The shock treatment
Bored with Band Aid? How about a poodle playing guitar to Queen? Yes, Electric Six are back, says Steve Jelbert
Friday 10 December 2004
Every nation that celebrates Christmas does shopping and gluttony. But only the British actively encourage pantomime, that ancient custom which ensures that retired sportspersons and soap stars won't starve, and also retain the inexplicable belief that the top single in Christmas week still possesses some cultural cachet.
Yet as Top of the Pops fades into history, it falls to a group of Americans to remind us of our best and daftest traditions. Detroit's Electric Six, already responsible for two all-time party classics in "Danger! High Voltage!" and the playground favourite "Gay Bar", return with their distinctive version of Queen's "Radio Ga Ga".
"I gave up fighting it a long time ago," concedes the band's leader and driving force Tyler Spencer, better known under his nom de rock of Dick Valentine. "I thought we shouldn't spend too much time on a cover, but we've made it our own. It's a good version, a bit rockier, more up-tempo, but the same song." Indeed it is, although there's a ludicrous, suitably camp remix featuring fake bells, the true sound of the Christmas hit. But in a weak year, when the Band Aid remake featuring Thom Yorke on pub piano while a roomful of pub singers drown him out looks set to take the top slot, some bookies are promising to pay out on the runner-up. So the Six must have a chance.
That's assuming the Church of Freddie doesn't get them first, and after seeing the video they might be tempted to. Fondly remembered for the clips which accompanied their two big hits, one featuring Spencer romping on a stuffed horse with an older woman, the other with him as Abraham Lincoln, the same team have dressed him as the late Mr M, down to prominent teeth and 'tache.
"We wanted ours to be nothing like theirs, with no allusions to it," says Spencer. "It's meant as a homage, a funny tribute rather than a mean-spirited piss-take." He has a point, as his gloriously clumsy mimicking of Freddie's moves is a potent reminder of the impressive shamelessness of Queen's front man. But Brian May might take offence at the sight of a poodle playing the guitar solo. "It was the opportunity to work with poodles which really drew me to this treatment," says Spencer. "It really was an amazing day, doing all those shots with dogs, getting them to sit and behave - sometimes not. These poodles were not harmed in the making of this absurd video."
As for any negative responses, he's quite realistic. "We wondered whether we might offend Queen fans," he says. "The response we always got was, 'You took the piss out of Abe Lincoln and no one cared about that.'" He roars with laughter at this illustration of his own insignificance. Mercury would probably have appreciated the gesture. He certainly had a sense of the absurd, something Spencer shares.
"Last year I was in Moscow two days before Christmas. In Russia it's go, go, go all the time. They're drinking on the street, they're drinking for breakfast, they're drinking while they're asleep. It's quite something," he recalls. "We played a Christmas party for mafia lawyers who wanted a real rock band. If you're the Russian mafia you can make every day Christmas. It was us, a boy band and a girl group from the Ukraine called ViaGra. An insane night."
The current line-up of Electric Six features only two of the crew that first hit these shores in late 2002, and made 2003's big-selling album Fire, yet remain a much-loved live act. "Going into it, we thought you could plan out an eight-album career, but by opening with a party record we kind of shot ourselves in the foot," says Spencer. "We never intended to be a singles band, and that's hurt us in a way. I thought we could make good albums full of good songs."
After a long delay, they plan to release a follow-up to Fire in the new year. "It's called Senor Smoke after one of the pitchers from the 1984 Detroit Tigers, Aurelio Lopez. You might not, but people in Detroit will think it's funny, and that's what matters. It's very different from the last one. Tender ballads, drunken cabaret, classic rock, a Basement Jaxx sort of thing - there's a lot going on."
A one-off download track called "Vibrator" was promoted to hacks with a bribe of - well, you can guess. It's certainly solved a few Christmas present dilemmas for the unwitting recipients. "Something I enjoy about Christmas is how it brings families together," Tyler reminisces. "You always have that punk older cousin who's in trouble with the law, but they're there and on their best behaviour, kissing grandma. Two days later they're back behind bars, but for one day of the year it brings out the best in everybody."
The festive season may raise some issues for Spencer. "Being an only child my parents could keep the Santa thing from me for as long as they wanted. I must have been 11 when they told me," he says.
Twenty years later he's more pragmatic about the season. "The chart is for the record company to worry about. If they feel Xmas is the best time, then that's when it comes out. As long as I can continue playing live that's all I care about." Spoken like a true showbiz trouper, and at their busiest time of year too.
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