Retro-Review: Fire

 

I really don’t think the question “What Music Are You Into?” carries any weight anymore. I don’t think anyone listens exclusively to one genre of music these days. Even if you are outwardly a ‘metaller’ or a ‘mod’, I can guarantee you don’t JUST listen to those genres. All of which lends itself to my theory that genre is a creation of The Market and serves no purpose to art whatsoever. If I had to pigeonhole myself I’d probably say I preferred Garage Blues/Punk (?) but that discounts a lot of music I love. What is slightly easier to define is the sort of SOUND I like, which is very different. Across the board for all the genres I like there is a production sound to recordings and live performances I prefer. It basically amounts to a rough-round-the-edges performance captured with enough space between the instruments to hear them individually. Some people call this a ‘live’ sound, some a ‘Garage’ sound but it applies to a lot of different styles. There are classical recordings I much prefer because of the performance and the way it was captured in much the same way as I like the Propellerhead’s album which is a ‘Dance’ album has an ‘openness’ to it I love. One album that exemplified this method of ignoring a single genre identity and pushing itself through a very rough round-the-edges approach is Fire by Electric Six.

My housemate bought Fire along with The Darkness’ Permission to Land way back when and we both sat down to listen to them. Both were resolutely tongue in cheek and had a good sense of humour about their music, though I suspect The Darkness took it much more seriously. My housemate as a huge Queen fan ended up preferring The Darkness whereas I loved Fire so much I ended up buying my own copy. The fact Gay Bar was their lead single and such a big hit was a hint as to what the album is like but while that track does encapsulate the sound of the album, Fire ends up being much more than that. Electric Six aren’t interested in a particular genre. Despite references to Discos, Dancefloors and Synthesizers, the instrumentation and arrangements aim more at a kind of crappy, mid-80s ‘Metal’ sound, rather than any booty-shakin beats. In turn, the lyrics are deliberately opposed to that as well. Like the wonderfully subversive nature of Gay Bar, other songs on Fire have themes of sex, dancing, violence and militarism. Songs about blackmailing senators, sex in cars, dance commanders, mad scientists, pandemic plagues, electrocution, and more all crop up along with repeated use of words like “fire” “dance” “disco” “war” “bomb” in nearly every song. In a none-too-subtle outward display of intent, the cover is a figure on fire on a 70’s disco dancefloor. This mish-mash of tongue-in-cheek humour, deliberate offensiveness, subversiveness and childish delight in rude words could very easily just have ended up as an unlistenable mess but it doesn’t. Or at least it doesn’t to me. This has a lot to do with how committed the band is to the idea and remain consistent throughout, but also thanks to the sound of the album.

Fire is not a ‘slick’ album. The production and sound of it, as my housemate put it, sounds like a “music student’s exam piece” which is precisely why I love it. The drums sound like they were recorded with one microphone and aren’t that well tuned, the bass isn’t all that bassy, the guitars use some clearly ‘affordable’ pedals for their sounds (I’m convinced one of those pedals is the notorious Boss Metal Zone) and the synths are the cheesiest, thin and tinny keyboard sounds available. But somehow, because of the laser focused intent on the sort of music they are making, the band makes this all add up to one of the most distinctive sounding records of the last 20 years. The whole point of Punk in the 70s was to reject the processed and manufactured sound that had been growing in the charts (in the UK). To do this, bands dressed as messily as possible, played cheap instruments and performed pretty badly too. It was an attitude more than music. This form of anti-music was mercifully short lived, the first wave was all there was really and only the actually good musicians survived. The Clash maintained the attitude but became far greater musicians and Joe Strummer was recognised as being the incredible songwriter he was, while the Sex Pistols are best remembered for their first album and swearing a lot. Electric Six, take inspiration from the former, crafting witty songs, performing them well but with an anti-polish aesthetic. Most importantly they keep their songs short. Most of the songs on the album are well under 4 minutes and at 13 tracks the album comes in at only 40 minutes long. Some of the best moments of the album are the most weird and subversive: the odd noises the singer makes, jabs of noise to accentuate a lyric (“Girl, when I’m fucking you…” *guitar squeal*) and the much copied “Stop! …. Continue!” moment. But beneath all this wry and knowing silliness and subversiveness are some ACE tunes than never outstay their welcome performed by an incredibly tight band with total commitment to the concept and ultimately, they pull it off. Convincingly so.

My friend’s band M.U.T.O. recently supported Electric Six at a gig, so I went along as a fan of both bands. Despite having hit singles (a long time ago admittedly) and presumably access to a level of funds your average muso might not be able to justify spending on equipment (although I’m always surprised the sheer £££ a lot of rubbish musicians will drop on gear) Electric Six still use some pretty odd/cheap instruments and amps. The lead guitarist was using a zoom multi-effect pedal which if you mention that to any ‘Real’ guitarist, their sneer of contempt will reach their ears. My mate’s band supporting them had a better (or at least more expensive) bass amp and guitars. But Electric Six didn’t need them. Marshall stacks and custom shop Gibsons are for bands who don’t know what they want to be or are borrowing their sound. Electric Six sound exactly like themselves for that very reason.

Fire was a big inspiration to me. Over the years Electric Six have made several albums and have never lost their wit or their ability to write a crackin’ tune but the perfect storm of events that created Fire can’t be duplicated. They were Punk against manufactured Punks. I was just discovering The Clash at the time so my whole world was musically opening up and if Fire had been more polished I would have shrugged it off but because of that rough-round-the-edges sound it’s ended up being an absolute favourite. It’s a genuinely subversive album and I feel like it got dismissed at the time. They are referred to today (in the UK) as the ‘The Band That Did Gay Bar’ but having now seen them live, whilst that is still true they are much much more than that implies. They are truly a different band at a time when we really need someone to satirise the miserable state the music industry is in. They have a new album out right now and I would recommend you all go and buy it to support an actually unique band as opposed to one that is marketed to be so.

Stand out tracks, as ever, are the singles, Danger! High Voltage! And Gay Bar but there is plenty more that are arguably better. Dance Commander has the lyrics “Let’s get this party started rrrrright!” and as the first track it really does. She’s White is a fan favourite while Improper Dancing needs to be heard by more people to hear the liberties it takes with song format. Synthesizer is the real underappreciated gem here though. A pitch-perfect album closer that undermines as much as it amplifies the sound and intent of the rest of the album, as well as just being a damn good song. Fire though, works better as a whole. It’s a ‘vibe’ album, the sound doesn’t change much from song to song but that’s a good thing. It’s ideal for a car journey or similar. 40 minutes of fun. You could do a lot worse with your time.