Who Do You Love: The Gospel of Punk

OblivionsMemphis, Tennessee has long been the site of some of the strangest convolutions and permutations in popular music and the lives of its practitioners. Rock ‘n’ roll, blues, rhythm & blues, soul, bluegrass, rap, country, punk, folk, pop, jazz, garage, and DJ music have all been loved, lost, played, heard, bought, sold, fucked, killed, and brought (sometimes back) to life in the Memphis area. The city has a history of blending genres together, often in integrated bands. Memphis studios have recorded vibrant syntheses of different popular music strains by Elvis Presley, Booker T. & the MGs, Otis Redding, Big Star, even U2. But perhaps the most unusual blend belongs to the almost-unknown Oblivians, formed in 1993. Their best album, The Oblivians Play 9 Songs With Mr. Quintron, brought together the sacred, the profane, and the absurd in a selection of traditional and original gospel songs performed with the raunchiness of the blues and the lo-fidelity aesthetic of punk.

The Oblivians worshipped whole-heartedly the myths of the punk and the bluesman. Earlier songs such as “She’s A Hole,” “You Fucked Me Up, You Put Me Down,” and “Do the Milkshake,” were peopled with young drunken assholes who just wanted to get laid, and drunker old men who wanted to kill their cheating women. But there was more to the Oblivians’ music than ugly clichés. The Oblivians had a distinct melodic sensibility and strong blues roots that mashed together happily with their deliberately messy sound; they amped up and distorted their vocals and guitars so much that many songs are harrowing howls from one end to the other. And something about that unholy noise suggested to them the transcendence of gospel.

The Oblivians sang about stereotypes, but also the long-standing myths and truths of the working and the middle classes — the different worlds of Saturday night and Sunday morning. Saturday night is for blues, r&b, or, in later years, rock’n’roll, soul, disco, or hip hop. Sunday morning is for the righteous strains of the Lord’s own music, whether one termed it spirituals, choir music, hymns, or gospel.

The divide between the secular and the spiritual is evident throughout the realm of American music. There is “pop” and “rock”; “commercialization” and “authenticity”; independent labels and major labels; but perhaps most obvious and most marked is this: party music and gospel. The inherent chasm of difference between the Party and the Church (these environments writ large as lifestyles) is, to most people’s minds, evident and essential.

Gospel and choir music lift your spirit up to God; but blues, r&b, rock’n’roll and all their descendants pulled that spirit down to earth, and might even have left it in the gutter. For the Oblivians, the latter was the point.

The Oblivians recorded a number of 7″ singles, as well as two long-players, Soul Food and Popular Favorites, before January 1997, the month of the recording session for The Oblivians Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron. The band had been touring small venues in the U.S. and abroad in support of the first two LPs from 1995 to the end of ’96. After traveling with no support crew, the Oblivians (Greg, Jack, and Eric, each member switching off on guitar, drums, and vocals) were exhausted. And they didn’t have enough new material for another album.

Around that time, Greg Oblivian, a young veteran of the Memphis rock scene, came into a lode of used black “jubilee” gospel records through a friend at a record store and had been listening to them for months. Their visceral power and deep spiritual conviction knocked him out. “I thought this is everything rock’n’roll is,” he said later. “Even better ’cause you’ve got the spiritual side and it just rocks — you just couldn’t ask for anything more in music.”

“Jubilee” refers to the demonstrative, tight, testifying style that we identify today as gospel singing, usually associated with Baptist and Pentecostal churches. It originated in the 1930s and was most notably performed by “quartets,” groups of 4-6 men. With the end of World War II and America’s subsequent boom economy, the popularity of gospel groups and their recordings was at an all-time high. These gospel singers may have been singing holy music, but they were rich men who dressed and drove the best that money could buy and made women scream with desire. Rock stars indeed.

But it wasn’t the jubilee gospel stars’ lifestyle that enthralled Greg O. It was the music. At an after-show party, Greg O. played a couple of the gospel numbers he’d been listening to. The other two Oblivians followed along. Jack and Eric thought that the records might be a source of new material for the Oblivians, but it was Greg who resisted. He worried that gospel songs recorded by the Oblivians would be heard as novelty items the band had done as a joke. Jack and Eric cajoled him, saying they didn’t have to call the songs “gospel” and suggesting they record them with Mr. Quintron.

A New Orleans organist and inventor, Mr. Quintron was, and is, a young musical eccentric who plays keyboards of all sorts while accompanied by a light-activated drum machine of his own creation, named “Drum Buddy.”

He’s recorded six records of organ-driven, semi-free-form, funk noise: songs like “Do the Stomp” and “Caveman 5000.” Always accompanied by his wife, Miss Pussycat, Quintron is a one-stop soul shop — he makes sure there’s always a party going on everywhere he lugs his organ and his Drum Buddy.

Eric Oblivian describes the first time he saw Quintron perform in Memphis: “[he was] playing a contraption that had drums, tuned water bottles, a homemade synthesizer, a guitar laid on its back that he played with a drumstick, a trumpet, and a distorted microphone, among other things. He sounded like insane circus music.” Or maybe like the backbone of an even stranger fusion of punk, blues, and gospel.

A call was placed to New Orleans, where Quintron lived. The idea intrigued him, and the Oblivians sent him tape of some gospel songs. But the tape got lost in the mail, so when Quintron arrived in Memphis on January 3, 1997, after an 8-hour bus ride, he had only a vague idea of what the Oblivians had planned, unclear whether they wanted punk, funk, or the blues. But the first song they played Quintron was a 78 of “Live the Life,” a traditional gospel number. Its gorgeous sound and strong unselfconscious lyrics appealing directly to the Oblivians’ and Quintron’s tastes:

I’m going to live the life I sing about in my song
I always stand for the right to show the wrong
‘Cause you can’t go to church, child now, sing all day Sunday
And go out and get drunk and greet the Devil all on Monday
You’ve got to live the life you sing about in your song

Quintron responded, “Oh man, I’ve always wanted to do this song!”

An eight-hour recording binge followed. The band and Mr. Quintron recorded each tune live in one take. The group didn’t even listen to what they’d recorded between songs, trusting in their recording engineer. There was no mixing or any other real “production” at the time, just nine songs on tape. They ranged from the unrelenting howl and heathenry of “Feel All Right,” which opens the record, through the mournful/joyful hymn/dirge that is its centerpiece, “Final Stretch,” to the hopped-up warning/ode to the joys of sin that closes the record, “Mary Lou.”

After the session, the Oblivians took Mr. Quintron to a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, bought him a detective paperback, and put him on the eight-hour bus ride back to New Orleans at 2 a.m.

The record was released in July of 1997. The Oblivians hadn’t intended it to be their last record but it ended up being their swan song. In early 1998, after five long years, the Oblivians called it quits. In a later interview, Eric Oblivian said that the band had originally begun largely as a kick or a joke for the members, but after the multiple grueling tours, “[we] broke up because the joke had become like work… and none of us like to work.”

During a 1998 interview conducted with the members of the band after they’d broken up, an interviewer questioned them about their reasons for recording a gospel album. Greg replied, “If you listen to certain gospel songs in the right frame of mind it would scare you enough to go to church. To me that’s amazing, that means you’ve really succeeded — you’ve set out to make a record to catch someone’s ear and if you can be that enthusiastic about it — enough that someone would say ‘I’ve got to get my life together…I’m just as bad as the guy in this song’ — that’s pretty amazing.”

Greg was alluding to the fact that gospel music has a twofold purpose: first, to praise God through song and thus elevate the spirits of both choir and audience toward heaven; and second, to call to sinners and unbelievers and offer them salvation in the Lord.

The second part of gospel’s mission is the more difficult. You never know which strategy will work best: fear of damnation or the warm embrace of God’s love. But either way, gospel and the church provide a “way out” of one’s lifestyle and/or predicaments, whatever the reality of that lifestyle, those predicaments, and that “way” may be.

So it makes perfect sense that the Oblivians, garage punkers that they were, would record an album of gospel songs. Rock’n’roll, particularly punk, does the same thing gospel does.

An interviewer named M. Mercury, writing about the Oblivians in online journal Little Cracked Egg, draws a connection between their gospel and blues imagery: “…the only difference being instead of reaching for the gun or the bottle they reach out for Jesus.”

That’s close; but the Oblivians were practicing a more modern religion. One can also reach for a guitar or a microphone, finding salvation in the embrace of acceptance of rock’n’roll and the party. Rock’n’roll — all rhythmic, earthy music — has always been a haven and a gospel for the discontented, ambivalent and weird, giving them shelter and affection and voice through music and performance (and, of course, through money, sex, and fame).

Whether writing it, performing it, listening to it in a thousand different environments, making out or fucking to it, or just dancing to it all Saturday night, rhythmic music has provided a panacea for the disaffected and the disturbed.

Punk is a particularly clear example. Gospel preaches a reaction against the sin and venality of the secular world. Punk preaches a reaction against the avarice and banality of mainstream society. Both are reactions to outside influence, both invite the weary and troubled to the table of faith.

Party music calls to sinners and unbelievers in the same way as gospel; the difference is in how party music defines “sinners and unbelievers.”

Sinners against the party are those who have ignored its tenets: hedonism, ecstasy, friendliness, physical contact, dance, song; the party’s unbelievers are those who don’t or won’t get down. Party sinners and unbelievers are the uptight, the prejudiced, the boring, the judgmental, the hopelessly uncool, and some might say, ironically enough, the religious.

But whether it’s 1950s rock’n’roll calling everyone to “rock all night,” or 2001 hip hop doing the same, party music beckons its sinners and unbelievers to come worship in its temples. It calls for an embrace of a community that will provide affection and hope and answers to questions.

The party’s answers are just as positive and uplifting as the church’s; the difference is the party is more accepting. The Oblivians recorded an album of gospel songs because they heard a lot of the same answers in church gospel that they had already accepted as true believers in the party. On the album, the Oblivians shout gospel while couching it in amped-up distorted rock, creating a double meaning to all the songs. And this is no post-modern ironic detachment, this is as true as one can get in music. They’re conflating the Religious Question with the Punk Question: what’s my purpose? God and party both answer: “Life the life I sing about in my song.”

A perfect example is the first song on The Oblivians Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron, “Feel All Right.” The album’s opening shot is a driving rocking groove wherein two guitars, an organ, and drums lock into a whirl of righteous sound that hurtles the song forward like a train of souls bound for glory. The intensity lessens a bit and a spoken passage is offered: “God are you up there? I know you got a purpose for me. Just tell me what to do. You know I’m just your pawn. I wanna do your biddin’…on the earth…spread the Word…you know I will. Tell me me what you feel. I wanna know. I wanna know! I wanna know! I WANNA KNOW!”

With the last cry, the band kicks back into breakneck speed, electricity giving life to the Frankenstein’s monster that is rock music. And the answer — which has been intoned throughout the song — comes quickly, he speaks the gospel, “when I talk to him at night, Lord, it makes everything feel all right,” and the Oblivians play harder until they drop from exhaustion.

Isaac Lipfert is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been with his girlfriend for three years.