At the Chicks on Speed show at Roxanne last night I felt old. Worse, I felt nostalgic. Roxanne is on the top level of Charlton’s. It’s possible that Charlton’s was the first alleyway bar in Melbourne; but this was when ‘alleyway’ meant sordid, not hip. The clientele seems to consist solely of middle-aged men, who can be seen ferrying their dicks between the bar and the strip club across the way. Charlton’s has a karaoke level, too. In 2002, Charlton’s became the ’so-bad-it’s-good’ karaoke venue of choice for a bunch of my friends. I did Eminem’s “Without Me” there one time, surely the most difficult song in the history of English language karaoke.
That’s just random backstory, it’s not why I felt nostalgic. Anyhow, the tone for the night was set when we walked into Coverlid Place and a dude in an Armani suit wanted to give me a high five on the way past. “C’mon boy!” he said. “High five!” “Get fucked,” I said, not in an unfriendly way. We kept walking. “I used to run most of Melbourne,” he yelled at us from behind. Now I wanted to touch his hand even less than I had a moment before. (Confession: I don’t know if his suit was really Armani. But it looked expensive and had double butt flaps.)
In terms of art, Chicks on Speed are still doing what they’ve always done. They came onstage in postmodern kimonos with cardboard cutouts of various domestic items pinned to their hairdos, like stilettos and sewing machines. The whole show was built around domestic items. Possibly this is because they’re also playing the Melbourne Fashion Festival — odd, but in keeping with the whole idea of playing to different audiences. (Their other Melbourne engagement is some conference at Monash Uni.) A Husqvarna sewing machine in the middle of the stage literally set the beat. Alex was playing a stiletto with sensors, like electric guitar strings but shoe. They really don’t play guitars, and it’s a beautiful thing.
But something wasn’t right. The crowd was too young. And also too drunk. No respect. Some weirdo got up on stage after the first song and began to spout made-up poetry, calling them “girls” and telling them to get off. They weren’t taken aback at all. They just grabbed gigantic sewing scissors and started chopping off his hair. A woman next to me said something about how she’d only heard one Chicks on Speed song. “I like Le Tigre and Peaches more,” she said. It was too loud to give her a quick lesson on grrl electroclash history. Chicks on Speed actually predate Le Tigre; in fact, they released the first Le Tigre album. Peaches came later, was less into contemporary art and more into the sexxxing, and got more famous. Anyhow, shortly after this the woman smashed her hand through the UV tube stuck on the foldback amps and cut herself. She kept pointing at her hand, the blood running down onto her wrist, and at the shards of black plastic, in a kind of drunken wonder. Melissa from CoS ended up bandaging the cut with a piece of fabric she cut off her costume.
Aside from this, the Chicks seemed in their own world. They’ve toned down the boisterous Valleygirl irony of previous shows into a slightly guarded detachment. Who can blame them when people have been throwing bottles of piss at their heads and pulling the plug on their shows.
Mostly, though, it was weird because the moment of riot grrl electro really was in the early 00’s. For a split second, everyone and their dog loved Chicks on Speed. The space for specifically politicised, art-influenced electro sound of CoS and Le Tigre has been evacuated and in its place enter Justice and LCD Soundsystem: yet more rock boys with mixers. (Not that I don’t like Justice or LCD, but it’s not the same.) Perhaps The Knife has filled some of the gap left, but The Knife are all about the music, not the fucking with shit. And here are CoS, still doing their thing, but at a much smaller venue, with a crowd who like Peaches better. I wanted more for them. And I remembered their other Melbourne gigs, at Revolver and the Prince of Wales, when everyone was packed into the venue like sardines, and there was a serious appreciation for these crazy punk art makers.
Hence, serious nostalgia. The irony of this will not be lost on readers more familiar with the late 70s art punk band Malaria!, who wrote arguably CoS’ best song, “Kaltes Klares Wasser.” But in the encore, “Kaltes Klares Wasser” still rocked out. And here it is again: