Scandinavian Leather (Epitaph)
by Brian Varney
Funny how time slips away, innit? Though they broke up a mere five years ago, Turbonegro are already looked upon as one of the grandparents of the now-burgeoning Scandinavian rock scene. Five years is a relatively short period of time, all things considered, but the speed with which information travels, thanks to the Internet blah blah blah, makes it seem like a long time, especially since the band’s material has gone in and out of print several times during this period.
Turbonegro’s history actually goes back quite a few years (their first release was in 1989) and incorporates many line-up changes, but the period which concerns us is the one at the end. 1996 is the year of Ass Cobra, the band’s first release of note. The faux-Pet Sounds cover art, the band’s comedic image (a sailor cap-wearing bass player named Happy Tom and a Ron Jeremy-esque lead singer who graces the photo at the center of the CD’s booklet clad only in a snake) and songs with titles like “The Midnight NAMBLA,” “I Got Erection,” and “Denim Demon” (which includes the immortal lyric “You’ve got my penis steaming and your asshole’s screaming ‘Help'”) may set off joke-band alarm bells, and there’s really no question that there’s much silliness happening here, but it’s also obvious that the band is serious about its music even if it isn’t about itself. Though the album’s 14 tracks are, at first glance, the sort of generic lo-fi punk that you can get by grabbing the first Get Hip release you can fish from the $3 bin, closer examination reveals a fermenting songwriting talent that would eventually lead the band to its later dizzying heights.
Still, a bucketful of promise is worthless if you don’t capitalize on it. I don’t know what happened in the two years between Ass Cobra and Apocalypse Dudes, but apparently the change was one of soul-selling proportions because the difference between the two is staggering, literally to the point where you’d be forgiven for not recognizing the two as being the work of the same band. It’s safe to say that they didn’t spend those years blowing guys in public parks because Apocalypse Dudes is, hyperbole aside, one of the best two or three albums of the 1990s.
Looking, as someone once memorably said, like Village People in a Levi’s commercial and sounding as if they’d spent the last two years fully absorbing absolutely every second of Sweet’s Desolation Blvd, the band is unquestionably at the height of its powers here. Opener “The Age of Pamparius,” easily the best song ever written about pizza and the apocalypse, begins with a brief sort of acoustic overture before erupting into an arena-ready rocker which will make you raise your fist and toss your hair whether you like it or not. The punk flavor of Ass Cobra is still present, no question, but the band has also absorbed seemingly every good glam and arena influence and thrown it into the pot as well, adding the brilliant guitarwork of new addition Euroboy (hint: if you’re interested in finding information about this very fine fellow on the Internet, do NOT do a search for “Euroboy” unless you really like gay porn sites) and polishing everything to fine, brilliantly-honed finished product with epic production, and there’s really no getting around the fact that this album was a classic the moment it was released and will still be a classic long after most of the shit we’re writing about is dead and gone. Every one of these 13 tracks is a winner, whether it’s the hip-thrustable chantalong “Get It On” (with its main riff blatantly lifted from either The Dictators’ “Next Big Thing” or the Ramones’ “I Just Want to Have Something to Do,” depending on who you ask) or “Prince of the Rodeo,” which is perhaps the most rockin’ song I’ve ever heard that includes a bongo solo. There’s literally nothing bad to be said about this album – the only bad thing to be said is about you if you don’t own it, and thanks to the fine folks at Epitaph and Burning Heart, it’s back in print, so hop to it, skippy.
And then they were gone. Following the Apocalypse Dudes tour, the band split amongst rumors of insanity, drug addiction, etc. I don’t know what’s true and what isn’t, and frankly I don’t really care. In a way, I was almost glad the band broke up at this point – I mean, how do you possibly follow Apocalypse Dudes?
However, there’s nothing like the lure of money and adoration to draw a rock band from retirement, so now it’s 2003 and Turbonegro is back with a new album, Scandinavian Leather. Not surprisingly, it’s an unabashed attempt to make Apocalypse Dudes II. Beginning similarly with an intro and a spoken statement of purpose, the album is chock-a-block with grandiose singalongs which bring to mind ’70s arena-glammers like the ELO-esque string flourishes of “Wipe It Til It Bleeds” and the unmistakable Gary Glitter beat of “Gimme Some” (which includes a clever lift from the Electric Eels’ “Agitated”). Again, there are 13 songs, and not a stinker in the bunch. So why does this feel like a letdown?
It’s completely unfair of me to expect Earth-shattering greatness again from Turbonegro, especially since they’ve been broken up for several years, and a good album’s a good album, right? I suppose that, yes, good is good, but I can’t help but compare this album to its predecessor. This, you see, is the very reason I was kind of glad they broke up – trying to follow a classic is a daunting task, and one not made any easier when you essentially try to recreate it, as Turbonegro have done with Scandinavian Leather. If it were not the follow-up to Apocalypse Dudes, would my opinion be different? Probably.
As I’ve said, this is not a bad album by any means. On the whole, it’s a bit top-heavy, with most of its best moments coming in the first half, but it’s certainly not an embarrassment. The shadow of greatness is a difficult place for anyone to roost and, in a case such as this, it makes impartiality all but impossible, so I’ll finish by saying that I hope Scandinavian Leather grows on me as much as Apocalypse Dudes did.
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