By Eleni P. Austin
The genre of Punk Rock music is so old and established now, that it doesn’t seem very PUNK at all.
The popular misconception is that Punk began with the Sex Pistols in England, circa 1977. The truth is the seeds of Punk were sown in America in the late 60s with the Velvet Underground, Iggy And The Stooges and the MC5.
In the 70s the New York Dolls and the Ramones continued the synthesis of spiky rhythms, blasts of staccato guitar and lyrics that walked a fine line between nihilism and satire.
In fact, when the Ramones first toured the U.K. in the summer of 1976, their sound was so revolutionary they inspired audience members to form bands. Cresting on a sea of spit and safety pins, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned became the inaugural class of ’77.
Punk was a reaction to the prevailing trends in music: bloated and anonymous Corporate Rock (Styx), mellow Country Rock decadence (Eagles), glittery, superficial Disco (K.C. & The Sunshine Band) and sybaritic Cock Rock (Led Zeppelin).
Characterized by scabrous guitars, hyperkinetic rhythms and venomous lyrics, the Punk movement really coalesced in Great Britain. The national economy was failing, meaning teenagers left school to go straight on the dole, (the British equivalent of welfare).
Although Punk was never as popular in America as it was in England, it gained a toe-hold in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. Post-Punk bands like Joy Division, Talking Heads and X seemed less angry. New Wave groups like Squeeze, the B-52’s and Adam & The Ants seemed shiny, happy and (gasp) fun!
Still, Punk has never completely faded from the Rock n’ Roll landscape. It resurfaced in the 90s with Green Day, Rancid and the Offspring. At the dawn of the 21st century the Libertines, the Strokes and Arctic Monkeys introduced Punk to a brand new generation.
The latest band to draw from the Punk Rock well are the Palma Violets. Hailing from Lambeth, London, guitarist Sam Fryer, bassist Alexander “Chilli” Jenson hooked up with Will Doyle on drums and Jeffrey Mayhew on keyboards. The quartet had returned from the annual Reading Festival underwhelmed by the latest buzz bands. They formed Palma Violets mostly so their friends could dance to some new music.
These days bands can create music themselves, throw it up on the internet and become overnight sensations. Palma Violets took a different path. They spent months Woodshed-ing at a Lambeth performance space, Studio 180.
Building a word-of-mouth rep as an incendiary live act, record labels took notice. A fierce bidding war ensued and the band signed with venerated British indie label, Rough Trade. (Spawning ground to eclectic bands like the Smiths, Aztec Camera, the Sundays, Mazzy Star, Belle & Sebastian, Antony & The Johnsons and Grammy winning Arcade Fire).
The Palma Violets debut is aptly titled 180, paying homage to a space that provides sanctuary for artists, photographers and musicians.
The album opens with the first single, “Best Of Friends.” Downstroke guitar chords recall the primordial ooze of early 60s Rolling Stones. Over a thundering beat, Fryer and Jenson trade verses, chivalrously insisting “I want to be your best friend, I don’t want you to be my girl.” Seems so sensitive and enlightened, and it works like a charm with Alaina, Janet and Wendy!
Four tracks here, “Rattlesnake Highway,” “Chicken Dippers,” “Tom The Drum” and “Johnny Bagga Doughnuts” crib liberally from the Punk syllabus.
“Rattlesnake Highway” matches guttural vocals, crunchy power chords, swirly organ fills and a whipcrack beat. The lyrics offer a no-nonsense paean to nature… “Sow the seeds and we can watch it grow/ Just like trees we excel in the sun.”
If Ennio Morricone collaborated with the Cramps, the result would be “Chicken Dippers.” The melody goes from Spaghetti Western to Psychobilly. The cryptic lyrics allude to heartbreak but a crackling guitar break and a kinetic tribal beat propel the action from funeral dirge to psychedelic freak out.
Initially, “Tom The Drum” coasts like a relax-fit “Lust For Life.” Hurtling to life with a rattle-trap kick drum beat, stripped down bass, scattershot guitar riffs and hoodoo-voodoo vocals. The tune speeds toward a frenzied conclusion.
Anchored by ramshackle rhythms, corrosive, circuitous guitar riffs and Roller-Rink (“everyone skate backwards!”) organ colors, “Johnny Bagga Doughnuts” is a gleeful Punk/Ska mash-up. This mad collision of styles recalls Ireland’s premier Punk provocateurs, Stiff Little Fingers.
Palma Violets slow the proceedings on a couple of tracks, “Last Of The Summer Wine” and “Three Stars.” The former opens with a sustained organ wail that resembles a European air raid siren. Plinky guitar licks pluck out a tentative melody as the drums kick into a propulsive groove. The yearning lyrics… “I’m searchin’ for something, something to love..” are underscored by an anthemic guitar solo.
The latter is tender and ethereal. A celestial homage wherein the lads actually croon with the same easy sincerity that Elvis Presley used so effectively. The tempo picks up toward the end as Sam Fryer cuts loose with a reverb-drenched solo.
Other stand out tracks include the swaggering “Step Up For The Cool Cats.” “All The Garden Birds” shimmers like a lost Smiths track before careening to a close like a rowdy football (ahem, Soccer) chant. Finally, “We Found Love” is a joyful shout out to love that recalls both the Buzzcocks and “Jailbreak” era Thin Lizzy.
The album closes with “14.” A rambling tribute to the #14 bus that serves Lambeth. The tune is awash in skittery guitars, a four-on-the-floor beat and ominous organ fills that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Doors record.
Midway through, the song downshifts into a boozy meander as the guys hit on a mantra that hopes for new cars and hit songs. It’s a ragged conclusion to a stunning debut.
A year ago, Palma Violets were playing house parties. Two monthes ago they landed a respectable slot on the bill at Coachella, played a not-so-secret show at Pappy & Harriets and are actually playing at this year’s Reading Festival.
This scruffy band has managed the very neat trick of taking something old and making it seem new again.