Bands with two bass players in their line-up are hardly ubiquitous through rock’s storied history. I don’t mean those groups where more than one individual
can play the bass guitar. No, the instrument-swap has been a signature move in popular music ever since the Beatles. What we rarely see is the dual-bass
approach deployed as part of a trademark style; the palette deliberately limited to produce music that subtly exploits the sound of this rarely-duplicated
Here in the UK this tactic has been rendered even more ignominious by our best-known proponents of the twin bass attack; Goons-inspired Stourbridgers
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. These early nineties harbingers for the short-lived ‘fraggle’ and ‘grebo’ musical movements were (comparatively) famous for
employing both a ‘lead bass’ and, erm, another bass (‘rhythm bass’?). For them, this approach had the effect of making all their songs sound the same.
Good t-shirts though.
A quick read of the entire Internet reveals that the UK is far from alone in its musical reluctance to adopt the two-bass dynamic. The only acts cited by message boarders that I could find are ‘a load
of doom / black metal acts’ who need not concern us here, and something called ‘Mexican rock-rap band Molotov’. Mmmm.
But there is one group who have successfully incorporated two bass players into their line-up, managing to produce a signature sound that’s both immediately
identifiable and also flexible enough to bring variations on a theme. Because when it’s done well, the low rumble of a bass can set the tone, underpinning the riffs
of another to create a great slab of groove, for guitar / drums / vocals / electronics to echo, overwhelm, or offset as the song demands.
Girls Against Boys are that band, and over the past quarter of a century they have produced a dozen albums and E.P.s in an almost oppressively urban aesthetic, as much the
soundtrack to city life as police sirens or the clatter of commuter trains. This is music to blare from a high rise as residents swarm and shout in the street below, to get the party
started on sweltering, inner city nights. It’s dark, dense, noisy and yet instantly accessible. Just not the kind of thing to be listening to on headphones at the beach.
They began in 1988 in the US capital, with Eli Janney conceiving GVSB as a side project for himself and Brendan Canty, the drummer from
integrity-obsessed hardcore legends Fugazi. But Canty proved too busy when demand for his main band grew, so Janney was forced to cast
around for others from the scene, alighting on former members of DC punkers Soulside. Scott McCloud would provide vocals and guitar,
Johnny Temple for bass, the fantastically named Alexis Flesig on drums (a man, since you asked) and Janney himself switching between bass
and keyboards; providing distinctively overwrought backing vocals as a counterpoint to McCloud’s breathy menace.
Flash-forward a few years and the four-piece have settled in NYC to hone their sound in basements and sweatboxes all across the city. 1992 saw the arrival of a debut album, the
really quite forgettable ‘Tropic of Scorpio’ which appears to have had as much attention lavished on its ridiculous song titles (‘My Night of Pleasure (With the Mudjacking
Contractors)’; ‘Everything I Do Seems to Cost Me $20’, ‘Everywhere I Go I Seem to Spend $20’) as the terribly poor production, burying in the mix what might well be adequate
songs - it’s difficult to tell.
Maybe cognisance of a false start compelled the band to immediately up their game, because something certainly clicked into place over the next year or so, and it proved impressive
enough to ensure Chicago’s premier alternative label (Touch and Go) would snap GVSB up for what became three key LPs, all issued around the middle of the decade.
This was the sound of a young band finding their voice, Girls Against Boys writing songs of an attention-grabbing calibre and 1993’s ‘Venus Luxure No.1 Baby’ opens with one of their best.
‘In Like Flynn’ announces the transmogrification, illustrating perfectly how a combination of two basses with more conventional alt-rock ingredients can bring further musical depth, making
an impact that’s somehow more than the sum of the parts.
The tone is set with pounding drums and an ascending guitar line, McCloud’s declamatory lyrics that, here and throughout their catalogue, focus on
statements which sound well, cool. The utterances work against a particular musical backdrop, never telling a story or going into much psychological
depth, either about the character of the vocalist or others he encounters. That said, certain key themes do emerge, here and for the rest of this record; of sleaze and sin, sex, drugs
and degradation amid an anything-goes cityscape; all the concerns of attractive young men exploring vice and well aware of that proverbial link between the devil and rock’s ‘best
tunes’. “Come down to my level,” the singer urges some potential conquest, drawn into his world by the promise of illicit thrills, “I wanna talk to you”. As the music hits a spine-tingling
crescendo, McCloud makes the situation even clearer, crying: “You like that, you’re gonna love this!”
The song titles are better too, like ‘Go Be Delighted’ with its layers of noise, choppy guitar sound and “do do do, do do do dos”, or ‘Bulletproof Cupid’ (this title
later stolen by Placebo’s Brian Moloko - absolutely no shame, those sex dwarfs), swelling to another double-bass onslaught as McCloud hollers: “Stop the
And the slower songs compel too, from the whispered, strung-out comedown of ‘Satin Down’ (“I’m just not on drugs right now…”) moving from a creepy intimacy to a cataclysmic howl, to ‘Get
Down’ with its distant mumbles and persistent guitar buzz, like mood music in a disturbed brain.
Closing track ‘Bughouse’ is arguably the most effective of these mid-pace numbers, evoking an unwanted trip to that eponymous mental institution, McCloud implying it’s a plausible
outcome of the lifestyle they pursue; an existence defined by indulgence and addiction, ill-conceived liaisons and the stimulants mixing in his body. The vocalist will “put in my call to the
men in white” while he kicks back, choosing to “thank God for the carpet on the ceiling”. Then our protagonist is taken away, the drums hitting around the two minute mark, combining with
spooked cries of distress for an unsettling soundscape that proves to be the record’s climax.
Still it’s the loud and fast numbers that really stand out, making ‘Venus Luxure’ the most-loved GVSB record; that one they played from start to finish
as part of ATP’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ series of gigs back in 2006. Third track ‘Rockets Are Red’ is a phenomenal piece of work, an allusion to the
physiological effects of certain prescription pills (“My babies are blue…”) and an escalating ride through a trip in the wrong kind of company (“How do
you feel? What kind of question is that?”) Fleisig’s drums pummelling the skull in a monstrously catchy chug, his group scratching an itch forever out
‘Seven Seas’ is the flipside, an upbeat paean to the wonders of hedonism in a city of isolation where: “All good things are in season”, the exultation
implicit in the woo-hoohs. Then comes ‘Billy’s One Stop’, with its (distorted) piano intro, discordant vocals and a cry that will resonate with every
musician forced to tour the American Midwest (“Every goddamn town, is the same”). ‘Let Me Come Back’ is the fastest, catchiest song here, perhaps the only moment in this set where
the band’s hardcore roots break through; a full-on noise-freak with: “Too much sound, for God’s sake!”
This last song is an excellent example of how even the most straightforward rock gains an extra dimension from being filtered through the GVSB aesthetic. But every track on ‘Venus Luxure’ validates their philosophy, with Girls Against Boys entering a purple patch at this point in their career. The third record would arrive just as quickly the following year, ‘Cruise Yourself’ opening with a tremendous trio of compositions, with Kevin Smith plucking ‘Kill the Sexplayer’ for the Clerks soundtrack to ensure GVSB a worldwide fanbase at the same time. They had finally arrived.
The band’s final record for Touch and Go would be the more insular ‘House of GVSB’, completing a loose trilogy before the late nineties brought an ill-conceived dalliance with major
label-world for the interesting failure of ‘Freak*On*Ica’, along with an appearance in 1999’s star-studded indie flick ‘200 Cigarettes’.
2002’s independent return ‘You Can’t Fight Want You Can’t See’ saw the band re-energised, with a world tour including a suitably epochal gig at the Scala in
Kings Cross. After that came side projects, solo albums and the occasional ‘heritage concert’, until last year saw the release of the five track ‘Ghost List’,
their first new music in over a decade and an EP that’s up there with the best of their work. The subsequent co-headline tour alongside Superchunk gave
die-hards an opportunity to see GVSB in action again, for me this was in the rarefied surroundings of Camber Sands Pontins. And I’m pleased to report the
band have lost none of the power, style or bass guitars that first marked their appearance, more than two decades ago.
Venus Luxure No.1 Baby is relatively difficult to get hold of, being unavailable in digital format. Reasonably-priced copies can however be found, second-hand online, or possibly at your
local record shop.