Most members of the Beavis and Butt-head generation believe that when it comes to rock and roll, words suck. It's hard to argue the contrary: Wretched lyrics abound, from new-age prattle and sleazy backseat boasts to juvenile political pouting. It's enough to make you wish that more singers would follow the lead of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who mumbles so incoherently that most people can't understand him.
That's why "Sold Out," a tune by Denver's New Ben Franklins, comes as such a pleasant surprise. The number, as sung by Malcom Tent, is a vicious slam at rock's ongoing commercialization, aimed in particular at ex-Who mastermind Pete Townshend: "I hope you die before you get old/Now you're bald and you can't hear/So don't talk about my generation/When you're sponsored by Miller beer...It's better to sell out than to fa-fa-fade away!"
What makes this lacerating assault cut both ways is that guitarist Dave DeVoe, who wrote the song, has more in common with Townshend than he may care to admit. Like the famed guitarist during the Who's salad days, DeVoe has a high, thin voice and takes an occasional lead vocal on band recordings (the Franklins have issued two cassettes--Blake and the just-released No Songs for Christine), but mainly puts his words into the mouth of a more powerful lead singer.
"Malcom and I played folk music six or eight years ago," DeVoe says about his first collaborations with Tent. "It was very simple, very crappy." After Tent moved to California in the late Eighties, DeVoe performed solo under the name the Zero People. "It was basically me, a guitar and a machine," he adds, "doing dark techno stuff."
When DeVoe ran into bassist Andy Harris two years ago, this pair of old friends decided to form a group. "Andy and I tried putting something together because of our common musical background," DeVoe says. "We were into early Eighties gothic stuff like Bauhaus, Killing Joke and Joy Division." The twosome subsequently recruited drummer George Edwards, and when Tent returned to Denver, a band was born.
"I thought the New Ben Franklins was a brilliant name," Tent says--although DeVoe's admission that the moniker was inspired by a cartoon mouse in a Walt Disney film tends to debunk this opinion. "I liked it," Tent continues, "because it doesn't say anything."
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DeVoe's songs say plenty. He calls his outlook "dark and introspective," and one listen to the band's set confirms this assertion: The common threads are themes of abandoment, betrayal and painful self-knowledge. While the other three mem-bers are starting to make minor writing contributions, DeVoe concedes, "I'm still pretty much the leader and censor of the band. I decide what we will and won't do."
Devoe dubs the group's music "progressive gothic," but this label doesn't sufficiently describe the Franklin's ever-shifting sound, which includes twangy country guitar, punky trash-can rhythms and distortion-heavy hard rock. The one constant is Tent's angry, sandpaper vocals, which sound like Bauhaus's Peter Murphy imitating a whiskey-soaked Jim Morrison.
The players are adequate and the songs interestingly structured, but the real meat of the material lies in DeVoe's sharp lyrical insights as delivered by Tent. "Seeking Indulgence," for example, explores the anguish of a lapsed Catholic no longer comforted by confession: "Puts his money in the slot/Creeps into the hallowed box...Puts his head between his knees/Chained down, burdened and diseased/ Sweating blood and counting beads." Elsewhere, the almost martial cadence of "Words" underscores a scattershot condemnation of fanatical zeal. "What word should I die for?" Tent asks in a mocking singsong. "What flag or royalty/What phrase will make it lay down/ Commit such loyalty?"
If all rock lyrics were like these, even Beavis and Butt-head might listen to the words.