Thursday, August 31, 2023

You get what's given to you

Thirty years apart, The Boys and The Hives sing the same side of the coin

"No future!" sounded the clarion call of 1977, and the Sex Pistols made it personal: no future for me or for you. As dramatic as that line was—is—and as simply and brutally as it articulated what so many were feeling, a lot of kids in the U.K. in the mid-70s had more immediately pressing needs than to fret over a bleak horizon: I got no money to spend now, fuck the future.

The Boys formed in London in 1975/76 after guitarist and singer Matt Dangerfield quit the band London SS and roped in keyboardist Casino Steel (late of Hollywood Brats), an art college friend and guitarist Honest John Plain and a couple of Plain's t-shirt printing company co-workers, bassist Duncan "Kid" Reid and drummer Jack Black. The Boys enact the old story of Missed Opportunities, never succeeding commercially yet rightfully looming large and influential down the decades as among the earliest and fiercest punk bands of the mid-70s London scene. 

The month the Sex Pistols detonated "God Save The Queen" on an unsuspecting British public, The Boys were holed up in a studio recording their eponymous debut album, which was released in September of 1977. "No Money" is one of the unheralded great songs of first-wave U.K. punk, a storming take on anger and anxiety with an ear cocked to Pub Rock and the excitable eighth-note riffing of cohorts The Damned. The song's details are site-specific, and also universal: the singer's broke, the General Post Office is threatening to cut his phone line, the landlady's breathing down his neck. No job prospects, unemployment's dried up, no food on the table in a freezing room, the future in doubt. Money's all gone. Sound familiar? 

You'd think that rock and roll would've solved all of this already—kidding—yet a desperate financial situation is among the commonest of through lines in music, from Delta Blues to punk, hip hop to garage. "Rock and roll is about the freedom to express yourself very loudly," observed R&R photographer Bob Gruen. Ok, I GOT NO MONEY! Countless songs are born, raged, sent into and/or form a community, and when the dust settles and the ringing in the ears fade, nothing's changed, except for the lucky few. In "No Money," Steel and Dangerfield complicate things when they look out the window of their shitty freezing flat and see the world in its unhelpful array:

Politicians shaking hands with the queen
Power kings with a power dream
Crawling forward on their hands and knees
For an OBE

Money men down on money street
Business men into business deals
Drive their Sunday colour limousines
Over you and me

Try counting similar items in similar lists of resentments conjured by folks in similarly dire straits in similar songs—the sheer volume of music devoted to railing about class injustices and monetary inequalities is testament to not only their sad relevance, but to their grim inexhaustibility. The Boys take a patented, spirited approach here—moving in all senses of the word—by turning up the noise and speeding up that noise until all that matters for one minute and forty-seven seconds is the fact of noise itself as a way of blotting out the world even at it takes that sorry world to to task. The song always ends, of course.


There will always been someone somewhere plugging in and howling No Money. (The Stooges did in 1969, only changing "money" to "fun" and saying basically the same thing.) The Hives hatched in Fagersta, Sweden sometime in the mid-1990s allegedly under the tutelage of one Randy Fitzsimmons, a far-northland Svengali who anointed the band's name and the band members' names. Three decades after The Boys, in vastly different circumstances, The Hives found themselves in a similar economically desperate situation on "Square One Here I Come," from The Black and White Album, released in 2007. 

The agitated, two-note riff in the opening bar is a sonic straitjacket, before crunchy, churning guitar riffs tear it open. The age-old dilemma, howled by Howlin' Pelle Almqvist: "Well, don't have no money 'cause I don't have a job." The—what shall I call it?—Reverse Evolution Theory presented in the opening verse is worth quoting in full; the impression, given the anxious melody and the tape effects that mimic collapse is that you're traveling backward in time, from zero to zilch, devolving along the way:

Don't have a job 'cause I ain't got no skills
Ain't got no skills 'cause I was not trained
I wasn't trained 'cause I didn't go to school
Didn't go to school 'cause nobody told me
Nobody told me 'cause nobody knew shit
No, nobody knew shit 'cause nobody knows nothing
Nobody knows nothing and that's just it
What can you do?

Answer: nothing. "Square One Here I Come," a kind of Theme Song to Economic Determinism, is one of the great rock and roll songs of the aughts, charging, anthemic, perverse, nearly menacing in its dry insistence on seeing things as they are: "You get what's given to you," Almqvist yells before sing-songing an anti-lullaby to Naturalism in the refrain, "Square one here I come, here I come square one!" As in "No Money," the supercharged riffs, here courtesy of dapper guitarists Nicholaus Arson on lead and Vigilante Carlstroem on rhythm, tell a wordless story alongside the lyrics, because the physical response to anxiety and anger is a compulsion to muscle the bad news into submission, or to ironically grin it away, or at least hold it aloft for scorn. This song absolutely rocks‚ and is incendiary onstage. ("It's about you!" Almqvist helpfully informs a packed, sweaty crowd.) And as in The Boys' spirit cousin, "Square One Here I Come" itemizes despair: 1.) no work, so 2.) no pay, so 3.) no bills to pay, so 4.) no home. Rock and roll as a logic problem. But more fun, for a while, anyway.

Things get a bit complicated in the third verse here also, where Almqvist admits that beneath the low ceiling he wants it all "for free," that he's on the search for "an easy way out." The song ends brutally, with a pile on—"Get down, you feel stupid! Don't try, you can't do it! Can't win! Don't you forget it!"—before a simple statement of facts closes down the song: you missed out and get what's given to you, sing with a sneer or a shoulder-shrug, I can't make it out through my speakers. I missed out because I didn't grasp an opportunity that was there, or because the opportunity was never mine to begin with? Somewhere, someone's writing another one, trying to answer that, trying another way out. 

Photo of The Boys onstage at The Marque Club, London, via The Boys Official Website; photo of The Hives via Getty

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