By Liz Tracy
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It's a recent Saturday night, and as the band sets up at Club M in Hollywood, there's a definite party vibe in the air. Flaunting her assets in a blood-red prom dress, a blond-locked musician wraps a feather boa around her mic stand. Another, in a red-on-black suit-and-tie combo, slides a cold beer into the koozie attached to his. So when they tear into provocative, power-pop tunes about the Iraq War and the Social Security crisis, their political angle comes as a surprise. And it works. If you think more talk means less rock, it's time you tune into the Friendly Fire Network -- the online home of Friendly Fire, Broward's newest glam-rock trio, political podcasters, and rock 'n' roll historians.
"Kids can only go back ten, maybe 15 years," drummer "Dirty" Dave Johns says about the local punk scene's short attention span. "They don't give a shit where this music came from, what the whole purpose was throughout different generations. But we always keep up with what younger bands are doing. We never want to short-change what is up and coming."
Dressed in a smart, white suit, with a black bowler atop his shoulder-length hair, the 23-year scene veteran looks like a rock 'n' roll Tom Wolfe. But Johns is no snob -- he really loves music, and he'll share his knowledge with anyone who'll listen.
During a recent show at Hollywood's Club M, Johns gave a much-needed schooling to Colin Ambulance of California's Plastic Letters, a young know-it-all who figured name-dropping bands older than his would establish some rock cred. Ambulance put himself in the hot seat by dissing South Florida's "boring" scene, so Johns took him to task with a pop quiz in rock history. The surprised Plastic Letter promptly failed.
"He kept talking about [late-'70s punk band] the Dead Boys, but when I mentioned their producer, Genya Ravan, he didn't know who she was," Johns says. Ravan may not be a household name, but her work with numerous rock icons makes her an important figure nonetheless -- one that Johns deemed worthy of tracking down for a conversation. "The guy's obviously never been to the Friendly Fire website; otherwise, he might have read my interview with her."
Sure enough, Johns' interview with Ravan is available for podcast on FriendlyFireNetwork.com, as are his conversations with power-pop pioneers and punk legends like the Records' Will Birch and Sham 69's Dave Parsons. With an unyielding passion for rock 'n' roll history, Johns is the professor emeritus at the local School of Rock -- minus the condescending attitude shared by most music buffs. Ditto for his band mates, Casey Cook (a.k.a., Stunner, guitar and vocals) and wife Kris (a.k.a., Kristal Van Hart or KVH, bass and backing vocals). All three are zealous about sharing their musical discoveries. Aside from Johns' on-line column, "Down and Dirty with Dirty Dave," Stunner shares his views in the "Stunn Zone," and Van Hart offers readers advice with "Dear KVH."
"Last New Year's Eve, we got together and brainstormed what to do with the website, how to take it to the next level," Stunner says, speaking in his cool, calm, yet passionate manner. "We wanted to transform it into a weekly magazine with columns, and we also had been kicking around the idea of doing a weekly radio show. We were looking for a new way to promote the band that was different from what other bands were doing."
As South Florida's premier political glam band (that's not a typo), the three Bush-bashing rockers couldn't make the radio show pure entertainment -- not when the country's in a furor and the president's on vacation. Taking a cue from Air Americaand The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Friendly Fire Radiousually kicks off with commentary on the latest political outrages -- from Karl Rove's loose lips to the quagmire in Iraq -- as well as amusing entertainment news bits (what's that Paris chick up to now?). Afterward, it's all rock 'n' roll, babe: The MP3 jockeys show you what's up in the underground, featuring songs by two or three new bands each week.
Stunner and company may have their sites set on the 'Net, but Friendly Fire isn't doomed to cyberspace. The band writes some of the catchiest rock tunes this side of Paul Stanley, and it lives for the stage. Friendly Fire's shows are high-energy, high-humor, and high-fashion. You won't catch them wearing T-shirts and cargo shorts on stage.
"We wanted to dress up and put on a bigger kind of show," Stunner explains. "The idea was that we'd become these characters -- this kind of cartoony, show-band idea. We figured we'd put some kind of stage show together and try to get jobs at the local gay bars like in [glam rock cult film] Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This was before we learned there was a whole scene down here into our type of music."
The type of glam that Friendly Fire espouses is not the bastardized '80s version peddled by the likes of Poison or Cinderella. This is the real deal, daddy-o, '70s-style glam meets power pop that pays equal homage to the New York Dolls and early Cheap Trick. It's flashy, irreverent, catchy as hell -- and fiercely political. In case you still equate glam with hair metal, read the lyrics to Friendly Fire's "Social Insecurity:"
"Stealing us blind like a kid in a candy store/Pickpocket president breaking in your piggy bank/We socked away all that money for a rainy day/They socked right back with a wink and a wank."
"The political angle is a big part of what motivates us," Stunner concedes. "I don't feel love songs. I don't want to write about 'boy chasing girl' or anything like that. And I like the juxtaposition of a serious message with a more comical delivery."
Indeed, whereas the more self-important political bands use the stage for tired sloganeering, Friendly Fire puts the rock first, making the message go down as smooth as scotch. Besides, it's hard to feel intimidated by a band that has the phrase "Glam me a beer!" tagged on the bass drum.
So in Friendly Fire's context, political glamis no oxymoron -- unlike the band's military misnomer of a name. But there is another, more used-up term the trio consciously avoids.
"The term punk rockhas been used and abused so much, so we chose glam," Johns says, noting the distance between the punk bands he grew up with (like the Dead Boys) and those who throw around the term today (like the ever-sappy Good Charlotte).
Johns should know. Each of the 23 safety pins affixed to his black necktie represents a different year he's been involved in the punk scene. That all started in 1982, when he played with the Abusers, who later morphed into the Rock City Angels, South Florida's almost-famous glam-metal group, which featured a young Johnny Depp. When Johns was in the Abusers, though, Depp played guitar in a poppy rock band called the Kids -- a band the Abusers loved to abuse.
"We used to heckle Johnny's band at shows," Johns recalls. "We thought they were poseurs -- real pretty boys. Of course, I had no idea he'd end up being a huge star."
It was sometime in 1992 when Johns met Stunner through a classified ad the guitarist placed in Rag magazine. They soon formed the Forsakers, a punk group that lasted only six months. The two remained involved in a few more similarly short-lived projects, one that introduced them to KVH, another that was a classic-rock cover band. After a year of grudgingly rehashing other people's tunes, Stunner was almost ready to hang up his ax for good.
A decade later, inspiration came in the form of a pudgy, over-excited rock'n' roll teacher. Johns and company saw Jack Black in School of Rock and found a new reason to keep on keepin' on -- and to form a new band. Friendly Fire's songs are shout-along rockers tailored to cut through the popular news media's incessant babble. There's no need to be a tribute band anymore: If Johns wants to give a history lesson, musical or otherwise, FriendlyFireNetwork.com reaches young minds from Aventura to Australia.
Stunner notes that updates to the network -- run from the living room of his Pompano Beach home to some 900 hits a day -- will come less frequently while the site undergoes a redesign. When the site fully bounces back this fall, Friendly Fire will have its debut CD, Left Right Uppercut, ready for consumption -- just in time for the East Coast tour it's planning.
Listening to Stunner describe Friendly Fire (and the long, fractured history of his previous projects), you get the sense that the band is something of an unborn child. He takes great pains to make sure the baby grows to its full potential -- and doesn't suffer a premature fate the way his previous projects with Johns did. The two have had their hearts broken so many times, they were hesitant to come back to the scene.
"It was really hard to get into it and really believe again," Stunner says.
Believe, baby. With the Friendly Fire Network steadily growing, its School of Rock is looking for a new class to graduate.