Honk If You're Gay, Dad

Is the UK's Gay Dad a nurturing rock patriarch or the Pop that embarrasses you in front of your friends?

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, it was easy, no, make that compulsory, to laugh at the British music scene. The American indie explosion had given rock the bitch slap of life it desperately needed while England was still determined to construct the next New Kids on the Block -- Take That, Boyzone, Bros. Christ, those UK charlatans never gave it up, churning out careerist dancing boy units that made the materialistic whims of Wham! seem modest in comparison. Then the Commonwealth hit upon the Spice Girls, an export that would've forever cemented its laughingstock status had there not been a Portishead, Radiohead, PJ Harvey or Oasis to sway votes the other way.

As it turned out, England was a good 10 years ahead of the curve, at least where the cause of championing mediocrity was concerned. Last month's Rolling Stone Reader's Poll issue confirmed the Yanks' descent into the banal. I put it to you that it wasn't the Backstreet Boys who were caught with their pants down on its cover, it was America.

Fellow Vespuccians, just look at our charts and suck in all that shame. 'N Sync. 98 Degrees. Lou Bega. Ricky Martin. Britney Spears. Some conjecture that all this pop swill is a sign that things are gonna kick into high gear again, that this cycle is reminiscent of the pre-Beatles teen-idol boom. But that's an insult to Annette Funicello, whose torpedoes were God's design, and to Frankie Avalon, whose comedic abilities didn't hinge entirely on mugging to "Mambo Number 5." Even Fabian, who had less talent than a stationary toothbrush, at least had a genuine rock 'n' roll attitude. So when the U.S. rock press establishment starts drawing doo-wop analogies to the Backstreet Boys, it's time to cut the umbilical cord, call what they're doing "shite and roll" and just leave the poor Del Satins out of it.

That's what I say. But I say a lot of things. So does Gay Dad. Things like "Gay Dad's plan for the next year is total global domination." Although I cannot speak for Africa and Asia Minor, I've got a feeling America will be one tough sell. It's not because the group has a strange name -- although it's no big stretch to predict meager Gay Dad tee-shirt sales at their upcoming Valley show. If Gay Dad is serious about conquering the Colonies, its battle plan is all wrong. First off, Gay Dad doesn't dance in place, wear matching leisure wear and kiss peace signs out to the audience after every number. Its members don't even sound remotely Latin (they've got names like Nigel and "Baz"). And worst of all, they play a strange punk-and-prog-rock hybrid that American radio will not likely air unless program directors are taken as hostages and double-barrel demands are made.

If Gay Dad is the next big UK hope, it follows that it will be labeled the next big UK hype as well. Not since the Clash first employed a professional car service has such a worthwhile British band been so mercilessly derided by its own music weeklies. Because lead singer Cliff Jones was once a music critic for The Face and Mojo, as well as an Internet technology reporter for London's Financial Times, people look upon his media savvy with the same disdain Wall Street reserves for inside traders. Even now, the suspicions that the whole Gay Dad experience was merely an elaborate front for some music-industry exposé have never entirely been dispelled. A few disastrous early live shows only added fuel to the fire that the band was manufactured, and haphazardly at that.

Subsequently, Gay Dad's become the whipping boy of choice for the cynical New Musical Express, whose brief items on the band run with the obligatory mocking headline ("Gay Dad -- Rad or Sad?" "Future of Rock and Roll or Third Rate Industry Hype") footnoted with readers' poll questions like "Are Gay Dad just mediocre? Does anybody care? Tell us what you think." Yet the band's debut album, Leisure Noise, garnered near unanimous raves and even managed to wrest a complimentary notice from its chief detractor. No doubt that NME contributor was given a severe reprimand and sent home with a spider in his pay packet.

"The NME has a bit of a hate-hate relationship with us," admits Gay Dad bassist Nigel Hoyle in a transatlantic phone conversation just a week before the group's first stateside appearances. The group is trying to cram every available free moment in the recording studio before touring with another former British-rock-critic-led band, the Pretenders.

"The NME don't know whether to despise us or merely think we're mediocre. There's no love lost between us, really. I can't take it seriously. The British music press is this weird pendulum thing where it doesn't matter what your record sounds like. It's not necessarily even about being factual. It's more about finding a way of putting things cleverly. That's part of the UK press's charm, that it's so insane. In Britain, the actual press is king and it's the press has the power. There's much more of a fascination in the UK media with itself, to the point that the news material is almost incidental to the opinion. It's actually quite fascinating."

So who's fascinating to the British press these days? "It's going through another quiet patch at the moment," Hoyle sighs. "They've gone for Travis in a big way recently because they've proven to be popular and everybody likes them. The real darlings of the British press are Posh Spice and [UK soccer star and beau] David Becker. The press go mental for them. They're a kind of nouveau riche prince and princess who just go around buying loads of really expensive jewelry for each other because they're multimillionaires. And the press just tut-tuts about it and just hounds them mercilessly. Oasis gets a fairly hefty dose of press coverage, even now."

Very telling, that "even now" bit. Not long ago, a friend visiting London noted that Noel Gallagher's house had been marked with its fair share of physical graffiti -- like the word "Wanker" spray-painted all over it. Does that mean the Wonderwall nuts are on the wane?

"People do like to hate their pop stars here," says Hoyle, laughing. "They still buy their records, but they do like to call them a tosser. That's the big difference in attitude between the UK and America. In the UK, they hate for anyone they know to be successful. They'll say, 'You've got no right to be a success, you're from Britain.' In America it's more like a good luck sort of thing. It's kind of difficult to tell whether Oasis are popular or not. [Oasis' new] single and album have only just come out here and I've only heard the single, which doesn't feel like classic Oasis. Seems a bit tired."

There's not much love lost between British pop stars, apparently. This past November, Gay Dad announced that it had recruited Andy Bell (Hurricane, Ride, Erasure) to fill its vacated lead guitarist slot only to see Oasis announce the following week it had snatched up Bell as its new bassist: "Gay Dad's loss is Oasis' gain," was all the group said on the guitarist poaching. In truth, Bell's talents would seem wasted in a dictatorship like Oasis where most of the teamwork involves keeping the Gallagher brothers from strangling one another. In Gay Dad, the process is apparently more democratic with everyone coming in with ideas, creating a diversity of style and sound that's become second nature to the group. It's exactly what gives Leisure Noise the eclecticism that Be Here Nowstrove for and so miserably failed to achieve.

"Being in a band, a lot of your vocabulary of music will just come off of being in a room together and sparking off each other," explains Hoyle of the process by which group compositions come together. "Occasionally someone will just bring in the majority of a progression and will go through the mill of the band and come out unscathed if it's good enough."

The jam of "Pathfinder" came largely out of Hoyle's contribution, while "New Age Panic (Joy!)" was an in-studio composition based on a synth groove. "That song literally took on a life of its own in the studio," remembers Hoyle. "It became this great big hydra where you had to try to knock it back into shape. There's quite a lot of stuff going on underneath the track, and the more overdubs you put on it, the more it seemed to want. We had to take weeks off the track and work out at what point we got it right and what point we'd gone too far."

Such excesses also marked Gay Dad's disastrous first gigs in 1994 and 1995. "We did several that were quite hilarious," chuckles Hoyle. "One was at a hospital where we basically did a free-form jazz jam and Cliff preached fundamentalist Christian views for an hour or so and scared away any potential audience. Another gig we were so smashed on white wine we spent the entire time tuning up and then the promoter just switched on the disco and the lights and said, 'Thank you very much, Gay Dad,' and we hadn't even started." He is quick to point out that the band has done hundreds of shows since the album's UK release last May. "We got our act together more than that. We're quite rocking now. We're big in Belgium and we're big in Japan as well."

One of the people drawn to Gay Dad before it was big anywhere was Andrew Loog Oldham, the legendary producer and manager of the Rolling Stones in their headline-grabbing early "bad boy" period. It was Oldham's edict, "If you can't be charming, you may as well be horrible" that liberated the Stones and ultimately rock 'n' roll from the stifling early '60s show-biz conventions. Clearly he saw the potential for outrage in the androgynous-as-they-wanna-be Gay Dad and offered them some early support.

Hoyle downplays the former Stones Svengali's involvement in Gay Dad as being anything creatively related. "We were in the practice studio in Shepherd's Bush. He came along and we just kicked out a few tunes and he sat there in the studio with sunglasses on and said basically, 'Keep playing the rock operas, boys,' and gave us a wad of cash and we went off and recorded demos."

For a guy who quit producing the Stones during the Satanic Majestiessessions because they just kept playing chaotic jams until he'd leave the studio, Oldham must've heard history repeat itself, if the murmurs about the band's horrid first demos are to be believed.

"A few tapes from that time escaped," says Hoyle quietly. "We had a few different people at the beginning of Gay Dad, and it was only when James Riseboro, our keyboardist, joined up that we sorted it up and became a real creative band. Before that we were just playing free-form psychedelic folk. As with most bands, it took us about three or four years just fucking about doing all sorts of jamming and being basically semi-retarded and then all of the sudden you get a focus, a chemistry going."

The band rethought its "semi-retarded" sound, going slightly glam and full-bore psychedelic during the recording of a second demo in 1997. That collection of songs contained the future UK hit singles "Oh Jim," "To Earth With Love" and the B-side of "Joy" called "Desire." It also started an almighty record label bidding war for the band that lasted six months, before Gay Dad inked a deal with London Records. While the balance of the first album was produced by Chris Hughes (Adam and the Ants), the band tapped Tony Visconti to help shape its first single "To Earth With Love." Hoyle says they made the choice because "we were big fans of the vocal stuff he's done. Not just the Bowie and T. Rex stuff, but some excellent psychedelic records that he cut his teeth on, these incredibly obscure one-shot singles."

Oddly enough, it escaped Gay Dad's attention when its first single was rush-released without the proper songwriting and production credits. When "To Earth With Love" first appeared in the chart listings with an ominous "information withheld by label" underneath, it touched off a minor furor that some sort of scam was afoot. Moreover, the only listing of personnel in Leisure Noise's booklet is the "Jones, Hoyle, Riseboro and Crowe" writing credits. The scant data reflect the constant state of flux that the group's lineup has witnessed since the beginning. At last report, the core of Jones, Hoyle, Riseboro and drummer Nicholas "Baz" Crowe are still in the band, though representatives of Sire/London Records in the States have no idea who the new lead guitarist is or even if there is one. Not to worry, up to now, mystery seems to be working in Gay Dad's favor.

But mystery doesn't open up the airwaves. Thus far, the only Gay Dad song to grace American radio isn't even one of the group's UK singles. It's an album track, "Black Ghost," that the syndicated Rock Over Londonshow played last May, when the album was released in Britain. Reflecting the best elements of Pink Floyd, the song is at once somber and yet quietly comforting. "A personal favorite of mine," agrees Hoyle. "The thing I like about it is there's a very organic feel to it. It really feels like the track blossoms and grows, there's a real sense of honesty to it, which is what you strive for in songwriting.

"We're in the process of making an album at the moment," he continues, "and quite a lot of stuff on the new album is in the vein of 'Black Ghost.' We're going to call it Keep It Heavy. We've still got this nature beauty vibe. What we're doing is working on an economy of expression, we're trying to make beautiful sounds without layering tons of stuff on the tracks. 'Black Ghost' reminds me of my favorite Nick Drake songs, which I adore."

Nobody ever mentions Nick Drake unless they mean to reference a pretty, desolate and riveting depression. Maybe that's the logic behind Volkswagen using Drake's suicide anthem "Pink Moon" for a car commercial. Everyone's aimed their subliminal ad campaigns at people struggling to seem well-balanced, why not appeal to manic-depressives? They've gotta drive, too, and what better car for people who feel the weight of the world closing in on them than a Cabriolet? Even Yugos might become a hot import if they had a song like "Black Ghost" shilling for it.

Unlike many British groups, Gay Dad has reason to be cheerful these days -- it still has a record deal, for now, anyway. "There's a lot of long-faced longhairs around here at the moment, I can tell you," says Hoyle, a scant two days before the Time Warner/EMI merger was announced. "It comes with the territory. We've just got to keep making tunes up and keeping our fingers crossed."

"But," he reminds himself, "we don't have to worry, because we're going to conquer the world."

Just then singer Cliff Jones bounds within earshot of the phone and screams, "That's a lie, he's winding you up." Spoken just like a man who's seen the future of rock 'n' roll and found it's located somewhere up Backstreet butt cracks.

Gay Dad is scheduled to open for the Pretenders on Thursday, February 10, at Union Hall. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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