Emerging from a scene marked by garage rock fetishism, Detroit’s Electric Six instead play a formidably danceable mix of rock, new wave, whiteboy funk and disco. The band doesn’t take itself seriously, but imbues even the most absurd songs with a passion easily mistaken for earnestness. When lead singer Dick Valentine belts out “Your body goes to waste every minute you don’t give it to me” (on Señor Smoke‘s “Dance Epidemic”), he does so with the level of (contrived?) conviction usually reserved for songs about social change or world hunger. Ultimately, the Six come across like a demented hybrid of AC/DC and Prince, releasing party albums dedicated to sexy girls, fat stacks of cash, fire and the Devil.
The band formed in 1996 as the Wildbunch, gaining popularity by playing some of the city’s sketchiest clubs. The original lineup — Valentine on vocals, the Rock-n-Roll Indian and Surge Joebot on guitars, Disco on bass, and M. on drums — recorded the Six’s 2003 debut, Fire. Tracks like “Electric Demons in Love” and “Nuclear War (On the Dance Floor)” make the band’s thematic direction immediately clear. Quoting Van Halen’s “Panama” and punctuating lyrics with Michael Jackson-style “hee hee hee”s, “I’m the Bomb” lays bare the band’s ’80s iconography. Guest vocals by Jack White helped propel the manic single “Danger! High Voltage” into the UK charts. (The album’s other single, “Gay Bar,” would become something of an albatross to the band, requiring an almost-bitter rebuttal/sequel track five years later.) Valentine’s prediction on the album-closing “Synthesizer” that “You can’t ignore my techno” would be proven true, but not after considerable behind-the-scenes changes.
Everyone on Fire (except Dick Valentine) was gone before the next album’s release. The lineup for Señor Smoke is the Colonel and Johnny Na$ional on guitars, Percussion World on drums, John R. Dequindre on bass (replacing interim bassist Frank Lloyd Bonaventure) and Tait Nucleus? (who appeared on Fire as a supporting musician) on synthesizers. Despite the seismic personnel shift, the album stands as a seamless refinement of Fire‘s disco rock. While there are fewer instant classics here than on the debut, the songs that do stand out are all better than their predecessors. “Dance Epidemic” stands as the definitive Electric Six song, encapsulating the band’s sound in two-and-a-half minutes of dance-floor rock. “Devil Nights” and “Bite Me” prove that the Electric Six formula still bubbles with synth-accessorized energy. There’s also a faithful take on Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga.” Even though the highlights are all up-tempo body movers, the slower “Jimmy Carter” — which conflates the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” with William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” — points the way to the band’s future.
Switzerland is the Electric Six’s “serious” album. The subject matter (girls, money, the Devil) remains unchanged, but the approach ranges from the meditative to the obsessed. “I Wish This Song Was Louder” throbs with a newfound menace, while “Pink Flamingos” and “Germans in Mexico” could have come from a Six-scored spaghetti western soundtrack. The synthesizer vamp “Infected Girls” leaves Valentine “just another number at the Center for Disease Control.” That’s not to imply that things ever become too bleak to enjoy. “Pulling the Plug on the Party” may be powered by a paranoid immediacy not found on previous discs, but that doesn’t stop it from (a) still being about partying and (b) referencing the turkey-dropping Thanksgiving episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. “I Buy the Drugs” portrays the life of a drug dealer through the transcendent vision of stadium rock sing-along catharsis. The whole album is decadent and at times socially irresponsible and unredeemable — just the way dirty ol’ rock and roll should be.
I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being the Master finds the band’s party spirit refreshed and renewed. The Six regain their rock star swagger on the ardently pro-mustard “It’s Showtime!” and offer similar audience encouragement on “Randy’s Hot Tonight!” When Valentine faces internal debate on the Señor Smoke-flavored “Dance Pattern”, it boils down to “Was my vox too sexy? / Was my vox too strong?” Despite the more cheerful outlook, the band continues the sonic stretching begun on Switzerland. The synthesizers stand on equal sonic footing with the lead guitars — to the point where the guitars sound like they’re mimicking vintage synths on the album’s best (albeit least danceable) track: “When I Get to the Green Building.” By the time of Exterminate‘s release, live bassist Smörgåsbord was promoted to full band member to replace Dequindre.
After two discs of increasing synthesizer prominence, Flashy brings back the trad rock. The guitars thrash, the drums pound and the attitude is as cocky as ever, but the end product just isn’t very fun. The tone is set on the trumpet-accompanied opener “Gay Bar Part Two,” titled for a lyric about “the soft steaming shits demanding Gay Bar Part 2.” (Not quite as eloquent as David Bowie’s kiss-off to Major Tom in “Ashes to Ashes,” but you get the idea.) Attempts to bring back the funk are mixed at best. Tracks like “We Were Witchy Witchy White Women” and “Graphic Designer” are lifeless retreads of the Electric Six sound, and the vapid “Lovers Beware” is easily the band’s worst song. But Flashy isn’t a total loss. “Dirty Ball” is a libidinous throwback to the Fire era, complete with a mid-song lyrical breakdown by Valentine. Lines like “He won’t apologize ’cause he’s not sorry / He’s the Xbox to your Atari” elicit a grin or two on “Flashy Man.” Flashy ends as dourly as it began, with the deeply pessimistic vocoder-sung “Making Progress.”
Sexy Trash, boasting the strikingly precise subtitle “The Rarities, Demos and Misfires of Electric Six (1996-2007),” was sold at concerts during the Flashy tour. Valentine’s track-by-track annotation explains how some songs evolved into album cuts (notably Switzerland‘s “Rubber Rocket”) and why other songs languished at the demo stage.