by Maria Schurr
Ian Svenonius is basically one of the greatest people ever. If you need me to back that statement up, here are just some of the things he’s done: fronted one of D.C.’s finest hardcore bands, The Nation of Ulysses; fronted one of the most underrated acts of the ‘90s, The Make-Up; hosted a talk show that was amazing despite being aired on Vice.com; wrote two mind-bogglingly amazing, intelligent, and amusing books; and, most importantly served as Sassy magazine’s Sassiest Boy in America in 1990, a contest he entered to “indoctrinate youth gone astray.” That someone who is so clever in attacking the things we’re told to believe in and obey was chosen as Mr. Perfect for a teen girl magazine is endlessly inspiring. It may not have made Ian Svenonius a household name, but it sent the message that even the most leftist contrarian can have his moment to shine.
It’s 25 years later and Svenonius is still proselytizing with plenty of sass in tact. The medium he’s channeling his messages through is now Chain and the Gang, a garage rock band that’s maybe a little bit of a parody of a garage rock band but still has an array of fantastic tunes. And they sound flawless live: I saw the band at Baby’s All Right with the other greatest person in the world, the not easily impressed James Veda Rays, who was wowed by the guitar and bass tones of Francy Graham and Anna Nasty, respectively.
Although Baby’s was uncomfortably packed (and gave off a real “party supermarket” vibe, according to James Veda), the night’s undesirable aspects were soon overruled by the mod-garage spunk of Svenonius and co., decked out in matching suits with very big stripes. It was a show where banter and performance were just as important as the songs and Svenonius had a lot to tell us about what and who we shouldn’t trust. A brilliant observation, so brilliant you don’t need any precursor for it, was Svenonius’ exclamation, “I’m not talking about the Eastern Bloc, I’m talking about Yelp!”
He also had a lot of dancing to do, mostly in a way that looked a little bit like The Monkey, but less controlled.There were also more than a few high kicks, many screams -- a constant in Svenonius’ vocal repertoire -- and a few occasions of singing in the audience; with thanks to his impressive coiffure, Svenonius’ whereabouts were always easily discernable.
The standout of the show was “Mum’s the Word,” which Svenonius paused halfway through to tell us not to give our personal information to any and all manner of higher authority: “If the bouncer asks you what color your eyes are, tell them, ‘I’m standing right here, why don’t you look at them?’ If someone asks for your personal identification say, ‘that’s mutable.’ If someone picks you up at the bar...that’s cool.” As Svenonius told us not to give out personal information to our boss, our landlord, the government, etc., Francy and Anna posed back to back, looking effortlessly cool while sharing a few words with drummer Fiona Campbell.
With or without banter, certain Chain and the Gang songs slay in a live setting. Chief among them is “Devitalize,” which felt especially relevant in Baby’s almost grotesquely gentrified location. It’s basically a song about restaking the city as a dangerous, dirty place, not a haven where the middle class live in easy access to all the artisanal hoo haw they could ever need. For a less rockin’ yet brilliantly honed take on a similar subject, see Svenonius’ essay “Seinfeld Syndrome,” which appears in his book The Psychic Soviet and basically argues that Seinfeld was designed to make NYC appear safe to the middle class.
Shortly before launching into final song “Detroit Music,” Svenonius referred to Chain and the Gang as “that band that doesn’t change. All you journalists looking for an arc, give up ‘cos we’ve got none.” But when you’re already operating on such a high level of intellect and entertainment, why change? In this day and age where intelligence and creativity feels like it’s eroding, we need what Ian Svenonius is bringing more than ever. So thank god it’s served in such an endlessly satisfying way.