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Before the hype, I unknowingly stumbled upon Turbonegro's daunting physiognomy when a friend, visiting from Tokyo, took me on a search for the first Iron Maiden record. Totally engrossed in Bleeker Bob's extensive metal section, we were blown away by a photograph of what looked like a heavy-set Alice Cooper and his denim-obsessed friends, by songs titles like "Hobbit Motherfuckers" and "I Got Erection" (among others), and finally by the over-sexed coming-of-age liner notes to Ass Cobra, by "King Irwin" The Whiskey Rebel. In the language of a cracked-out Henry Miller (or Vince McMahon), this so-called rebel proclaimed that-- like Tristram Shandy-- he wouldn't have been born if his father hadn't "come" in the right place, that his strapping adopted Norwegian parents had a lot of sex, and how when he first saw Turbonegro in Oregon they managed to turn on an entire party of women (and men "coming to grips with their feminine side"). That this band of frumpy metal heads-- men that could almost pull of black sweat suits-- were "Norway's greatest band ever."
That's certainly a lot of rock-n-roll potential, but we were bummed to see they'd prematurely stopped their attack in 1998 when vocalist Hank Von Helvete went into intensive care at a psychiatric unit in Milan for an addiction to heroin and darkness. Ever a fan of the modernist cult of genius, this premature breakup only added to the flames of an already ferociously burning fire, a church torched in the name of death punk! So yeah, we were hooked.
In their decade together, Turbonegro released at least two classic records: Ass Cobra (1996) and Apocalypse Dudes (1997), both reissued by Epitaph in 2003. Ass Cobra is the more immediate and rougher of the two, with the brilliant "Denim Demon"-- the best teenage outcast anthem since Danzig left the Misfits-- and "Prince of the Rodeo", which combines piss-drunk L.A. thrash and a purer understanding of the band that inspired it. "Prince of the Rodeo" channels Van Halen's first two records in a straight, wailing hard rock anthem, a classic piece of guitar showmanship precious few bands could hope to pull off. On Apocalypse Dudes, the addition of guitarist Euroboy and new drummer Chris Summers yields a denser sound: check out the constant guitar tapping on "Get It On", and the ponderous, nearly Yes expansiveness of "The Age of Pamparious".
The music isn't as heavy as I'd imagined; some friends and I watched the video for "Get It On" at work without any speakers, then decided to take votes on what music could possibly live up to the ridiculous imagery, of Hank Von Helvete in full face paint brandishing a cane-cum-riding-crop, the rest of the band decked out in sailor caps and red lipstick, driving nowhere in a car. Recalling a number of Guns 'n' Roses videos, Slash perched on mountain tops or in solitary confines for his half-assed solos, guitarist Euroboy plays quickly and with skill, in a stable. But we couldn't hear him. One of us said there would have to be electronic drums. I mentioned Roxy Music fronted by King Diamond. Someone else mentioned The Stooges and Danzig. Oddly enough, they ended up sounding kind of like a better, three-dimensional version of The Hives, though Hives' vocalist Pele Almqvist speaks elsewhere of watching and admiring Turbonegro when he was in high school, so I guess it's more proper to say The Hives are a bad version of Turbonegro.
Though they've recorded for Man's Ruin, Sympathy for the Record Industry and Amphetamine Reptile, had a tribute album recorded in their honor (Alpha Motherfuckers, Blitzcore; 2001), and despite increasingly loud championing by Rocket From The Crypt, Dave Grohl, Jello Biafra, Metallica, Queens of the Stone Age (who cover "Back to Dungaree High") and the famously crotchety Steve Albini, Turbonegro remain best known in the US for their back-story. The decidedly 1970s East Village "gay" look-- bright red lipstick, Tom of Finland's facial hair and denim suits amid images of male on male blowjobs-- whether satirical or not, is pretty daring when placed in the context of our always uptight hard rock scene.
Basically, Turbonegro are heterosexual men obsessed with other men's asses. Ass Cobra is the most overt in this regard: it's here that they sing about a "tender" sailor man, re-envision "Midnight Rambler" as "Midnight NAMBLA" (complete with children making nervous sounds), and decorate the album with images by Tom of Finland and old German men servicing one another. The butt fetish continues on Apocalypse Dudes, which has the Meatmen-like "Rendezvous With Anus". The perpetually sweaty Von Helvete often ends their sets by sticking a sparkler up his ass-- G.G. Allin watch out!-- so the question is, is this offensive, or are we talking grand Swiftian satire? What makes Turbonegro such a beloved band of hard rockers is the fact that they're intelligent, something their American counterparts have had a tougher time proving in recent years.
Turbonegro's painfully clichéd but stunningly executed rock-n-roll excess reminds me of when I saw The Ramones play to a packed City Gardens. I was 16, and at first, nervous and intimidated by the male bodies crashing around the stage, but ultimately they unearthed exhilaration in this smoky, stinking, kind of stupid space, so far outside my usual suburban home. Today, as a cynical 29-year-old who for the most part nods out at the banality of live music, any band that can chip away at years of boredom and shift my head towards the nervous energy of that first punk offering must be onto something worthwhile. It might be the best praise I can offer the late Turbonegro: they make me absolutely giddy.
-Brandon Stosuy, March 17th, 2003