Why Can’t the American Left Be More Like a Turbonegro Album?: Scandinavian Leather Is a Mixed Bag

by Oliver Pissed

The last song on the Turbonegro reunion album, Scandinavian Leather, is titled “Ride with Us.” In it, Turbonegro singer and Alice Cooper dandy Hank von Helvete extends a gloved hand to the listener, and offers, “If you wanna slay the bourgeois beast – ride with us.” A drum roll, accompanied by a barrage of Ramones-ian guitar noise, opens the song; in the meantime, Helvete asks repeatedly “Are you ready?” Helvete quickly follows with an appeal to “All you service sector discontenters, all you voiceless fuckers and system suckers.” Chris Summers’s stomping drums propel the song forward; Rune Rebellion supplies barre chord riffage worthy of the Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome.

The British magazine Kerrang! refers to Turbonegro as “the heavy metal Village People.” Another webzine calls their style “explosive punk rock by way of Tom of Finland.” Indeed, the six piece rock and roll outfit switch gears from ’70s arena rock, Dictators-esque punk, and wanky, ’80s butt rock effortlessly in the new release, a feat accomplished with no small help from the intricate guitar noodling of lead Turbo axeman Euroboy (aka Knut Schreiner). At the same time, Scandinavian Leather bears the dreaded Epitpah insignia; on the label’s message board, one fan remarked that Epitaph is “the label where good bands go to die,” ominously citing the New Bomb Turks and the Dwarves as evidence. In fact, long time Turbonegro fans will notice that a few things are different on the new release.

For one, Turbo’s trademark homoerotic innuendoes actually seem to have been toned down. This is not to say that the Norwegian denim warriors have abandoned their rouge-and-lipstick fetish, or their primping, New York Dolls-style stage show; nor does it mean that there aren’t homoerotic double entendres liberally sprinkled throughout the lyrics. These are all still there. Scandinavian Leather differs, however, in that it contains nothing as over-the-top as 1995’s “Midnight NAMBLA” (“I am the baby snake handler, the fondler of the nobbler, the nemesis of the toddler”), “Sailor Man,” (“Oh, tender sailor man?”) or “Rendezvous with Anus” (“B.O.S., Buns of Steel / Spandex ass to make me kneel”). Instead, the emphasis has shifted a bit more to traditional heavy metal imagery: seas of blood, blizzards of flame, and rowdy biker gangs. Disappointingly, some songs sink into overworn expressions of adolescent angst (“Remain Untamed,” “Fuck the World,” etc.). There’s really not much “rhinestone homo rock n’ roll” here, to borrow a phrase from Turbo’s penultimate 1998 release, Apocalypse Dudes.

Last year I predicted that the new, reunited Turbonegro of 2003 would never be successful in the United States. The gay biker-cum-glam metal styling was original and effective in the underground milieu Turbonegro played in in the late ’90s, but would be hard to transfer into the US mainstream, I said. Turbonegro’s shtick was simply too confusing for big pantsed, macho American concertgoers enamored of Eminem and nu metal jock rock. Scandinavian Leather’s shift away from all-out homoerotic imagery in favor of kick-ass biker rock could change that, however.

There are new, more expensive sounding production values at play in the new release as well. An advance viewing of the video for “Fuck the World” (an overproduced first single with orchestral accompaniment) brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, not Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Situating the charismatic Hank von Helvete – whose dark, carnival ringleader persona does have potential broad appeal – front and center seems to be the direction the band is going in, video-wise. Indeed, there is a stream of rock icons that includes Alice Cooper, Paul Stanley, and King Diamond (or even – oof – Marilyn Manson) that Hank von Helvete visually melds into quite well.

In short, Scandinavian Leather sees a more polished Turbonegro than the one that touched off some controversy in the ’90s. In 1998, members of the Bay Area gay rights group ACT UP distributed flyers protesting the group’s appearance. In a phone interview, Turbonegro bassist, songwriter, and sometime humor columnist Happy Tom (real name: Thomas Seltzer) explains: “In San Francisco we? saw some flyers outside a show: ‘Boycott Turbonegro! They are racist, fascist and homophobic!’ Shit, you’d think that radical activists in the USA had somewhat more crucial issues to attend to than a bunch of sexy Norwegian men in bulging denim.”

Which is another thing: When Turbonegro first began playing in their trademark tight, slim-fitting denim in the mid-1990s, it ran counter to the grunge (viz. flannel) and gothic-industrial fashion sensibilities of that time. The band floated rumors that Levi’s was sponsoring their American appearances. And even as late as 2000, when cargo pants were the rage, the Nordic rockers’ preference for Levi’s trucker jackets seemed odd. Now, however, tight denim has become all the rage across the mainstream; and here are the Oslo denim dudes, pressing on regardless, strutting around in the same denim outfits one now sees modeled in Old Navy commercials.

It may also be a year too late to cash in on the “new rock” fad that saw bands like The Vines, the Hives, and the White Stripes catapult to success, even if Turbonegro has been doing it longer than any of them. In fact, Scandinavian Leather has clearly been created with a mind towards cracking the mainstream charts. “Sell Your Body (To the Night),” for example, brings to mind an updated KISS, and is the second Scandinavian Leather track slated for video production. The real rockers on the album, however, such as “Lock Down” and “I Want it All,” will probably be neglected in favor of the three or four tracks that bear the stamp of ’80s cock rock excess.

And, by the way, is Turbonegro fascist, racist, and homophobic, as the ACT UP flyers claimed?

“Actually we’re more of a left-wing band, if anything,” Happy Tom says. In fact, a police raid in Europe found that “Hank’s name was on the death list of a neo-nazi group,” Tom reports. However, he adds, ” the left-wing in music today are all into Chumbawamba and hanging out in their coffeeshop-ghettos, doing the safety dance and playing their little petty word-games, [so] we’re pretty much on our own without any allies.”

Regardless of the new album’s merits, or lack of them, Turbonegro are still one of the most enjoyable live bands around. Ultimately, Turbo made the mistake of setting our expectations too high. Scandinavian Leather isn’t as original or as fun as Apocalypse Dudes, the standard by which much trash rock is now judged, but overall it’s fun release nonetheless.

So why can’t the American left be more like a Turbonegro album?

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Oliver Pissed is a Dallas-based writer.