Last summer, a single made the rounds on U.K. radio and file-sharing services, gradually getting hotter than the August sun. It's arguable that the only reason the tune sparked any interest at all was because Jack White loaned his voice to its triumphant chorus -- and at that time, the White Stripes had begun busting out all over the airwaves. Whatever the reason, by January "Danger! High Voltage" was No. 2 on the U.K. singles chart, and its authors, the Electric Six, were beginning a frenzied (and wholly unexpected) tour of Europe.
The tale of the Electric Six is a tangled one. The group started in Detroit six years ago under the name the Wildbunch, toiling doggedly in the Michigan club scene but never amassing more than a small following. They began issuing 7-inches through Ypsilanti's Flying Bomb label, most of them punk songs in the vein of famed Motor City Marxists MC5. The singles had modest regional success but didn't hint at anything like actual potential until the year 2000, when the group recruited White and recorded "Danger! High Voltage." The song was included on the compilation As Heard on Radio Soulwax. The band signed to Damon Gough's XL Records (but not before changing its name to the Electric Six to avoid confusion with Massive Attack's DJ Wild Bunch) and launched a massively successful overseas tour.
The song itself is a masterpiece -- three-and-a-half minutes of plastic funk that sounds like late AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott fronting KC and the Sunshine Band. After a fanfare of curlicue guitars, vocalist Dick Valentine starts wildly itemizing venues that are going up in smoke. Everything is going up in flames. This whole imaginary city is being swallowed by fire, and the Electric Six are standing stock still in the middle of it all -- the party band in the center of the smoking Coliseum.
The kindling for this mini-rash of arsons is Valentine's crotch. "Don't you wanna know how he keeps starting fires?" White taunts.
To which Valentine shoots back: "It's my desire! It's my desire!"
What's most inspiring about "Danger! High Voltage" is that it is absolutely meaningless. There's nothing to this song other than its ridiculous funk guitar licks and giddy "let's screw" lyrics. And yet it's obscene how satisfying it is. The Electric Six have released a song that has very little reason for being, outside of how good it sounds while it's playing.
Which means that, in the long run, the Electric Six are totally fucked. There's no possible way they're going to curry this small stroke of genius into a viable career. I could be wrong, of course (I remember saying a similar thing about Beck in 1994), but "Danger! High Voltage" seems to smack more of "He drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a vodka drink" than "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo."
The one thing Electric Six has going for it is a wicked, deadpan sense of humor. The video for "Danger!" has Valentine's groin lighting up as he French kisses a septuagenarian. The Six's shows in the U.K. were roundly praised as a string of totally euphoric, Pythonesque set pieces culminating in a dead-on cover of Queen's "Radio Ga Ga." They've even managed to keep a straight face while insisting that it is not White who sings on their signature track, but an auto mechanic from Cleveland named Jonathan O'Leary. If there is anything we need right now, amid all this maddening sobriety, it's jokers with joy buzzers and an irresistible hook.
The underside to this is that, in art, gimmicks equal death. And nobody -- not the Moldy Peaches, not Robin Williams -- has ever been able to truly shake the silly shenanigans that gained them their initial notoriety. Over time, what was once clever becomes precious, and what was precious starts seeming outright dumb.
But save all that for the future. Right now, the Electric Six are giving us a reason to forget how terribly joyless radio has become and how fearful we all are for the future. It invites us throw all our worry and dread and war angst into a great, raging bonfire. Theirs is not an eternal flame. But for the time being, it might just be one of the brightest.