(Ratgum Records, 2011)
Punks on Mars is Ryan Howe’s band. Ryan Howe used to release music as Luke Perry. I mean, he’s not Luke Perry Luke Perry, but he went by Luke Perry nonetheless. Look at this cassette cover.
I have no idea what to think of Punks on Mars. As such, I’ve compiled a list of random thoughts about the band’s self-titled debut in some particular order, but the numbers are likely interchangeable depending on how you feel about it.
Random List of Thoughts about Punks on Mars:
1. Holy James Ferraro
I’ve documented how fascinating I find Ferraro, and it was kind of a surprise to hear how close Punks on Mars come to that weird lo-fi, fake glam sound. I’d mostly suggest shelving this next to Night Dolls with Hairspray, but it’s equally indebted to On Air, at points mimicking the latter album’s warbling sound experiments. Take the bleepy non-song and Ferraro-esque-titled “Pimple Pod in Videoland,” or the telephone menagerie in “Phone Freaks II.” Even opener “Venus in Faux Fur” begins with radio program intro music before diving into the new wave cotton-candy-fluf tune. And even most of the rest of this list could apply to / be asked of Night Dolls, a record I’m not sure I even like. (On Air was a fascinating listen, though.)
So I’m still debating whether or not it’s a good thing that this sounds so much like Ferraro’s output. I actually had a moment before I did any research on Punks on Mars where I convinced myself – really, seriously convinced myself – that James Ferraro was in this band, or that it was some sort of side project or pseudonym of his. I was prepared to be totally unsurprised by his involvement. But he’s not part of this record in the slightest.
[Ed. note: Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Randolf who pointed out that Howe and Ferraro ARE in fact friends, and have played together in former Test Icicle Sam Mehren’s Outer Limits Recordings – I KNEW something was up!]
2. Glam Meets Punk in a Supercollider
Punks on Mars clearly wants you to automatically relate to what they’re trying to do, to figure out what the band sounds like before you even hear them. The name itself conjures the outsider, but in an environment so far out that the more serious you take it, the more absurd it becomes. This is where a bit of the glam comes in, the strange space hero of the 1970s meeting the sneering street vagrant with more self-important cred than good sense (or manners). The sound winds up somewhere in between as if glam and punk were shot through CERN’s particle accelerator resulting in a rare element that exists too briefly, only with a trebly guitar and electronic drum soundtrack. Or something equally nonsensical.
Then there’s the fact that the record doesn’t really sound like punk or glam – it pretty much wants to exist in the time well after either’s heyday, 1987 maybe, where the styles have been co-opted by popular culture to the point where they don’t mean anything. It’s the look and style of punk, with the substance, or lack thereof, of glam. It’s nothing, it’s sugar – it dissolves in liquid. I mean, Howe takes a crack at “Rock & Roll, Pt. 2” and weaves elements of it into the Gary Glitter homage “Glitter on Mars.” Gary Glitter! And the throwaway, disposable fads and fast food culturalism are here etched forever in song: “Tamogatchi Punks on St. Mark’s”! “Dollar Menu Dream”! “Onion Rings Out of This World”! There’s no redeeming or nutritional element within.
(Come to think of it, the glorification of junk culture for the sake of sociological experiment is also very Ferraro-esque. I just wonder how far Howe means to take the critique.)
3. The 1980s and Television
So Punks on Mars definitely owes a debt to Beverly Hills, 90210, besides Howe’s previous incarnation as Luke Perry. The guitar and drum tones for much of the album are taken straight from “Theme from Beverly Hills, 90210,” and I never thought anyone would ever consider emulating that sound. See also the old MTV promo spots with the hair band guitar – is there an audience for any of that anymore? I’d just as soon let the music fade into the ether, or archive it in a library for posterity – unless you want to market something to children captivated by television, of course.
Is it just me, who grew up in the 1980s, or was there a more no-holds-barred sensibility when it came to marketing to kids during that decade? I’m totally picturing the glorification of this sanitized glam-punk hybrid, sold to youth as cool and eminently emulatable. And why not? It’s the easy way in – you need to start young when programming Americans to be me-centered and ravenously selfish. You start by introducing the bratty and impatient attitudes of, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and dolling up tweens in rock duds like Kids Incorporated, and voila! You’ve got a nation in need of Ritalin and an outlet for rebellion against what’s good for them – what their parents say is good for them. Eat candy, not vegetables. Stay up late. Jump on the couch. Ride your bike through the neighbor’s lawn. The permutations for mayhem are endless.
So these Martian punks are contrived and consumerized, a caricature of punk’s style, let alone its essence. Punks on Mars features a few easily identifiable catchphrases, like the Malibu-moronic “Fer sure, fer sure!” of “Jennifer Convertibles,” the stupid go-craziness of “Grounded for Life” (“Jumping on the bed playing air guitar!”), or the bad-attitude-that-no-one-except-cartoon-show-parents-really-uses of “Interstate Eyeball” (“Go on, get outta here!”). It’s a showcase for nothingness. The most easily digestible song here is called “Shout Your Lungs Out” (“You gotta rock your socks you gotta roll your soul … You gotta lose control!”), obviously a bad idea. (When I’m singing that in my head, sometimes I mix it up and it comes out “You gotta rock your socks, you gotta lose your soul…” Yeah.)
4. Is It Even Any Good?
To be honest, I can’t tell, and if you’ve gotten this far in the review, you’re likely to say “probably not” without even listening to it. If it’s a put-on, it’s well-mimicked and tonally accurate, but if this was released in 1987, or at any other time, as a serious record, it would, maybe by the necessity of its very existence, be scoffed at. It’s not particularly fun to listen to, either – it’s tinny, shrill, and dated. But if it is intended as an experimental genre exercise, a recreation of carefully calculated commercial music, commissioned by marketing firms and aimed at the period channel-surfing, cartoon-watching, sugar-high target audience of suburban kids, then maybe it has some merit. Maybe. The question, then, in the end: Who wants to listen to that for fun?
5. Bonus thought
Anybody else think the wailing blues guitar runs (and little else) in “Junkies Running Wild” sound like they were ripped from the poignant moments of Lethal Weapon?
RIYL: James Ferraro, Kids Incorporated, Gary Glitter