Graded on a Curve:
Pussy Galore, Feel Good About Your Body

This week we’re taking a look at a few select reissues slated for Record Store Day 2012. —Ed.

While Jon Spencer is most celebrated for his front-man duties with the Blues Explosion, in some ways his role in divisive ‘80s noisesters Pussy Galore is his most interesting gig. That band’s discography is getting an overdue reissue treatment on vinyl starting this Record Store Day with their 7-inch debut Feel Good About Your Body, and anybody desiring to be bombarded with malevolent cacophony need look no further.

To this day, many people persist in considering Pussy Galore as a mere provocation instead of a smartly conceived conceptual unit. From their earliest moments the band specialized in making many listeners unhappy, mainly because their music was drenched in calculated immaturity and brazen racket that connected with about as much subtlety as a brick to the head.

If a large segment of the late-‘80s punk community was wrapped up in positivity, Jon Spencer, Julia Cafritz, and a revolving door of additional members were having none of that. The dividing line was between those who found Pussy Galore to be regressive, deliberately antagonistic snots and those who thought their pummeling, anti-social din to be a needed breath of noxious air. If punk rock had initially redefined the standards of musicianship away from virtuosity and polish, by the time Feel Good About Your Body first hit racks in 1985, the u-ground punk scene had somewhat unconsciously reestablished a paradigm of expectations regarding appropriate musical behavior.

While there was certainly exceptions, by the second half of the decade hardcore was largely dead in the water. Pussy Galore’s first great achievement was in engaging with the no-frills anybody-can-do-it sensibility of garage bands and then acquainting it with the just-blossoming aesthetics of noise rock. Now, the ‘80s was surely full of (some would say polluted with) retro garage bands that played the role full-tilt, all the way down to taking their fashion tips from the Shadows of Knight or The Count Five. Stumbling into a hole in the wall club as one of these groups was playing was akin to falling into a time warp and being deposited onto the set of a Roger Corman-produced drive-in flick that’s entire aim was to opportunistically cash in on the thriving youth market. Think paisley shirts, brightly colored maracas, granny-glasses, and necklaces of wooden beads. Witnessing these bands wasn’t a horrible experience by any means, but it was very far from cutting edge.

This wasn’t Pussy Galore’s intention in the slightest. Jon Spencer didn’t want to replicate what he’d heard on compilations like Crypt Records’ massive Back From the Grave series, instead desiring to bring the essence of those collected obscurities screaming into a subterranean music scene that he and others felt needed a real kick in the pants. And if Pussy Galore was most definitely not alone in wanting to stir things up, they frankly stood apart in terms of image, choosing to come off like nihilistic cretins instead of hip art hounds like Sonic Youth/Swans or an acerbic autodidact ala Big Black’s Steve Albini. And this was apparently too much for some folks to handle.

It’s been said more than once that Pussy Galore was The Rolling Stones of the ‘80s underground; after all, they did release a scorching in-sequence demolition as tribute of Exile on Main Street. But it’s just as often said that Pussy Galore was a bunch of posers indulging in an over-studied badass swagger that was intended to dupe the gullible into thinking they were somehow comparable to the significance of the Stones. Actually, neither of these assessments is wrong. Calling them the Stones of the ‘80s doesn’t necessarily insinuate that Pussy Galore was as great a band, even if it’s a no-brainer that PG’s partisans cared far more about Sugarshit Sharp or Dial M For Motherfucker than Tattoo You or Steel Wheels. But what Pussy Galore in ’85 and The Rolling Stones in ’64 share is a take no prisoners approach. Both bands really didn’t care if you didn’t like the cut of their jib, and to an extent this atmosphere of disdain actually pleased them. And it wasn’t just adults that found Mick and Keef distasteful. Many teenagers were also put off by the band’s image and music; this is essentially the beginnings of the Beatles Vs Stones cliché. Likewise, I have firsthand experience with high school contemporaries that upon first hearing Spencer and crew reacted like the speakers were puking out the aural equivalent of toxic green bile. In this sense PG can also be likened to The Stooges or Sex Pistols, but it’s in their misanthropic, arrogant, in-your-face attitude that they beg comparison to the Stones.

And it’s also not inappropriate to describe Pussy Galore as posers, though most of the people that felt this way in the late ‘80s plainly believed anybody appearing in public in something other than blue-jeans and a t-shirt was guilty of shameless foppery. Accusations of slumming rich kids abounded, particularly after they bailed on DC for New York City. And if these allegations held some basis in fact (indeed, Spencer was a Brown University dropout), then Pussy Galore were posers of the finest caliber; their acting was all part of a non-rigid and non-lofty conceptual strategy. Especially after Bob Bert, Neil Haggerty, Christina Martinez, and Kurt Wolf joined, they made seriously innovative music while confounding large numbers of listeners with what was often perceived as willful incompetence. Three guitars rarely in tune and no bass, a drum-set featuring an automobile gas tank, and lyrics that often seemed stolen from the wall of a truck stop men’s room. Their shows were notoriously hit and miss, but when they pulled it all together (as documented on the long gone Maximum Penetration VHS tape) they were rock ‘n’ roll theatre of the finest order (and somewhat comparable to the psychedelic-punk circus of The Butthole Surfers); threatening, head-strong and flirting with self-destruction.

If I’ve said little about the direct content of Feel Good About Your Body thus far, that’s mainly due to the 4-song record’s blunt efficiency as an inaugural statement of purpose. Or to put it another way, like many great debut records it provides only a taste and leaves the listener wanting more. In this case however, it obviously left many sets of ears wishing they’d never heard the infernal thing it at all. It takes only the rudest aspects of garage/punk and combines them with the disruptive metal-on-metal percussiveness nabbed wholesale from early industrial music (Einstürzende Neubauten in particular) and then spits it all back out with hostility and contempt. And if “Die Bitch” and “Constant Pain” revel in celebrating themes of undisguised (and not at all complex) negativity, “HC Rebellion” is at least tangibly methodical in its mocking of the contemporaneous punk scene’s proclivity for self righteousness and hyperactive identity mongering; to make this point, Cafritz simply reads from the letter’s section of Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll. In order to actually understand what she’s saying, “HC Rebellion” also presents the band at their most tuneful, though needless to say nobody’s going to confuse this bunch with The Feelies. By the release of Pussy Gold 5000, the band has largely dispensed with any gestures of social-commentary, and for the better; this tactic couldn’t help feeling a mite reactionary, and honestly they were at their absolute best when appearing totally oblivious to any ideology except lowbrow classique. The very title of “Car Fantasy” really drives this home with panache; in the end, their particular brand of mayhem isn’t all that far removed from that of The Cramps.

If Feel Good About Your Body had somehow been the band’s only release it would essentially be looked upon as a clamorous curiosity of the early noise-rock scene. But it wasn’t their only record, and in fact this hypothetical circumstance is simply an impossibility. In retrospect it’s abundantly clear that Pussy Galore would simply not be denied, and because of this Feel Good About Your Body connects not as a minor, developmental work but rather as a suitably brief and highly caustic introductory screed from one of the ‘80’s shrewdest bands. To really absorb their thuggish evolution in full, it’s necessary to begin right here.

Graded on a Curve: A-

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