The Detroit Cobras: They're the real thing

They gave Diet Coke a twist, they're really from Detroit, and they're over here. Simon Hardeman meets The Detroit Cobras
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The Independent Culture

Ever since the days when a fresh-faced ingénue trilled, "I'd like to teach the world to sing", from the top of a hill, the makers of the world's most iconic drink have had a knack for picking a tune suffused with the zeitgeist. This year's Diet Coke commercial was no exception. A woman with a voice like a rusty razor louchely exhorted us: "Come on baby/ Do the twist!", before lo-fi guitars and biscuit-tin drums chopped out a rising, Sixties-style riff. It was "Cha Cha Twist" by The Detroit Cobras, and the track is on their new album, Baby.

Ever since the days when a fresh-faced ingénue trilled, "I'd like to teach the world to sing", from the top of a hill, the makers of the world's most iconic drink have had a knack for picking a tune suffused with the zeitgeist. This year's Diet Coke commercial was no exception. A woman with a voice like a rusty razor louchely exhorted us: "Come on baby/ Do the twist!", before lo-fi guitars and biscuit-tin drums chopped out a rising, Sixties-style riff. It was "Cha Cha Twist" by The Detroit Cobras, and the track is on their new album, Baby.

Advert-soundtrack bands, of course, can be just as ephemeral as the commercials. But The Cobras are different. They're making a name for mining old B-sides and forgotten also-rans from the late Fifties and early Sixties, by people such as Irma Thomas, Ike and Tina Turner, Jackie de Shannon, Mary Wells, and so on. They strip the songs down, rearrange them, and pour them into their garage-band mould: twin rhythm guitars and a no-nonsense rhythm section behind a voice that could strip paint. It's not unlike the effect gained when groups such as the early Beatles or Stones rehashed black soul and dance numbers such as "You Really Got a Hold on Me" into white rhythm and blues.

The band really do come from Detroit, where they were formed by the guitarist Steve Shaw. He'd been inspired by time spent with Alex Chilton (of the Box Tops and Big Star) listening to early-Sixties girl-groups. Shaw left under a cloud several years ago. Perhaps he couldn't cope with the female-dominated rock'n'roll Frankenstein that he'd created.

Their lead singer, Rachel Nagy, the one with the voice like a surly Brenda Lee, was once a stripper and a butcher. She has a gallery of big tattoos that poke, threateningly, out of short-sleeved tops. She's attractive and she knows it, but seems to have the same relationship with make-up and pretty clothes as she has with temperance and clean language. And they have a proper female rock'n'roll guitarist, not some eye-candy apology for a rocker, in Mary Restropo. She occupies a kind of Keith Richards role in the band.

This becomes increasingly clear when I meet the Cobras at a west-London bar prior to a short showcase gig - they had already burnt up the joint at the University of London Union a month earlier. The band are waiting for a soundcheck, bored, bemused, and surly in a quite engaging kind of way. It's early evening, but Nagy looks like she's still recovering from last night. It is said that the Inuit have many words for snow; one of them, I'd venture, would be appropriate for the colour of Nagy's face. Her dyed-blond hair is stuffed under a tweed cap, and she's wearing a jogging top. She could be Debbie Harry if she wanted; she's chosen to be Andy Capp's younger sister.

Was she a butcher and an "exotic dancer" at the same time? "No!" she laughs in a tobacco-strained drawl. She mimics a come-on - "You want an ox?!" - before getting a little more serious. "You know, I moved out when I was very young. It was hard to get a job, and I only did it for a couple of years, and it was a great way to earn a bunch of money when you're paying your own rent at 17.

"But I got sick of talking to men. One night, I called someone and said, 'You've gotta find me a bakery course'. I didn't want a normal life, but I wanted a job." The only class available was butchery. "A friend then got me a job and it went on from there. It was great."

Nagy was a well-known party animal, legendary for being the person still asleep on the floor when others were stumbling around with hangovers. The band were looking for a vocalist. "They asked me," says Nagy, "but for what reason I don't know." Presumably because you can sing, I venture. "No, I couldn't sing. I'd never sung in my life. I was just around, and I'd come in for a beer, and they coaxed me in with more beer, so it was like, 'Alright', but no, I couldn't sing."

"Yeah," interjects the dark-haired, shriller, more insistent Restropo, "but she hung really well!" Nagy agrees: "I hung to the bitter end."

Was it weird to find that you could sing? Nagy is modest: "I'm still getting there. Sometimes, I listen back, and I think, 'Wow!'." And double wow, because of the amount she smokes while performing. "It doesn't bother me. I've got a couple more years in me, I guess! The only time it really bothers me is at high altitude, like singing in Colorado, in the mountains. I find that really difficult. Other than that, I have no problems."

One of the charges levelled at the Cobras is that they're "just" a covers band. I put my foot in it with Restropo by saying that they "play other people's songs". She almost leaps out of her seat. " Material! We play other people's material." Nagy calms the moment: "Most people do - it's just that they're not honest about it."

She's right. There are only so many ways you can write a three-chord song. Why bother? Nagy agrees: "You don't just write a crap tune. Anyone can do that." Restropo chimes in: "I'd rather do somebody else's good material than do a crap original. It would just be like, 'Look what I did!'. So what?!" But then she slightly undermines this argument by announcing, with patent pride, that she wrote the song "Hot Dog" on the new album, and insists that it's there on merit.

Nagy seems happier with the no-originals stance. "We've had people coming up to us from the beginning saying: 'I love you guys, you're great, why aren't you writing your own songs?'. Well, if you love us, if you love what we're doing... it's, like, so retarded. Why are you always looking for something else?" Restropo agrees. "The only people that have a problem with it are the band who are opening up for you!" Both girls laugh, wickedly. "The people watching couldn't care less!"

' Baby' is out now on Rough Trade. The Detroit Cobras tour the UK from Sunday

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