When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played their first gig ten years ago, Karen O was clear about her motivations: “People in New York were always sitting on the floor at rock shows. I hate that! I wanted a band where nobody would dare to sit on the floor.” What Karen wants, Karen gets. The New York scuzz-punk art-perv trio celebrated their tenth anniversary Friday night with a tiny hometown show at the Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side, and there was no parking (or sitting) on the dance floor. It was ten years to the day since the Yeahs played their first show in that same bar, opening for the White Stripes. That’s nine anniversaries longer than anybody ever expected this band to last — which is part of what gave the night its exuberant emotional kick. How many bands from 2000 just made their best album last year? Well, let’s just say there’s a hell of a lot who didn’t.
Karen O took the stage in one of her usual eye-popping outfits, from her BFF and fashion henchwoman Christian Joy. Decked out in a glittery kimono with bat wings, purple ribbons, a gigantic Patti LaBelle headdress, fishnets and fingerless black leather gloves, Karen resembled a cross between David Bowie on The Cher Show and Joan Collins in Land of the Pharaohs, or maybe just Madonna, circa 1982, burglarizing the dumpster outside Rick James’s house. (Your move, Gaga.) Guitar bat-wrangler Nick Zinner and cerebral drum master Brian Chase, shockingly, wore all black. They did a set heavy on oldies like “Yeah New York!” and “Mystery Girl,” for a crowd mostly comprising friends and family, along with members of TV on the Radio, Les Savy Fav, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Strokes. Karen didn’t dedicate a song to the bartender, but she covered pretty much everybody else in the room by the time she got to “Maps.”
The Yeahs’ “Spank You Very Much 10 YYYear Anniversary” celebration (also including a Wednesday night show at the Brooklyn gallery Secret Project Robot) has many bizarre aspects, not least of which is the fact that these scruffy little art brats never should have stuck together long enough to make an album in the first place, let alone three of the decade’s finest rock records. But they did. In many ways they’re a punk version of the De La Soul story: New York kids scrounge up a fresh sound on their indie singles, catch the world’s ear with a classic debut, brood over adulthood on their downbeat second album, then chill the fuck out and do the Patty Duke for their loose-booty third album. Stakes is high!
The Yeahs only played five songs that first night in 2000, with Brian Chase borrowing Meg White’s drum kit. But that’s all it took. “The music just took over,” Chase once told Rolling Stone. “It was like I blacked out and then somebody told me I just played a show.” Zinner and Karen O had already tried their luck as a folkie duo called Unitard, which Zinner has fondly recalled as “dirgey goth acoustic slit-your-wrists kind of stuff.” (The fact that none of the Unitard tapes ever leaked means they must have sucked even worse than their name suggests.) As Zinner told Rolling Stone, “Then Karen said, ‘Hey, let’s have a rock & roll band.’ And I was like, Really? Pffff. Naaah. A rock & roll band? That’s so played out!” But a few hours later, the Yeahs had come up with their name and their first song, “Bang,” with the immortal chorus, “As a fuck, son, you suck.”
Friday night, the Yeahs did their earliest, trashiest songs, like “Bang,” “Cold Night,” and “Date with the Night,” starring Zinner’s guitar as Donna Summer and Chase’s metal-machine drums as Giorgio Moroder. They also did recent dancier material like “Phenomena” (their goth hip-hop tribute to sexy astronomers) and “Heads Will Roll” (their new wave tribute to slutty werewolves). But as always, the Yeahs packed even the funniest throwaway riffs with insane amounts of soul and stress and Sam Cooke sex. The 12-song set climaxed with “Our Time,” the 2001 punk ballad that sounds like Joan Jett rewriting “Crimson and Clover” as the National Anthem. When Karen howled “It’s the year to be hated / So glad that we made it,” she sounded as surprised as everybody else.
“Yeah New York!”
“Date with the Night”
“Heads Will Roll”