According to legend, everyone who heard The Minutemen’s “History Lesson, Pt. 2” in 1984 reacted the same way people did after seeing The Sex Pistols play Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. That is, they made like the 10,000 folks who’d purchased The Velvet Underground & Nico in 1967 and formed bands of their own.
Such is the promise of punk: Given the proper push, any idiot with a guitar and the will to be heard can make rock ’n’ roll. Unfortunately, it takes a certain kind of idiot to make transcendent rock ’n’ roll. Learning bar chords in the basement won’t give you Lou Reed’s icy street-poet cool, Johnny Rotten’s wild-eyed charisma, or even Mike Watt and D. Boon’s musical inventiveness.
Art Brut frontman Eddie Argos possesses none of these things—nor does he have Morrissey’s wryness, Joey Ramone’s mutant charm, Joe Strummer’s righteousness, or Kurt Cobain’s mesmerizing malaise. A loudmouthed lead talker with okay style and a totally attainable physique, Argos is the ultimate rock ’n’ roll everyman. On his band’s 2005 debut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll, he makes DIY seem really, really doable.
“Look at us—we formed a band!” Argos shouts on the leadoff track, “Formed A Band.” The performance is deliriously exuberant, like the U.K. quintet is bashing away in the bedroom of the party where its members have just met. In fact, Argos did start the group in such a fashion, approaching rhythm guitarist Chris Chinchilla one evening and telling him how he wanted to appear on Top Of The Pops. “I got so drunk and frustrated that I started lying and saying that I could sing like Aretha Franklin,” Argos told Rolling Stone.
On “Formed A Band,” the joy and relief that must have followed that desperation hit like tequila shots. Growing up in Dorset, Argos followed the music charts like other boys did football, and although his tastes tended toward the indie-pop bands found on Snakebite City compilations, he longed to be a star. Not because he was particularly smart or good-looking or skilled as a singer—he wasn’t any of these things—but because rock ’n’ roll is fun, and what else are you going to do? So he intentionally failed his O-level exams and moved to London to give it a go.
In the second verse, Argos says Art Brut is “gonna be the band that writes the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along.” They’re also going to pen a tune “as universal as happy birthday”—one that “makes sure everybody knows that everything is going to be okay.” Whether he’s talking about a single world-saving song or two different ones is unclear. What’s certain is that Argos is spewing both truth and BS. He’s making fun of himself for believing this passionately in the power of music.
That belief is what makes Bang Bang Rock & Roll transcend its guy-talking-over-loud-guitars gimmick. As this bigmouth strikes again and again, prattling on about his teenage girlfriend (“Emily Kane”), his malfunctioning junk (“Rusted Guns Of Milan”), and the charge he gets from looking at a Matisse (“Modern Art”), Argos makes Art Brut’s mid-’00s post-Libertines lad-rock sound more exciting than it actually is. He does this not with talent or above-average cleverness, but with pure guilelessness.
“I’m trying to be direct,” Argos told the Chicago Tribune in 2006. “I’m coming from the heart.” The reason he stressed that point in so many interviews—and in “Formed A Band,” where he insists “This is not irony”—is that everyone figured he was having a laugh. These were the days of The Electric Six and The Darkness, when overblown rock bravado was very much a thing, and it was hard to know who was being serious.
But there ought not have been any uncertainty where Bang Bang Rock & Roll was concerned. On “Good Weekend,” when Argos celebrates the thrill of having a new girlfriend by exclaiming, “I’ve seen her naked—twice!” he sounds as surprised by this turn of events as we’re supposed to be. Two songs earlier, he was trying to coax an erection by paraphrasing The Little Engine That Could. He shares his humiliations just as readily as his triumphs.
On the title track, Argos risks coming across as unsympathetic by going on the attack. “I can’t stand the Velvet Underground,” he says, sounding more like idol-smashing Johnny Rotten than the lovable loser of the album’s first half. “I can’t stand that sound the second time around.” As it turns out, Argos wasn’t being pompous—just calling BS on rockers cooler than him. “I love the Velvet Underground, but got sick of bands turning the Velvet Underground into a cliche,” he told Chicago Tribune. “Like The Strokes are as good as the Velvet Underground cause they walk around taking drugs and wearing sunglasses? It’s quite liberating being a rock band singing, ‘I can’t stand the Velvet Underground.’ It’s like blaspheming in church.”
Argos’ honesty and everyday subject matter have earned him comparisons to Jonathan Richman, who he cites as one of his main influences. There are definite similarities, but Richman is more like Reed and Rotten than he lets on. Those early Modern Lovers songs about driving past the Stop & Shop and loving 1950s apartment houses never sound like the ramblings of someone you could actually sit down and have a normal conversation with. To this day, Richman’s concerts have the bizarre feel of a guy impersonating a precocious kid putting on a show for grown-ups.
When Argos took the stage with Art Brut circa 2006, there was none of that artifice—even when the lifelong comic-book fanboy would begin songs like a superhero assembling his squad: “Ready, Art Brut?” A better comparison is The Hold Steady, who Art Brut toured with in 2007. Both bands feature a frontman whose quippy barking is the main attraction, but beyond that sonic similarity and the genuine love of rock ’n’ roll that radiates from both groups, they don’t share a whole lot in common.
On the first few Hold Steady records, Almost Killed Me (2004) and Separation Sunday (2005), leader Craig Finn weaves complex stories about drugged-out kids seeking redemption in sketchy church groups and local punk scenes. Finn approaches songwriting like an over-caffeinated novelist too excited by his many ideas to tell a coherent story. Argos is a diarist at best—a guy who blurts out whatever’s on his mind.
One of the funniest tracks on Bang Bang Rock & Roll is “Moving To L.A.,” a soggy Englishman’s daydream about life in sunny Southern California. But that’s all it is—a daydream. “I’m considering a move to L.A.,” Argos sings, emphasizing the word “considering,” since it speaks to the hesitation and over-thinking that will probably prevent him from taking the leap. “He’s considering a move to L.A.,” go the backing vocals, sounding like not even his bandmates really believe Argos will end up riding a Harley up and down the Strip, much less “drinking Hennessy with Morrissey.”
In those early days, when Art Brut was making its first trips to America, the extent to which Argos inspired others to take up instruments became his claim to fame. The band had the idea of starting “franchises,” and through word-of-mouth and online postings, Argos got hundreds of kids all over the world to form Art Brut offshoots. These weren’t tribute acts, but rather groups of young hopefuls who’d heard Argos spout lines like “Popular culture no longer applies to me” and figured that they, too, could set their nerdishness to music.
“You know when you see a band playing for the first time, everyone pulls together, the bass player’s singing without a mike,” Argos told The Independent. “I liked that. I wanted people to make bands,” making it a bit of rock poetic justice that Art Brut would inspire its fans to make bands of their own.