STIFF STUFF Lene Lovich: one in a million people (in the true sense)

Joe's Pub, New York, September 12, 2005

The event
So, the clouds parted between the U.K. and U.S. and the legendary former Stiff Records recording artist Lene Lovich, a B (or A, depending on where you're at) queen of a new (still) kind of new wave-punk-no wave subpop (in the true sense of the word, not the brand) that flourished under the radar in the late 1970s/early 1980s played a rare show in the States. Lene was one of a number (not a million) of highly eccentric women musicians in that scene who did not fit into any neat category of music, no matter how hard you tried to classify them. She is often compared to, but not quite like Poly Styrene, Siouxsie, the Raincoats, and Nina Hagen. Along with another label mate, Rachel Sweet, the now defunct infamous Stiff Records label - "If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a fuck" - was known for straight-up, quirky, and never boring, spell-binding artists who didn't get regular radio airplay. The Stiff women had strong public images, and lyrics and personalities that did not rely on skimpy outfits. Now on the New York-based label, the Stereo Society, Lene's new record seems to seamlessly pick up where she left off in the early 1980s. A mother of two girls who are now grown, Lene is spending more time on her music, to the delight of her devoted fans.

The scene
You could feel how highly anticipated Lene's show was by the buzz in the line out the door of Joe's Pub. You couldn't help but feel "in the know" - I mean, really in the know. Like, what in-the-know meant before secret clubs became the norm, scattered throughout Chelsea and Williamsburg. I bought my ticket online weeks ahead of time and I jittered while I did it. It felt weird, because Lene symbolizes so much about the true DIY style when it was just beginning. Buying a ticket for a Lene Lovich show with a credit card. It just seemed like an oxymoron. The show was sold out and packed with gay guys who knew every single word of the old songs - they must have been Bowie types in the 1970s.

The crowd was also sprinkled with punk women musicians (I saw Bitch of former Bitch & Animal fame), in-the-know-downtown-crowd-with-heavy-black-horn-rimmed-glasses-who-were-there-before- you-were-so-don't-even-think-about-it-types, one perfect 21-year-old replica of Lene in her heyday (with the two high braids), and her mother, both from Long Island. My companion and I heard them talking as they were going home to Long Island after the show and it turned out the mom was a big fan. Yeah, there were a few annoying Williamsburg hipsters, looking uncomfortable with this no poseurs crowd. It felt like a working-class crowd of real New Yorkers (if there is such a thing anymore), who were knowledgeable about the music. It felt like the 1980s. It was sort of a surreal scene. Lene is this spectacular character, and even though her crowd looked tame, underneath they were it’s-another-story kind of crowd. Many looked like they saw Lene's early shows in New York; the audience just had that feeling. There was one perfectly "normal" suburbs-business-looking-man standing next to me, who knew all Lene's old songs by heart - even more than the young Lene look-alike with neo-goth attire, looking just like Lene on her 1979 Stiff Records Stateless album.

The review
I was crossing my fingers for Lene to play her greatest hits, and then I realized that I have no proof as to what her greatest hits are! I always thought several of the songs from Stateless were timeless classics: "One in Million People," "Momentary Breakdown," and "I Think We're Alone Now" which is the weirdest, outer space-sounding remake of that classic song - you'll feel like you're on the moon. OOOOOOOOHHH! Only the most experimental artist in the true sense of the word would interpret "I Think We're Alone Now" to quite literally feel like being in outer space. It renders Tiffany's cover laughable and the 1960s original as a behaved, tame tune of two teens in the back of a diner sharing a banana split.

Many of her songs were from her new disc, Shadows and Dust. They were giving away free Shadows and Dust promo posters of a spacey-looking Lene in a glittery, wide-eyed stare. Lene is known for her hard open-eyed look, and geometric movement on stage. Her album covers were graphic art in the true sense of the word - often incorporating a Man Ray or Dali-esqe feel. Her Flex album's insert featured old-school scientific-looking diagrams.

Lene's new songs from Shadows and Dust sound heavier, more guitar-y and reminiscent of early Cocteau Twins and Curve. The lyrics continue to be philosophical and irreverent. There's a song about an insect eater, and others called "Gothica," "Wicked Witch," and "Ghost Story." The synth sound is still there, but there’s a deeper, lower, driving guitar-ish sound and a more belabored vocal style. It's still exciting, it's just a slightly different growth and direction. What's somewhat gone is the poppy keyboard-ish and marching band "space out" sound that was consistent on Stateless, No Man's Land, and Flex from the late 1970s/early 1980s. (Those are the only three albums I have of Lene's; I never was able to acquire March or the one EP she did.)

Lene is the true goth. Not the phony-manufactured, marketable post-Nine Inch Nails kind, but the true mix of goth, punk, synth-techno and supreme originality. Her presence, outfit, and music the night of her show were no exception. She was dressed in what could only be described as a more black-clad Cyndi Lauper meets Siouxsie meets a dash of 1980s, but not because that decade is cool now. She had a layered look with a purple shirt/blazer with big buttons and sparkly high-top sneakers, along with her trademark two braids and a multi-colored head wrap. The lighting made her clothes seem like they were different shades of blue, purple, red, and green. Her movements were marching-geometric-performative, a la Diamanda Galas, but with more earthiness.

She smiled in between songs, chatted with the audience and moved her arms in front of her as if she was going to swim toward you in a wide-eyed, no-goggles breaststroke. She made it seem like she was singing to you only, and you felt like you were the only one. Her maturity was alluring. Her longtime musical collaborator/husband, Les Chappell, was still there, playing keyboards and guitar and sort of faded into the background even though you knew he was there. The crowd sang along to many of the songs, including her 1979 hit "Lucky Number" and "Home." I even wondered if some of the crowd had already gotten her new CD because it seemed like they knew the words to them too, solidly rocking their heads as if this was a heavy metal show. Yes, there was extra-long applause and more than one encore.

The background
I discovered Lene - literally - in the record bins of a tiny, but fabulous record store - in small-town Erie, PA where I spent a few years adrift in the mid-1990s. I was involved in the punk, experimental, etc. scene in my 20s in the 1990s, but no one ever told me about Lene Lovich. When I came across her albums, I was hooked. It felt like I discovered something secret, serious, and very cool. The songs from her Stiff albums had this eerie sound that had no contemporaries, then or today, even though she was a definite trailblazer for alternative women musicians. If you listen to the albums, they don't always sound dated. There's a slight disco and reggae sound on some of the songs, but it's always mixed with a new wave synth. They sound like children's Halloween songs sped up at a marching band tempo mixed with some punk. Sometimes you think the record is skipping, but it's not. On other tunes, under the surface is a Casablanca-esque, even country feel, with an ominous tone that feels like it is foreshadowing the future.

Lene now has a webpage on her Stereo Society label's website and it's a great source for information about her, upcoming shows, and significant reviews and interviews over the years. Some descriptions of Lene's style from that site - "Lene proved goth could be fun," "gleefully off kilter," "brilliantly giddy crush of goofy goth and rubbery funk" - are some of the better nuggets.

Though she's often thought of as from the U.K., Lene was actually born in the U.S. in Detroit as Marlene Premilovich to a British mother and Yugoslavian father. Her parents divorced when she was 13, and she moved to Britain with her mom. She went to art school in London where she met Chappell. At art school she studied sculpture, and after that, she began her start in music, spending several years singing in hotel bands. She then spent a short time in a band called the Diversions with Chappell. Then she went solo, and her first two singles, "I Think We're Alone Now," and "Lucky Number" were released by Stiff. She also starred in a French TV film called "Rock" with Nina Hagen. She's active in PETA and animal rights causes and, also with Hagen, recorded the fundraising single "Don't Kill the Animals." Once, when she was a teen, she was thrown out of a pub for playing Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" six times on the jukebox.

- SM Gray

Sources for Lene Lovich information for this article:
She's A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll, by Gillian G. Gaar, Seal Press, 1992, pgs. 247-250

SM Gray is a writer, prose poet and filmmaker based in Flushing, Queens, NYC. Her next contribution will most likely be on the other Stiff Records queen, Rachel "Who Does Lisa Like?" Sweet.