Turbonegro Live at Webster Hall, NYC

By Hollis James

After creating the term deathpunk, making sailor hats fashionable, introducing “ass rocket” into the lexicon, making the word gay cool with metal-heads and having the best eye make-up this side of Dead Presidents, Turbonegro has little left to prove. By now, the deathpunk darlings have pretty much made their statement, musically. They’re not about to learn a new chord or pull a hetero-rabbit out of their lyrical hat. But their raison d’etre is so simplistic in its terms that it is undeniably charming. The don’t-ask-don’t-tell battalion continues to tour endlessly, scorching the earth in that meaty part of the DMZ between original Norwegian noisemakers and raucous Ramones tribute band. Add to that a growing adolescent fan base through—of all things—the championing of skater turned jackass turned reality-star Bam Margera, and Turbonegro seems primed for its second burst of popularity. For you see, the Turbonegro currently tearing up soccer stadiums in their native land and one-thousand seaters in the U.S., have already made it big, broken up, disappeared, reformed, and are on the verge of becoming bigger than ever. (Their phoenix-like rebirth is brilliantly documented in their own film ResErected. –Ed.)

For the crowd at Webster Hall, there were few who didn’t know what to expect. Lead singer Hank would be at his bare—and ample—bellied best, signature eye-black, denim and cane in tow. Bassist Happy Tom would continue to boost the paramilitary appeal of sailor hats more than anyone this side of Mr. Salty. And guitar-god Euroboy would let fly with brilliantly epic solos that make the audience (and Euroboy’s fellow band members) wonder why he’s wasting time with such a primitive group of head cases. But make no mistake, neither Turbonegro—nor their audience—is looking to improve upon the sonic wheel that these musical masochists invented on their 1992 debut album Hot Cars and Spent Contraceptives. With song titles like “Kiss the Knife,” “Zonked Out On Hashish” and “Vaya Con Satan,” this band came out of the gate with no illusions—or intentions—about getting played on the radio. The band may have started as more 'prank' than 'punk,' but thanks to a fiercely loyal following, endless touring and an increasing lack of true punk competition (no, kids, Green Day isn’t punk), Turbonegro haven’t so much become great as had greatness thrust upon them.

The band’s latest album Party Animals picks up right where Scandinavian Leather left off—heavy riffs propelling lyrical spit-shouts extolling the virtues of ass, Satan and denim (not necessarily in that order)—the pursuit of which almost always ends in death or at least the spilling of blood. Just par for the course in their home base of Norway; but the rest of the world has proved to be a mixed bag of riots, cancelled dates, overwhelming successes and workmanlike opening gigs. While darlings of the hype-heavy-yet-valid Euro-punk set back home, Turbonegro may be their own worst enemy in an unsubtle country like the U.S., a country which actually had to invent the phrase, "I'm just kidding." If you take Turbonegro too seriously, however, the real joke is on you. Turbonegro don’t just have a sense of humor, but a sense of irony that operates as a protective shell no critic can possibly penetrate. Yes, they rip off the occasional Ramones riff (“I Wanna Get It On” is built upon the foundation of “I Just Wanna Have Something To Do”), but given that the only original Ramone still breathing is its drummer, it’s up to another band to keep that seminal guitar riff alive. Besides, as far as influences go, Turbonegro’s hearts are in the right place. As the French say, “It’s not theft... it’s homage.”

Even the band's critics have always admitted that Turbonegro puts on a great show, and this night’s performance at Webster Hall was no exception. The band left sweat, blood and a third (as yet undetermined) liquid on the stage this night. As evidence of how confident the band is with the new material on Party Animals, the boys fit roughly half the album's songs into their set list. For a band that’s been playing basically the same set list for four years now, they’re understandably thrilled to be unveiling fresh (yet oddly familiar) gems such as “All My Friends Are Dead,” “Blow Me (Like the Wind),” “City of Satan” and “Wasted Again.” Perhaps the highlight of every Turbonegro concert, however, is when they play the song that—at least to every Turbojugend (AKA fan-club chapter)—has become their “Freebird” or “Layla,” the phonetically charming “I Got Erection.” It’s got everything: a long, simmering, walking-bass intro upon which Hank can improvise his monologues anew each night, primal backing vocals (think Bad Brains meet Misfits meet Mitch Miller) that (unlike most) sound even better once the audience begins singing along, an explosion of major power-chord riffing that's at once both reserved and merciless, and finally, typically charming Turbonegro lyrical juxtaposition. The playful, peaceful imagery of Hank majestically riding his horse (named Thunder) is beautifully at odds with his ensuing screams to the heavens that everything and everyone he sees gives him, “erection!” If “Tutti Fruiti” and “Louie Louie” got points for the rock & roll speedball that's born when attitude teams with nonsensical lyrics, give this band the championship belt.

Turbonegro’s music is one musical taste that reveals more about the listener than it does about the band. Their aesthetic is obvious—their mission so base it’s refreshing—but they’ve also appropriated so many different influences that they’re indefinable. This is the reason Turbonegro concerts are filled with as many Mohawks as mullets, as many metal-heads as punks. You understand this band whether you cut your teeth on Slayer or Sonic Youth, Black Flag or Ween. What’s even more impressive for a band with a self-applied 'deathpunk' moniker, is that you’ll find Turbonegro concerts filled with as many women as men. In an age when “corporate rock” is no longer just a putdown but a repetitive statement, Turbonegro isn't on tour so much as on a mission. They’re barnstorming rock venues worldwide, reminding co-headliners and audiences alike the most important lesson of all regarding music’s "holy trinity" of sex, drugs and rock & roll: Except for the first two, less is more.