It’s probably a no-brainer that one of the first completely here, queer, and loving it punk bands was from San Francisco. When Pansy Division formed in 1991, they fused a Californian version of Ramones-ified power pop with a very clear love for British punk, especially The Buzzcocks, and topped it with lyrics that were, well, totally gay. Such a combination could easily run thin quickly. But whatever novelty potential the band had was quickly overshadowed by their songs, which treated the experience of being an out (and horny!) gay male in America with candor, humor, and sometimes brutal honesty. The lyrics to “Anthem,” off their first album, served as a sort of mission statement:
We’re here to tell you, ya better make way
We’re queer rockers in your face today
We can’t relate to Judy Garland
It’s a new generation of music calling
We’re the buttfuckers of rock and roll
We wanna sock it to your hole
With loud guitars, we’re gay and proud
We gonna get ya with your pants down
Between 1993 and 1998, Pansy Division released six albums in this vein on the Lookout! label, albums that helped define that now legendary label’s ’90s-era sound. Like label-mates Green Day and Screeching Weasel, Pansy Division relied on fast tempos, trashy guitars, and a knack for big pop hooks tied to snotnosed lyrics. By 1994, the band was supporting Green Day on national tours, and became de facto poster children for the nascent queercore movement. They have since jumped to Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, where they released their seventh album in 2003.
The new Essential Pansy Division, out now on Alternative Tentacles, is a witty, thoughtful, and often profane thirty-song stroll through the band’s career. The running order jumbles up songs from all seven of their studio albums, so that 1993′s “Fem in a Black Leather Jacket” sits next to “Who Treats You Right” from 2003′s Entertainment. I would like to kvetch, because I’m a kvetch and a pisher besides, that ordering the tracks in this way obscures the band’s musical and conceptual growth, but that isn’t really true. Like the Ramones before them, Pansy Division have not really changed their modus operandi in fifteen years, preferring to refine and embellish a winning formula.
Have they matured musically? Well, “He Whipped My Ass In Tennis (Then I Fucked His Ass In Bed)” is no more or less hooky than “Cocksucker Club,” recorded a good dozen years before. Have they matured lyrically? Well, if you consider a song about circle jerking called “Alpine Skiing” an improvement over the older “Groovy Underwear,” then sure. But what is really striking is that Pansy Division have been models of consistency throughout their career. Individual songs may be a little stronger or weaker, but they have found a winning formula that works for them, and it’s a good one.
What makes Pansy Division more than just a very gay Barenaked Ladies, though, are the deep songs. Right in there with all the endless dicks (viz. “Dick of Death,” “Touch My Joe Camel,” “Horny In The Morning”) are a few songs that hit with an ugly punch. “Denny” is about a porn actor from before the days when they knew about AIDS:
Denny picked me up, Denny did me
He’s got a tattoo of his dick on his belly
It was double vision disorienting
Denny’s kind of a dorky fella
Denny’s dramatic, Denny’s dark
He ain’t nothing like the restaurant
He’s got HIV+ tattooed in black
In 6 inch letters on his back
He said, “I want them to see
What they’ve done to me.”
“Deep Water” is written from the point of view of some anonymous kid tortured with guilt and repression and waiting for the day he can leave home. “I Really Wanted You” is a bittersweet song about an old crush getting married (to a woman, presumably). On a lighter note, the jaunty “No Protection” is about shooting down a guy who wants to ride bareback, sung through a vocoder (like what Cher used on “I Believe”) over a disco beat. Songs like these deepen and complicate the bouncy, happy sex romp that Pansy Division normally sings about, and coming as they do between songs about blowjobs, they pack surprising power.
In closing, I have to say that I am so used to hearing boy-meets-girl songs, hetero-themed get-it-on songs, and the like, that listening to thirty gay-themed punk songs in a row induces a little bit of vertigo. It’s not just a simple matter of Pansy Division swapping out “dick” for “pussy” in their lyrics; the differences are deeper, fundamentally cultural. If you’ve ever spent more than a few days in England, you’ll know what I mean when I say that it’s the little things that are the most surprising. People look the other way before crossing the street. Bar etiquette is different. Standing in line is different. The money is funny colors. Every where you turn there’s people speaking a language that you understand, but saying things that you have to think a little about to really comprehend.
Although my days of listening to Pansy Division albums ended about the time I graduated college and no longer had access to everyone in the dorm’s record collection (ten frigging years ago!), which means I’m not completely up on what the kids are listening to these days, I can say for sure that The Essential Pansy Division is a well put together compilation, perfect for the gay nephew, homophobic uncle, or SoCal punk fan in your life. Also included is a DVD disc of live performances, TV appearances, and videos that, though inessential, do make this the only Pansy Division album you will ever need to buy.