I can still remember when I first became aware of San Francisco 3-piece, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. There is a scene during the controversial 2004 Michael Winterbottom film, 9 Songs, where the band performs Love Burns to a sold out show at Brixton Academy. The dirty bliss of the track itself aside (I’ll get to that in a moment), there was an aloof swagger to their playing, an earnest cool which permeated everything and drew me into their enigmatic world. The scowling fuzz of the guitar and bass, the steady, hypnotic and appropriately unpolished beats of drummer Nick Jago, the Lennon-esque sweet rasping of duel vocalists Robert Levon Been and Peter Hayes respectively.
2001’s self-titled (and self-produced) debut album, B.R.M.C, is a raw and brooding neo-psychedelia-infused exploration of imperfect love. It is honest, dark, and at times provocative. Old wounds are torn open for inspection; poked, prodded and left to fester. The album is awash in the smoldering and rebellious specter of James Dean. Even at it’s most serene, storm clouds loom ominously on the horizon, salvation from the deluge seeming to come only by climbing atop a 1955 Triumph and fleeing for the open road.
Recorded on the famous Neve 8028 console at Sound City studios, there is a smooth analogue warmth throughout, a flicker of campfire hope to counter the thematic chill of the cold, desert night. Everything is drenched in reverb and layered with gritty distortion, reverently evoking seminal 80s alt rockers the Jesus & Mary Chain and Ride, among others.
B.R.M.C. opens with the aforementioned Love Burns, bubbling up from nothing into a whirlpool of eerie loops before calming back to a restless electrified wind. Isolation, madness, emptiness; all of these are suddenly replaced with the reassuring familiarity of an acoustic guitar, quickly giving way to the distorted drone of Hayes’ electric. But it’s Jago’s pounding kick – snare – kick – kick – snare bursting through which really signals the ride has just begun. “Now she’s gone love burns inside me.” Hayes bitterly laments over and over, his pain from a shattered relationship he once took for granted is smoldering and unwavering throughout. A superb opener and obviously a sentimental favourite of mine.
Beginning with Levon Been’s trance-inducing bass line before melding perfectly into Jago’s solid backbeat, Red Eyes And Tears is a mesmerizing psychedelic offering. “I’m loosing the reasons to breath, I never lived. I never lived, never lived. I’m in love.” sings Hayes, this time seemingly about a relationship that is suffocating and draining the very life from him. I can’t help but wonder if it is the same lover whom Hayes had just previously regretted the loss of?
Whatever Happened To My Rock & Roll is where the highway begins to stretch out for endless miles and the throttle is finally released. A fast-paced, ultra-fuzzed protest against what Levon Been sees as the subsequent desecration of Rock & Roll since it’s tumultuous adolescence. He wants to feel spiritually moved again by the music, as though he is suffering through his own Dark Night of the soul. “I fell in love with the sweet sensation. I gave my heart to a simple chord. I gave my soul to a new religion. Whatever happened to you?” he furiously asks.
Awake is glistening and dreamlike. Levon Been questions past decisions before vowing change to his lover in a chorus which snaps the listener from the reverie, courtesy of Hayes’ scowling overdrive. “I’ve been awake through the wrong decisions. I’ve held the ground now I’m gaining soul.”
White Palms has Levon Been’s bass sounding huge and defiled underneath scratchy and sharp guitars, a crown of thorns which perfectly suits Hayes’ spiritual crisis and his cynical view of himself. He wants to escape from but also return to the faith of his youth. “Jesus never coming back. Jesus won’t take me back. Jesus never coming home.” he declares. After a vicious and somewhat kaleidoscopic interlude, everything fades into fireside folksong with Hayes singing the brilliant lyric. “I wouldn’t come back if I was Jesus, I’m the kind of guy who leaves the scene of the crime”.
As Sure As The Sun has Levon Been conjuring his inner snake-charmer with another superbly psychedelic bassline atop a subtle drone, before Hayes’ and Jago materialize in from the ether. Innocent, jangly guitars give way to gnarled tones and machine-gun tremolo. Leven Been continues Awake’s epiphany, “And all the time I thought your words were mine. You held me down, as sure as the sun.”
After a brief but haunting acapella intro which repeats over and over like the ramblings of a madman, Hayes’ ghostly riff signals the start of Rifles, arguably their most Brian Jonestown Massacre moment – perhaps an acknowledgement of Hayes’ stint as guitarist for the cult documentary icons (watch Dig! here). Levon Been observes his lover’s newly-found inner resolve – a viewpoint which conjures As Sure As The Sun but from the other side of the mirror – as everything builds to a satisfying melodic crescendo. “Now you come alive with the world at your side.” A highlight of the album.
Too Real is subdued and almost translucent, a detached spacepop exploration of the pain caused by resisting change, perhaps even the pain of inevitably growing old. “Do you turn off the light so you don’t have to see yourself?” Hayes coldly asks.
Levon Been kicks off the anthemic Spread Your Love with a swampy, bluesy bass-riff that instantly seduces and excites. “Spread your love like a fever, don’t you ever come down.” pleads Hayes, like a dope-fiend in painful withdrawal. Levon Been takes lead vocals for the verses, joining in on Hayes’ frustration, “She gave me love like a big fire, I only saw it once.” During the shared chorus, one can imagine their insatiable desire for this woman will soon consume and drive them both insane. This is the B.R.M.C. track most likely to get a crowd jumping with reckless abandon.
Head Up High feels sensual, like floating with eyes closed in a warm bath. Hayes gentle strumming serenely caresses and washes over while Levon Been muses “The life that stands within you. Your body and blood, your body and blood. You’re leaving us all.” Perhaps an extension of Too Real’s resistance to inevitable change, however this time it’s giving in too soon that is the problem. The drone of an organ underneath Hayes’ increasingly volatile layerings adds the appropriate gravity, his guitar howling and gleefully psychotic by the end.
The closing track, Salvation, is vulnerable, fragile and powerfully honest. Minimalist in it’s approach – Hayes’ disconcerting and almost out-of-tune guitar, sparse and humble percussion, an ominous drone throughout – it is a both a desperate prayer to a long abandoned higher power and an observation of spiritual bankruptcy. “So Jesus left you lonely, feels like nothing’s really holy. No one, no one hears your calling. Falling, everything is falling.” The faith-healer has been exposed, the revival tent abandoned and about to collapse. “Do you feel alive?” asks Hayes, “Can you feel alive?” One could almost sing the album’s opening mantra, “Now she’s gone, love burns inside me.” over this final melancholic yearning.
A friend recently recounted his experience of seeing Black Rebel Motorcycle Club live. He arrived late with two other friends, the theatre sold out and the show only minutes away from starting. After quickly grabbing a strong drink he attempted to ninja his way into a better viewing position, drawing well-deserved contempt from those in the vicinity who had secured and defended their spots for a good while by this stage.
“Don’t you spill your drink on me.” hissed one fan, just in front.“I would rather drink it than spill it on you, sir.” retorted my friend.The vibe was tense.The band walked on and the crowd surged forward a step in anticipation. Finally, after months of waiting, the release! The music began and all should have been well, but something wasn’t right. My friend felt the hostility around him grow. People were drunk and still pissed off. After 20 minutes he could bare the hatred no longer. He leaned over to his friend and pointed to the secret weapon in her handbag, “I think it’s time to light that shit up!” She concurred, proceeded to take a few calming drags before passing it to him. He did the same. The sweet serenity. And then, in what my friend described as a moment of “selfless christian charity,” he proceeded to pass it around to the very people who would have loved nothing more than to kick his pushy ass out of there.The atmosphere changed instantly. The gentleman who warned about spilling drinks began recounting how he kissed his fiancé for the first time to a Black Rebel song. The rowdy lads behind were now gratefully offering their warm beer in trade. A circle of love was formed. The music continued, this time though, there was only good vibes, their own little Woodstock.
Perhaps what I’m loosely trying to illustrate here is that we all want to love and be loved, but somewhere along the way we experience pain and learn to become guarded and mistrustful. B.R.M.C. takes us to these places, confronting us with the many imperfections and frailties of the human spirit. It’s not always a smooth ride, but all the while I get the sense that just over the next hair-pin bend there is something worth discovering, a thrill worth seeking, a love that just might bring salvation.
Review by LUKE MCKENZIE
Highlights: Whatever Happened To My Rock n Roll, Love Burns,