I always get a bit concerned when an artist claims, like Andy J Gallagher does, to possess a “longing, homage, respect, and love for the glory days” of something, especially punk rock. Not only does nostalgia make people sound old, but the very idea of the “glory days” of anything as amorphous and fickle as punk is ludicrous: less a genre than an ideology, punk has always been more about breaking things and creating monsters out of the detritus than a particular sound or style. “Fuck history,” some collective mega-ghost of Joe Strummer, the MC5 , Iggy Pop and Penny Rimbaud might say, “Gimme danger instead.”On the other hand, despite the fact that everything can become punk—a rendition of Handel’s Messiah sung into a beer can, for example—not everything that says it’s punk actually is. It’s one of those know-it-when-you-hear-it kind of things: Afrika Bambaataa, Bob Dylan, Minor Threat, Slayer…all totally punk. And Andy J Gallagher, backwards-looking or not, certainly sounds punk. It’s abstract. But is it enough?
Here’s the gist: Gallagher, who looks like an actor playing Lou Reed in a hypothetical Berlin: The Movie and is not, I believe, related to either of the Oasis bros, gigged around London for a few years with the brilliantly titled band The Shopkeeper Appeared, showing up on the BBC and playing support slots for Radiohead before ditching the fame-and-fortune route to conduct extensive research on international musical culture with some buddies. Ethnomusicological foray in the bag, the intrepid Brit returned home to dig deeper into his nation’s own version of Congolese war drumming: two-minute guitar rock songs. When Roman Jugg, a back-in-the-day keyboardist for the Damned (definitely punk) heard the tapes, he decided to man the decks for Gallagher’s perplexingly dubbed full-length Helicopter Dolphin Submarine. The songs here are taken from that record.
It’s the archetypal rock n’ roll narrative, almost too much so to warrant credibility: man starts weirdly-named band, achieves minor fame, goes off the rails, goes to Africa and Mexico or something, uncovers a hitherto hidden part of his soul in the eyes of a little boy banging out clave on a dusty bucket, and returns home triumphant and ready to start another band, albeit this time with weird album names instead. If Levi-Strauss hadn’t just died, he could have translated this guy’s professional life into a work of structuralist anthropology called The Raw and the Half-Baked.
But Ampeater is, to quote the “about us” in the upper right hand corner, all about the music. Of course nothing really is all about anything. Still, if we stick to that optimistic assumption, Andy J Gallagher begins to look a lot better; great even. So OK, fuck history, let’s get down to the tracks.
It was hard to pick two tracks for this 7-inch, not only because they’re all massively catchy, perfectly structured pop-punk tunes, but also because they’re all trying to do something different, referencing different pieces of the genre’s canon, condensing whole decades worth of material into singular songs with proficiency and verve. I guess that’s a plug for the album. It is, for a person who always thought the Clash were better songwriters than the Beatles, and the Buzzcocks catchier than the Kinks, a heartwarming and self-affirming experience. If this is what homages sound like, I don’t think the glory days ever really ended.
So, for the digital 7-inch, I think it’s best to show this guy’s range. A-side “Faster and Faster,” takes a step backwards on the timeline, latching onto the death-and-sex sensibilities that fueled proto-punk’s nihilistic self-presentation and coming up with something that could be a cover of an entire ideology. Gallagher makes no bones about the metaphysics of the sonic setup, saying it’s, “a song of 3 desperadoes – a pole dancer, a con and a junkie – who’s lives are drifting away faster and faster. But, like in the movies, they all live happily ever after!” That two-note intro: Jesus Christ, it’s horrifying, lurching like an emaciated gutter-kid wandering out of an alleyway covered in excrement and track marks or some massive British sealiner about to sink with thousands of people on board. This is music, I think, for the end of time, which, I suppose, the Thatcher years probably came alarmingly close to becoming. While Cold War dread has dissipated in the past twenty years, the resonances of this kind of aural cynicism still send shivers down my spine, not from excitement but from the lingering suspicion that radiation poisoning from billions of buried warheads crept into my fetal bloodstream way back in the beginning. Gallagher knows we’re still living out a Reaganite nightmare, infected by weapons and experiments and mistakes from the past, slowly growing up into Fukuyama’s historyless zombies, looking for antiques to buy online and devour quietly in our bedrooms. Man, those weren’t the glory days, but the End of Days. Happily ever after indeed.
B-side “Rope Swings Eternal” is more a historical commentary than a chilled-out diversion, embodying that late-70s sense that aggressive, sneering rock could maintain its abusive streak even while dressed up in crunchier clothes. The track sounds like a decade’s worth of stylistic transition, punk growing out of dive bars and basements to make music videos and expanding the textural palette of three chords played really fast into three chords played less fast and on an acoustic guitar. “There were a spate of angst ridden teenage suicides in the UK and this is a fictional take on that,” says Gallagher, “The song started with the title, a play on hope springs eternal, and was playing this Hawaiin sounding thing sliding up to the 12th fret and mucking around with the A shape, transposed it down to G and there’s your verse.” But it’s the more metaphorical kind of stylistic shape-shifting Gallagher captures here that’s important. “Rope Swings Eternal” could essentially be thought of as a blown-up photograph of the punk genre’s virus extending its epidemiology towards everything from folk to new wave to pop crossover, all the things that the scene, originally, never wanted to be. Spaced out, blissful, it’s a killer track that’s timeless in the sense that it could only be made in semi-nostalgic retrospect. Historians say it’s hard to write about contemporary events and figures with a critical eye. Gallagher, composing something like the Recorded History of Alternative Rock, seems to agree.