The Black Lips and the Almighty Defenders: Resurrecting rock and roll

The Almighty Defenders -- photo by Juan
The Almighty Defenders singing their punk praises. — photo by Juan

The Black Lips w/ The King Khan & BBQ Show, Younger

Blue Moose Tap House — Tuesday, Sept. 16 at 9 p.m.

On Tuesday, Sept. 16, The Black Lips and The King Khan & BBQ Show will perform at The Blue Moose Tap House. In 2009, the bands combined their efforts to release an “evil gospel” album The Almighty Defenders. The album subverts the stale conventions of both modern rock and roll and religious worship, and it has been hinted at by the members of both bands that they may reprise some of the album’s songs on the current tour.

Increasingly, being in a rock band and playing some perfectly executed songs to a mildly interested audience taking video with their cellphones is a totally respectable thing to do. The problem is that the best rock and roll has never been made by respectable people.

It is a point the Black Lips know all too well. Rock and roll doesn’t need respectable people, they tell us. It needs bad kids. “Bad kids, ain’t no college grad kids, living out on the skids, kids like you and me.”

Back in 2009, the Black Lips fled from India following a series of raucous live shows they performed in the country, after which they formed a new band, The Almighty Defenders — somewhere between a supergroup and joke side-project — with partners in crime King Khan and BBQ (a.k.a Mark Sultan).

The Almighty Defenders album contains much of the garage-rock-by-way-of-punk sound these musicians are known for, but what sets the album apart is how influenced it is by gospel music. Gospel might seem like an odd choice for artists that aren’t known for their religiosity, but the album works. It manages to recontextualize the sound and language of gospel in a way that removes the explicitly religious elements while retaining the power of the original music.

The gospel being channeled here isn’t the sort that makes use of giant choirs and lush production; instead, it’s the gritty lo-fi electric gospel that was recorded live in small churches in the South and released on 45’s by independent labels. The album even includes a faux apocalyptic sermon, “The Great Defender,” which is common in this genre of gospel but probably somewhat bewildering to those unfamiliar with the source material.

What is most interesting about the Almighty Defenders is that they are able to preserve the raw immediacy of one of those old gospel records. No studio trickery or overdubbed choirs, just a documentary recording of an unmediated religious experience.

The Almighty Defenders sound like they’re at church, but not the kind of church that’s dedicated to worshipping God. There’s no praise of the lord here, but rather a blatant disregard for authority combined with the lionization of ecstatic emotion, in part echoing the punk ethos of the musicians involved.

The punk approach to gospel on this album is unique unto itself, but if you’re at a total loss to see how anyone could make the path from punk to rock to gospel, the single cover song on the album, “I’m Coming Home,” can serve as a guide.

The song was penned by the Mighty Hannibal, the turban-wearing black revolutionary soul singer who came to fame with Hymn No. 5, a 1966 gospel song that preached against the horrors of the Vietnam war well before protest music was chic. The 1970 “I’m Coming Home,” takes up where Hymn No. 5 leaves off, but the subversion of the religious themes rings all the louder in the context of Almighty Defender’s explicitly gospel rendering.

The “home” described the song’s refrain song is not a heaven where you sit beside Jesus, but rather any place where you can be in the arms of a girlfriend who loves you, even if it means draft-dodging your way out of a bullshit imperialist war your country can’t let go of.

The Almighty Defenders take this marriage of gospel and rebellion in an explicitly “fuck everything” punk direction with “Jihad Blues.” A stand-out line from the track, and an obvious reference to September 11th, goes “Just gimme a box cutter and a one-way ticket.” No doubt such statements will offend many, but then what exactly were you expecting from a punk gospel album?

“The Ghost with the Most” contains a reference to the “old man in the mountain” which I can only interpret as a nod to the late 11th-early 12th century Nizārī Ismā’īlī leader and founder of the order of Assassins, Hassan-i Sabbah, who led a guerrilla war against mainstream Islam from his mountain fortress of Alamut.

This may seem like an incredibly obscure reference, but Hassan-i Sabbah has more currency in the counterculture than one might assume. The statement “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted,” has been attributed by a number cult writers, most notably, William S. Burroughs to Hassan-i Sabbah.

It isn’t as if the listener needs to be aware of any of this to appreciate the music, but it is important to note how deep the intertextuality goes. Religious references are more than just a vestigial organ leftover from the gospel music that inspired the album; they are reworked in a way that allows them to be at once transgressive and transcendent.

To call the Black Lips or The King Khan & BBQ Show revivalists would be to accuse them of attempting a recreation of the important signifiers from this music, which is definitely not what they are doing. The energy of garage rock and gospel is there, but their grounding in punk allows them to escape the purist musician’s baggage of being slavishly faithful to history. This is true of both the music of Almighty Defenders and the Black Lips in general.

The Black Lips don’t write songs about nice things. They sing about the trash of American culture: the disgusting underbelly of the empire that most of us would rather ignore. With the Black Lips, the ugliness and horror of everyday life isn’t ignored; it is transfigured. It is as if the transcendent can can only be found in the filth and decay of our world.

The religious experience as told by The Black Lips and The Almighty Defenders isn’t particularly blissful. Instead, it is often overwhelming and, for most, terrifying. While this might certainly be what we expect from a truly ecstatic religious experience, it also encapsulates what it’s like to lose yourself at a good rock and roll show; death might be imminent but that doesn’t really matter because you’re really living for once.

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