It says it’s rock’n'roll, it may even be fashion, but is it art? And can all three pay the rent? Incorporating fashion and sculpture into stage shows is one thing, but when the album is due, however you package it, the punters desire quality product.
By their own admission, Chicks On Speed never wanted to become a band. Like The Birthday Party, they left their native Australia washing up in the low-rent life of Berlin, but progressed as graphic designers spilling over into the arty end of fashion.
Their first record, Eurotrash Girl, was the cool (as in cold) sound of Kraut-Rock seeking a rapprochement with some of the meanest robotic techno this side of Detroit. And it worked. The Nico / Gina X Teutonic tones of that record are the band’s default setting, but 99 Cents works best when they demand more of themselves than their mean level.
Of those higher points the travelogue of Coventry is a crafty wink in the direction of The Pet Shop Boys‘ Scandal, while Culture Vulture is a steady, mechanistic read-out of fast-forward culture that works fine over its counterpoint progression.
Love Life, an arrow pinpointed at the vacuity of celebrity for celebrity’s sake, is the album’s standout track. Its refrain, “No reference, no consequence, I think of you,” drifts sweetly along a jazz-funk filtered through Daft Punk. The persuasive electro of Shick Sharing avows the delights of feminine shaving. The final hidden track is a scratchy, dubby piece of claustrophobia that deserves greater billing, exceeding as it does, filler such as Universal Pussy.
The single We Don’t Play Guitars, a soft attack on rock’s ever-present phallocentricty, is a genre-splitting call-to-arms similar in spirit, if not impact, to Public Enemy‘s Bring The Noise. Shooting From The Hip, Sell-Out, and title-track 99 Cents are all heavy with wordage, tirelessly peddling an ardent anti-consumerism.
However, unlike some of their musical forebears, the band appear unaware of the central conceit. Many years ago, armed with tinfuls of ’60s art-school knowingness, The Who based a whole album on the term “sell-out”, with fabricated adverts between the album tracks while all Chicks On Speed can muster are conversational tirades such as, “The whole world has just gotten so unbelievably commercial,” and, “(The people) are completely bought into it.” Presumably, by buying into Chicks On Speed, “we” are not “the people”, and therefore not complete mugs.
The line between art and commerce has been a part of popular culture’s dialectics at least since a certain Exploding Plastic Inevitable hit New York. Over forty years ago, the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Peter Blake and others all found inspiration in an “idea” of popular culture; in rock’n'roll, in comic art, in advertising. Artists all, and perhaps Chicks On Speed are too. However, just as faint heart never won fair maiden, so bands rarely register on any public radar without having to make a Faustian pact with the almighty dollar.
Chicks On Speed claim that would like to change the “music system”, to take it away from the music business, as though the two concepts could be separated. They may imagine that 99 Cents will show you how, but even with the electro-clash window dressing, it pretty much sounds like business as usual.