The Black Lips & the Hype Machine

by Rick Rockwell

The Black Lips want to be this generation’s version of the Sex Pistols. But this hoary piece of advice applies: be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Down the trail blazed by punk rock icons the Sex Pistols lies death, destruction and dissolution. Just look at the late bassist Sid Vicious* as Exhibit A.

The Black Lips certainly have destructive properties. Their tours are legendary for what the band whips up both on and off stage. The Black Lips’ latest release, 200 Million Thousand, is filled with boozy post-punk tinged with neo-psychedelia (a mix the group calls “flower punk”) played so sloppily at times the band becomes endearing, much like the early Ramones. (For more on this new release please see, “Music Review: The Black Lips’ 200 Million Thousand.”) That album combined with the band’s recent controversial tour of India draws immediate parallels to the Pistols, something also planted in the mind of reviewers and the rock media by publicists for the Black Lips.

Which raises questions. How genuine are the Black Lips? Is this all an elaborate joke? And if it is, does anyone care if it is contrived?

What’s at issue here is whether the band’s performances are heartfelt and spontaneous or rather manipulative hype-mongering. Rolling Stone went so far as to label the Black Lips as scat rock for the band’s stage antics, which included: a band member swilling and spitting his own piss; nudity (including attempts at playing the guitar with a penis), vomiting, and band members who trade lingering French kisses. (A publicist at the band’s current label Vice Records claims in the band’s early days the act included on stage fellatio between band members.) Despite their name, the Sex Pistols only tread into spitting saliva and vomiting on stage. Actually, the Black Lips seem less like the Pistols and more like a modern version of G.G. Allin, a hardcore punk performer who used many of these extreme acts on stage and like Sid Vicious became another example of a rock ‘n roll overdose.

Sensing that the band was headed into self-destructive territory, bassist Jared Swilley told Rolling Stone in 2007 that the band was toning down its live act partially because they were better at instrumentation and song-writing now. "We don't want to be circus performers because the songs are better than that," Swilley said. "You can only go so far before you have to strap dynamite around you and blow yourself up on stage." Both the band and its publicists admit the outrageous acts were a way to draw a crowd in the early days.

But now with the launch of a new record, the Black Lips have fallen back into their attention-seeking ways. During a shortened tour of India, the band traded sloppy kisses while playing sloppy guitar licks, and not only mooned an audience in Chennai but also guitarist Cole Alexander decided to demonstrate how his penis could strum a guitar. It’s all on a video the band is promoting. But the video seems oddly contrived. (Perhaps not so ironically, the new Black Lips album features a song called "Short Fuse" which uses the image of a dynamite explosion both as a representation of the band's live act and perhaps also as a commentary about the band's psyche.) And when The Atlanta Journal Constitution asked Swilley about the problems caused by the band's performance in India, the reaction was a retreat from the material put out by the band’s publicists.

This recalls how some questioned whether the band actually recorded its album Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo at a live performance in Tijuana as it was billed or if the album was really mostly overdubs from studio sessions. The wild videos from the concert sessions in Tijuana, which feature audience members in the buff also have an overly-staged feeling. Publicist Chris Roberts of Vice says it's all real but he also confirms many have questioned the Black Lips about their authenticity.

The band’s young fans seem to take them at face value, usually never questioning their sincerity. Perhaps, that’s for the best, because cynicism is certainly a buzzkill.

Fans of the Black Lips believe what the band does on stage is cool, but if Green Day did the same things, it would be considered manipulative. Part of that feeling is stoked by how the Lips have called Green Day too political.

Perhaps this is where the post-punk vs. punk split shows its scars. Although punk and the Sex Pistols certainly had Malcolm McLaren who was a master of twirling the hype dial, the Pistols were about nihilism and a revolt against the economic and political conditions of the 1970s in the U.K. Green Day represents the 21st Century version of that philosophy in the U.S.

And what do the Black Lips represent? If anything they are almost entirely apolitical. They make music for many who want to zone out from politics and economics, not protest against what those hierarchies impose. The Lips have appropriated the sounds and mannerisms of punk without its philosophy.

And so for all their posturing for attention, in the end, that leaves the Black Lips far from their goal of replicating the pure sensation that was the Sex Pistols.

*Sid Vicious was the stage name for Simon Ritchie of the Sex Pistols.

(For more about the Black Lips, please see: "Music: The Best of 2007, So Far;" and "Photo Essay: The Black Cat Menagerie." For more on the Sex Pistols, please see: "A Brief Survey of Punk, Part II.")

(The photo shows bassist/vocalist Jared Swilley of the Black Lips in the foreground; drummer Joe Bradley and guitarist Ian Saint Pé are in the background. The photo was snapped at a Black Lips concert in Münster, Germany in 2005. The photo is by Christian Kock of Münster, via Flickr using a Creative Commons license. The Black Lips continue their U.S. tour with a performance tonight, Feb. 27 in their hometown of Atlanta, GA. To see a high-energy, gimmick-free set closer by the Black Lips at a concert in London from 2008, please check the video below. )

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