When the hives are onstage, they aim to look like a gang of Swedish pimps working the world's most elegant street corner. All five band members wear identical black dress shirts and trousers, set off by white shoes and fluorescent white ties folded to look like ascots. Offstage, the Hives prefer black T shirts that blare their individual rock-'n'-roll pseudonyms-Chris Dangerous, Dr. Matt
Destruction, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, Nicholaus Arson and Vigilante Carlstroem-in big block letters. They are not courting anonymity. Nevertheless, shortly before their concert the other week at Chicago's old Metro theater, the Hives walked past their fans in the foyer, sporting their identity-shouting T shirts, without so much as a single "Isn't that Howlin' Pelle?" or "Look, it's Dr. Destruction!"
The Chicago gig, like every other date on the Hives' recent U.S. tour, was sold out. All their fans seem to know-or care-about them is that the Hives are an oddly dressed punk-pop band from Sweden. U.S. fans have flocked to the shows largely on pronouncements from the giddy music press and the desperate American record business that a) rock is back and b) the Hives, along with American kindred spirits the Strokes and White Stripes, make up rock's new ruling class. Never mind that none of the would-be rock revivalists has yet broken through the platinum sales mark. As for the Hives themselves, the hype surrounding them is only mildly outlandish. They are not yet a great band, but their blistering punk and postmodern pranks are huge fun. If rock is going to make a fresh imprint on the culture, it might just do it with a Swedish accent.
With ABBA as their only cultural reference point for Swedish music, most Americans think of it as being a little peculiar. There's plenty peculiar about the Hives. Having grown up in the mining town of Fagersta (pop. 13,000), the band members, now all in their early 20s, claim they were brought together as schoolboys by an unlikely sounding guru known as Randy Fitzsimmons. From the start, the Hives tried to replicate the sounds of the punk rock and '50s soul music they loved. There were two problems. The first-overcome through years of dedicated strumming and banging-was that they had no prior acquaintance with musical instruments. The second was that Fagersta had no good record stores. "We couldn't get all the music we wanted to get," says lead singer Howlin' Pelle in flawless English. "So we had to try and make it up. We had no idea what rockabilly was, but we would try and make something that sounded like rockabilly-" "Sometimes," interrupts Nicholaus, Pelle's older brother and one of the band's two guitarists, "we had only seen bands in pictures or seen them on a record cover. So we had to try and figure out, What does that haircut sound like?"
Proving that Harold Bloom's literary theories apply to rock, the Hives now sound like a sincere misinterpretation of the bands they loved. The blazing three-chord song structures on Veni Vidi Vicious, the Hives' debut American album (released in June) are so imitative-of the Ramones, the Sonics, the Stooges, you name it-that the album would be plagiaristic if not for Pelle's elastic voice, which travels to incredible peaks to rip off Little Richard. Are they better than the classics they imitate? No. But the songs are awfully catchy-and the Hives aren't kidding themselves, either. On Main Offender, Pelle sings, "Stuck in ways of sadistic joy/ My talent only goes so far as to annoy."
Where the Hives are original is in their sense of irony about the performance of rock 'n' roll in the 21st century. They may have large gaps in their musical education, but they're fluent in American pop culture. Kids in Sweden learn English starting in the third grade, but the Almqvist brothers got a head start from Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Saturday Night Live reruns, which aired incessantly on Swedish television. SNL turned out to be a major influence. "They had both music and smart comedy," says Nicholaus. "And sometimes smart comedy is the best way to have a reference point about what's going on in real life."
As performers, the Almqvists have more than a little Blues Brothers in them. Their music is by no means a joke, but entertaining the audience is as much a part of their ethic as writing songs. "Music for us was always about excitement," says Nicholaus. "It's not supposed to be about getting a crappy childhood out of your system. It's about having a crazy time." Almost 50 years after Bill Haley, rock audiences have had lots of crazy times, but they long to repeat the great experiences of the past-hence the interest in classic-rock radio, Woodstock '99 and Lenny Kravitz-without feeling like a bunch of retro losers. The Hives' reckless, joyful punk evokes nostalgia for an era the band's young listeners missed out on, while the suits, T shirts and the best ironic song titles in recent memory-The Hives Are Law You Are Crime and Hail Hail Spit n' Drool-are an innovation that gives them a legitimate claim of ownership on something new.
The best way to catch the Hives is in concert. Pelle, who has the slender androgynous look of the young Mick Jagger, oozes star power, while Nicholaus dances like a madman and plays flawless guitar. Their stage banter is hysterical. Pelle cranks up his Swedish accent to explain to the audience why the Hives' sets are so short: "We have been told by the government of the U.S.A. that we cannot play for more than 45 minutes. It would be dangerous to the youth." After a particularly slick guitar performance, Nicholaus grabs the mike and, in full-on Swedish tourist mode, says, "Don't be shy, Shee-cago! You know I'm the forgking best!" They're just a couple of wild and crazy guys.
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