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Skunk Rock

Quick--name one rock band with a black woman for a lead singer. I dare you. Hell, I double-dare you. What's that? Tina Turner? Get outta here. Sure, she can strut as hard as Mick Jagger, but have you heard that song she has in the new Bond flick? I don'tknow what's up with that, but it's not rock 'n' roll.

I beg your pardon? She sang a duet with Bryan Adams called "It's Only Love" in 1986? Oh, and now you're going to tell me Bryan Adams is a rock singer?

Let's just move on--name one rock band with a six-foot-tall, black, bald, radical lesbian for a lead singer. Ah, I see you've been listening to KUKQ. That's right--the answer is Skunk Anansie. The singer's name is Skin, and she is truly the first of her kind.

Skunk Anansie formed in England in January 1994 and promptly proceeded to tear the hell out of the London club circuit with a high-grade, serrated alloy of hard-core metal and funk with an exotic reggae sheen, forged by a multiracial quartet whose front woman liked to storm the stage with "Clit Rock" scrawled across her forehead.

How could they not get signed?
The U.K. indie label One Little Indian picked up Skunk Anansie before the band had done ten gigs, then neatly handed it off to Epic a few weeks later. This fall, the band spent six solid weeks recording a debut album in an empty mansion 40 minutes outside London.

"It was a grand old place, a fantastic house to create in," says Skin from Salt Lake City, Utah, where she is planning to spend the day terrorizing Mormon businessmen on the street. "We all went a bit stir crazy, though. We began to alter the environment and ourselves to fit the mood of each song. For some songs, we turned on lots of strobe lights; some songs, we had on paint for."

I'm sorry, what did you say about paint?
"War paint. We put on war paint for some songs."
Well, that's fitting. Skunk Anansie's lyrics are about as cuddly as a Molotov cocktail. And that's a good thing. Post-'60s rock 'n' roll has, for the most part, been politically timid, afraid to draw ideological blood even when it's drastically called for.

How could so many bands have let the '80s pass by without scathing comment? Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" deserved--no, needed--to be lyrically hung in effigy in the forum of pop culture, but only a few, including Henry Rollins and (crossing genre to throw out the props) Chuck D, had the courage to trip the gallows.

In the '90s (presaged by the 1988 release of Jane's Addiction's Nothing's Shocking), rock has become appropriately darker and more introspective, though much of the focus is still on the problems and struggles of the individual rather than the people as a whole.

But in recent years, there has also emerged a cabal of overtly political bands that break big, evidently tapping into a subcurrent of anger and discontent that hums just below the apathetic veneer of Generation Ech. Consider the hyperaware, hyperaggressive diatribes of Rage Against the Machine; the futuristic protest grooves of Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy ("Television, the Drug of a Nation"); or Michael Franti's new project, Spearhead.

And now Skunk Anansie.
The band took its name from a Jamaican folklore character called Anansie--an eight-legged, humanlike trickster figure comparable to Coyote in Native American mythology or Brer Rabbit in the Uncle Remus stories of the American South.

"We took his name, then added Skunk because it was the stinkiest thing we could think of. Not stinky like bad--stinky like you can't easily wash it away," explains Skin, who's from Brixton, a rough borough in south London.

Paranoid and Sunburnt, the album that emerged from the mansion, was released September 19, shortly after the band appeared on the cover of Melody Maker? and was named "Best New Band" by the critics at Kerrang! Skunk made its first foray into the United States later that monthwith a short blitz of live-wire club shows at notable New York City venues--the Academy, Squeezebox, and Brownies--then embarked on a 50-date tour. Salt Lake City was number 23.

The band's stateside exposure got a hydraulic lift from the film Strange Days, a recently released millennial thriller starring Ralph Fiennes as a purveyor of virtual-reality porn. Skunk Anansie appears in the movie's climactic sequence as a band playing at a New Year's Eve 1999 street party in downtown Los Angeles (along with Skin, the band is Ace on guitar, Cass on bass and Mark on drums. No last names). Anansie also has a hit single off the Strange Days soundtrack called "Selling Jesus," and recently cut a version of Bjork's song "Army of Me" at the request of the Icelandic waif pop superstar.

In other words, Skunk Anansie is red-hot right now.
Too hot, maybe, for Gibson's to handle.
Two Mondays ago, I heard that Gibson's co-owner Matt Engstrom was getting cold feet about hosting Skunk Anansie's Valley debut in his club. My source told me he'd talked to Evening Star Productions about possibly canceling the show.

Part of the problem was the promotional spots KUKQ was running every hour. It heralded the upcoming performance of a "controversial" band fronted by a lesbian who "talks about all the issues that make us uncomfortable." The ad also contained a sound bite of the Skunk song "Little Baby Swastikkka," a statement of opposition to the rise of neofascism in Europe.

It seems some ninny who needs to better educate himself before he acts called Gibson's on that Monday morning to complain about the Tempe club supporting a skinhead band (Engstrom said a club employee took the call and reported it to him).

From a strictly literal point of view, Skunk Anansie's singer is a skinhead. She is not the kind of person neo-Nazis like to listen to, however. She is the kind of person neo-Nazis like to stomp to death.

In any case, Engstrom figured maybe he didn't need the hassle. "I wasn't even sure I was going to be open that night," he says. Engstrom had decided to install video surveillance equipment in preparation for the Super Bowl, he says, and it looked like the wiring might not be completed by November 30, the date of the show.

On November 21, Engstrom had lunch with Electric Ballroom co-owner David Seven (oh, to have had a bug at that table). According to Seven, "Matt asked us to do a favor and take the show. ... He wasn't comfortable with it, or something. We had George Clinton in that night, but he got moved to late December, so I said, 'Sure.' It fits better with our format, anyway."

Engstrom says he discussed the matter with Seven, but that his concern was more with the electrical work not being done thanwith the content of the band's message or skewed interpretations of same. "Evening Star wanted to move the show, and I agreed," he says. "We're not afraid of that music."

Neither is Seven. "I don't have any problem with politics," he says. "Rage Against the Machine is one of my favorite bands."

The change of venue was announced the morning of November 22. Later that Wednesday, a representative of Evening Star said the show was moved "because of some electrical something." KUKQ wasn't buying it, and by that night the station had changed the promotional spots to include the "mysterious" venue swap.

Whatever, the important thing is that Skunk Anansie has someplace to play. And apparently, anywhere will do. Skin couldn't remember what venue she was scheduled to play on that night in Salt Lake. "It doesn't matter," she says. "We'll fuck it up." The dominant paradigm, that is.--David Holthouse

Skunk Anansie is scheduled to perform on Thursday, November 30, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Trunk Federation. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse