Seven years ago, Marc Ribak used to play the song "Fried Chicken" from the window of his UC Berkeley student coop — a big, shabby-looking place called Kingman Hall. At that time the song consisted of a single chord and the words fried chicken, fried chicken, bok-bok-bok, fried chicken repeated over and over again. He usually played it while jumping around the room in his underwear. Over a few days of practicing he developed "Fried Chicken" into a very simplified twelve-bar blues, strummed at hair-trigger speed and accentuated by jerky dance moves. Some people considered it an assault against taste. Others deemed it ironic. Ribak called it trash rock.
Once "Fried Chicken," became a full-fledged song, Ribak, whose stage name is Marcos, foisted it on his band, a garage outfit called the Rock n Roll Adventure Kids. He had formed the group out of Stebbins Co-Op in 2000 with two other Cal students, bassist Oscar Michelle and Amy Pecis on drums. They weren't quite proficient at their instruments but nonetheless became a successful power trio, known for strident, three-chord rock songs with tawdry lyrics (i.e., "Fried Chicken," "Panties in My Pocket," or "Boobies, Rock 'n Roll, Hot Dog, and a Jelly Roll"). The Adventure Kids would cram twelve or thirteen songs into a twenty-minute set, sometimes capping off with a song called "Food Fight," which ended with Marcos spraying the audience with chocolate sauce.
Not surprisingly, the band was a hit at co-op parties or other taste-optional affairs. Today they represent a revival in something called "trash rock," a subgenre of punk that's intentionally crass and deliberately anachronistic — the product of suburban kids who fetishize a kind of low-class rockabilly culture that emerged in the '50s and '60s. Marcos said their new album, Hillbilly Psychosis, sounds "like it came from a garbage can." And yet, their fan base appears to be growing.
To celebrate the release of the band's album, Marcos organized the TrashCanFrancisco Festival, which kicks off on New Year's Eve and culminates on January 3 at 924 Gilman Street. It features other bands in the same intentionally trashy vein, including the Losin' Streaks from Sacramento, a Chico psychobilly trio called the Shankers, Castro Valley five-piece the Flakes, several from Southern California, a Texas-born singer known as the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and a mysterious character called NoBunny, who performs in a bunny headpiece and seems like the trash rock analogue to rapper MF Doom. (Asked to comment for this article, he said he would try to call from a pay phone).
Trash rock harkens back to old-style rock 'n roll — the kind played by Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Link Wray, and later appropriated by groups such as the Kingsmen, the Yardbirds, and the Kinks, whose song "You Really Got Me" pretty much ushered in the punk rock era, according to Marcos. It's equally indebted to country singers like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Hasil Adkins, the Appalachian bluesman who often is credited for inventing psychobilly. Bands who helped concretize "trash" as a subgenre within punk — first, early punk bands like Iggy & the Stooges, the Ramones, the Cramps, and the Gun Club, and later, garage outfits like the Gories and the Mummies — rely on simple song structures, primitive rhyme schemes, and silly teenage lyrics, and compensate in speed and energy for what they lack in musical depth.
Trash rock bands are anathema to everything else that's happening in modern music: They shun recording studios, use analog gear, and want to sound as unpolished as possible. They use old gear that gets passed from hand to hand. Marcos' living room is full of such gear: four-track tape machines, eight-track tape machines, and even a typewriter. He also has an upright piano and a small collection of rock songbooks, including selected works of Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan. He applied his BA in ethnomusicology to meticulous study of the history of rock 'n' roll — everything from Okie singers to Chuck Berry to Phil Spector girl groups. Marcos seems to know every rock song by rote, and he finds something memorable in all of them. "'Louie Louie,' it's kind of like, the greatest rock 'n roll song of all time," he said, during an off-the-cuff lecture on the history of punk rock. "Like when that first note comes in on the piano it's like, that's rock 'n' roll." ("The greatest rock 'n' roll song of all time" is an accolade that Marcos doles out generously).
Since forming the Adventure Kids, the thin and wiry 28-year-old with mutton-chop sideburns and a shaggy mod haircut has taken a round-about path to get back where he started. He graduated from UC Berkeley, lived in various parts of North and West Oakland, took a break for a couple years off to work at a hostel in the Marin Headlands, became a Buddhist, spent a month in India, became a Hindu, and eventually returned to the trash rock scene, which seems like his natural habitat. (Marcos now espouses a made-up religion called "The Great Philosophers of Our Time," which he invented after a night of absinthe and ruminative conversation with a Portuguese poet.) The Adventure Kids went through several different iterations between 2001 and 2003, took a two-year hiatus in 2004, and reformed in 2006 with Oscar on bass and Marcos' brother Billy on drums.
Taken as a whole, such bands represent a nostalgia-based movement within a scene that already champions primitivism as part of its aesthetic. Their music and lo-fi recording style shores up an era of garage rock music that existed decades before most of these guys were born, yet remains frozen in time. "It's like film," Marcos said. "If you use a Super 8 camera — even if you use like, a Canon AE-1 versus a digital camera — there's a certain saturation the film has that makes it look cool. I think when you record stuff on old analog equipment the sound gets saturated."
"Saturated" is an apt descriptive term for the band's new LP. Recorded in Marcos' basement — mostly in one take, with the vocals overdubbed — the album sounds sludgy and distorted. The guitar and drums create a heavy layer of fuzz that all but pulverizes Marcos' voice, which sounds as though it were being pumped from a septic tank. It could almost be a tape recording of one of their 924 Gilman shows: Catchy, up-tempo songs like "Teenage Cavemen" and "Boobies Rock 'n Roll" have the urgency of a live performance, and even Marcos' cover of the Hank Williams country ballad, "Ramblin' Man," is one long, crackling slur.
It's easy write the music off as shtick. Indeed, the bands at TrashCanFrancisco sound indistinguishable from one another, and from a whole pantheon of garage bands that predate them by thirty to fifty years. But that's actually the point. Trash rock is a principled and conservative genre that romanticizes the past, while indulging a punk-rock fantasy of class descent. Its conservatism not only shapes the genre as a whole, but also reflects in the individual bands' repertoires. The Rock n Roll Adventure Kids play the same material they unveiled in 2001, including "Fried Chicken," which kicks off the B-side of their new LP. It sounds virtually unchanged.
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