Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Look Both Ways #11: Feeling (W)iggy with a New King

King Khan and the Shrines are definitely a throwback, albeit a triumphantly forward-looking one. Where exactly they’re throwing us back to, though, is tough to say. Is it to 1974 New York City, where the Ramones’ black leather jackets blend into the damp, dark walls of CBGB as they tear through an early version of “Blitzkrieg Bop”? Is it to Abbey Road Studios in 1967, where the Zombies are bringing psychadelia to a boil with their single, “Time of the Season”? Maybe it’s to 1964, when the Rolling Stones and the Animals are recording their first Chuck Berry covers, prompting bluesman Sonny Boy Willamson II to muse, “Those English kids want to play the blues so bad, and they play the blues so bad.” Or is it to Harlem in 1962, when James Brown’s Famous Flames are tearing up the stage at the Apollo with hyperactive horns and unrelenting theatrics?

King Khan charges all the delirious mania of the psychedelic era into his soul confessor’s shout. He layers horns on top of wildly distorted guitars. He uses the ominous haze of a minor key like few musicians after Eric Burdon have been able to. In fact, the sound of Khan’s insouciant youthfulness is so tied up in the 1960s that it seems difficult to accept the overwhelming punk influence on this record.

His band teeters carelessly at the precipice of sanity, threatening to launch off with us strapped precariously to its back (kicking and screaming, yes, but laughing in spite of ourselves). And in this way it distinctly recalls four true children of the ’60s who are widely credited as the godparents of punk rock: the Stooges.

Two years ago, King Khan and the Shrines released an incredible album, What Is?!, in Europe. The LP finally got its due across the pond last week, when Vice Records released it in the United States.

The Stooges released their debut album, The Stooges, 40 years ago after frontman Iggy Pop drew inspiration from MC5 and the Doors to escape the derivative blues model of so many British Invasion bands. The Stooges fused the rhythmic and lyrical repetition of a blues stomp with the frustrated romanticism of post-adolescence and created a heavier, grimier and more lascivious music. Five years later, punk rock would emerge as a slightly whittled-down version of that sound.

There is nothing whittled down about King Khan. He takes the Stooges’ nasty guitar pulse and throws in an organ and some blustering horns. He takes the deadpan exasperation of Iggy’s lyrics and kicks it into fifth gear, often consciously bordering on self-parody. King Khan even takes Iggy’s incendiary stage presence (he was famous for climbing into the crowd and was often smeared in his own blood by the end of concerts) and adds a go-go dancer. No, I’m serious—Bamboorella is the Shrines’ full-time go-go dancer.

There’s a cockiness about both these singers that’s engendered by a supreme sense of nothing to lose. On “Real Cool Time,” a bass-heavy three-chord jam bathed in distortion and wah wah, Iggy sings, “Can I come over tonight?/ What do you think I wanna do?/ That’s right.” The same know-it-all nonchalance imbues King Khan’s “(How Can I Keep You) Outta Harm’s Way,” which sounds like the Zombies and the Animals got their hands on some horns and somehow churned out a hard-rock tune. King Khan wails, “Spilling all your honey and lies/ Got you nothing but grief/ I can hold you, baby, in my arms,/ Give you a little relief/ Believe me, baby, and understand,/ I got you here in the palm of my hand.”

King Khan’s influences are as wide-ranging and unpredictable as his stage antics, but he leaves listeners no choice but to join him in surrendering to an intense brew of emotions—the powerlessness of youth, a need for sexual commiseration, the unstoppable urge to just forget it all and dance. It was Iggy Pop’s unflinching representation of these very torments that made him so revolutionary and keeps his music fresh today.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the April 27 issue of the Tufts Daily.

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