The official story is that British punk rock lasted only a few years, replaced by something ingeniously dubbed “post-punk.” The truth, as Palma Violets demonstrated Tuesday night at the Rock and Roll Hotel, is more cyclical.
Call it indie, shambling or even “the new wave of new wave,” but British punk has reasserted itself every few years since 1976. Young bands regularly emerge with short, fast, disheveled songs like the Violets’s “Best of Friends.” In it, singer-guitarist Samuel Thomas Fryer and singer-bassist Alexander “Chilli” Jesson sound lustful yet bewildered, insisting that “I wanna be your best friend/ I don’t want you to be my girl.”
That exuberant if derivative tune was the first single from the quartet’s debut album, “180.” It made the Violets a pop-culture sensation in Britain, which is always ready for another of those. The band’s yesterday-music-today style is a harder sell on this side of the Atlantic. The four barely 20-something musicians drew an ardent but only medium-size crowd to the H Street NE venue.
Named for the group’s South London address, “180” is utterly British, yet laced with American ingredients. The album reveals traces of the Doors, the Ramones, the Velvet Underground and every 1960s garage-rock outfit that featured pumping organ. Some of this may be inadvertent, but the Violets are clearly bargain-bin scholars. On this tour, one of the band’s encores is the fabulously obscure “Invasion of the Tribbles,” by a largely unknown first-generation Calgary punk band, the Hot Nasties.
The Violets were introduced by one of their entourage, who called the show a “test” during which fans might prove themselves “the kind of people who know how to have fun.” To show that, the crowd faced plenty of competition from Fryer and Jesson, who bounced their way through the 45-minute set. Tethered to their instruments, keyboardist Jeffrey Peter Mayhew and drummer William Martin Doyle were less conspicuously exuberant. All four were sometimes joined onstage by members of the band’s crew, who provided percussion, backing vocals and general mayhem.
The two frontmen, who often sang in ragged unison, were pretty anarchic themselves. Fryer and Jesson’s choppy vocals have often been likened to those of the Libertines, a fair comparison. But they also recall the Clash’s shout-along style, a resemblance punched up by Doyle’s martial drum tattoos. Essentially, the Violets play first-album British rock, evoking the early moves of everyone from the Who to the Arctic Monkeys.
Can such a group make a credible second album? Impossible to guess, but at this gig Palma Violets proved themselves the kind of people who know how to have fun.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.