Comic book rock at the El Mocambo, Toronto May 8, 2010
BY ANDREW BLAKE
I was backstage at Johnny Brenda’s, an East Side Philadelphia watering hole, when the most un-rock and roll conversation of the weekend was escalating, fast. The night before I was bellied up to the same bar with a stranger, exchanging shots of cheap swill for his cocaine-riddled tales about his escapades with Jane’s Addiction in the 90s. The ZZ Top from the jukebox made his drunken proclamations almost inaudible, and, hours earlier on the other side of the Delaware River, I was front row for one of the last Nine Inch Nails performances, ever.
Argos, at left, and the ghost of Mama Cass -- photo by A. Blake
And now, upstairs in the green room, Eddie Argos was ruining all of it. “No, no, no, it’s not that one.” Argos, lead singer of British rock group Art Brut, was trying to pin down the mid-90s Aerosmith song coming out of the nearby radio before his group went on stage. It was something from the Alicia Silverstone-era and he seemed all too eager to figure out if it was “Amazing” or “Crazy” before the tune hit the chorus. And then came the comic books.
“I’m not joking when I say I like comic books,” said Argos. “I really, really like comic books. Let me show you.” The teeth-rotted, late-20s songster grabbed a backpack and plopped it over his pudgy beer gut. “You see? Comic books!” He wasn’t lying. On stage that night he changed the words to one of his group’s more popular numbers to reflect his love. “DC Comics Makes Me Want to Rock Out” showed up near the end of the set and had a pretty good response. I could hear The Downward Spiral skipping mercilessly in the CD player in my brain as Argos debased the grit and gloom of every drug-fueled angry-at-the-ennui moment since Alan Freed coined the phrased as he seemingly never ceased about his comic books. Argos was on the cover of Rolling Stone overseas last year, and now he was telling me about his personal tour of the DC Comics headquarters from earlier in the week while Steven Tyler bawled at me in crackly stereo. If rock and roll hadn’t died yet, it was happening right in front of my eyes and ears, as Argos, the singer of one of my favorite bands if this decade, exploded his inner nerd all over the room in just the same way dozens of angst-filled teenagers blew apart their skulls to the manifestations of Trent Reznor’s goth rock poetry since the late 80s.
Argos gets squinty -- photo by A. Blake
It’s nearly a year later, and with a performance in Toronto this week of his new side project, Everybody Was in the French Resistance…Now!, he somehow managed to elaborate even further on the so-not-rock-and-roll that it is rock-and-roll concept. Each of the group’s songs are penned as a response to a hit of yesteryear. Why did Frank Sinatra have to do it his way? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to call up his friends and ask around first? And what happens to Martha Reeves when Jimmy Mack finally does come back? Let’s just say the guy was angry.
Only 30 seconds into their set at Toronto’s historic El Mocambo, Argos was on his knees in the crowd of merley two dozen, singing about Nazis. The first song of the set, “Creque Allies,” explains the formation of the French patriots assembled to resist the Nazi invasion during World War 2. It reads like a Wikipedia entry, ripe with references to Jean Roulin and Colonel Pierre-Georges Fabien. And yeah, it’s a response to the Mamas and the Papa’s “Creque Alley.” That’ right—the iconic folk-pop hit of 1967 detailing the formation of the late 60s flower power scene becomes as laughable as the whole ham-sandwich myth when it, somehow, is translated to a tale of Nazi repression. Everybody was getting fat with Mama Cass? No! Everybody was in the French Resistance…Now! Rock and roll? I’m still not sure.
After a lackluster round of applause, appropriately coming from a lackluster crowd, Argos didn’t seem all too concerned. “If you think it’s unusual for a band to be playing historically accurate songs at half empty venues in Toronto, try doing it across Europe for a month and a half.”
Even if the premise behind the whole group is a joke and a novelty that could not have been possible without the success of the earlier acts he’s lampooning, it is still pulled off pretty well live. Argos prefaced each number with an introduction explaining the original number and the necessity for a follow up. “No one wrote a song for Jimmy Mack and I felt bad for Jimmy Mack. I was Jimmy Mack,” he preached in a little pre-song banter. Dyan Valdes, keyboardist and co-singer of the group led out a flourish of notes and Argos stepped back up to the mic:
“Hey, it’s Jimmy Mack. Yeah, I heard your track. And if that’s your attitude, I’m never coming back. I haven’t been gone that long—it definitely doesn’t deserve a song.”
Valdes played Motown style keyboards and adds a little girl-group flair with backing vocals. Does it sound anything like the Martha and the Vandellas version? Of course not! But these aren’t meant to be parodies—just responses. The bulk of the songs relied on Valdes pushing buttons on a sequencer and cue-ing up backup tracks, and while her keyboard accompaniment and “press play” gameplan might not fill a half empty concert hall in Toronto with the same punch Argos’ more successful group might, it still gets the point across. Argos relies on banter and more knee crawls across the floor to get his point across. And his point? Let the other guy have his say.
Before launching into a response to Dylan’s “Don’t think Twice (It’s Alright),” Argos explained the need for a response. “Bob Dylan is really good at breaking up with people. I am not. It’s pretty much the only difference between us.”
“I think you wanted clean cut and goodbye, well I fucked that up when I started to cry… Think, and think again, before you say it’s too late for us. Think and think again, I don’t think your mind is totally made up”
Argos destroyed his manhood for three verses before leading his girlfriend and their guitarist into a rousing rendition of “With or Without You.” “If you can’t break up with someone, I recommend you scream U2 lyrics at them,” he said.
It was just after midnight when I stepped back and looked at the chubby Brit in a red vest on his knees in front of me and tried to decide if this was actually something that warranted driving 90 minutes across international lines for or if there was something horribly wrong with me. Live, the music came off a bit weak, the set was short, but the attitude? Full of it. I’d much rather hear Argos and Company tear into “Coal miner” than see Kanye do “Gold digger.” And though Everybody Was in the French Resistance…Now! might lack the balls of Kanye West, they out swarm him by tenfold.
French Resistance spent less than an hour on stage at the El Mocambo and still managed to reprimand Michael Jackson for his wildish ways with “Billie’s Genes” (message: the kid is yours) and even threw in a legitimate cover for good measure: “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” a minor 1979 hit for the Rubinoos. The song reclaimed success when Avril Lavigne ripped off the chorus for her tune “Girlfriend” a few years back, and, of course, Everybody Was in the French Resistance…Now! Had their own version earlier in the set. Maybe when you rip-off a rip-off, only then does it become rock and roll?
In that case, someone better start churning out parodies to “Eat It” and “Fat” and hope “Weird Al” doesn’t take charge.
Everybody Was in the French Resistance…Now! Is currently on tour across North America. Don’t be fooled—it might be ridiculous and ungodly nerdy of a premise, but it does, somehow, still rock. Even after all the comic books there still might be hope after all.