The Hives : London WC1 Astoria

Just about as rock 'n' roll as it gets...

Consider this about [a]Hives[/a]. At the end of the all-too-brief encore, the whole band – that’s rubber-hipped singer Howlin’ Pelle, Swiss-precision drummer Chris Dangerous, unstoppable guitarists Nicholaus Arson and Vigelante Carlstroem and cartoon bassist Matt Destruction – saunter to the front of the stage together. They’ve just torn through ‘AKAIDIOT’ in a fit of ramalama pique, the drumkit is shattered, the floor is drenched. Everybody’s beaming at them. Their stage dressing – a big capital ‘H’ made of fairy lights – twinkles prettily above. The Hives look, for a second, like they might be about to link arms and take a big end-of-panto bow. Theirs has been terrific theatre: five hyperactive Swedish men in all-black suits and all-white guitars playing the role of the best American rock ‘n’ roll band ever. But they don’t bow. They face us off. One rubs his knuckles. Stony-eyed, they stare down the adoring crowd for a full minute before strolling scornfully offstage. Whoa.

The Hives are amazing. On so many levels. On tunes like ‘I Hate To Say I Told You So’ or ‘Main Offender’ they siphon off the rock fuel of the ’50s, ’60’s and ’70s into a shiny new garagepunk’n’roll hot rod, and just drive. And this is why a frenzied Sunday night crowd at the Astoria (upgraded from the Mean Fiddler) loves them. They are undoubtedly the tightest band to ever plug in guitars. Howlin’ Pelle, their sublime frontman, is a deranged young Mick Jagger with fire ants running up his drainpipes and The Ramones never off his stereo. These are rear-viewing times, where all our new favourite bands have their heads buried in rock’s archives. And so The Hives’ brand new retro vaudeville punk makes them 2001’s latest brilliant reanimators.

They are also the year’s most problematic. The Hives’ very wonderfulness – the way they bruise the air with their guitars, make us scream their names – begs certain questions. If it’s theatre, can it be rock ‘n’ roll? If it’s funny – and The Hives are very funny – can it be heartfelt? If it’s choreographed – as when The Hives freeze in perfect rock poses for an entire minute towards the end of ‘Main Offender’, before reigniting – can it be (and here’s a retro phrase for you) 4 Real?

It seems churlish to even go here, such is The Hives’ marvellousness. But a band of knowing Swedish showmen who were assembled into a hit-making unit as teenagers by a svengali called – yes – Randy Fitzsimmons raise those sorts of eyebrows. Jack White and at least have American passports in their defence. The Hives just have their hours and hours of rehearsal time, and a passion for what they call “PUNKROCK MUSIC AVEC KABOOM”.

And that’ll do us. No one sane would bother becoming this perfect a rock ‘n’ roll pastiche if they didn’t love it with every atom of their being. Their current album, ‘Your New Favourite Band’, is a compilation: The Hives have loads more party music at home, each record more rocking than the sublimely-named first (‘Oh Lord! When? How?’). They seem like a novelty act, but they are not.

And so when The Hives stare down their audience off at the end, surly in the face of utter triumph, it’s the last great act of a fantastic performance. And something else. “Fuck you too, you little man,” is Howlin’ Pelle’s very amusing snub to his foolish hecklers tonight. But his band’s peerless five-man black-suited sweat-drenched silent ‘fuck you’ to hundreds of new fans is just about as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets.

Kitty Empire