CHEAP VODKA – Mockba (Nicotine Records)
Before Malcolm McLaren found fame and infamy as choreographer of the tabloid sensation that was the UK punk rock explosion of 1977, he spent a brief stint as the New York Dolls’ last manager. McLaren had first sighted the Dolls on their ill-fated 1972 tour of the UK, then headed across to New York a couple of years later to assume the thankless task of managing a motley bunch of junkies, alcoholics and egotists.
Among McLaren’s more dubious artistic decisions was to clad the Dolls in red patent leather and imbue the band with a Soviet artistic aesthetic. McLaren was correct that the overt use of the icons of the communist political system would be controversial – something that McLaren claimed was an important part of the most notable artistic statements – yet his assessment of both the Dolls’ willingness to go along with the political bent, and American audiences’ understanding of it, was misguided, to say the least. History now shows that the Dolls shed their red patent leather relatively quickly, imploded shortly thereafter and McLaren decamped back to England to lick his wounds and search for something with even greater shock potential.
Mockba – who hail from Buffalo, New York, a city (to the best of my knowledge) with about as much Marxist-Leninist tradition as the Grand Old Party – invoke a contemporary blend of Soviet iconography on their album, Cheap Vodka. Mockba (as those of us who can remember the frosty Moscow Olympics in 1980 will remember) is an Anglocised version of the original Russian pronounciation of Moscow. In a twist that has obvious roots in the Beatles’ Back in the USSR, the band members have each assumed nom de plumes based on a Marxist-Leninist/Maoist spin on the members of the Beatles – John Lenningrad, Paul McCarthy (presumably referring to the 1950s American manic anti-communist), George TseTung and Pinko Starr.
The band’s music is a mixture of garage, rock and surf – exactly the type of music that was likely to attract the attention of the official state police during the rigidly controlled era of the former Soviet republic, and probably earn you a lengthy stint in the Gulag. With twelves songs in 25 minutes this is fast and frenetic stuff. The Russian/communist theme carries over into the band’s songs – “Cheap Vodka”, “Li’l Sputnik”, “The Kommunist Kangaroo Manifesto”, “Political Fac(shion)ism”.
Stand-out tracks are the opener “Fiberglass (sic) Suits”, something akin to Television shoved through a Celibate Rifles filter, the surf-garage instrumental “Soviet Skunk Serenade” and “Goat Island Beach” (that latter suggests a nod to Radio Birdman, partly on account of the Sydney-centric reference contained in the song’s title, and partly due to the “Descent Into the Maelstrom” style drumming and Tek-like surf guitar riffs). “TV Room” sounds like something James Baker would’ve recorded in his lounge-room with a bunch of similarly garage educated Perth mates while the 55 second blast “464” is closer to contemporary West Coast skate punk sound than most of the other material on the album.
“The Kommunist Kangaroo Manifesto” would have been a better soundtrack for the utopian Marxist state than any traditional Russian song pummelled over cheap eastern bloc stereos. “Political Fac(shion)ism” uses the rhetoric of cliched American ‘individual over the state’ ideology to attract the micro-politics of modern day fashion and “Secret Handshake” is a rant you’d expect to hear on a Circle Jerks track played out against a subtle groovin’, garage track – with pained vocals and wild guitar explorations punctuating the tough as nails bass line.
Not surprisingly there wasn’t much great rock’n’roll produced during the Soviet era (though the world’s most notable Velvet Underground fan, Vaclav Havel, did end up as leader of the post-communist Czech Republic) – Mockba shows that even if the Russian political experiment didn’t work for the people, it has left some artistic (albeit piss-taking) inspiration for future generations.
– Patrick Emery
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