Catchy, clever and relentlessly exciting, the Sydney punks' second album demands mainstream attention
There’s a 2011 live video in which Royal Headache’s gangly, hawk-eyed frontman Shogun laments the fact he’s got to work in a call centre the next day. “Fuck, man,” he sighs, loathing himself. Four years later and he’s still manning the phones there.
Part of a select group featuring Milk Music and Sheer Mag, Royal Headache are one of those non-UK bands (they’re always non-UK) who have the ability to infuriate garage-rock fans. The Sydney four-piece are in the curious position of being an underground act who write songs so great that they demand mainstream attention. As a result, you get the impression that any kind of outside scrutiny leaves the band feeling mightily uneasy.
Their self-titled debut in 2011 was a succinct blast of skate-punk brilliance though, and is now a cult classic – bigged up by everyone from The Black Keys to Hookworms. At the heart of the record was Shogun. Here was an Oi! singer who somehow sounded as majestic as northern soul legend Dean Parrish. Here was a punk who had real, genuine soul. But Royal Headache’s unwillingness (or was it inability?) to get it together as a unit – they neither signed a conventional record deal or toured the record properly – meant that by 2013, it looked as though the group had ground to a halt completely; another guitar act with huge potential who’d missed their big chance.
It feels like a real fluke, then, to even be holding a copy of their second album, ‘High’. That it’s so exhilarating from start to finish is a total triumph. Gone is the bratty belligerence of their debut, replaced by a sound that’s more conventional and wizened. Yet it still remains exciting at all times, with each of its 10 songs frequently clever in their construction and relentlessly catchy in the choruses.
And let’s just take a breath there, because when, exactly, was the last time you could actually say that about a guitar album?
Reference points on ‘High’ are mostly British. While it will still please those who’ve stuck with the band since the start, we also get everything from latter-period Jam (the keys on opener ‘My Own Fantasy’ recall those on ‘Town Called Malice’) to early, pre-‘Definitely Maybe’ Oasis (‘Love Her If I Tried’ and ‘Little Star’ both sound unflinchingly positive and heavy – they are pure Gallagher as a result). Best of all are the middle duo of ‘Wouldn’t You Know’, a fine approximation of Parrish’s genius, and ‘Garbage’, which is by far and away The Best Guitar Song Of 2015.
Lazy, slow and with an aggressive strut that recalls ‘Submission’ by the Sex Pistols, it features a brazenly venomous, English-sounding vocal from Shogun, and lyrics which – like practically every classic punk track from ‘Pretty Vacant’ to ‘I Am The Fly’ – look utterly banal on paper, but sound as important as The 10 Commandments when played at full volume. “You’re as low as they come/You’re not punk/You’re just scum” nags the chorus, gleefully. It’s followed by a declaration of “You belong in the garbage/You belong in the traa-ee-aaash” on which Shogun sounds more Rotten than Johnny himself these days. Then he delivers the punchline: “You deserve to get bashed/BASHED!”. Sung with sheer nihilism, it might just be the funniest putdown of the year – although the postscript comes a close second: “Break your back/You belong on smack/You belong down in Melbourne/You belong at the art factory”.
Elsewhere, ‘Need You’ and ‘Another World’ offer a glimpse into what might have become of The Smiths had Johnny Marr been into The Dead Kennedys rather than The Gun Club and T-Rex, and prove that even when they simplify things, Royal Headache are still a heady proposition. Only on closer ‘Electric Shock’ do they return to their more hardcore beginnings, partly in an effort to prove to themselves they can still do it, you presume. But that’s beside the point, which is that this music – three chords, guitars, bass and drums – doesn’t need to be overcooked or watered down to come across as authentic.
That’s the overbearing message here, and 12 months ago nobody in the world would have expected Royal Headache to be the ones delivering it – least of all the fans who actually knew about them in the first place. But with ‘High’, they’ve recorded an almost perfect 30 minutes of indie-punk. There’s no flabbiness, no million-dollar production that adds nothing to the songs, no bloated guitar lines or pointless drum fills and nothing that even comes close to seeming in any way meaningless. They’re too good a band to let slip away again.