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Freedom Rock 

San Francisco's Mensclub leads the sexual devolution

Wednesday, Jan 17 1996
Inadvertently, the hippie ideal of "free love" fostered rampant confusion over sex in rock music. In the immediate aftermath of burning bras and rising hemlines, rock stars of the 1970s like Steven Tyler and Paul Rodgers were deluded into thinking that chicks dug them unconditionally. In response to such unseemly rutting, a new generation of guitar-wielders backpedaled furiously, professing androgyny (New York Dolls), pansexuality (David Bowie), abstinence (David Byrne), or utter revulsion (Devo).

The San Francisco rock trio Mensclub is a throwback to the cusp of the sexual devolution -- to a time before things turned ugly, when bare skin was still playful, not threatening. All in their late 20s, these guys have seen the '70s revival come and go, but they're still wearing striped tank tops and unruly sideburns. For inspiration, Mensclub looks to rock's "heavy" phase, that is, MC5, Foghat, ZZ Top, the 2-ton boogie of Black Sabbath, and, most especially, their patron saints Grand Funk Railroad -- "before they had a keyboardist," guitarist Aaron Nudelman stresses.

Outwardly, Mensclub exhibits a crotch-centricity that embodies Neanderthalism for the PC crowd. "This place needs a woman's touch," Nudelman proclaims in the song "Comin'." "Chicks rule! Wear something sexy." While some might cry foul at such mannish-boy lyrics (and does the rock world really need a guy-liberation movement?), the Mensclubbers see their attitude as nothing more nor less than self-expression. Drummer Tom Galbraith has a name for this worldview: "Freedom rock."

"Before the band was even in existence," Nudelman says, "we had the concept of the Grand Funk Mensclub." This semifictional creation is a place, he says, "where you tend to take your shirt off, where I can say what I want, and no one's buggin' me about it."

Most important, Mensclub members are united in their reverence for "heavy shit." "People don't know," Galbraith says, "but Grand Funk the Early Years is almost like the lost, best, greatest band ever." (Coincidentally, Grand Funk's entire back catalog is currently being reissued by Capitol.)

With their own music, the three charter members of Mensclub are aiming to make their sonic forefathers proud. Although they're not exactly a hot commodity yet, even in their hometown (they played Slim's for the first time last weekend, opening for Protein), they've already finished recording their soon-to-be-released debut Comin' to Take You Away for the New Jersey-based Bar/None Records.

Nudelman says that Bar/None responded enthusiastically to a mailing of one of the group's three singles, "Fresh Start." The 7-inch included the songs "Leather Uppers" and "Ass, Gas or Grass" ("no one rides for free"), both of which have been rerecorded for the debut. Bar/None, says an admiring Nudelman, "actually opened up the envelope and listened to the damn single. And they just dug it when they heard it."

The group is trying to maintain a realistic outlook about its sudden fortune. "We don't expect a whole shitload," Galbraith says, other than "a couple of good publicists, maybe a little dough, and some distribution. Expect any more than that and you're just wishing yourself into a well." Though they do hold out hope that they'll garner some airplay, they're not sure their raw, anachronistic sound is radio-ready. "Everything [today] has to have a certain sonic level that we did not strive to achieve," Galbraith admits. Radio programmers, he suggests, "don't know what people want, they just guess. People want freedom rock, and they don't get it. They get fuckin' stopwatch rock."

Though Mensclub seems drawn to adult themes like sex and drugs, its buoyant "let it all hang out" attitude is squarely rooted in a Laugh-In-like adolescence. In fact, Nudelman and bassist John Blackwell conceived of Mensclub while they were playing together in a "children's rock band" called Tummy, with keyboards, a pair of female singers, and drummer Martyn Jones, now of the Mermen.

"It was a serious endeavor for a while," Nudelman says. "Our objective was to have a band that really does rock, but quiet enough so you could play in a room full of 5-year-olds." He sees little difference in the message put forth by his two bands: "Just have fun, if you can," he says. "That's all you can really tell a kid."

Mensclub's carefree aesthetic is laid out midway through the goofy anthem "Men's Club Day Off," as Blackwell sounds off the group's battle cry. "Bust out the Frisbees and Nerf footballs," he hollers as the trio launches into a run-through of the Yardbirds' "Train Kept a Rollin'," "and don't forget the cold brewskis!" Further evidence of Mensclub's frivolity can be found in its songs about "Beaker," the group's "favorite Muppet," while the martial-drum lead-in to "Dream Deceivers" provides an unmistakable allusion to Spinal Tap.

The group trotted out that early single at its Slim's show, where Galbraith's lefty drum-bashing provided a delirious foundation for Nudelman's wah-wah guitar and Blackwell's determined, funky bass-playing. Late in their set, Nudelman strained himself while executing a Hendrix-style knee-slide, a gaffe more suited to the stages of the Nightbreak or El Rio, where the group plays regularly, than to the more professional confines of Slim's. Depending on how well received the Bar/None release is, Mensclub may need to polish its act for larger venues. Arenas, even.

About The Author

James Sullivan


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