There is a curse cast upon those bands unfortunate enough to outdo themselves before there is truly an established self to outdo. Strong debuts spawn high expectations straight out of the gate and such acts are pressured to run before they’ve learned to walk, each subsequent album resulting all too often in an endless barrage of conversations and debates concerning the “old stuff.” This has been true from the beginning and shall remain the burden of those so cast. In the case of Bay Area-founded garage rock revivalists Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who released what is undeniably one of the strongest debuts in modern rock, consensus is elusive.
2001’s inimitable B.R.M.C. is most definitely a nasty bag of tricks, generous in its quantities of punky defiance, gritty alt and garage rock hybrid sensibilities, and just enough style and sheen to tip the indie scales in their favor—but what more could be expected of a disheveled trio of leather jacketed twentysomethings, named in homage of Marlon Brando’s crew in 1953’s crime noir classic The Wild One?
Founded by high school friends Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been in 1998, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club set out to accomplish what so few bands are able to do—create a sound indebted to those of the past while remaining relevant in the present. Both students of prominent Northern Californian musicians, Hayes cut his teeth as a member of infamous San Francisco neo-psychedelic outfit The Brian Jonestown Massacre during the group’s Give It Back! era and Been made his bones playing bass for his father, the late Michael Been, formerly of Santa Cruz-based alt rock group The Call, as a teenager in the mid-’90s. While their combined formative experience was not necessarily predictive of what was to come, it was fertile ground in the development of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s soulful, swaying guitar-oriented indie rock sound, a stream laced with various influences of half a century’s worth of popular music.
Despite the eclectic nature of their sound, B.R.M.C.’s music owes a great deal to their geographic origins. Very Californian, the grit and the grime coupled with the bliss and boundless space all visited by the spirits of the greats who came and went before B.R.M.C.’s opportunity revealed itself can be fathomed on every track of their debut album. What emerged from those early days as a group was a solid rock sound, educated yet unpretentious, inspired yet rarely derivative, something entirely unique to the group.
Released on April 3, 2001, the eponymous B.R.M.C. kicked the door down, bringing to the table the elements of experimental neo-psychedelia and homegrown indie experimentalism Hayes had gleaned during his time with The Brian Jonestown Massacre, while eschewing Anton Newcombe’s predisposition for hippiesh lo-fi madness for a rougher, more aggressive snarl of punk rock rebellion which, in the end, makes a final stand for classic, uncut rock and roll.
Opener “Love Burns” comes on strong, with Hayes introducing his upcoming band with the line, “Never thought I’d see her go away/She learned I loved her today.” The sting of the group’s guitars drills deeply into the listener’s skull, planting a fuzzed-out wall of sound behind Hayes’ smooth yet spacey vocals. The repetitious “Red Eyes and Tears” shows strong influences of The Velvet Underground and The Jesus and Mary Chain, offering a tighter, darker feel, more at home on an early Cure album than on anything released in the early ’00s, while turbulent favorite “Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll (Punk Song)” rocks the hardest of the album’s 11 tracks, and the subsequent “Awake” touches upon the heavy psychedelia which became a staple of the group’s sound.
The Abrahamic imagery and pleas for salvation in “White Palms” would eventually become a motif in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s lyrics, although the question of faith begged by Hayes is belied by his recognition that, if he were Jesus, he wouldn’t return, confessing, “I’m the kind of guy who leaves the scene of the crime.” Standout “As Sure as the Sun” and the Radiohead-esque “Take My Time/Rifles” cast additional shadows across B.R.M.C.’s stage, the latter serving as one of the most realized, intricately crafted compositions of the group’s career. The funerary fuzz of “Too Real” may be understood as a blueprint for the divergent sounds of groups advertently or inadvertently indebted to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, such as their younger, lesser known Canadian cousins The Pink Mountaintops. The penultimate “Head Up High” and closing “Salvation” chart the course of an innovative band, rounding the album out and declaring a challenge to the innovations of popular contemporaries.
Indeed, the sound found on B.R.M.C. has been instrumental in the development of strains of retro-inspired millennial indie rock, developed 20 years later. More so, Hayes and Been find themselves at the forefront of an ever more revolutionary movement, as purveyors of the kind of pure, undiluted rock and roll music developed by their own idols, as well as by their idols’ idols. Everything done by Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, by The Velvet Underground, The Clash, and The Stooges is alive and well on all subsequent Black Rebel Motorcycle Club releases. The group, along with a handful of like-minded fellow rockers, continue to maintain the honesty of the genre, even while their bite has mellowed with age. This observation is by no means disparaging, as even their most recent release, 2018’s Wrong Creatures, stands as one the finest rock releases of the 2010s.
Two decades on, B.R.M.C. remains a key deity in the pantheon of modern indie rock, having borrowed its influences from well-established, worthy acts of yore and used them as way markers in forging their own authentic voice. Even in 2021, “Love Burns” and “Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll (Punk Song)” retain their teeth, which they bare at the softening throat of their beloved genre, celebrating the grit and shadow of a bygone era in rock.
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Apr 05, 2023 Issue #71 – Weyes Blood and Black Belt Eagle Scout