Falling James' Gig of the Week: The Middle Class and Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds at the Echoplex, 6/24

The Middle Class
The Middle Class
Falling James

So much of punk rock is centered around nostalgia these days, whether it's played by modern corporate pretenders aping their elders in watered-down, insipid ways or the surviving elders themselves, whose reunions are often too sluggish and self-congratulatory to evoke the mad passion and fearless spontaneity of punk's early years.

Then there are disparate musicians like the Middle Class and Kid Congo, whose old songs still sound freaky and farsighted today. (And how can their music be considered nostalgic when much of the cruel, stubborn world never heard it in the first place?) If there was any nostalgia at the Echoplex on Friday night, it was for the quaint notion that punk rock should be about change and defying expectations.

The bill was stacked with other quietly influential (if criminally overlooked) performers from the late '70s and early '80s, including former Hüsker Düde Grant Hart, who still crafts eclectically inventive garage-pop tunes, and the ongoing local art-punk trio Urinals, whose elliptical ditties, with their weird chord changes and riddle-like B&D lyrics, were acknowledged onstage by Kid Congo as an influence on his own music.

As Kid explained in his recent Weekly interview with Gustavo Turner, he was all over the place in the late 1970s, traveling frequently between the New York and L.A. scenes, getting a wider perspective than most punks at the time. His unusual guitar playing was just as all over the place, geographically and stylistically, as he twisted up his infamous open guitar tunings and ghost chords in (relatively) traditional bands like the roots-blues ravishers the Gun Club and psychobilly trash-people the Cramps as well as with the ol' devil howler Nick Cave, the cabaret spellbinders Congo Norvell and No Wave provocateuse Lydia Lunch.

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Kid's own music ranges from noirish fever dreams and jazzy spoken-word grumbles to clangorous garage rockers. At the Echoplex, he was surprisingly straightforward and rocking, playing loud, churning chords as well as conjuring trademark dizzy spells by making his slide hover over the guitar strings like a sleight-of-hand magician. The former Brian Tristan was admittedly inspired by the occasion and the presence of the other performers on the bill. He strummed several classics by his early bands the Cramps and the Gun Club, along with fanciful art-pop selections from his new album with the Pink Monkey Birds, Gorilla Rose.

Before a dedication to Lux Interior ("wherever you are") and a suitably wild and reckless version of "I'm Cramped," Kid urged the crowd to sing along, pointing out reasonably that there were only two words of lyrics to remember. It was even more thrilling to see his hands swoop up and down the neck again and pull out those memorable chords to the Gun Club's "For the Love of Ivy" and "Sex Beat." As hammered out by the Pink Monkey Birds, the old Gun Club songs were energetic, although Kid's clipped, nasal vocals sounded more like the B-52's' Fred Schneider (or Vincent Price, as a friend pointed out) than the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce.

The large crowd was an even mix of ancient punks who saw the Middle Class back in the old days and much-younger acolytes who hadn't previously seen the band but knew all the words and could shout along and raise their fists in unison whenever singer Jeff Atta would chant out a key lyrical punch line. You almost had to be an old-timer to even know who the Middle Class were, as the Orange County group broke up too early in the 1980s to benefit from punk's inevitable revival. Most of their records have been out of print for decades, although the essential collection Out of Vogue: The Early Material was finally released by Frontier Records a couple of years ago.

There was no reason to expect the quartet to sound this good, even if it turned out to be the full classic lineup with the Atta brothers, Jeff (vocals) and Mike (guitar), joined by bassist Mike Patton and drummer Matt Simon (who replaced original drummer Bruce Atta in 1980). They'd only played once in the past 30 years, at last year's Frontier Records anniversary show at the Echoplex, but they sounded powerful, menacing and yet coolly controlled in this return visit.

Simon somehow kept up with Mike Atta's remorseless, nonstop attack of dark, angry chords, but it was Patton (no relation to the Mr. Bungle singer) who was the real powerhouse, driving the band along with thick, muscular, monstrous bass lines. Meanwhile, frontman Jeff Atta still had that flat, urgent, almost emotionless bark to his vocals, which made songs like "Insurgence" and "Home Is Where" sound so ominous.

You'd be quite surprised by the aggressive post-punk extremity of the Middle Class if you only knew the music of the two Mikes (Atta and Simon) from their more melodically rocking, Stones-style mid-'80s projects, the Phillip Blues and the Pontiac Brothers, with guitarist Ward Dotson (who, coincidently enough, replaced Kid Congo in the early Gun Club lineup). The fairly reclusive Dotson was at the show, sitting in the shadows by the side of the stage, watching intently as the Middle Class inspired a small, intermittent pit. Dotson looked stern and serious and somewhat resembled Brad Dourif's hard-luck preacher in the John Huston film Wise Blood.

While a lot of the original punk bands in the late 1970s sounded like the Ramones and Johnny Thunders, with sped-up Chuck Berry riffs, the Middle Class and the Urinals were experimenting with super-fast tempos and stubbornly nontraditional chord combinations. Middle Class' 1978 single, "Out of Vogue" and "You Belong," and the Urinals' "U" and "Ack Ack Ack Ack" existed before there was even a term for hardcore punk. But, in typical fashion for these restless, almost scientifically curious bands, they'd already moved on to other forms of music like post-punk and art-funk by the time hardcore had become a massive underground trend in the early 1980s.

Middle Class' set list was dominated by songs from their early era, circa 1978-1980, but there were also a few surprises, including covers of the Modern Lovers' "She Cracked" and Devo's "Gut Feeling." Although purists might've preferred hearing more songs from the band's later period -- when Middle Class' brave-new-world explorations on the 1982 album Homeland were closer in spirit to Gang of Four's version of punk-funk than the Red Hot Chili Peppers' -- the remakes were surprisingly effective.

"She Cracked" careened faster than the Modern Lovers' version, with Jeff Atta sounding even more deadpan and emotionally wasted than Jonathan Richman, the manic tempo shooting along too fast and unfair just like real life. "Gut Feeling" actually stood out from Devo's much-covered version, with Atta's abrupt delivery becoming its own hook.

The high school Class-mates returned for an encore, closing the night with the much-anticipated "Out of Vogue." That quick, rabid blur of a song -- long regarded as the world's first hardcore single -- was an exhilarating, rapid-fire blast of the Attas' guitars and words, and it was over before it could be properly appreciated. There was nothing out of vogue about "Out of Vogue." It was a bracing surge of drums and bass and somber guitars and sullen vocals. It felt brand new, and I wouldn't have minded hearing it about 10 more times in a row.

The song's chaotic collision of chords and ideas quickly faded away, its very brevity a challenge to everyone in the room. There was nothing you could do about the past, punk or otherwise. But the future was still, somewhat, up to you.

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