Graded on a Curve:
Pussy Galore,
Exile on Main Street

Somewhere in the interstices between adoration and desecration lies Pussy Galore’s Exile on Main Street. It’s hard to decide whether the noise/trash rock band’s song-by-song cover of the magnificent 1972 Rolling Stones LP is an act of veneration or demolition. Personally, I think it’s both. The Pussies’ Exile on Main Street isn’t an album—it’s a loving assassination, murder as homage, Willard slaying Kurtz in the remote jungles of Cambodia. While the arty poseurs in Sonic Youth were singing about killing your idols, Pussy Galore was out there putting the knife in.

Whether you think Pussy Galore’s Exile on Main Street is a disgracefully amateurish and inept piece of garbage or the high-water mark of nihilistic rock primitivism (I’m of the latter camp), you have to concede that Pussy Galore was up to more than just taking the piss. Sure, Jon Spencer et al. gleefully mangled a number of my very favorite songs beyond recognition, but I’m happy to forgive them because they reminded me that sometimes the wronger you play, the righter you are.

Punk talked a good game about anarchy, but you rarely encountered the real thing on record. This is what makes Exile on Main Street so refreshing. Its sloppy playing, no-fi recording, and chaotic, ramshackle covers are a merry “fuck you” to the dubious notion that great rock’n’roll need have anything to do with good musicianship. Pussy Galore happily reduced what may well be the greatest rock album ever to a fascinating shambles because they were snotty nihilists with a knack for outrage who didn’t give a soaring shit. And that, so far as I’m concerned, is the true spirit of rock’n’roll.

Me, I’d happily trade every slick studio LP ever recorded for Exile’s inspired (and inspiring) ineptitude, which makes Neil Young’s torn and frayed 1975 masterpiece Tonight’s the Night sound like it was produced by Boston’s Tom Scholz, the insane studio perfectionist who, or so the legend goes, once forced his drummer to play his kick drum some 9,000 times before finally giving its tenor his grudging okay.

Pussy Galore was formed in Washington, D.C. in 1985 around the time of “Revolution Summer,” when all of D.C.’s good little socially conscious punk rock girls and boys were off banging drums in impotent protest at the South African Embassy. Pussy Galore—with its anti-social tendencies and contrarian impulses (see “Fuck Ian MacKaye”)—found this spectacle risible. Besides, PG had its own sleazy revolution in mind. As for D.C.’s straightedgers and do-gooders, they shunned Pussy Galore’s bad, bad people (just as they did No Trend and 9353) out of the haunting fear (to paraphrase H.L. Mencken) that somebody, somewhere, might treat punk as one very funny joke. So Pussy Galore up and relocated to NYC, where a fella’s free to not give a flying fuck about anything, picking up Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert in the process.

It was Neil Hagerty (guitar, vocals, violin, percussion) who talked his band mates (Spencer on vocals, guitar, and percussion: Julia Cafritz on guitar and vocals; Christina Martinez, a 16-year-old non-musician, on guitar and vocals; and Bert on drums, percussion, and vocals) into spoofing Exile. It took them a whopping 3 days in August 1986, using a borrowed cassette 4-track they dubbed the “Pussy Galore Mobile Unit” in joking homage to The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. The results were originally released on a limited-edition (550 copies) cassette, then later in LP format (minus several songs) by Shove Records. There’s also a 10” bootleg featuring eight songs, as well as innumerable other bootlegs out there.

Some of the songs on Exile on Main Street are faithful (if ragged) covers; others are virtually unrecognizable except for the choruses. Many songs incorporate murky sludge, noise, static, snippets of the original Stones song, or crowd applause. A song may suddenly skip forwards or backwards. Sometimes the band seems to have a song down, only to deliberately fuck it up. On others, like the great “Shine a Light,” they don’t even attempt the song, preferring to talk about the cost of beer. They’re obviously having a wonderful time.

But enough prelude; it’s time to get our rocks off to one brilliant bagatelle of mayhem, laissez-faire musicianship, and wonder. To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, Lift up the hems of your gowns, ladies, we’re about to go through Hell!

First track “Rocks Off” opens with an extended rant by Cafritz (“Hello I hate your fucking guts, fuck you I hate your fucking guts. I hate your fucking guts. I hate your fucking guts. I hate this fucking machine, I don’t know how the fuck to use it. I hate your fucking guts. I’m going to make my fucking music.”) The vocals are divinely awful, especially on the choruses, the drums sound tinny and distant, and the guitars make a beautiful caterwaul. The bridge is all tape hiss and awful moaning, and the guy singing backing vocals is fantastic (“Rocks off! Rocks Off!). In short this is one fabulous tune, and I will cherish it forever. As for the chaotic “Rip This Joint,” it’s all drum bash and two very fucked-up guitar solos, and the only way you can tell you’re hearing “Rip This Joint” is because the singer tells you so.

“Shake Your Hips” sounds like a tinny contraption on the verge of collapse, but Spencer’s vocals are wonderful, the guitars are ramshackle but on the money, and the thing really does make you want to shake your hips, and I’ll be damned if I don’t like this version better than the original. It’s skankier, which is always good, as is “Casino Boogie,” a deranged foray into noise and chaos that comes complete with explosions, weird skips, splices of the original song, a stage introduction, lots of guitar skronk, machine guns, and an ending that is basically fifteen or so seconds of very annoying static. Pussy Galore could have done a very decent cover of the original, but I guess they just didn’t feel like it. You know how persnickety artists can be.

“Tumbling Dice” takes its good old time opening, and features the band singing carelessly over the original, which is a brilliant idea I intend to try sometime with “All The Young Dudes.” Then the Stones disappear and all you hear is vocalist Spencer torturing the melody over a very tinny and distant backdrop. After that its pure dementia, with the Stones original coming and going over a distant squall of guitars complete with lots of feedback and tape hiss. You can call the tune unlistenable and you’d be right, but I like it, albeit not as much as “Sweet Virginia,” which a woman sings rather badly (it’s wonderful!) while one very distorted guitar falls over, gets up, falls over again, and so on. Then Hagerty plays an out-of kilter violin solo before the song ends with a snippet of the Stones’ original.

“Torn and Frayed” features one very echo-laden and bad/great vocal, some ragged guitar, and a melody that sounds more like “Sweet Home Alabama” than the original to me. It’s worth the price of admission just for the fantastic guitar solo, which somebody runs over with a big electric farting noise. Nor will you want to miss the way the singer strangles “just as long as the guitar plays.” A masterpiece! As is “Sweet Black Angel,” which is acoustic-guitar driven and features Spencer actually sorta half singing while Bert bangs away. “Loving Cup” pits slow and stripped down verses against choruses taken at punk velocity without regard to such unimportant matters as tuning and melody. The guitar riff is primordial, and the second half of the song is one pell-mell rush to Hell. Meanwhile, “Happy” boasts lots of opening chatter and squealing guitars, and then kicks into overdrive. The band doesn’t pay too much attention to melody, but the guitars are like zip guns, the singing is raucous, and the brief noise passage is tres cool.

In the album’s most hilarious moment, Spencer opens “Turd on the Run” by repeatedly shouting, “Shut up!” Then he cries, “Will you fucking tell me what you’re fucking doing? You’re the hippie!” The band finally gets around to playing and it’s worth the wait, if only for the rawking guitars, Spencer’s snotty vocals (his “You gave me disease” is precious), and Bert’s frantic drum bash. “Ventilator Blues” is right up the band’s blues punk alley, and their lovingly raw version creaks along like a demented oompah band before some guitar squawk pitches in. A winner! “Just Wanna See His Face” opens with Spencer repeating “Yeah, yeah, yeah” to the accompaniment of muffled drums before a female vocalist joins in and some guitar squeal sounds from very far away, the Pit perhaps. Then a ghostly voice sings, while Bert’s drumming gets wilder and the background noise increases. It’s a miracle of simplicity and art brut at its best, this one, right down to the big explosion of noise and Spencer’s mighty scream at song’s end.

“Let It Loose” sounds like a fusion “Dear Prudence” and the Stones original, and is one fantastic voyage to the bottom of the barrel. A psychedelic vocal, snippets of everything under the big black sun, heaps of guitar squelch and squawk, and later on a voice repeating “Let it loose” over and over—the original is in there somewhere, and I welcome you to find it. The same goes for “All Down The Line,” a noise collage with nary a member of Pussy Galore to be heard. PG plays “Stop Breaking Down” straight; Spencer sings right over Jagger’s vocals, the guitars are raucous, and the rhythm is honking righteous. And if every instrument is out tune, so much the better. “Let It Loose” is 49 seconds of feedback and somebody saying, “You guys spent 10 bucks on my beer?” As for “Soul Survivor,” it’s one very rough and unready cover, with Spencer doing a cocky Jagger imitation while the guitars kick up a ruckus and Bert bashes the cymbals. Then the song is mechanically slowed down and a voice moans, “Soul survivor” over and over, while one guitar freaks out and another plays bizarre bird noises over it. Oh, and then there’s the woman who repeats what sounds like, “I wanna fuck you in the neck!”

Pussy Galore spawned several bands, including The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Boss Hog, and Royal Trux. I like ‘em all, but I’ll never love them. A terrible fate befell Pussy Galore; to wit, they learned how to play and commenced to perform songs with real melodies, in tune yet. Me, I’ll always be partial to Exile on Main Street, a disgrace of deconstruction and a victory of slops over chops. In Goldfinger, the James Bond flick from which Pussy Galore filched its name, 007 electrocutes a man in a bathtub then says, “Shocking! Positively shocking!” The same can be said of the idol-smashing Exile on Main Street, perhaps the most wonderfully incompetent act of musical provocation ever recorded. Give it a listen. But afterwards, be sure to scrape the shit off of your shoes.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Michael Little

    I love this review! It’s great! Fantastic! And talk about DEEP! This guy is one DEEP thinker! What’s that? I wrote it? Really? Huh. I’m a fucking genius!

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