Purchase: The Brandos, Honor Among Thieves
Back in high school, I lived in Northern Virginia. When I got my driving license, in addition to cruising the McDonald’s parking lot and feeling full-on superior to everyone without a license, I started making long drives to various Civil War battlefields. Not the hippest thing for a 16 year old to do, but there was so much history, so close, I didn’t see it as strange. It was an easy way to get on the road and feel that ineffable sense of freedom that comes with being behind the wheel. I was Kerouac, but, I didn’t have that far to go. Of course, I went a lot of places I shouldn’t have (Washington, DC in the late ‘80s was like a lurid, dangerous movie set), but getting out into the ‘country’, on my own, driving back roads, seeing America (I’d read On the Road early in my teens, so I was ready to roll)…it was an amazing experience to disappear from the suburban safety of my parent’s home and into the reverie of history and my own romantic notions of being on the road. There were a lot of places to go: Fredericksburg. Bull Run. Harper’s Ferry. Winchester. Further afield, Antietam and even Gettysburg. I was into Kerouac, but I was also into history, so proximity to the remnants of history was exciting.
I was on my own particular beat extravaganza. One chapter in the tale of my own history, personal, but epic (in the small sphere I walk).
About the same time as all this was going on, my musical education was expanding exponentially due to a radio station out of Lanham, Maryland, called WHFS. 99.1. If you’re from DC , Maryland or Virginia (the DMV) and are of a few certain generations, “ninety-nine-one” is a phrase that brings up many memories, both at once warmly nostalgic and sad. But, mostly sad in a way that something great is gone.
‘HFS has been around since the 1960s and has spanned multiple genres over at least three different FM frequencies and digital platforms. It still exists, but, not as the traditional ‘HFS I grew up with—the weak signaled (it came it good at night) humming little broadcaster of funky, alternative musical oddities. ‘HFS was the place to tune into to hear everything from Springsteen to P-Funk to Dylan to punk - beautiful sounds. Back then, we called it college rock, or progressive, and ‘HFS was amazing because it brought into tune a musical world that was bubbling on the horizon of my budding musical tastes. Strange sounds from the ether, pointing me in great new directions. I could do a lot of posts of bands I heard first on 99.1’s golden airwaves. A few? REM, The Cult, The Plimsouls, Chuck Brown, Fugazi, The Feelies.
And there were lesser known, one off bands, half-a-hit wonders that while they weren’t making musical history, were laying down a solid foundation for what would become my musical pedigree, my own personal musical history.
One of those unique bands that ‘HFS brought me into contact with was called The Brandos. The Brandos are a New York rock outfit that worked in a interesting nitche: dudded out in bolo ties, high collared shirts, sharp black suits, they played a gritty, guitar driven, late 80s rock with a historical flavor. Their 1987 album Honor Among Thieves had a sound appeal that was at once college-rock guitar but also grounded in historical theme and detail.
Their highest charting track was “Gettysburg”, a smoldering, first-person account from a long dead soldier, looking back on the battle and horror that took place there. The song is structured around the narrator seeing his name on a plaque, and at Gettysburg, the names of the dead are endless. It’s not clear if it’s a ghost, or someone having a visceral experience from standing on hallowed, horrored ground. The song spirals back on an image-laden tour of the nightmare that battle was, and it is full-throated and angry. As any song about the horrors of war should be. When I was a kid, first hearing this, there was no irony, no wonder at how a great rock song could be about a Civil War battle. The Brandos probably never took off because their dead serious take on historical themes (with matching sounds) made them seem like a gimmick. There was something strident and serious in their presentation of themes concerned with the past, going so far as to make the whole of their look, sound and feel to be a living recreation, and not in a way that celebrates the anachronistic, but a truly informed embodiment of the past.
The Brandos struck me as band that presented the same strident energy and raw emotion of self-serious bands such as U2 or the Alarm, but sang about hundred year old battles, factory fires, and the immigrant experience. I think perhaps they didn’t take off because people sought the irony, waited for the Brandos to take of the bolo ties and start singing about contemporary problems. Maybe they came across as a band your history teacher would like? There is something about a band with such an intense thematic focus that makes them seem odd. Or perhaps, worse, uncool. But, what is it that kept the Brandos, with their intense, historical bent, from making it big, when other bands, like say, KISS, with their whole…thing…get huge. Or Motely Crue and their post-apocalypse leather and fire and Satan motif, or Slayer’s Hell come to Earth appeal? Some bands with an overwhelming motif seem to work, while others don’t. Most bands with a gimmick – be it subtle or over the top – make it, somehow. Gwar? No…they are a thing unto themselves. What to call the brilliant Brandos? Did they make genre music? Is it reenactment? I don’t really know. They are more akin to a band like the Pogues, who invoke old forms and traditional structure, mix it with modern sounds and instruments, and present it without...again, I use the word, becuause I think it fits - irony. It’s interesting. And damn good. The kind of music you’d hear and say, “Whoa – who is that?” I don’t know why they weren’t more popular.
I do know that the Brandos, like a lot of bands, were far more popular in Europe than the States. I wonder if that is because in Europe, the focus on nostalgic ideas and sounds didn’t come across as an anachronism, but was more appealing in that way that American cultural exports are so meaningful in foreign culture. Think about: the Western, the Yankee symbol, NBA jerseys, Marilyn Monroe, old school military garb, even the Stars and Stripes…these are images and ideas that have taken on symbolic resonance well beyond their original meaning. Historical symbolism invokes notions, romantic ones often, about another culture, about a history that we may not be connected to, but are fascinated with nonetheless. Here’s an example: cowboys are cool. Clint Eastwood made sure the world would always think that. The Brandos and their focus on the Civil War and the era of immigration were perhaps focusing in on a part of history that had a shared aspect to it. They wrote about an era when a lot of people from Europe came to America. But, more so, The Brandos sound was seriously, unequivocally American. So, it’s not surprising they took on a life and found a fan base in Europe.
The Brandos’ most recent release was 2010’s Live in Europe, which was recorded in 2004. It’s a great showcase of their ferocious, guitar-driven sound, but also highlights their equally distinctive mandolin-fronted folk pedigree. Equally brilliant, sonically and otherwise, is Town to Town, Sun to Sun, which can be heard of Spotify – and serves as the band’s sole entry in the Spotify database.
The album is interesting. From a musical standpoint, it is a document of a tight, hard-driving rock band, and one that makes you wonder how you haven’t heard of them before. And yet, it works to showcase the unique, near museum-like sound The Brandos created. Perhaps it is here, more than anyplace else, that you can kind of get why the band never made it - the niche they worked in just didn’t have a broad enough, or universal enough appeal. But, it doesn’t make it any less sad when you realize what a great band they are. That gritty, decidedly un-modern sound was never really able to find purchase, but perhaps that has more to do with trends than with talent. I’m sure it does, actually…