Thursday, April 1, 2010

Music for Easter? Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, 'Shut Up and Bleed'

At this time of year, where Jesus gets so much press, I couldn’t help but feel that I needed to be listening to something vaguely on topic and, while Lydia Lunch’s first and shortly lived band Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and their compilation album Shut Up and Bleed, is probably not what most of the Christian community would be listening to today, there was enough of a link to make it feel appropriate for me.

Lydia Lunch (see 25th March) formed Teenage Jesus & the Jerks when she was only 17 years old and the band lasted only for a couple of years. But it was enough time for to encapsulate the essence of the New York underground no wave movement – the short-lived but nevertheless influential reaction to punk, deliberately unmusical, harsh and uncomfortable, using guitars and drums and vocals as weapons against, rather than as instruments for, the expression of rock and punk.

There’s an unabashed pride from Lydia Lunch, and her musical comrades, in their inability to play their instruments properly or to be able to sing in key. But there is surely a certain deliberate irony in that because these musicians don’t for a moment play their music badly. But what they do do, arguably, is play bad music very, very well.

Bad music? Yes – bad in the sense of totally unruly, misbehaved, disrespectful. Something that would be expelled from any half reputable school of music. Music that sticks sharp things in your ears; music that hasn’t been toilet-trained; music with psycho-socio-pathological tendencies that even enlightened governments create special laws for, to keep it off the streets.

Shut Up and Bleed is a collection of pretty well all the music recorded by Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. And even though most of the tracks are pretty short, and some of them (‘Red Alert’, ‘Freud in Flop’, ‘Crown of Thorns’ and ‘Eliminate by Night’) are very short, and even though there are several versions of many of them, at 29 tracks this is a pretty generous recording.

Most of the music here is marked by its raucous, bashed-out slabs of notes – not exactly chords – dragging along one minute, pounding away the next, always with a sense much more of place than of direction. This is not music that seems to want to go anywhere, but rather to just let itself loose from where it is. Lydia herself screams out her half-spoken, half-shouted vocals, often in unison with drums and guitars, which, like in ‘The Closet’ or ‘Less of Me’, have their own dialogue with her, screeching rather than riffing, music that feels physical pain as much as it inflicts it.

Then there are tracks like ‘I Woke Up Dreaming’ and ‘See Pretty’, weighed down and heavy, with a bass line and a beat that trudges along, thumping to a pulp everything in its path, with vocals, dislocated and alien, beating out the words, more a percussion instrument than something to sing with. And then there are tracks like ‘Tornado Warnings’ and ‘Sidewalk’ where noise is the protagonist and music, its shadow.

Teenage Jesus & the Jerks may only have been around for a short time, and today there are a lot, lot more people who have not heard of them than there are those who have – but, even so, their influence on music was pretty important. Their music, created in the late 1970s, might not have been the major inspiration for movements such as industrial and noise, but it certainly helped to influence them, and the way it was not content just to pull music apart, but had to go the full hog and smash it to pieces, set the stage for many of its followers to rebuild it anew.

Shut Up and Bleed is hard, gritty stuff – but, as the Christians keep telling us this time of year, suffering is a vital stop along the path to redemption. But what they don’t tell you is that Teenage Jesus & the Jerks is one helluva good way to suffer.

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