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Her name was Holly Golightly--not the Audrey Hepburn character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but the Hollywood hooker who lived at the same hotel as the Beat Angels last October, when the Phoenix fivesome was in L.A. to finish recording its debut album, Unhappy Hour.
"The Sunset Palms is a cheesy, seedy, beautiful hotel," says Beat Angels lead singer Brian Smith. "There's an all-nude strip bar called the Seven Veils next door, and this very black, very beautiful hooker was on the front sidewalk every evening."
Smith was admittedly smitten by Ms. Golightly, and one night after his band returned to the Palms from Unhappy Hour producer (and former Guns n' Roses guitarist) Gilby Clarke's home studio, he decided to record her reeling in tricks. "I just went out there with a portable DAT machine and said, 'When you talk, talk into this,' and she did," says Smith.
The result--Golightly calling, "Hey, baby, you wanna go out? C'mere, cutey. Hey, c'mere" as only a Hollywood hooker can--isthe perfect sound-bite intro for the Angels album, which came out February 27 on Epiphany Records. Golightly's call sets the tone for about as fine a slice of '70s-flavored power pop as any band has cut since the Clash's Combat Rock.
"The way we look at it," says Smith, "there's this certain spirit that was handed down to us by the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols, the Stones, even early Cheap Trick. That spirit is missing in today's rock 'n' roll, but, as trite as it sounds, we embody it. If it wasn't for Johnny Rotten, I wouldn't get up in the morning."
Every one of the 11 songs on Unhappy Hour clocks in at less than four minutes ("All hail the three-minute pop song," exclaims Smith). And while the Beat Angels' debut is worth buying for the cover art alone--a nicked, digitally altered image from an old Jackie Gleason lounge record titled Music, Martinis and Memories--it also captures the best qualities of hard pop-rock. The compact double guitar lines are gritty and loud, but deftly carved, and Smith demonstrates considerable talent as a noir lyricist. "Cigarette smoke in the air," he sings on "The Most Beautiful Loser in Town," "serpents twisting above your hair/As you reminisce about the girl that you were ... in the slow light of the barroom hum, the cue shots echo how low you've come."
Smith, who writes all the lyrics for his band, says most of the lines on Unhappy Hour were penned over a two-month period in early 1995 when he was drunk, broke and living in awest Phoenix trailer park. "I had no car, nojob, nothing," he says. "I read pretty much everything byJim Thompson during that time. I read, I wrote songs and I starved." Smith pulled out of his tailspin when one of his songs, "Sideshow," was picked up by Phoenix native Alice Cooper for his latest album, The Last Temptation. "Those royalty checks are still coming in, still paying for pasta," says Smith.
Aside from the hard-boiled tone of Thompson's crime fiction, Unhappy Hour's booze-soaked mosaic of fallen women, trampled dreams and bar-fly existentialism also bears the mark of writers such as Raymond Chandler, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. Smith is well-read and peppers his conversation with literary allusions. The singer says his new favorite writer is Dorothy Allison, who wrote Bastard Out of Carolina, a wrenching, first-person account of white-trash life in the South as seen through the eyes of an abused, highly sensitive and intelligent young girl. "What use is college?" says Smith, who never went. "All I need is a library card."
The Beat Angels started playing together about a year and a half ago, Smith says, as "an angry response to hippies and all things Mill Avenue. But the band's life line can be traced farther back, to a night in 1989 when Brooks bumped into Smith as the singer stumbled out of a porno shop on Hollywood Boulevard. Smith recognized Brooks as a member of the L.A. glam band Motorcycle Boy (Smith was a member of the pop outfit Gentlemen After Dark at the time), and the two had a brief conversation. Three years later, they crossed paths again at an Iggy Pop concert and, surprisingly--given the condition both say they were in at their initial meeting--remembered each other. "He told me he was a musician and I asked him if we wanted to make a band, but he was living in Tucson," says Brooks, who moved to Phoenix after Motorcycle Boy went off the road. "About a year later, I walked into Zia records, and there he was. This time he lived in Phoenix, and that was it."
The two picked up guitarist Keith Jackson at the Mason Jar. "They told me they needed someone who could play eighth notes," says Jackson. "I said, 'I can do that.'" Jackson is a big bruiser of a punk rocker from Detroit, whose gentle demeanor matches neither his look nor the ferocity of his playing. "I skipped the whole American-rock thing," Jackson says. "I skipped the whole Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin thing. I flipped that whole page and went directly from glitter rock to punk, and I haven't bought a new record in 11 years."