The Damned (photo: SarahJayn Kemp)
I’ve always loved that punk rock is all spikes and chain-smoking from the outside and arts and crafts from the inside. Burger Boogaloo, the annual festival for the fringe set, is proof of that. From the bouffant boutique to the on-site screen printing of festival shirts to ramshackle equipment used by some of the bands, a firm stamp of DIY was imprinted on everything. Set in Mosswood Park June 30-July 1, Burger Boogaloo brought out all of Oakland’s finest degenerates.
Kicked off by clean-cut keyboard prodigy Francis Lau of the Francis Lau Experience, the festival seemed more densely populated than last year. Lau is gifted well beyond his years, doing a solid rendition of OMD’s “Enola Gay” among other covers and even some originals. I tried to speak to the young musician after his set, but he informed me that he was really just interested in getting to the chicken at the Aburaya Japanese Fried Chicken booth. So young and already no time for the media. I get it, man.
The rest of the bands that followed Lau on Saturday were solid. the Flytraps, Spits, and Traditional Fools provided a deluge of that in-your-face and down-your-throat punk rock, but the Nots were the standouts of that genre. They played a set that had the feel of an aggressive Bratmobile, with less bubblegum and more machine gun. Everyone loves machete guitar mixed with speeding bullet lyrics screamed into a microphone. Well, everyone should. The Nots were saying yes to everything I wanted.
There was plenty of sweaty and sweet, too. Pookie and the Poodlez, Hunx and his Punx, and the Okmoniks all filled the soundscape with sticky charm. Pookie and Hunx are almost performance art, their absurdities and eccentricities fitting right into the outsider charm of Boogaloo. There’s a lot of people out there screaming “Look at me!,” then giving us nothing special to see. Like an anti-Instagram come to life, Pookie and Hunx fed us a steady diet of supersonic silliness and sex without all that annoying buzz. The Okmoniks played a set that was just as manic and delightful — if you could hear bleach-blonde hair, it would sound like the sunny keyboards that danced through their set. Screaming summer passages like their life depended on it, I can’t picture them playing in any other setting than the open sunshine of a festival day.
Mudhoney, pioneer princes of grunge, slammed down their rage-for-the-stage sound. Controlled and complicated, it wasn’t as messy as some of the acts more commercially associated with the MTV plaid-shirt push for cashing in on grunge culture in the ’90s, but that’s probably because they can actually carry a tune without the help of massive distortion fragmenting their vocals to a netherworldly place. “Touch Me I’m Sick” was as infectious as ever.
The Mummies, the geeky little brother of the punk rock movement, piled onto the stage with the bravado of an over-eager teenager during their set. They’re always willing to go so deep with their schtick that even the jaded Bay Area Boogaloo audience joined them. This time, it was delivered on stage by Dr. Zaius and his apes-in-arms producing the captive Mummies and forcing them to play. It’s like something my middle school crush would have dreamed up: “We’ll have like, Planet of the Apes meets Mummies…it’ll be awesome!” Only it actually is awesome and a lot of fun. Their lo-fi is so low that it’s practically subterranean. Playing through an impressive sound system, they sounded amazing while smashing their ancient organ to and fro.
DEVO, though. Man, oh man. How did these guys come from Ohio? They aren’t of this world, much less of this mundane little country that is becoming more and more rigidly exclusive in the worst way by the hour. Clad in orange jumpsuits with their trademark flower-pot hats, they opened with the swinging, purposefully-stiff-around-the-edges “Girl U Want.” I alway think of this song as DEVO’s American Bandstand moment. So many of their songs really rock, but “Girl” has this subversive pseudo-teenage-pop to it that practically forces the hips to rock back and forth. Tell me you’re not tempted to break out into the twist when you hear it. C’mon, I dare you.
DEVO does subversive like it’s their religion. They’re often thought of as a joke band, but the joke is on those who limit their DEVO exposure to the overplayed (but still pretty great) “Whip It.” They were joined by Fred Armisen on the drums. He’s no Alan Myers, but I wouldn’t kick him out of the band for any reunion shows.
Booji Boy made an appearance dressed as a penguin to provide his Mickey Mouse-on-amphetamines vocals for “Beautiful World.” Booji got deliciously dark as he recounted his times with the late Divine, suggesting that if she could “push open her coffin, dig through the dirt” and stagger up to the stage that night, she would have declared it was “beautiful world,” too. There’s bizarre, and then there’s imagining-the-reanimated-corpse-of-a-drag-queen-that-died-of-an-enlarged-heart-in-the-late-’80s bizarre. That’s right where DEVO lives. “Gates of Steel,” “Mongoloid,” and Jocko Homo” were among the highlights, but it was honestly a night where every song was bursting with celebration. We might be devolving, but DEVO is here for us.
There were some letdowns on Day 2. The aptly named Rip Offs didn’t live up to the trouble of their gimmick, bringing a cop’s motorcycle on stage only for their stagehand to have difficulty removing the bike as it was left in gear. That kind of a flop can have appeal if it is followed up by rock that makes a splash, but the crestfallen spirit of the opening scene carried through to the music.
However, at least the Rip Offs showed up. the Dwarves cancelled their performance unexpectedly, and fans looking to be abused by Blag Dhalia and company were left with their spirits woefully intact. Nobunny hopped to the rescue and provided a solid substitute that was just as kitschy but not as abusive. Frankly, I didn’t mind the exchange.
Battleship, Gris Gris, Subsonics, Firestarter, Le Shok, and Qunitron and Ms. Pussycat were all entertaining acts in their own right, but they didn’t live up to the magic of the first day. Standouts were definitely the Flakes and Guida. The Flakes, a local band, have this Chuck Berry, boots-firmly-on-the-ground rock sound that I think a lot of people dismiss in the name of being inventive. You know what happens when people get too inventive? We get waste-of-vinyl outfits like Muse clogging up our airwaves. Give me the deeply-rooted rock that charges the soul and evokes the guitar sound that set the stage for revolution any day.
Guida is friendly fury from Rome. They have fists-in-the-air and stomping charge, but a Freddy Mercury charm that pulls you in. Like a more refined (which would not be hard) AC/DC, they frosted the crowd with a wave of explosive rock sound that was impermeable. Their cover of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” made the song sound as if it had sprung from MC5, not Mr. Yellow Brick Road.
All of that lead to the act that buried them all. Sometimes, when I am feeling down, I like to think of Dave Vanian. Lead singer of the Damned, Vanian changed his name after working for some time as a gravedigger as a nod toward “Transylvanian.” The godfather of goth, Vanian gives me hope that anyone can find their place in this world, even if they have to carve it out of the Earth themselves.
The Damned, a motley crew if ever there was one, has no campy single image — they’re just all in it together and all beautifully bizarre. They took to the stage to close Boogaloo in a way that meant absolutely bringing the place to the ground. Captain Sensible killed on guitar. The crowd really responded to “Jet Boy / Jet Girl,” “Neat Neat Neat,” and “New Rose,” the anti-Trump “Devil in Disguise,” and “Street of Dreams.” For me, though, “Antipope” was the show-stopper. How come it is always ex-Catholics who make the best punk rock? That song was devilishly good. We might all be doomed, but the Damned provided some salvation, if only for a moment.
Burger Boogaloo, complete with gorgeously grotesque host John Waters, homemade stage props featuring giant spinning bottles of “SPF 69” suntan lotion, and more Manic Panic manes than anywhere else in the world, remains the festival for those of us who don’t fit into the festival scene. It’s the safe space for folks who sneer at the term “safe space,” and it’s disgustingly beautiful.
See you next year, fellow freaks.