Rock’s most valuable asset used to be its ability to scare people into thinking they were never gonna hear nice music again. Even shock rock turns nice with familiarity — glam, punk and metal being three prime examples of once-frightening genres that couldn’t inspire a piss shiver now.
Hank von Helvete was determined not to let any niceties seep into Turbonegro’s M.O. He sat down with his band of miscreants in 1995 and figured out that nothing says scary like beefy homoerotic anthems ramrodded up your anus by a bunch of Norsemen with moustaches, sailor hats and an attack dog. Sure, ’80s glam pusses like Mötley Crüe, Poison and Ratt wore makeup to shock mama and appeal to virginal teen boys afraid of the opposite sex, but none of those sissies would’ve had the collective testicles to wear makeup and sing about “Young Boys Feet” or “The Midnight NAMBLA” as the Turbos did on their epochal third album, Ass Cobra, whose cover satirized the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the thinking man’s sensitive album. They followed up that brainstorm with the 1998 masterwork Apocalypse Dudes which continued to push the rump-wrangler envelope (“Rock Against Ass,” “Rendezvous With Anus”), cemented the band’s denim fetish (“Back to Dungaree High”) and foreshadowed von Helvete’s heroin addiction which sidelined the group and sent the singer for a lengthy stay in a Milanese sanitarium (“Monkey on My Back”).
In Turbonegro’s absence, their rabid fan base — the Turbojugend — had nothing left to do but grow even more rabid while the band’s eagerly awaited 2002 Res-Erection tour attracted more of a mainstream audience on the festival circuit. Any worries that the new Turbonegro opus coupled with von Helvete’s adopted Alice Cooper eye-dressing would be a sucky 12-step change of heart a la From the Inside were quickly allayed by just a gander at the song titles: “Fuck The World (F.T.W),” “Drenched In Blood (D.I.B.)” and “Sell Your Body (To The Night).” The latter is a fist-pumping stadium rocker so sing-along-worthy it would restore Def Leppard to previous levels of Hysteria if heard on a massive scale. All of which pleases the spider-eyed singer to no end.
Calling in from his endless summer homeland, von Helvete attempts in halting English to explain just how big Turbonegro is these days.
“Now in Europe, we’re kinda more going mainstream. I would say lower mainstream,” he says. “Because we’re on indie labels and we’re so very negative and bullshit-ish. So we’re not like Def Leppard.”
But the band has rocked the huge festivals and they know what it’s like to hear 50,000 people chirp “I Got Erection” back at them.
While the Turbos are a favorite of American bands like the Supersuckers, Nashville Pussy and Queens of the Stone Age (all of whom contributed to last year’s Turbonegro tribute album, Alpha Motherfuckers), it’s the name-checking from other Scandanavian bands that von Helvete feels wary of.
“Some of these Scandinavian rock bands, I don’t want to be associated with them … I like those Norwegian black-metal guys better.
“We matured in a decade called the ’90s where there was a lot of techno, raves, shit like that, and the rock bands I’m referring to — lame grunge and the Brit-pop scene — their philosophy was look as ordinary as possible when they played their shows. Shoe-gazing, wearing Bermuda shorts or a T-shirt and, like, having long hair in front of the face, trying not to communicate with the audience — that was a reaction to the glam-rock scene from LA. Turbonegro’s philosophy is that when you sound good you might as well look good. This isn’t like a band sounding bad trying to look good to try to hide the fact they’re sounding bad. No way.”
Turbonegro’s idea of looking good is the most deliciously stupid group styling since the mad, plaid Bay City Rollers. Is the Alice Cooper/ Mötley Crüe makeup, the “Hogan’s Heroes”-meets-the Village People headgear and denim shirts, slacks and capes one gigantic tip of the hat to the American consumers it hopes to conquer?
“Of course not, ’cause we were never expected to break in America at all.
“But Norway is the most Americanized country in Europe. During the Cold War Norway adopted everything that was American and we speak English fluently. I would call Norway the 51st state.”
If America ever adopted Turbonegro, these guys would get blamed for everything. Look at all the frivolous lawsuits Marilyn Manson has to endure just gyrating near a stadium rent-a-cop and he isn’t half the public menace Turbonegro is. Just think of how fast the ASPCA would be on bassist Happy Tom for forcing his bitch to pose in every band shot. (“The dog is called Cunnilingus, and Tom and the dog make out all the time. He beats the dog, he kicks the dog, but every night they forgive each other and do something weird. … I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.”)
“We will never get sued in America because all the people that would sue Marilyn Manson, when they see Turbonegro, they would see what is our thing and the answer would be we’re never dangerous to anyone else but ourselves.”
See Turbonegro Monday, Sept. 22, at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit) with Gaza Strippers. For info, call 313-961-MELT.Serene Dominic writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]