"It's better to burn out than to fade away" was Neil Young's epitaph for the Sex Pistols, and the Pistols' peers -- the Clash, the Jam, the Buzzcocks -- soon also earned Young's salute. Of the second wave of British punk rockers, though, many are still active, if often with different personnel or sounds. Two of those class-of-1978 bands, the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, have recently issued new albums, as has That Petrol Emotion, a recently formed group with roots in the same era.
The Cure: 'Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me' Coming on the heels of its most accessible record, "The Head on the Door," and a collection of singles, "Standing on the Beach," which brought American record buyers up to date, the Cure's "Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me" (Elektra 9 60737-1) has been touted as the commercial breakthrough for the band, which will appear Aug. 5 at the Patriot Center. A selective tour of the disc might support this thesis: There's the bouncy funk of "Hot Hot Hot," the dulcet "One More Time" and "Just Like Heaven" and especially "Why Can't I Be You?" The latter, the album's first single, is a sprightly white-soul stomper clearly inspired by the 12-inch version of "Close to Me" (the characteristically downbeat song from "The Head on the Door"), which, in one of the most successful dance-music remixes of an English art-rock ditty ever, has become a horn-fueled barn-burner.
There's enough such material here to construct a pleasant, if not overwhelming, single-platter follow-up to "The Head on the Door." "Kiss Me" is a double album, though, padded with modal vamps of the sort that were the Cure's specialty on early albums like "Seventeen Seconds" and "Faith." There's nothing inherently wrong with such songs -- the band's "Primary," after all, is one of the most electrifying dirges ever committed to vinyl -- but most of these are slight.
The return to the crawling tempos and minor keys of the Cure's earlier work is just one sign that singer-guitarist-songwriter Robert Smith has begun to repeat himself. Previously the band's only constants were change and Smith himself (original member Lol Tolhurst is still aboard, too, but he switched from drums to keyboards). Initially a wiry, pop-punk trio, the band moved on to the gloomy atmospherics of "Faith" and "Pornography," then to the electro-pop punch of "Let's Go to Bed" and the precious folk-jazz of "The Love Cats." "The Head on the Door" effectively consolidated the band's sound and lineup after years of Smith's dilettantism, but that doesn't excuse him from following that album too closely: "Fight," on the new album, for example, is a rewrite of "Head on the Door's" "Push," and "One More Time" pays a similar tribute to "Six Different Ways."
From the sitar-sounding guitar that emphasizes the orientalism of the band's monochromatic groove on "If Only Tonight We Could Sleep" to the straightforward pop ebullience of "Why Can't I Be You?," Cure initiates will find much of this record appealing. Newcomers expecting that advertised commercial breakthrough, however, should be excused if they think "Kiss Me" offers both too much and too little.
That Petrol Emotion: 'Babble' As with "Kiss Me," the stylistic diversity of That Petrol Emotion's debut album, "Manic Pop Thrill," seemed less a sign of grand ambition than of tentative direction. There's nothing tentative, however, about "Babble" (Polydor 833 132-1 Y-1), the band's second album (though its first to be released in the United States). A fierce yet tuneful postpunk landmark, "Babble" provides the manic pop thrill the first record managed only sporadically.
That Petrol Emotion's hard-pop style might be expected to resemble that of guitarist-songwriters Sean (formerly John) and Damian O'Neill's previous band, the Undertones. Dubbed "the Irish Ramones," it also featured terse but irresistible melodies countered by speedy, hard-edged guitars. But where the Undertones' tone was fundamentally sweet -- its most revealing album title was "More Songs about Chocolate and Girls" -- That Petrol Emotion is angry and tough minded.
The Undertones were dedicated to living normal teen lives amid the turmoil of their native Derry, but the O'Neills have subsequently spent some time thinking about their Irishness. There's an our-time-has-come urgency to Petrol's music that makes it one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the British Isles in recent years.
Its record covers, which deal with Britain's administration of Northern Ireland, are more explicitly political than its lyrics, but there's no mistaking the band's mission. As a rap interlude puts it on the album's centerpiece, the hammering yet buoyant "Big Decision": "We gotta agitate, educate, organize."
Even those who wish rock 'n' roll wouldn't bother with such matters could well be knocked out by "Babble's" rhythmic assurance and barely contained guitar frenzy: the skittering attack of "Split!", the swaggering "Swamp," the fractured funk of "In the Playpen." With "Babble," the Petrols have fashioned a sound as committed and forceful as their call-to-arms message deserves.
Siouxsie and the Banshees: 'Through the Looking Glass' The stately goth-rock ballads of Siouxsie and the Banshees are reminiscent of the Cure's darker side, and well they might be: When the latter band was barely even a part-time operation, Robert Smith doubled as guitarist for both. The latest project from the now Smith-less Banshees, who will appear at Constitution Hall Aug. 17, has little to do with that heritage, however. "Through the Looking Glass" (Geffen GHS 24134) is a collection of oldies drawn from such diverse sources as Disney movies and the Band, Billie Holiday and Roxy Music.
Remaking most of these tunes in the quartet's tenebrous image is hardly revelatory -- songs like Roxy's "Sea Breezes" were overly mannered English art-rock to begin with. The Band's apocalyptic "This Wheel's on Fire" does suit the Banshees, but other songs that had some passion or spontaneity in the original recordings are lobotomized or, like Television's "Little Johnny Jewel," outright embalmed.