Still Vibrating: the Endless Charisma of the Vibrators

The Succinct Soundwaves of the Vibrators Still Enthrall
The Succinct Soundwaves of the Vibrators Still Enthrall Photo by Hannah O'Brien

In the mid-1970s, punk began barreling down pop culture’s smooth sheen highway like a disruptive battering ram. It arrived full-force and contagious, full of incessant syllables of ire and irritation. To many, it reflected a repellent burlesque, a dirty pogo dance of mushy-mouthed lads. To others, it was no less than a zeitgeist opening, a door to bold new worlds, a bloom of a thousand mesmerizing types.

And the taunting Vibrators, now touring with their blistering Nigel Bennett (formerly of the Members), Pete Honkamaki, and John ‘Eddie’ Edwards line-up, have spent more than 40 years not as careerists cashing in but as true-to-form sensei/teachers of punk’s promise to create a malleable sonic space for all types. That includes maladjusted low life to spiky-haired art attackers as well as mom and dads with hell-raising tendencies.

With itchy, restless urges, both pimply-faced youth and older crowds found sanctuary in punk’s restless and resurgent style, in which bands created their own Etch A Sketch versions of the genre. Though many bands were swept to nothing within a few years, the Vibrators have managed to subscribe to the past’s ethos while provoking and whipping up new generations who remain fervent followers of the band’s palpable, high-energy, melodic adventures across time and place.

Plus, they still have one foot inching into the pre-punk past, especially brought to the fore when they cruise across Texas’s endless highways. “Buddy Holly was a huge favorite of mine,” Edwards admitted with glee. “Just love his stuff. So live and vibrant. The way good rock'n roll should be! Only 22 when he died, but what a legacy! We've been to the Buddy Holly museum in Lubbock a couple of times now.” That kind of sheer enthusiasm for history and heritage helps the band enter an arc where punk stretches back to the biting lyrics and guitar interplay of the Kinks and Beatles too.

The punk genre was manifold and multi-tiered, running the gamut from the slanted, wiry, and wonky reggae leanings of the Slits (whose album Cut just celebrated its 40th anniversary) to the congregated, agile guitar disturbances, and woeful romantics of the Buzzcocks, whose influential singer/guitarist Pete Shelley died last year.

And the Vibrators were there, not as boilerplate byproducts, but as originators offering their own chromosomes to the format early by releasing two flavorful singles in 1976 and LPs like the rollercoasting, almost bubblegum gems of Pure Mania (1977), including fare like the danceable “Whips and Furs” and pulsing, head-bobbing “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” and the weightier, more cerebral, and venturesome V2 (1978). Each edged into the UK albums chart.

Part of the impetus was to make music that avoided over-indulgence, went back-to-basics, and ignored the pomposity and spectacle of bands like Queen. Today, the situation has shifted a bit. “Not being one to listen to much popular music these days, it can be down to the Simon Cowell (American Idol, America’s Got Talent) stuff on the TV that depresses me,” tells Edwards. “Formulaic and covers always. Not much originality. Also, I can't stand tribute bands. Do something new and original to express your own ideas. Please.”

And in that spirit, the Vibrators have delivered 20 more uncomplicated, gratifyingly consistent, reliably uptempo albums that maneuver through the murk of changing trends (flannel-focused grunge, slackjaw shimmerpop, tinkering lo-fi, and throat ravaged screamo) by ignoring them, entirely. Every other genre seemed like fading fingerpaint as the Vibrators cut crystalline tracks, unhindered. They never deactivated their links to the deliberate spasm of 1976.

Almost effortlessly, they have continued to alloy evocative punk with irresistible guitar-pop, sometimes elbowing alluring riffs and hummable lyrics to the fore, sometimes letting darker, cynical, doom-tinged urges crowd the tunes, like the pounding “Troops of Tomorrow,” which was picked up and carried to its brooding, hard-hitting limits by shock-trooper outfit the Exploited.

In fact, the V2 album material was first fleshed out in Berlin, where Iggy Pop and David Bowie had been creating their own new palettes too. “It was rehearsed there,” recalls Edwards, "then recorded at Jackson studios just north of London with Vic Maile.”

But I always wondered if the Vibrators, with their incessant, urgent, and pulsing songs, prompted some Germans to grab guitars themselves. “Yes, I think us playing there caused quite a few bands to start, like KGB and others. We always have a strong following in Germany, in particular Berlin. By coincidence, my daughter now lives there and comes across connections with the Vibrators from time to time!”

Eddie’s drumming was never over-the-top, floorboard-blasting, or manically exhaustive – his drums were always chiseled and spare, governed by small brute forces of consistent punk bluntness and no-nonsense, adrenalized Ramones-esque locked-down groove. Yet, he can also stretch out and reinvent some of his signature wrist snaps, which can be heard on their most recent live in Brazil release “The Vibrators no Estudio Showlivre (Ao Vivo).”

Never mind being a subsidiary of the past, sucked into the pointless posturing of diminished revivalism. The Vibrators are still raucous, full-bloodied, catchy summoners of hooks aplenty. Even newer, stealthy tunes like “Dark Star” and “Strangers Never (Friends Forever)” have the feel of worn jeans – uncontrived, flat-out churning, deliberate in their guitar prowess, and without the smallest flaws being eradicated by Botox production values.

Again, disdainful critics guarding their own apothecaries of style and substance might argue that such punk elders have simply entrenched themselves – remained inarticulate and indolent, no more than supersized musical vulgarities full of charred chords, off-kilter vocals, rickety structures, screwball lyrics, etc. But critics have almost always been dead wrong.

Bands like the Vibrators work to collapse indulgence, to implode mess heaps of massive rock operas, prog-rock formulas, and conceptual visions. They are fuzz-eaters of garage-pop craft, whose line-up may no longer contain singer/guitarist Knox behind the driver’s wheel but keep the spirit and sinewy surges sustained in his shadow.

And though punk may be years divorced from the era of influential DJ John Peel, who helped set in motion the genre’s momentum, the Vibrators' punk creed remains as-is in the digital epoch. “John Peel was so influential in breaking and helping so many bands in the '70s it cannot be overstated. I don't know much about streaming and downloads. I just know that we get tiny royalties from it! I still play vinyl.”

And the lessons from punk’s accessible, Do-It-Yourself, amateur approach remain. “Just go out and do it and create something new exciting and original,” Edwards insists. “Have fun! And get your voice heard. Go for it, you buggers!”

The Vibrators are scheduled to play with Screech of Death, Toxic Origin, and Reagan Era Rejects at 8 p.m. September 16 at The White Swan Live, 4419 Navigation. For more information, call 713-923-2837 or visit $10 day of show.
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David Ensminger