It may be important to never try to define what punk rock is, but it’s hard not to attach all the generally agreed-upon elements of punk’s aesthetic to the Vibrators’ debut album Pure Mania. To look at the cover is to know what the album is. It exudes snot in every way short of actually spitting on you. Cutout photos of young musicians in tight jeans, animal prints, and attitude fill the back of the sleeve. What will for the band become an iconic V takes up most of the space on the cover. The color scheme is the familiar black, white, pink, and leopard. The album has the magical 1977 release date on the back. The Vibrators have the additional cachet of having languished in relative obscurity: they created an awesome document of ’77-style angst, but only punks and records nerds are in on it. And we love our secrets. Pure Mania was released 35 years ago, making the record fully eligible for occasional reprints. But Pure Mania is not likely to be in your parents’ attic unless they were very tuned-in. The band went on to release a second album, V2, which contained a predominance of memorable tunes, including “Troops of Tomorrow,” a song better known as having been later recorded by the Exploited. My casual knowledge was that the band had released a handful of albums after that, but I was shocked to discover, thanks to their website, they have been playing consistently for most of the 35 years since Pure Mania was released. So we can’t quite call their recent gig at Union Hall a comeback.
The band has released more than 10 albums, as well as loads of compilations that generally only mix songs from the first two albums and early singles. And the set list at Union Hall stayed in the same 1977–1980 era for the most part. In recent years the band has released two albums of cover versions of punk and garage material; these songs were lightly peppered into the Union Hall set, none of which translated much beyond karaoke save for a really excellent version of the Members’ “The Sound of the Suburbs.” “Amphetamine Blue” is a recognizable head-nodder from the band’s fourth album that read well at the show. But the set list seldom reached into material from beyond those first two records, and it seemed apparent that that was what the audience had come to hear. The crowd danced energetically to a subpar version of “Troops of Tomorrow” and a very satisfying version of “Automatic Lover.”
It would be easy to say that the uneven set could have been an off-night for the punk veterans. But to say time or touring had been hard on the original members of the band would be inaccurate. It was more the lack of actual Vibrators on the scene that made the show such a leaky boat. Drummer John “Eddie” Edwards was the only original band member in attendance at the Union Hall show. There is no question in my mind that Mr. Edwards has earned the right to make a living as a punk rocker, but with the singer absent, it was difficult for a group of 60-plus-year-old men to reconstruct the band’s original teenage angst. Filling in on guitar and vocals was Members member Nigel Bennett, perhaps explaining why “Sound of the Suburbs” sounded so good. The Bennett filter was hard to overcome for a band that once had such a distinct vocal imprint. I tend to squint when watching elderly bands play: I’m not being ageist; I still identify as a punk well past my teens. But when you’re paying $15 to see a band, the test is this: If you cross your eyes or avoid looking directly into the band, does it sound like them? My blurry version of the Vibrators that night was not very on. Bennett’s vocals added a pub-rock feel to Vibrators standards like “London Girls,” “Pure Mania,” and “I Need a Slave.” The pub-ifying of Vibrators songs was entertaining enough at times, but there were moments when it crashed. “Sweet Sweet Heart” sounded particularly disturbing emanating from the mouth of a senior punk wearing cutoff sleeves and playing a Gibson Flying V. The encore arrived with half the sparse crowd already heading for the door, but those who came back in were treated to an unremarkable cover of “Shakin’ All Over” that was saved by a rousing version of the band’s classic “Yeah Yeah Yeah” to round out the set. “Yeah Yeah Yeah” had left a good taste in my mouth for the show when a more telling moment occurred. Immediately after the last chord rang out, Mr. Edwards brought his sweating self to the front of the room to sell t-shirts and represses of Pure Mania and V2. Knowing I could not in good conscience write an entirely glowing review of the show, I hung my head while buying a copy of V2. I hated myself for being a two-bit writer forced to judge a road warrior of Edwards’s stature. I was ashamed that I didn’t like the show better. But no matter how uneven the performance was, I’d still be psyched to have lived his life.