Perfect Sound Forever

Pearl Harbor? No. Pearl Harbour!

By Kurt Wildermuth
(October 2006)

Remember Pearl Harbor and the Explosions? If you do, or if the name means anything to you, you’re probably a devotee of late-’70s new wave, perhaps especially a fan of the San Francisco scene that produced this band, Romeo Void, Translator, and Wire Train. If you don’t already own Pearl Harbor and the Explosions’ self-titled, debut album (1980, Warner Bros.) and you were thinking it might be worth picking up someday, think again. But one year after watching that record go nowhere, having moved to London and dropped the “E. Gates” and adopted the British spelling of her pseudo(sur)nym, Pearl Harbour dropped the Explosions and released a most excellent solo album, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too (1981, Warner Bros.). By all means pick this one up. Yes, good people, never mind the bollocks, damn the indie-rock flavors of the week, Pearl Harbour’s Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too is well worth hearing repeatedly.

The first album isn’t really even worth hearing, except maybe once as a historical artifact. It’s not terrible, just mediocre. Guitarist Peter Bilt, bassist Hilary Stench, and drummer John Stench play well enough, but at the service of dull songs and Pearl E. Gates’s undistinguished vocals, all of this enervated further by David Kahne’s one-dimensional production. (Among Kahne’s later achievements was, in 1986, helping the Bangles turn from a garage band to pop stars on Different Light. Ah, remember the sanitized sound that was the mid-’80s mainstream?) “You Got It (Release It)” and “Shut Up and Dance” are listenable power pop. So is “Up and Over,” though it ends with an instrumental passage that must have seemed sophisticated then but sounds like filler full of cheesy little licks now. “The Big One” and “So Much for Love” are vaguely funky rather than catchy. So is “Drivin’,” which finds the narrator, unfortunately, “only drivin’,” and which reportedly, inexplicably, was an independent hit single and the reason the band was signed to Warner Bros. Altogether, the album suggests a much-less-inspired, unironic Blondie, combined with early Martha and the Muffins, covering Bowie’s “TVC 15.” Actually, that mixture makes the album sound interesting, but it, this music, and music like this, have no reason to exist.

Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too doesn’t exactly sound “produced,” but the producer is Mickey Gallager, a British Invasion-era keyboardist best known for being in Ian Dury’s band the Blockheads (1977-81) and for playing on the Clash’s London Calling (1979). In fact, Ian Dury and the Clash register as ghost presences here, in that Harbour covers Dury’s “Rough Kids” and her drummer is Nick Simonon, best known for being the younger brother of the Clash bassist, Paul Simonon, whom PH was reportedly married to for a while. Together with guitarist Steve New, guitarist Nigel Dixon, pianist Otis Watkins, and bassist Barry Payne, they cook up a thick stew. Think the early Cramps--brittle but groovy, scratchy but dense--minus the menace and plus lots of heart.

The cover art sets the scene: on the front Harbour’s aqua-tinted headshot makes her look like an old-fashioned chanteuse, a siren of the film-noir era, hair swept back, beaming as she sings into an overhead microphone; only her skull earrings belie this angelic image. On the back cover Harbour’s full-body cutout reveals a rockabilly flipside, her big hair in a Wanda Jackson ‘do, her long black boxy coat leading down to skinny legs in skin-tight pants so short she sports a mile of white socks over her big black boxy shoes. She’s dancing a little twist and holding a pint of what looks like dark ale.

The difference between the first album and this one is right there, in the shift from Pearl E. Gates’s striped jumpsuit to Pearl Harbour’s retro getups. As Minutemen would later put it, “Do you want new wave (or do you want the truth)?” If you want a little of each and a whole lot of fun, this record delivers--in fact it is--that combination platter.

Harbour’s “Alone in the Dark” kicks things off, and with its rumbling rhythm, its heavily echoing drums and vocals, it could be Gene Vincent doing John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” Harbour then hurls herself into a cover of Wanda Jackson’s “Fujiyama Mama,” here updated with a punk attack and a snarling mass of guitar. (The lo-fi sound never does justice to the guitar. Maybe someone could remix and remaster and rerelease the album on CD?) Already Harbour’s vocals are much more inspired, fired up, than on her debut. She displays the sweet toughness of X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene but with a bit more versatility. Harbour can shout and harangue, but she can also croon, as on “Everybody’s Boring but My Baby,” another Harbour original, all girl-group balladeering with Clarence Clemons-like sax. After Harbour’s “You’re in Trouble Again” throws R&Bish rockabilly into the mix, “Do Your Homework,” cowritten with Watkins, quite simply rocks. Watkins makes like Jerry Lee Lewis on the western rock of his song “Cowboys and Indians”: “In my cowboy hat / My one-room flat / In downtown Waterloo.” Aided by a weeping guitar, Harbour carries off the prescient, not precious, alt-country of “Losing to You,” which ends the LP’s first side.

Side 2 opens with the bouncy “Filipino Baby.” While the listener is left pondering why the album has two potentially offensive Asian-themed songs, the party continues with the shuffling come-on “Let’s Go Upstairs.” Next, the cover of “Rough Kids,” Dury’s ode to juvenile delinquency, distills Harbour’s timeless takes on ‘50s and ‘60s rock. On “Out with the Girls,” her delivery is as frenetic as the Devo-meets-rig-rock tempo. The heartfelt pop-rock balled “Heaven Is Gonna Be Empty” employs that vast, majestic, yet ramshackle sound the Clash patented on London Calling (think “Death or Glory,” “The Card Cheat,” “Four Horsemen”). Finally, Harbour’s comic “At the Dentist,” an antidentist rant, wraps up the proceedings, its drums and bass pounding, its guitar relentlessly riffing.

Nothing is at stake in this stuff, and I mean that as a compliment. No ideas are advanced. No lives will be changed; no minds will be blown. Taken on its own terms, as an expatriate California chick and some English blokes ripping through, not off, a variety of rootsy American styles as though pints await at the end of the set, it’s a “great” album, if you like this sort of thing--and if you’re reading this piece, you probably love this sort of thing. It’s only a rock and roll record, but that’s all it wants to be. It has no frills, no bullshit, no extended instrumental passages, no literary references. It represents the sort of stripped-down return to roots that John Lennon dreamed about, T. Rex glammed out, the Ramones revved up, and a whole lotta contemporary garage rockers have plugged in. Most everything on it would fit perfectly on “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” (see, sandwiched between, say, the Ronettes and Wreckless Eric, who, after all, also covered “Rough Kids.”

In 2005, I bought my promo copy of Don’t Follow Me for a dollar at a benefit record sale. Because I liked it enough to write this little tribute, Jason Gross, Perfect Sound Forever’s owner and operator, permanently loaned me his promo copy of Pearl Harbor and the Explosions. Don’t Follow Me has at most ten dollars’ worth of music; Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, at most one dollar’s worth. According to Trouser Press and the All-Music Guide, Harbour released a few more worthy albums over the years, among them Pearls Galore! (1984, Island) and Here Comes Trouble (1995, Shattered). I am on the lookout, and I am willing to pay as much as five bucks apiece. Stay tuned!

Also see our interview with Pearl Harbour

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