In the late 1970s, when wearing a leather jacket and spiking your hair was still likely to get you heckled on the street (or worse), Johnny Rotten infamously wrote “I HATE” on a Pink Floyd T-shirt, wittingly creating a fashion-friendly manifesto for the movement. Punks in London set out to rebel against the pompous, virtuosic prog rock in vogue at the time, rejecting the bombast of guitar solos and light shows along with the complacency of the British public.
If the shock of punk’s first eruption has faded away, alas, the first wave of bands created a simplistic model slavishly imitated for decades. By 1980, punk had become a formula: throw three chords together, get a mohawk and a scowl, and there you have it–instant rebellion. Originally about breaking down tradition, punk had acquired its own set of taboos. Toronto natives Fucked Up, who play at Reggies on Thursday, self-consciously break dozens of them, and are all the more exciting for it.
With their mix of sarcastic wit and macho brutality, they could easily have fit into the 1980s hardcore scene. Singer Pink Eyes sports a sumo wrestler’s physique, a shaved head, a vicious bark, and the conspicuous habit of losing his shirt (or shorts) at the beginning of performances. Slam dancing, crowd sing-alongs, and destruction are as vital to a Fucked Up show as the music itself.
What makes Fucked Up more than just another group of delinquents with guitars, though, is the way they repeatedly confront the values of punk rock. While they’ve recorded dozens of two-minute rippers, they’ve also recorded eighteen-minute excursions–an eternity in the world of hardcore. And what a trip these opuses are, placing glam, Krautrock, Tropicalia, the Situationist International, and Ezra Pound influences next to traditional themes about hating the police, being hated by the police, and the bleakness of postindustrial comfort. Their new record even uses a string section, once considered the ultimate form of prog rock excess, with results that are not one bit gimmicky. But even their “traditional” punk songs are subversive–take “Generations,” an unintellectual but catchy rant about nothing in particular, which makes a three-minute mockery of the very crowds that chant along. The band has even become darlings of Canadian MTV, performing in a public restroom on live television and leaving it in ruins. In early October, Fucked Up accomplished what may be their most amazing feat, playing for twelve hours to promote the release of their new record, “The Chemistry of Common Life.” It sounds more like performance art than punk, but Fucked Up have always been the punk answer to punk rock, rebelling against the mohawked establishment rather than the tie-wearing one.
Psychedelic Horseshit, three scruffy, glassy-eyed slackers from Columbus, Ohio’s swelling lo-fi scene, join Fucked Up for the Midwest leg of their tour. They’re sure to bring a few of the more traditional elements of punk to the Reggies stage: out-of-tune guitars, torn clothes, dogged indifference, and the unconditional hatred of hippies. As the story goes, the band was formed when its members somehow managed to pull themselves together in order to crash a heinous long-haired jam session, and one of their favorite tunes, “New Age Hippies,” lambastes today’s youth for blogging about the world’s problems instead of, say, rioting in the streets. It’s safe to say that their attitude is much closer to the “I hate Pink Floyd” spirit.
Psychedelic Horseshit is part of a micro-scene mockingly dubbed “shitgaze,” so named for being as murky and impenetrable as early-’90s shoegaze records, except much, much lower-fi. Layers of sloppy guitar buzz and simple, lopsided beats drown out the atonal ranting of frontman Matt Whitehurst–it’s the ideal soundtrack for sleazy hangouts in squalid, mildew-scented basements.
There’s a real commitment to this ramshackle aesthetic, to snapped strings on cheap guitars and songs recorded in the band members’ living rooms. It’s also a wildly successful sound–Psychedelic Horseshit and their cohort of shitgazers have appeared in NME, on MTV, and on countless blogs, and the last time the band performed in Chicago, the venue was so crowded that promoters had to start turning people away. Used to performing at house shows in front of groups of their friends, the musicians were visibly amused by the huge turnout. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Matt warned after the first song of Psychedelic Horseshit’s set, “We’re supposed to sound crappy.” But behind the disheveled cascades of amorphous guitar racket and synth buzz lurk songs much catchier than anything on commercial radio. But then, punk rock was always about having fun, too.
Reggies Rock Club, 2109 S. State St. October 2. Thursday, 6 pm. $12. reggieslive.com