Soul, bubblegum and gonzo rock

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The news is there’s nothing startling or new to report about the Dirtbombs. Their latest lineup is: Mick Collins (guitar, vocals); Ben Blackwell (drums); Pat Pantano (drums); Tom Potter (bass); and Jim Diamond (bass). But so what? Since the mid-’90s, the band has existed in about eight or nine configurations and has subjected almost every known genre of music to its sonic experiments. Change is part of the band’s charm, it seems.

In 2001, there was the usual smattering of Dirtbombs vinyl singles on various independent labels from around the world — Hate Records from Rome and Sweet Nothing from Britian, to name a couple. The band completed yet another European tour highlighted by numerous mentions in the French and British press, including New Music Express. The Dirtbombs also contributed a song called “I’m Through with White Girls” (produced by Diamond and Jack White of the White Stripes) to the CD compilation Sympathetic for the Sounds of Detroit (Sympathy for the Record Industry).

And, yes, there’s finally another full-length CD to follow 1998’s perversely cuddly Horndog Fest (In the Red). Actually the group made up for the three-year gap this year by doubling up with Ultraglide in Black (In the Red) and Chariots of the Gods? (Au Go Go).

While Chariots delivers a set of Dirtbombs originals, Ultraglide’s an LP of ’60s soul covers broken down and rebuilt to rev like a vintage Chevy engine in the hands of some primitive punk mechanics. Maybe that’s why they call it “garage.”

Collins just pulled some George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder et al out of his massive record collection and there you have it. “When you’ve got 7,000 LPs, some great songs get lost in the shuffle,” he says.

“I like to pull them out and see what we sound like playing them. And also freaking people out when they hear a punk-rock band playing a Barry White song.”

But don’t get too comfortable with that groove — the band is already working on its next record, a full-length CD of mostly original bubblegum pop songs, perhaps something along the lines of the Archies, only drunk and playing broken instruments. If Pantano can convince his band mates, it’ll include a cover of “Sweet Pea.”

“It isn’t the applause we’re looking for,” Pantano adds. “It’s the sound of thousands of heads being scratched.”

The band is as defiant about rock ’n’ roll as it is prolific and romantically devoted to it; more like nerdy fans audibly thumbing through thrift-store racks of vinyl than champions or profiteers of style. The Dirtbombs’ sensibilities sit perpendicular to the flow of music’s culture, cutting, crossing and reinventing where other musical acts struggle against the stream.

“We were called gonzo rock again in France,” Collins says. “It’s the only label I like. Apart from Hunter S. Thompson being one of my favorite writers ... The guy didn’t even do a story on anything. He just went to a hotel room, did a bunch of drugs and made it all up. If somebody says my music sounds like that, I’m all for it.”

Good for dancing, wonderfully accommodating to short attention spans, the Dirtbombs move all over the musical map, but usually wave the same recognizable flag. The voice (Collins) is Hendrix singing along with an Otis Rush album. The guitar (Collins, again) is two chords’ worth of beat-driven, minimalist noise, while the drums and bass double the pleasure of the sonic tangle.

It’s a place where anything can happen, yet not everything goes. The music-geek mentality is, after all, a discriminating one. The band will gladly run out of genres before it touches heavy metal. “[It] will never be worthwhile to do,” Collins says. “Not even in parody. I’ll leave that to Tori Amos.”

And on the subject of rock radio ’n’ video, the band could carry on for hours about what puts the Limp in Limp Bizkit and why, if it weren’t for P.O.D., Creed would be the worst band in the world.

But listening to the Dirtbombs rip through “Living for the City” or Mayfield’s “Kung Fu” is much more interesting than their eloquent diatribes on music. The greedy and gritty approach to playing the stuff speaks volumes about the current state of rock and roll and remains the sole — or soul — cause of this precarious success.

Despite the genre shifting, a frequently changing roster and the rebellious vision of Collins, whom Diamond refers to as “the id of the band,” the Dirtbombs always seem to do rock right.

And at least a few people in the world are glad that the Dirtbombs would rather press a 7-inch for some obscure label in Timbuktu than contemplate its identity, or measure its potential for fortune and fame. If you don’t believe it, just check out the band’s discography.

“We aren’t thinking about our futures,” Pantano says. “Or our careers.”

Join the Dirtbombs’ newly launched singles club and get a dozen 7-inchers for $50. Read all about it at

Norene Cashen writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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