The Hives, Electric Ballroom London

The return of your old favourites
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The Independent Culture

When the Hives formed, in Sweden in 1993, Kurt Cobain was alive and Oasis had yet to release a record; so, more to the point, had The White Stripes and The Strokes. So, the irony of their 2001 compilation's title, Your New Favourite Band, could not have been more cutting, as that year's garage-rock explosion blew them into the big league. Singles such as "Main Offender" had the key to unlock our 21st-century charts, a killer riff adaptable to a thousand adverts, and in passing their success saved Alan McGee's post-Oasis record label, Poptones.

When the Hives formed, in Sweden in 1993, Kurt Cobain was alive and Oasis had yet to release a record; so, more to the point, had The White Stripes and The Strokes. So, the irony of their 2001 compilation's title, Your New Favourite Band, could not have been more cutting, as that year's garage-rock explosion blew them into the big league. Singles such as "Main Offender" had the key to unlock our 21st-century charts, a killer riff adaptable to a thousand adverts, and in passing their success saved Alan McGee's post-Oasis record label, Poptones.

Whether The Hives fit the pop scene now any more than when they began is another matter. They came together to wind up punk purists in their provincial home town, and have never lost that resistance to po-faced rock attitude: they claimed to be a Monkees-style manufactured pop band when the world discovered them, and, with their arch names (Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, Dr Mass Destruction etc) and identical black suits and white ties, embraced absurdity in a way that made many flinch. "No Pun Intended", a track on their upcoming third album argues. But are The Hives "for real" enough to hold on to their indie fans' hearts?

The fine line between fierce rebellion and showbiz is one that rock'n'roll always treads. Because The White Stripes wear their colour-coded gear with a straight face, no one doubts that they are true blues warriors. And because Iggy Pop once carved his body with broken glass, a name and theatrical attitude as outrageous as Almqvist's is small beer.

The true test of The Hives' long-term potency isn't, then, in the superficial style they're known for. It's in what happens to a crowd when they play. They certainly know how to make an entrance. The band's name suddenly flashes on a red neon sign; the band appear in their latest fashion statement (black ties and white suits, this time); then Almqvist is sliding into view, cocking his ear for applause.

He is a strange, calculated hybrid of earlier rock icons: most obviously, with his arm hooked to his hip, with his mincing walk and pouting mouth, he is Mick Jagger at his most stagey. But there is a robotic, stilted edge to his dancing, too (not least on the new single, "Idiot Walk"), a suggestion that the synthesised rhythms of Kraftwerk lie somewhere in his band's drilled beat. The startled, pop-eyed looks he gives the crowd also add a touch of Iggy, whose Stooges are The Hives' most treasured touchstones. Two other bands occur to me, as Almqvist starts to testify in his stilted English: their long-gone contemporaries Rocket from the Crypt, whose near-identical routines didn't survive to be fashionable; and, unfortunately, those besuited Teddy-boy losers Showaddywaddy.

"Some people thought we were some kind of joke," Almqvist complains, introducing "No Pun Intended". "That's right - they were wrong!" His wildly arched eyebrows make it hard to be so sure. But his band offer some kind of answer. The drummer, Chris Dangerous, in particular, sets down such a hard, swinging rhythm that The Hives' music gains a thudding weight that tethers their most camp excesses.

On the new song "A Little More for Little You", the echoes of rock'n'roll's Big Bang, the horn-honking screams of Little Richard, are impossible to miss. All their music is so insistent and basic, it is hard to stop your body twitching, whatever your brain tells it. That is why the first half-dozen rows keep erupting in arm-pumping bedlam. And when, on the hit "Hate to Say I Told You So", they add a memorable tune, with a chorus that smashes in just as Almqvist launches into the crowd, resistance seems briefly futile.

The unpredictable, desperate release that is rock'n'roll's real grail will never be The Hives' to claim. In the end, they are just playing at this. But at least they are playing with a smile.

The Hives return to Britain for the Reading/Leeds Festival, on 27-28 August

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