Two reasons why the Vacancies are Cleveland's most illustrious punk exports of the post-Y2K era: 1) The group's about to drop Tantrum, its second disc for Joan Jett's Blackheart Records. A former Runaway, the legendary Jett is the queen of punk -- and the quintet has actually backed her. 2) The Vacancies are playing the Midwest leg of the 2007 Warped Tour, the annual Woodstock of modern punk.
Impressive stats, for sure -- though the question isn't one of celebrity but authenticity. It's a concept that punks, like bluesmen and polka fanatics, totally obsess over: Are the Vacancies for real? Now that's a nebulous question, but convention behooves it be asked. So I lug my portable record player and a few obscure punk singles down to the Shamrock Tavern on Madison, just a few blocks west of 117th. There, in the back room, I aim to spin some jams for the band, administering the ultimate litmus test in the process. If the Vacancies dig, say, "Hot Wire My Heart," Crime's DIY chestnut from '76, then we know the Vacancies are real. But if they don't -- total posers!
The plan, however, is temporarily derailed by Bron Bron, of all people. The Vacancies, you see, might sport killer ink and a mohawk every now and then, but they're Clevelanders first and foremost. And right now, with a steady stream of dollar drafts hitting our table, their attention is glued to a big-screen television. There, bricklayer Larry Hughes can't make a fuckin' shot against the Pistons in Game One of the conference finals.
It's a total nail-biter: intense, demanding, all that. So we ease into things, talking about the typical crap you read about in music articles: Against its label's wishes (which is always cool), the band recorded and self-produced Tantrum in Cleveland at Lava Room Recording Studios -- they're townies and proud of it. Guitarist Michael James is a dad, while singer Billy Crooked has a child on the way. Most of these dudes hold backbreaking, working-class jobs that would destroy me -- city landscaper, housepainter, greenhouse attendant. Yes, the snappy, energetic West Coast pop-punk of early Green Day, Rancid, Face to Face, and NOFX is hugely influential, but there's no denying the power of the Dead Boys.
This last point isn't just hipster lip service to local legends. Unlike most modern punks, the Vacancies know their history.
Even with the fourth quarter about to begin, the novelty of playing obscure seven-inches on a battery-powered turntable proves too great for these record nerds. So we start with that "Hot Wire My Heart" jam, and James nails it: "There's some New York Dolls in there." Drummer Kevin Hopkins and Bo the bassist agree, picking up the hidden thread that connects the Dolls' trashy bar rock to Crime's arty, lo-fi noise. Then comes "Jesus Entering From the Rear," the Feederz's raunchy proto-hardcore classic from 1980. Like real punks, the boys snicker at every vile word Frank Discussion spits out, and afterward they sum it up perfectly: sounds just like the Dead Kennedys of "I Kill Children" infamy -- only more extreme, more tasteless. We end the test with a headfake: "Cough/Cool," the Misfits' debut single from '77. This is a guitarless, pre-punk Misfits, which employed an electric piano to achieve a coolly pulsating new-wave/Doors vibe. And again, James flexes his knowledge, asking, "Have you ever heard the first Ministry record?" Wow. What a perfect comeback: Like this little slab of wax, Ministry's debut -- a synth-pop gem -- stands out among the band's discography, which is otherwise full-on industrial/goth.
Here's the deal: Punk used to be about breaking from history. The best bands either said no to rock's bloated past or -- like the Ramones -- tapped its forgotten heroes: garage bands, girl groups, etc. But nowadays, the opposite is true: Three-chord iconoclasm has its own rich tradition, and the music's most successful practitioners are well-versed in it. The Vacancies are that kind of band. Sure, they love Bad Religion, but they've got none of that rootless, suburban sterility common to so many SoCal bands; they're more about old-school street-tough posturing.
So yeah -- the Vacancies are for real, and they're gonna blow away all those Orange County posers on the Warped Tour this summer. No lie.
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