Radio Active

Postpunk rallies against Giuliani's legacy

Note to emo boys: Radio 4 hate you. Hate that personal, confessional zine you print on earth-friendly paper made from recycled copies of The Teenage Liberation Handbook. Hate the entire album you wrote about that vegan girl who dated you for two days and then left you--back in eighth grade. Hate your poetry-strewn online diary, your desktop shrine to Alexander Berkman, your hyper-organized collection of Morrissey singles. Hate your self-hatred.

Which might be surprising, since Radio 4 bassist/vocalist Anthony Roman used to play with Garden Variety, a band that you could tag as emo. (That is, if you'd like the band to rough you up, write "Public Image Ltd." across your chest, and leave you wearing your abraded skin like a frayed concert T-shirt.) But emo is not just something that Radio 4 love to hate. To Roman--and to this writer, who solemnly swears never to make beleaguered emo boys into a straw men again--emo is simply the Antichrist. And I don't mean the good, Johnny Rotten kind.

"Indie and emo have worked themselves into a corner, and they're sitting there all lonely and sad," says Roman, who is speaking by phone from the small Park Slope record shop that he runs and owns in Brooklyn. "Emo's so comfy, so complacent, so inoffensive. It's everything I'm against. Really, it's incredibly conservative."

Smash your head on the postpunk rock: Radio 4
Chris Cassidy
Smash your head on the postpunk rock: Radio 4

Which is not something you can say about Radio 4's music--a dancey postpunk romp that Roman once described as "a reaction to the apathetic state of indie rock." And it's not something you can say about Roman, either. During our interview, he utters such fight-instigating declarations as, "I detest indie kids who wear ironic metal T-shirts," "Giuliani's a fascist," and "Kylie Minogue's single is brilliant." But Roman generally comes across as a nice, gentle guy who just happens to have a lot of strong opinions and is willing to share them.

In fact, that's exactly what he does--along with drummer Greg Collins, vocalist/guitarist Tommy Williams, keyboardist Gerard Garone, and percussionist P.J. O'Connor--on Radio 4's sophomore album Gotham! (Gern Blandstern). The sweaty, jerky brouhaha sounds like a disco version of Gang of Four or the Clash, urging the media to discuss AIDS more often ("Start a Fire"), fans to care about the art community ("Save Your City"), and New York City residents to rage against a certain former mayor who made things very difficult for them ("Our Town").

At least, that's what Roman says Radio 4's songs are about. The fuzzed-out, spasmodic vocals on tracks such as "Struggle" could have been sung in Esperanto for all you can hear of them. The only thing you can decipher for sure is the chorus: "Get behind the struggle right now!" And by that time, you're so excited by the palpitating bassline and sheer energy of the track that you don't care to ask which cause you're backing. Mothers Against R. Kelly? Sure! Rage Against the Machine Fans for Anger Management? Absolutely! Beer for the Hungry: The Andrew W.K. Fund? Why not?

One suspects, though, that the main revolution Radio 4 wants to start is the fight to let people keep dancing--a modest cause that might initially sound less political than it actually is. During his time as mayor, Giuliani helped shut down some of the Manhattan clubs where Radio 4 regularly played--most notably Coney Island High, where the group debuted in spring of 1999 as openers for Jimmy Eat World. It's all too easy to forget that in less consequential days, 9/11's "hero" spurred enforcement of an antiquated mandate that forbids dancing to live music unless the venue has a cabaret license. (New York's cabaret-licensing law was first enacted in 1926, with the intent, some say, to crack down on jazz clubs, where owners allowed interracial couples to dance together.) Although Giuliani's departure from the mayoral office lessened the zealous enforcement of the law, it remains in effect, and clubs are still feeling the legacy of the mayor's crusade. It turns out Footloose just isn't as sexy when it's made into a real-life Republican tirade.

"I've had friends who were dancing at our shows, and some bartender would come over and say, 'You can't do that here. You'll be fined.' People actually got tickets for dancing," Roman recalls. "The art world has been crushed by Giuliani. He made it very difficult to be a young artist. But any time the people act against an oppressive force, it seems to make the movement better."

With the current resurgence of New York postpunk--bands like Radio 4, !!!, Liars, and the Rapture--the movement is getting to be a slippery term, categorized by a cohesion of sound rather than a central message. But if yesterday's postpunk Marxism couldn't predict Dubya's regime, who cares? It certainly foresaw what records would be played in today's dance clubs. And even though, in a recent Radio 4 review, the Austin-American Statesmen wrote, "Punk is an aesthetic dead-end--and, worse, takes a certain pride in being an aesthetic dead-end," Roman is still optimistic about punk culture at large. He remembers a time when he was working at Brownies, a New York club, where he was incredibly excited to find a DJ playing the Replacements (Roman's favorite band of all time), Avalanches, and Primal Scream all in one set.

"I looked at him and I said, 'How do you choose the songs that you're playing?'" Roman recalls. "And he looked at me and said, 'It's all the same, ain't it?'"

Indeed. Unless, of course, it's emo.

 
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