Billy Nameless, frontman for London's girl-group-meets-gonzo-punk outfit the Action Time, is adamant that the state of rock today is, in a word, "corpselike."
But the singer and songwriter insists just as fervently that rock 'n' roll still has the power to redeem.
"People find spirituality in different things," Nameless, 24, said from his home in North London. "People find spirituality in drugs or in house music or in clothes. To me, there's times when I haven't wanted to get out of bed in the morning, but I put the needle on the record and it's inspired me to carry on."
The Action Time's recently released full-length debut, Versus the World, raises the curtain on a young band that's restless and ready to do something about it. Their MO: graft the Shangri-Las onto the Sex Pistols. Embrace melody and energy. Run screaming from both the Britpop of Blur and the opaque indie-rock of Tortoise. Like their American comrades the Make-Up, the Action Time ply a left-leaning mix of vintage R&B and scrappy rock 'n' roll, though they seem to have a more overt sense of humor about their mission than their Yankee cousins.
The sing-songy album opener "Soul on Ice" (RealAudio excerpt), for instance, kicks off with a litany of radical heroes. But when Nameless hits Chinese revolutionary Chairman Mao, he slips into the "mow mow" vocal riff from the 1964 Trashmen hit "Surfin' Bird."
Fittingly for such a stylized operation, each of the Action Time's six members sports a fictionalized background involving miscreant deeds, jail time, sleazy nightclubs and/or an apprenticeship with Phil Spector. Until he changed his stage handle to Billy Nameless (in honor of Andy Warhol cohort Billy Name), Nameless was Black September, and before that he called himself Rock Action in tribute to the Stooges drummer of the same name. His parents, whose last name may or may not have been Jones (depending on whether you believe him), called him Matthew.
Nameless founded the Action Time, all in their twenties, with guitarist Eddie Brackett at the end of 1998. They enlisted Jack Duvall to play bass, and female singers Miss Spent Youth and Suzy Sparkles to share the spotlight on vocals with Nameless. Drummer Miss CC Rider, who'd played guitar in the early '90s all-girl Mumbo Taxi, said she signed up after fancying Nameless' want ad seeking a "one-armed, wife-beating drummer."
"I think you have a new sort of style or genre of music that's a tuneless, rhythmless style," Rider said recently while home from work with the flu. (Her partners in the Rough Trade Records mail-order department call her Delia.)
"It seems to have invaded the whole, from indie and post-rock and electronica, right up to chart music," she continued. "I don't know if it's because people are feeling nihilistic, or what it is. The end result for me is music that has nothing of the components that I think make music. The whole point of music is that it's got a tune and it's got a rhythm and it makes you excited and you want to dance to it and sing along to it. Or you want to hear more of it, or know about it. A lot of the music now seems to not have any of that."
The Action Time's solution is songs such as the resolute "Rock and Roll" (RealAudio excerpt), which packs in nervous tambourines, whiny garage-rock keyboards and walls of "ooo-ooo-ooo"s. When Nameless asks in the song "Do you believe in rock 'n' roll?," it's not an ironic poke at the lyric from "American Pie," but a serious question. And the answer for him is "Absolutely."
On the sugary, infectious rallying call "I Will Fear No Evil" (RealAudio excerpt), Youth and Sparkles happily dive into the self-righteousness of their aesthetics. "I can sneer, 'cause I'm better than you," they sing.
"There's no way you can crucify me," they add later, and that sums up the Action Time's refusal to be swayed from their rock and soul passion.
"However cheesy people might think that is, and however much rock 'n' roll has been devalued and not so much a vital force as it once was, it truly inspires me," Nameless said.