting to see
which bits of American culture pop up out of context. These are certainly
some earnest and catchy power-punk songs that Bob Mould would be proud
of. The Husker Du reference is specific; thank God they didn't swerve a
tiny coordinate over in the pop-geographical time machine and land on the
Replacements. The Senseless Things, the last English band to take the
Replacements as a main source of inspiration, produced an enjoyable bit
of power-pop kitsch that came and went in a flash.
The Senseless Things, by the way, were the opening act on Blur's first U.S.
tour. They sought inspiration in the great American expanse at a time when
"Creep" was Radiohead's one-hit wonder, Blur were pushing their dance-pop
single "There's No Other Way," and Oasis were a band called Rain that
featured only one Gallagher (the one who doesn't write songs). It seems
interesting that at a time when the huge surge of energy that came out of
England (largely in the form of the above-mentioned bands) is dissipating, a
band looking back to mid-'80s American punk should appear, book-ending
The Senseless Things' presence at the start of all that. A glance at
current UK music magazines is a surreal experience these days; they are
touting Gay Dad the '90s Sigue Sigue Sputnik and other
horrible crap. And here is this burst of strangely attitudeless, almost
morose (in that introspective, anti-fashion, rage-accumulating way) yet
also cheerful trio who, in case you missed the point listening to the
music, wear big smiles on their press pictures and sweatshirts with the
letters "USA" emblazoned on them.
Some of these songs are driving rants, but the best are actually pretty staid,
reflective and tuneful. The standout tracks are "4 People Do Good" (RealAudio excerpt), "I'm So
Woomble (what a name!) singing rather tunefully and wistfully, with echoes of
the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. The band
gets major points for its name, which was what Kennedy Airport used to be
called in a bygone era (it's also the name of a novel by the influential
English cultural critic Mark Lawson, though somehow I don't think this came
into play when they picked it). Hope Is Important is a great, catchy,
pissed-off, hard-charging record that reminds me of when thrashing guitar
chords and impassioned power-pop really made one want to jump up and down
in one's room and then defiantly stomp down the street, waiting and wanting
for something to rage against, something against which you could be defined.
Thomas Beller is the author of "Seduction Theory," a collection of
stories, and a founding editor of the literary magazine Open City.
His novel, "The Sleep-Over Artist," is out in the summer of 2000.