Hopeless Cause

Billy Hopeless and the Black Halos want to make rock raw, real and fun again.

In the introduction to the outstanding soundtrack to the cult music documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, a 1980 film chronicling the exploding first wave of Los Angeles punk, one random teenage punk-wannabe is asked his opinion on the meaning of punk rock. He responds, articulately and without hesitation, "That's stupid--(the term) punk rock. I just think of it as rock'n'roll because that's what it is." The inept interviewer then prods him a bit further, "What do you like about it?" "I like that it's something new and that it's also just reviving old rock'n'roll," he answers matter-of-factly. "It's raw again, it's for real and it's fun."

The same simple description can be applied to the Black Halos, which headlines a power-packed tripleheader tomorrow night at Club Congress with Seattle speed demons Zeke and space rock warriors Nebula adding support.

The Black Halos is a notorious Vancouver, B.C.-based five piece that looks the part, where punk and glam are stuffed into the tight leather pants of late '70s CBGB's punk scene. But the band better personifies a gutter trash version of '50s rock'n'roll complete with teased hair, tattoos and black eyeliner. It's a raucous amalgamation of styles concocted by first listening to Elvis, Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, then being exposed to the New York Dolls, Stooges and Dead Boys and, more recently, D-Generation.

"We listen to all kinds of stuff, from British pop to old-school punk to hip-hop to doo-wop and girl groups," says uninhibited frontman Billy Hopeless. Speaking from a remote recording studio outside Vancouver last week, where the Halos were re-recording some vocal tracks for an upcoming split single with industro-metal rockers Therapy (to be released on Sub Pop this spring), the reptilian lead singer proudly embraces the open-minded, glam-garbed punk characterization.

"I think closed-mindedness is a terrible, terrible thing," says Hopeless, who looks and sounds like a cross between Jagger, Iggy and Stiv Bators. "Elvis, the Stooges, the Ramones--it's all good stuff.

"Just the fact that it's all animalistic rock'n'roll got us interested," he continues. "Rock'n'roll always rears its ugly head whenever it goes through these stages where it suddenly disappears out of the mainstream, and unfortunately you end up with these contrived, conformed, really soft versions of rock'n'roll instead. Then suddenly a bunch of idiots will get together and start playing that savage beat again who are just going at it strictly from their hearts. There's that raw power. For me, I can date it back to listening to Gene Vincent for the first time."

During a sparsely-attended Tucson gig last year at Double Zero, starring over stoner rock mongrels Lost Goat, Hopeless snarled, rasped and whined through the Halos' sloppily incendiary set of material drawn from its self-titled debut (released on the Sub Pop-subsidized Stay Young Die Pretty imprint two years ago). He tossed his thoroughly drunken, eyeliner-stenciled and leather-clad body across the stage as if the nihilistic, departed spirits of Bators and Darby Crash of the Germs simultaneously fought for his soul.

"There's a lot of people who haven't seen anything like us before because of the fact that live performance and spontaneous expression have been missing from music," he offers. "A lot of audiences are shocked by us, especially the younger kids. They'll look at us like they haven't ever heard anything like this before and we'll say, 'Hey, man where the fuck have you been?'"

The reckless, bad-boy image that has stalked them accompanies their high-octane brand of live depravity. "It comes with the turf, I guess," Hopeless chuckles. "Everyone has to pigeonhole you somehow. I guess our reputation sometimes precedes itself. It all goes back to the beginning of rock'n'roll. Young Elvis was probably one of the sweetest guys in the world, but God, what a bad-ass rap that guy had with the chicks."

Hopeless blames his swaggering live onstage acrobatics on a voluminous intake of alcohol, shameless self-promotion and complete loss of inhibitions. "That's pretty much our lifestyle," he states flatly. "To me it's sort of a voodoo thing where you let yourself go completely. Booze sure helps, but more than that, I think succumbing to the music and letting the music become your master sets you free. I'll end up in weird places (onstage) sometimes where I end up looking at myself going 'how the fuck did I get up here?'"

On the Halos' highly anticipated follow-up, The Violent Years, to be unleashed via Sub Pop in two weeks, Hopeless' demented, anarchistic growl is the crushing knockout punch. His venomous tongue lends a truly mischievous arrogance to this intoxicating old-meets-new vision of primordial rock'n'roll. The new record, crammed with anthems and love songs, retains all the exaggerated prancing and thunder of the band's self-absorbed live extravaganza. This sonic roar is especially evident on the pulverizing tour-de-force "Warsaw," originally written by post-punk doomsayer Joy Division a year before The Decline of Western Civilization was filmed.

"You can take Johnny Thunders and you can listen to him side by side with Ritchie Valens, and they sound great together," suggests the devilish and nostalgic Hopeless. "They both possessed a basic rawness inherent in real rock'n'roll. It's the same spirit that keeps popping up every couple years, and it definitely drives us."

The now grown-up punk from the Penelope Spheeris-directed cult flick would probably agree. Great rock'n'roll like the Black Halos is raw, real and fun.

Black Halos, Zeke and Nebula appear at 9 p.m. Friday, March 9 at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Earplugs are available at the hotel's front desk. For more information call 622-8848.