The wild ones
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a band of California Anglophiles, is nowhere near angelic
“Oh … my … gawd.” Silence. “Omigod.”
“Omigod. Oh. My. God.”
What!? Dude, you’re not making sense.
“You’re not going to believe it—[insert title of debut album by flavor-of-the-minute English band] is soooo … facking … amazing.”
This scenario would replay itself at least once a week: A writer pal would call from one of this state’s more westernmost cities, raving about the latest tasty slab o’ noise from whatever combo of callow young Brits happened to be fashionable on that particular afternoon.
Now, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a trio of lads in their early 20s, is not English. Well, drummer Nick Jago is, originally, but he and Peter Hayes and Robert Turner, who both sing and play guitar, bass and keyboards, grew up in Northern California’s Ygnacio Valley suburbs, which are a bit closer in temperament to Mediterranean climes than they are to anything resembling the Auld Sod.
But the San Francisco Bay area, due west of Concord and Walnut Creek, has a long tradition of Anglophile leanings—from such ‘60s-'70s groups as the Flamin’ Groovies, through several battle of the bands’ worth of imitation shoegazer acts, to Berkeley record shops that cater to them, like Mod Lang. Perhaps it’s the fog, or maybe it’s just that black leather and ringing guitars seem to resonate better with the locals than camouflage jackets and Lynyrd Skynyrd riffs do.
So you can’t fault Black Rebel Motorcycle Club—which takes its name not from some obscure Malcolm McDowell-led gang of celluloid ruffians, but from a Marlon Brando-led gang of same, from the 1954 film The Wild One, to be specific—for sounding so resolutely English.
“We’ve got, like, a lot of British influences in the sound, but that’s more what we’re told rather than anything else,” asserts Robert Turner over the phone from his band’s current digs in L.A., in what intermittently sounds perilously close to a Liverpudlian accent. “Turner,” in fact, is a nom-de-strum he nicked from Mick Jagger’s character in the 1970 film Performance; Turner’s father is Michael Been, frontman in the 1980s Santa Cruz Christian-rock band the Call, and his given surname, he felt, lacked true rock ‘n’ roll panache.
However, Turner later concedes that there’s more to the story than people coming up to the band after gigs and telling them they sound rather English. “There’s a lot of depth in those bands like Ride, Verve, Spiritualized—there’s layers and things like that that we just don’t get with any bands over here,” he admits.
You can hear it all over B.M.R.C., the band’s Virgin Records debut. It’s a rock-solid longplayer in a grand old tradition: deadpan vocals that evoke Marc Bolan and David Essex surf atop layered guitars that can thrum like a revving motorcycle engine and at the same time seem to drift overhead, ominously, like storm clouds, backed by a rhythm section that throbs like a circulatory system in the throes of sexual passion. It may not be a true reinvention of the wheel, but these three chums quite obviously have done their homework.
“It’s definitely a pretty great sound that shouldn’t get lost,” Turner says of the music that seems to have inspired his band. “I would hate to see it just be forgotten. I guess it’s a continual thing—some bands take it and leave it and then go on and break up, and then somebody else picks it up.”
Nevertheless, Turner and his bandmates are steering clear of any by-the-numbers revivalist trap. “I think we’re trying to do something that adds to it and takes it to another place,” he says of his band’s music. “Because it’s not that interesting, to me, just to bring back an old sound or something that was popular maybe 15 years ago. Or whatever it was.”
Some might disagree with that last statement. Like my erstwhile friend the San Francisco writer.
“Oh. My. God … " is what I’m guessing his response might be.