In 1964, the Who coined the term “Maximum R&B,” summing up the brawn, blues and ecstasy in their pop art. A full 50 years later, on March 18th, the Strypes – a quartet of hard looks, long drive and tender years, founded in 2011 in Cavan, Ireland, and still 18 and under – skidded into New York’s Bowery Ballroom sounding like “My Generation” and Five Live Yardbirds only came out yesterday and anyone muttering the words “boy band” would be skinned alive.
Celebrating the U.S. release that day of their debut album, Snapshot (Island/Def Jam), singer-harpist Ross Farrelly, guitarist-singer Josh McClorey, bassist Pete O’Hanlon and drummer Evan Walsh came out at high speed and, for most of their hour-and-small-change on stage, got faster, zooming through Bo Diddley‘s “I Can Tell,” the Specials‘ “Concrete Jungle” and their own teenage nervous breakdowns “What a Shame,” “Mystery Man” and “Blue Collar Jane” with taut impatience, like they were in a hurry to come of age. They have already done a lot of that work. Walsh kept manic time like a stoic-precision mix of Charlie Watts and Tommy Ramone – racing, never rushing. O’Hanlon thrashed his wide-body bass like it’s a deep-throated rhythm guitar – John Entwistle with power chords.
McClorey has a fierce, accomplished grip on the precedents in his slicing clang: At one point, he threw the Yardbirds lick from “Over Under Sideways Down” into the Delta-blues avalanche “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” connecting those histories at Damned-like velocity. Farrelly’s echoes were a Liam Gallagher bray loaded with the Yardbirds’ Keith Relf and a husky-Chicago minimalism on harp. He didn’t crack a smile the whole time, but it was the proper advertising. The Strypes are serious about the homage and striving in their fun.
There was nothing new in this furor. That’s no problem or surprise. British pop often cycles back through this kind of power-blues purism, like a cleansing ritual. In the mid-Seventies, Dr. Feelgood – with McClorey’s most obvious guitar ancestor, Wilko Johnson – swept the landscape clean for punk; the Inmates and the Godfathers kept the Chess-45 and Nuggets faith during the post-punk era and the New Romantics’ cheek.
The Strypes have more distance to cover – they have arrived at a time when their most famous fans, including Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Elton John (the band is signed to his management), are now the vintage of the blues elders those stars worshipped and modernized. But the ruckus on Snapshot and the Strypes’ no-dead-air rush in performance is so old – and determined in its purity – that it’s radical: a blunt refusal to believe that this kind of blowup has been beaten to cliché. The closing run at the Bowery – Nick Lowe‘s “Heart of the City”; that “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”; encores of the Ramones‘ “Rockaway Beach” and Richard Berry‘s “Louie, Louie” – and made it clear: The Strypes operate according to their own calendar, maps and hunger, jumping oceans and decades for their lessons and inspiration. (Extra credit: their surprise appearance at SXSW, with Irish PR legend and DJ B.P. Fallon, covering “Vicious” at a Lou Reed tribute.)
As songwriters, the Strypes value concision – the right stuff in this music – and have a precocious knack for hooks (“What the People Don’t See”) and retro wit (the line about spaghetti-western villain Lee Van Cleef in “Angel Eyes”). There is the issue of vision – what comes after you’ve found and mastered your roots – and the thin line between passion and pastiche. But the Strypes are still at an age of discovery, with the chops to apply their learning. They can’t be the new ’65 Kinks, Rolling Stones or Yardbirds – that’s been done to perfection – but they’re at the right starting line, making an impressive entrance.