DAMNED IF THEY DO The Wildhearts

 

With a quartet of key
albums newly expanded and remastered, let’s pause and reappraise the
hard-rockin’ British band’s ‘90s output.

 

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

When rock & roll nerds gather and make the inevitable
list of bands that should’ve fuckin’ made it, man, the Wildhearts will no doubt
appear. Led through its many incarnations by redoubtable singer/axeslinger/tunesmith/bad
boy Ginger (aka David Walls, who formed the band in ’89 following his split
from the Quireboys), the ramshackle British quartet suffered the usual bad
breaks, from irritating roadblocks thrown up by an indifferent industry to
titanic fuckups caused by the band’s own misbehavior and lack of business
sense. Through unpredictable breakups and reunifications, the Wildhearts made a
series of witty, angry, bemused, aggressive, casually profane and impossibly
tuneful records that stand as tall in 2011 as they did in the ‘90s when they
were originally released. Though long out of print, the group’s major label
catalog has been resurrected in two-disk sets via U.K.’s Lemon Recordings as tribute to the now staunchly
independent band’s perseverance and growing status as rock & roll legends.

 

Originally released on Atlantic subsidiary EastWest in 1993
(1994 in the U.S.,
where it would be the band’s sole American release for over a decade), Earth Vs. the Wildhearts (9 stars out of
10) is as consistent and fully-formed a statement of intent as any debut LP in
rock. Marrying the riff-happy arrangements, electric guitar ecstasy and high
voltage of metal with the singalong melodies, thick harmonies and clever wordplay
of power pop, the Wildhearts inhabit a distinctive space in the rock universe,
bringing headbangers and hipsters together in ways familiar to its most obvious
predecessor Cheap Trick or more ironic descendants like Queens of the Stone Age.
It’s not a very commercial position to be in – too heavy for the pop crowd, not
heavy enough for the heshers, not enough shredding for axe obsessives. But it
gives an irresistible flair to the band’s melodic gut punches, from anti-love
rants (“Loveshit,” “My Baby is a Headfuck,” “Suckerpunch”) to grinding
political commentary (“Greetings From Shitsville,” “News of the World”). Along
the way the band gives soaring support to the lonely (“The Miles Away Girl”),
celebrates couch potatodom (“TV Tan”) and tunefully quaffs a lethal-sounding
hangover cure (“Caffeine Bomb”). Occasionally the group’s love of riffs gets
away with it, as in “Everlone,” an irresistibly melodic singalong attached to a
bewildering coda that probably should have been turned into a song of its own.
But that’s a minor quibble in what is one of the most start-to-finish
satisfying debut records of the last two decades.

 

The second disk truly enhances the original product,
gathering up the band’s pre-LP EPs and various B-sides. The band was notorious
for holding back much of its best material for non-album releases, and this
disk enforces that notion with more social sniping (“And the Bullshit Goes On,”
“Turning American”), lust for fun (“Weekend [5 Long Days]”), pleas for understanding
(“Show a Little Emotion”), a nod to horror films (“Splattermania”) and Ginger’s
own unique version of introspection (“Dreaming in A,” “Something Weird [Going
On In My Head]”). The disk kicks off with “Nothing Ever Changes But the Shoes,”
the first cut on the band’s first EP, and a tune so catchy and riff-mongering,
so quintessentially Wildhearts, that it’s a perfect opening salvo with which to
launch the band’s ill-fated campaign toward rock & roll success and excess.
In this edition especially, Earth Vs. the
Wildhearts
is an essential addition to any rock slob’s library.

 

Personnel changes (guitarist CJ Jagdhar and drummer Andrew
Stidi out, six-stringer Jef Streatfield and skinsman Ritch Battersby in) dogged
the recording of the follow-up, but despite the comings and goings, 1995’s P.H.U.Q. (yes, ha ha) is another winner
(9 stars). “V-Day,” “Nita Nitro” and the eye-rolling “Just in Lust” snap and
crackle like vintage Boys singles, balancing bad attitude and good cheer in
equal measure. “Jonesing For Jones” confronts addiction with a power ballad
that would make even the most cynical heart wave its lighter. “In Lilly’s
Garden” proffers lovely psychedelic pop; on the opposite end of the spectrum,
“Woah Shit, You Got Through” adds a punk rock thrust to its wild-eyed wonder.
The cheekily over-the-top metal crush “Cold Patootie Tango” crashes deftly into
the precision riff-bash of “Caprice” for a one-two punch to the heart, belly
and brain at the same time. But the LP’s opener is its best, and possibly the
band’s finest moment – “I Wanna Go Where the People Go” lays out its
tongue-in-cheek plea for privilege across a melody so sinfully catchy that it
remains an instant singalong classic, and one of the band’s few U.K. top-20
singles. While perhaps not the stone classic that is the debut, P.H.U.Q. – which hit the top 10 in England
– is still a grandly rocking hard pop album that stands the test of time.

 

The second disk, naturally, compiles the B-sides from the
LP’s various singles. Unsurprisingly, the band takes the chance to explore different
sides of its personality, from the 50s melody of the drug-fueled ballad “Sky
Chaser High” to the near-industrial stomp of “S.I.N. (In Sin)” (something that
would be explored more aggressively on the next album) to the jangle popping
“Bad Time to Be Having a Bad Time,” which fields its tune on acoustic guitars.
But the majority of the songs would slide right onto the band’s albums without
question, with the bracing “Got It On Tuesday,” the shoulder-shrugging “Can’t
Do Right For Doing Wrong,” the fist-pumping “Red Light – Green Light” and the
ridiculously catchy (if, as it turned out, inaccurate) “Sick of Drugs” leading
the way.

 

Fishing For Luckies (8 stars) has a tangled history. The odds ‘n’ sods collection began life as a
fanclub EP, comprising tracks intended for P.H.U.Q. but cut on the request of EastWest. After P.H.U.Q. was released and found some success, EW reissued the record with some singles
and B-sides added, beginning a cycle of different versions appearing over the
years – this set is the sixth (and hopefully definitive) edition. Tunes
familiar to the previous albums make return appearances – “Caffeine Bomb,”
“Sick of Drugs,” “Red Light – Green Light,” “Suckerpunch.” But there are enough
quality archival tracks to make the record well worth hearing: the hook-laden
B-sides “29 X the Pain,” “Girlfriend Clothes” and “Beautiful Thing You,” the
snarling single “If Life is Like a Lovebank I Want an Overdraft” and its flip
“Shut Your Fucking Mouth and Use Your Fucking Brain,” the uncharacteristically
folky hit “Geordie in Wonderland.” Of particular interest are the unused P.H.U.Q. tunes. The label wanted them
gone due to excessive length, as Ginger began experimenting with more epic structures.
Eleven and a half minutes of the frontman musing on his love of UFOs in “Sky
Babies” is indeed a bit much, but “Do the Channel Bop,” “Schizophonic” and the
misnomered “Inglorious” cram their seven or eight minutes with enough riffs and
melodies to justify the excess.  (“Nite
Songs,” despite its 22-minute length, is really a minute and a half of acoustic
pop followed by an intolerable laughter loop.) A few throwaway cuts aside, Fishing For Luckies is as enjoyable as
any of the main records.

 

The Wildhearts’ ongoing struggle with EastWest finally
culminated in an abrupt parting of the ways, followed by a hookup with indie
label Mushroom, who, according to the liner notes, wanted something “a bit
heavier” than the group’s norm. Add copious amounts of drugs to the band’s
happy-go-lucky compliance and the result was 1997’s Endless, Nameless (5 stars), an album so out of character as to be
almost unrecognizable as the Wildhearts. Despite being quite capable of the odd
heavy metal anthem, Ginger and company responded to their new label’s directive
by slathering everything in enough distortion to throw your scopes permanently
into the red. Guitars, vocals, even the drums – every sound in the grooves
sounds covered in sheet metal shavings, soaking even the most obvious hooks in
cochlea-shredding dissonance. Drummer Battersby sounds like he’s pounding on
abandoned cars, while the rhythm guitars drill like an earthmover digging
through the strata. Sometimes the harsh sonics suit the material – “Soundog
Babylon” works fine as an industrial epic, while the bleak “Heroin” deserves
the rough treatment. But the constant aural barrage becomes wearying before the
record is halfway through. Besides, when faced with the glam guitar hooks of
“Pissjoy,” the struggling melody of “Anthem” (sung by bassist Danny McCormack) or
the singalong chorus of “Thunderfuck,” one wishes the band had practiced
restraint.  

 

The B-sides on disk two, all from the various versions of
the singles for “Anthem” and “Urge,” follow suit from the LP, which is a real
drag for covers of the Tourists (“So Good to Be Back Home”), kindred spirits
E’Nuff Z’Nuff (“Time to Let You Go”), Cheap Trick (“He’s a Whore”) and Ginger’s
heroes Jason & the Scorchers (“White Lies”). Even worse is the industrial
metal version of Hank Williams’ “Lost
Highway,” which may pass muster for novelty value,
but annoys more than provokes. Unsurprisingly, there are some fine songs
obscured by the barbed wire, including the pained “Kill Me to Death,” the
sneering “Zomboid” and the cheekily hookfest “The Song Formerly Known As?”

 

And thus ended the Wildhearts’ first era, as drugs and
disillusionment took their toll. After various offshoots (Silver Ginger 5, the
Yo-Yo’s, Honeycrack) came and went, Ginger reunited the band a few years later,
only break it up again, then reconvene it once more, releasing LPs of varying
quality along the way. The band seems to be on hiatus yet again, with Ginger
continuing a solo career and the other members scattering to the winds. Alas, no
one else has managed to stoke a brilliant fire as high as the Wildhearts did on
their early albums. But at least those records are back in print and within
easy reach, once again setting a new standard for hard-hitting, melodic rock
& roll. 

 

 

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