Retox – The Story
“WHAT IS ROCK?!
Rock is the area between the balls and the anus of a dog or another man…
WHAT IS ROCK?!
Rock is the possibility of choking on your own vomit in the back of a rapist’s van…
WHAT IS ROCK?!
Denim-clad Satanists making love in the sewers of Birmingham
during Maggie Thatcher’s prime…
WHAT IS ROCK?!
Meeting the grim reaper in a sports arena stampede at the tender age of nine…”
… only the first verse from the blood-spattered rock-operatic epic which climaxes ‘RETOX’, the latest and career-best record from Turbonegro, the band who (rather humbly) style themselves as the “Official Number 4 Formula Band In The Universe” – the top three are, they state, AC/DC, the Ramones and Slayer.
From Norway, these 6 deviants have wrought more rockin’ havoc around the world than any other band in the last ten years. Their blue-denim sailor-boy gear and “faux-mo-erotic” lyrics have caused astonishment and confusion everywhere. Their remorseless collaging of influences from across the spectrum of classic rock, punk and metal – what they call their musical “dream cocktail” – serially blows the minds of their disciples, leaving others wondering if it’s really okay to let their jams be kicked out, too. Must the Great forever be doomed to be misunderstood by the masses?
‘RETOX’, finally, blows away such nonsensical logic. It’s hard, heavy, hilarious, terrifying, offensive, dumb-ass, thought-provoking and plain genocidal all at once. It IS rock. Total rock. Total Turbo. A record which, to borrow a lyric from its riotous lead-off single, ‘Do You Do You Dig Destruction’, will hit you like “brass-knuckles and a 2-by-4”.
“It is the sound,” they add, “of cold steel slashing through hot leather”. On the cover, a Kenneth Anger youth gazes up at the vast projected horror of singer Hank von Helvete’s eyes. Time for anyone with the least passing interest in rock to stare the Devil in the face. Fuck, yeah!
* * *
“Most rock ‘n’ roll bands start as a riot, but end up as a parody,” remarks Happy-Tom, the bassist and mastermind behind the dark power that is Turbonegro. “We started as a parody, but ended up as a revolution.”
The Turbonegro saga commenced in Oslo in 1989. The initial line-up included Happy-Tom, back then the drummer, and guitarists Pål Pot Pamparius and Rune Rebellion. They originally considered using the name “Nazipenis”. Instead, they settled on Turbonegro, evoking “a large well-equipped, armed black male in a fast car, out for vengeance. We are his prophets.” Neither name was really indicative of any grand career strategy, or thoughts of global success.
After making a messy entrance with 1992’s debut, ‘Hot Cars And Spent Contraceptives’, the band reached the dizzy frontier of their own expectations when they got to support the Ramones. Soon, though, they unearthed a mighty new singer in Hank von Helvete (or “Hank from Hell”). With 1994’s ‘Never Is Forever’, they forged the sound of ‘Deathpunk’, an ultra-snotty, irritant evolution of the old form. The album was dedicated to muso-rockers Blue Oyster Cult – a fuck-you to the punk scene, with its blinkered lo-fi aesthetic; also, an expression of genuine love for rock grandeur.
Turbonegro identified with rare nonconformist elements in Scandinavia’s punk scene like Sweden’s Union Carbide Productions, who actively went about winding up the earnest, dreadlocked politico brigade. They quickly stepped up the antagonism. On tour, they wore Al Jolson-style ‘blackface’ and afro wigs. To many, their name suggested involvement in Norway’s Black Metal scene. Feeling somewhat outgunned by the church-burning antics of their diabolical fellow-countrymen, the band held a crisis meeting to brainstorm ideas for how to unsettle even Black Metal fans. When the hangover wore off, they found one word on a scrap of paper: “homo”.
The band soon styled themselves as “threatening gay men playing loud rock music”. They wore sailor’s hats, trucker-cut jackets and tight jeans in blue denim (“the only textile that was actually designed for kicking ass”), and women’s make-up. 1996’s ‘Ass Cobra’ contained the songs ‘Sailor Man’, ‘Denim Demon’ (“I am a saint for semen”) and ‘I Got Erection’. Almost unbelievably, they landed an endorsement deal with Levi’s – life-size cardboard cut-outs of Turbonegro adorned shop-fronts across Scandinavia.
Turbonegro as they are today clicked into place with the arrival of “totalitarian guitar hero” Euroboy, and Chris Summers “the Rolex of drummers”, and the release of 1997’s masterpiece, ‘Apocalypse Dudes’. To accommodate the new arrivals, Happy-Tom, now modelling his hair after Myra Hindley. switched to bass. Pål Pot Pamparius returned from a stint running his own pizza restaurant in Kolbotn, near Oslo – celebrated in the track, ‘The Age of Pamparius’ – in a multi-instrumental ‘Bez’ role.
With technical acumen in the ranks greatly enhanced, Turbo now had the chops to take their punk-meets-’70s-rock vision to its logical conclusion. ‘Apocalypse Dudes’ sounded like ‘Tommy’ played by The Damned, with a new libretto from Jean Genet. Punks in Scandinavia only sneered at Euroboy’s guitar solos, but the mighty riffage of ‘Get It On’ and ‘Prince of the Rodeo’ saw NYC hipster’s bible Grand Royal hype ‘…Dudes’ as “the rock & roll album of the decade”. A cult exploded around the band, as the likes of Dave Grohl and Jello Biafra raved about Norway’s Boys In Blue.
Happy-Tom remembers: “People were saying , ‘Yeah, rock & roll is coming back!’ And we were like, ‘Where?!’ We thought rock & roll was in a pretty bad state if a bunch of slightly overweight and underweight Norwegians had to dress up and pretend to be homosexual to revive it.” Grunge and Britpop were wilting, Radiohead and Limp Bizkit were on the rise. Terrible days! To be Norwegian, cod-gay and actually breaking through was a near-miraculous feat.
On stage, Hank emerged as a magnetic if volatile presence, his eyes blacked out with Alice Cooper eye make-up, his rump routinely lit up by a roman candle fizzing between clenched buttcheeks. Privately, though, he’d been self-medicating his depression with heroin. The trails of addiction led to him missing numerous gigs. On the road in ’98, he suffered a nervous breakdown. In the waiting room of a psychiatric emergency room in Milan, the band were forced to split up, losing a lot of money in cancellation fees, but, more – losing their dream.
After one last farewell show in Oslo that December, the six ’Negroes scattered. Hank went into recluse in the tiny fishing village of Lofoten, where he lived at his grandparents’ house, and worked variously as a radio DJ, and the guide at a local whaling museum. In the meantime, the band’s legend multiplied to fever pitch. Proving the human tendency towards necrophilia, their fan club, Turbojugend, went into overdrive, shifting boxfuls of blue-denim merchandise. Eventually, in Summer 2002, three European festivals offered Turbo pots of cash to reform. With Hank’s health restored, they agreed, and duly tore it up in front of 100,000+ fans.
Where lame cult acts like The Velvet Underground reformed and quickly scurried back to their Art House, Turbo charged on, making ‘Scandinavian Leather’ (2003) – an album with a dense Nordic metal sound, and ultra-dark, blood-dripping lyrics to match. Its macabre self-devouring-animal sleeve was designed by Klaus Voormann, responsible for the artwork to The Beatles’s ‘Revolver’.
Now with a decent budget behind them, Turbonegro were able to indulge their stadium rock fantasies to the max. Throughout Europe and America, live audiences were showered with Turbo’s own Zillion Dollar notes, blasted out from a giant wind machine. Instead of playing to 50 disapproving bozos in NOFX T-shirts, their audiences were bigger, wilder, and revelled in such wind-up tactics, forming a curious but unique bond. Tours supporting , Queens Of The Stone Age were insane, but profile-building: the ‘…Leather’ phase concluded with two headline shows at House of Blues on LA’s Sunset Strip (it must’ve been Lana Clarkson’s week off…)
LA provided the spiritual backdrop for their next abum, ‘Party Animals’ – a back-to-basics punk record inspired by heroes Black Flag and Redd Kross, whose leading light, Steve McDonald, was summoned to Norway to produce. Turbo’s love of pop harmonies (think Cheap Trick) and glam-rock made for a lighter, Californian vibe on gems like ‘Blow Me (Like The Wind)’, ‘If You See Kaye’ and ‘Hot Stuff/Hot Shit’ – although, the stomping ‘City of Satan’ warned of falling prey to LA plasticity.
One of the band’s proudest moments arrived on the ensuing tour, when Hank told the long-running XXXX-cert “Aristocrats” joke onstage in Sweden, with the Swedish royal family as the central characters. “It involved incest and shitting,” Happy-Tom recalls. The Swedish royal family sued, causing a massive tabloid scandal. Turbo were still getting up noses – the noses just got bigger.
* * *
Turbojugend now has denim-clad chapters all over Europe and America, as well as in Rio, Santiago and Brisbane. One member has painted the whole outside of their house with ’Negro artwork designs. The Hamburg chapter have somehow made Turbonegro the offical band of the city’s so-called “pirate” football team, St Pauli, while, at SXSW ’07, the Texan chapter laid on a post-gig party for the group, featuring a Turbo tribute band – not even hyped British acts like Amy Winehouse were thus honoured.
Turbo themselves, however, are probably the biggest fans of their own band. They have created a monster entirely to their own specifications and let it loose upon the world with unforeseen success. It is, they realise, a remarkable beast, approachable on many levels – as a masterclass in punk-rock attitude; a veritable orgy of twisted humour; an exploration of dark, self-destructive philosophy; as formularized performance à la AC/DC/Ramones/Slayer; as ritualized sexual deviancy; and, of course, as ass-shakin’, motherfuckin’ rock & roll, second to none. Some humourless idiots may get lost in the complexity of it all, but, to go with Sonic Youth rather than Baudrillard: Confusion is sex, honey! So…, yes…: why change now, barring the odd tweak of fine-tuning?
“The thing about formula bands,” reckons Euroboy, “is that they start out with a basic idea that catches on. Then, facing great success they try to change or develop. When that doesn’t work, they go back to the formula and make record after record that way again. Why bother with the failure bit?”
Reconvening to begin ‘RETOX’ in Oslo in February 2006, Turbo’s agenda was, Euroboy continues, to “combine the urgency and energy of our early punk records, with our more mature musical understanding since ‘Apocalypse Dudes’.” Hence ‘RETOX’.
If the last album was back-to-basics, ‘RETOX’ is full-tilt no-nonsense mindless boogie. In the run-up to recording, everyone had been grooving on ZZ Top, plus the new Eagles of Death Metal record. Stoopid biker rock was the order of the day – hey, ’twas ever thus!
Each of the 12 songs that made the cut rank amongst Turbo’s hottest to date. Opening with the gleefully nihilistic ‘We’re Gonna Drop The Atom Bomb’, ‘RETOX’ is jam-packed with outsider anthems. Witness the baldie loser “stuck Googling for wigs”, who nevertheless heroically rocks on (‘Hell Toupée’), and the moving tribute to the obese that is ‘Everybody Loves a Chubby Dude’ – “I am the lizard king, I can eat anything!” yells Hank.
The “sound of cold steel slashing through hot leather” comes in part courtesy of John Agnello, producer of The Hold Steady’s ‘Boys and Girls in America’ album, who mixed ‘RETOX’ with the band in New York. On tracks like ‘Welcome To The Garbage Dump’ and ‘No, I’m Alpha Male’, our Nordic heroes sound steely, indeed – tougher than ever before.
Above all it’s the work of a six-piece riffin’ machine firing on all cylinders. Throughout, there are touches that will tickle the punk/rock connoisseur – Hank’s righteous Johnny Rotten-ese on ‘You Must Bleed/All Night Long’; the dinky castanet rattle that follows the “Latino lovers” line in ‘Do You Do You Dig Destruction’ (FM-friendly anarchism, anyone?). Turbo dig so much music: it’s all in there one way or another, but it’s way beyond mealy-mouthed shit-speak about influences. It’s all them now.
In a rock world suddenly overloaded with piss-quicks with retard haircuts (they’ll go back to their accountancy degrees in two years – fact!), Turbonegro should be cherished for the depth of their commitment. Made between deals, ‘RETOX’ is self-financed and, in Norway at least, self-released – a massive leap of faith for a band of their stature.
In a global climate of fear, fundamentalism and repression, ‘RETOX’ also reminds you that rock & roll exists to be fun, funny, liberated and oblivious to its own consequences. When, halfway through ‘What Is Rock?!’, Hank launches into the refrain “We saved rock & roll” on the band’s behalf, it’s no joke. In their eyes, it’s payback time. “Where is the cash?” they cry. At this stage, if anyone deserves the Zillion Dollars, for services rendered in the most barren and un-rocking of musical landscapes, it’s Turbo-motherfucking-negro…