Punk dignitary Ian Svenonius taunts political and cultural mores with a wink

Ian Svenonius’ current project, Chain and the Gang, boils down to playing his style in bite-size, digestible snack form. Ian Svenonius’ current project, Chain and the Gang, boils down to playing his style in bite-size, digestible snack form.

Ian Svenonius has been one of the major figures in D.C. punk for the past 25 years. He began in the late ’80s with Nation of Ulysses, who along with other Dischord label contemporaries like Fugazi, was rethinking what a “hardcore” band was supposed to sound, look, and act like.

Ulysses was simultaneously backward-looking and left-leaning, combining a retro appreciation for rock’s roots in soul and pop music with a confrontational appropriation of slogans and styles from radical politics (its debut album was titled 13-Point Program to Destroy America).

That band was short-lived, but it defined the trajectory Svenonius would follow in his subsequent projects. Perhaps his best-known group is The Make-Up. The Make-Up played and sang Marxist critiques of capitalism in general, and rock ‘n’ roll in particular. The politics were sincere, but the strategy was self-aware and fun. The groovy, mod sound was more deliberately retro and accessible, and live performances were reportedly heavy on call-and-response chants (the band made several appearances at Charlottesville’s Tokyo Rose). Its sharp style, matching uniforms, and communitarian rhetoric underlined the degree to which allegiance to a subversive political group and allegiance to a commercial rock group can often appear indistinguishable.

The Make-Up called its form “gospel yeh-yeh,” arguing that gospel was a relatively uncommercialized and pure relative of rock. The appellation of the term “yeh-yeh,” is reminiscent of the yé-yé genre of ’60s French girl pop, perhaps one of the most blatantly commercial and artificial (and fun) musical genres in history. In channeling it, The Make-Up was pointing the finger back at itself, acknowledging with a wink, its own place in the grand scheme of things. The message was an exciting and vital one—question all preconceived notions, tear down, and reconfigure the structures around you—and have a fun, sweaty dance party while doing so.

The Make-Up broke up in 2000, citing completion of its “five-year plan,” but Svenonius remains busy. He started the group Scene Creamers with Royal Trux’s Neil Hagerty (soon re-named Weird War after Hagerty’s departure), and authored two books, the 2006 essay collection The Psychic Soviet, and his most recent, last year’s Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group. In Strategies, Svenonius claims to hold séances to contact rock legends such as Jim Morrison and Brian Jones from beyond the grave to interview them about their formulas for success. Puzzlingly, he also conducted séances with still living musicians like Paul McCartney. It’s presented as a “how-to” manual, partly tongue-in-cheek while offering analysis of how the rock group mirrors the appearance of the street gang, and how pop history relates to the Cold War, examining multi-faceted relationships with capitalism and culture.

Svenonius’ current band is called Chain and the Gang, and in the past four years the band has released three full-length albums through Pacific Northwest-based kindred spirits K Records. With a rotating membership, the Gang has an even simpler sound than Svenonius’ previous groups. Claiming to reject liberty, Chain and the Gang record in mono, and has given the world albums entitled Music’s Not for Everyone and Down With Liberty… Up with Chains! and songs like “Surprise Party,” “(Lookin’ for a) Cave Girl,” and “(I’ve Got) Privilege.” Its most recent offering is 2012’s In Cold Blood.

Chain and the Gang will play at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on August 15, joined by fellow D.C. group Shark Week and local mod-rockers The Ha-Rang!!.The show begins at 9pm.

Earth oddity

On Saturday, August 17 several local groups will perform the music of David Bowie in a tribute concert at the Jefferson Theater.

Though Astronomers called it quits a year ago, the opportunity to cover “The Man Who Sold the World” proved too strong a temptation to resist, so the show will serve as an Astronomers reunion. The band has paid tribute to Queen and the Smashing Pumpkins in previous years at the Southern’s annual Mock Stars Ball Halloween concerts, and its flashy glam aesthetic and familiarity with covers makes for a good fit.

The Fire Tapes has recently completed its second album (the excellent Phantoms, due on WarHen Records in September) and is recovering from the pressures of recording and preparing for the album release show by rehearsing a set of Bowie tunes. “We’ve been practicing a lot,” said Betsy Wright, the Fire Tapes’ lead singer. “It’s challenging music, and Bowie had the range of an opera singer, but I think we’ll have some fun with it. We are mostly doing the ‘Thin White Duke’ era, with some other songs sprinkled in.”

The Fire Tapes sound is that of classic ’80s-era college radio—mixing shoegaze, country, and Velvets-style jams—and the band typically ends shows with covers like Television’s “Marquee Moon,” The Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” or “That’s What You Always Say” by the Dream Syndicate.

The third band is something of a supergroup of semi-locals led by the prolific Thomas Dean. In addition to fronting the long-running punk powerhouse Order of the Dying Orchid, playing as a pinch-hitter in dozens of other bands, and designing t-shirts and album covers for seemingly everyone in town, Dean is also a seasoned covers artist, having played full sets of The Kinks and Guided By Voices songs with The Invisible Hand. Dean’s frequent collaborator, Nikki West of Nethers and the Carlsonics, will play the part of Bowie, backed by a band containing local journeyman Travis Elliot, Kyle Rodland of Riot Act on drums, and WJTU DJ Nick Rubin on keys. They’re billed as Tom Dean and the Jean Genies.

Doors are at 7pm and holiday-themed local DJ trio Three Witches will spin records between bands.

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