Even Manson Liked the Beatles

Photo by Gary LeonardThe world thinks the Shakes are harmless—casual, possibly non-English speaking listeners will peg them as a proudly scruffy 1960s garage-pop revival band that weaves a little punk bite into '60s jingle jangle (Nick Lowe's “So It Goes” or the Soft Boys' “Positive Vibrations” could wiggle into the Shakes' set almost completely undetected). And that's the music, at least: guitarist/singer Pete Gilabert's original musicians-wanted ad was for Herman's Hermits meets the Damned. “Or Burt Bacharach meets oi,” he adds. But like Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock—whose catchy sing-along songs turned out to be about silent movie stars' forgotten carcasses being devoured by dogs—the Shakes' real substance is more strychnine than saccharine. It's power pop for the paranoid, not the perky.

“We wanted to be the Sid and Nancy of power pop, which I think we achieved,” says bassist Janet Housden, famously once the drummer in Redd Kross. “The songs sound pretty sunny and poppy on the surface, but they're about poverty and despair and drugs and all this miserable shit, and I love that contrast. Because pop music by itself can get—I mean, I listen to the 1910 Fruit Gum Company incessantly, but my favorite bands when I was 15 were the Dead Boys and the Germs. And with all that stuff, you can't sing about sunshine-y days.”

There is a summertime side to the Shakes' recent CD on Teenacide, certainly, but it's that amphetamine summer when Manson's hippie witches creepy-crawled into Sharon Tate's bedroom, something Housden remembers vividly even though she was just a little girl. And there's high school hijinks, too—except it's high school in 1978 Hermosa, where one of Janet's teachers dragged her up in front of class to be presented as “Mrs. Vicious” (and where she went to see Fear instead of going to prom). And there are even sweethearts in love—with Pete singing such pickup lines as “If I knew you better, would I hate your guts?/I guess I'll find out.”

“We're too bitter,” says Gilabert with a laugh. (Keyboardist Dan Collins and drummer Michael Percoco couldn't make it to the interview—maybe they're the perky ones.)

“I'm gonna end up being one of those old ladies who lives in a house with 200 cats and a shotgun, out on the porch shaking her fist,” says Housden, who after more than 20 years in bands still has more jittery white-hot spitfire energy than pretty much the entire PlayStation punk generation put together. It's the best kind of bile—the kind most bands can't even muster anymore. “You mellow out when you give up,” she explains. “Life has gotten worse. People work harder now for less money, our whole standard of living is just eroding, the radio is even more fucked-up than when punk started—it's fucking worse now! I'm at a point now where even though we have these desperately horrible dead-end jobs and no future and everything sucks, if a major label approached us, we'd probably lure them into a dark alley and beat them with bricks.”

And take their wallets?

“Absofuckinglutely,” she says, grinding into a juicy forkful of barbacoa—later, we'll discuss stealing cars from richies at gunpoint during the inevitable apocalypse. Now that is fucking LA power pop!

“It's The Day of the Locust, man,” says Housden. “I relate to that. The late '60s and '70s in California were one of the darkest, most paranoid, scary fucking times. All these people, like my parents—all the adults, all the squares!—were living in fear. They thought it was the end of the goddamn world. And I thought it was exciting. And then I got to high school, and all my peers were into Fleetwood Mac. I was like, 'What happened?'”

That kind of still-smarting disillusionment is all over the Shakes—well, at least all over our relaxed after-dinner conversation, which spins from Siouxsie's letdown-tastic haircuts in the 1980s to head-in-sand American politics (by the way, wait till the world sees the new Shakes posters—if the band wasn't on Homeland Security's list before, it is now!) to what Housden wryly refers to as the “bad years.” Those, of course, are the kind of years when you need a lot of cash at all hours of the night, almost your whole band quits in disgust, and you're suddenly living a Behind the Music LA clich.

“That's sort of where the name came from,” says Gilabert. “When you're up all night doing hard drugs and you wake up the next day . . .”

“And the drugs are gone,” says Housden.

What do you get? The Shakes!

But those are also the kind of years that make a band—at untold human cost, yeah, but who's counting?—a little more interesting. That's why you'll keep tripping over curse words and metaphors for misery in the Shakes' bouncy power pop—remember, even Manson liked the Beatles—and that's the kind of razor-relief anti-chemistry, Housden is saying, when Gilabert interrupts to say, “I like Fleetwood Mac and punk,” unaware that you simply do not interrupt someone talking about Charles Manson to mention Fleetwood Mac. There's a second of wary silence—like the-missiles-are-on-their-way silence. The tape deck rattles. “I do!” Gilabert says. “I draw the line at the Eagles, but Fleetwood Mac was like an old English blues band that had two pop people in the band, and yes, they did have some totally '70s kind of songs. . . .”

He doesn't get a chance to finish. “Fleetwood Mac apologist!” Housden hisses. “I denounce you!”

“But I'm so tired of punk rockers putting down Fleetwood Mac,” says Gilabert. “You need to put down the Eagles. It has to be done right!”

The Shakes perform with Squeak Toy and Buzz Kill antidote at Que Sera, 1923 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, (562) 599-6170. Sat., 9:30 p.m. $5. 21+.

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