Amidst the vast and incessant shitstorm of uninspired revivalists, generic thrashers, banal bar bands, pointless imitators, cartoonish Mohicans, talentless noise-spewers, drunk-punk retreads, Warped Tour whack-offs, wannabe rock stars, washed-up oldtimers, third-rate Ramones clones, clichéd sleaze-rawkers, fashion-happy mediocrities, straight-edge grunters, riot grrl screechers, nu-skate wastes, prettyboy posers, pseudo scumbags, suburban skankers, post-grunge opportunists, Epitaph hacks, retooled headbangers, p.c. crust-slingers, and intolerable emo wankers that passed for “punk rock” music in the 1990s, a select few bands left behind recorded legacies comparable to the all-time punk greats’. One such band was The Prostitutes, who set the standard for obnoxious/trashy/“snotty” punk rock in the late ‘90s. They were the most compelling and authentically degenerate band of their time and style. Their music was unabashedly primitive yet seemingly inspired by a rare, twisted genius. No punk rock n’ roll group since has even come close to topping the ‘tutes.
Hailing from the festering environs of Harrisburg (perhaps the only state capitol in the U.S. that can rightfully be called a “dead-end town”), the Prostitutes lived their music and affected no pose. They were chemical-abusing, people-hating, fast-living, going-nowhere miscreants who played music that was real, raw, dangerous, and true. They were poster children for a generation of failures and fuck-ups left behind by the American dream. They were holdovers from the pre-’94 era of punk, when calling yourself “punk rock” was tantamount to commercial suicide and a sure pathway to disrepute and societal rejection. Songs about heroin, hangovers, and extreme family dysfunction reflected their true experiences - not some put-on notion of what punk music was “supposed” to be. At a time when much of the burgeoning “underground” rock of the day seemed tailored for the approval of the good-looking, mall-shopping masses, the ‘tutes made music that spoke to the damaged souls who roamed the dive bars, meth labs, and halfway houses of downtrodden America.
The Prostitutes were the archetypical snot-punk band of their day, but their peculiar brand of deviant rock n’ roll was not traceable to any obvious influences. The Pagans and G.G. Allin & the Jabbers were probably their primary precursors, but one is just as likely to hear traces of Crime pugnacity or Humpers swagger in now-classic songs like “Rock N’ Roll Outbreak” and “Suburban Trash”. Songs like “Rich Spoiled Brat” and “Fashion Victim” burned with a smoldering intensity that recalled the hottest and fiercest of the early LA punk bands. But unlike so many of their contemporaries, the ‘tutes didn’t sound like they were imitating other bands. Punk rock for them was not an easily-copied musical formula but rather a base outlet for the expression of boredom, despair, unsavory thoughts, and misanthropic rage. This was a group that oozed fuck-off attitude of the nastiest variety. But attitude was just part of the equation. They had the chops too. Singer Kevin McGovern was probably the greatest punk vocalist of his day, his voice raspy, enraged, and full of genuine madness. Behind him wailed a trashy, brilliantly-crude rock n’ roll band, a reprobate wrecking crew that handled those essential three chords as if they were grenades that needed to do some damage in a hurry. And although the ‘tutes’ music wasn’t the least bit “pop”, it did exude a supreme tunefulness in the grand tradition of the best '70s punk. It’s hard to find punk tunes catchier or more memorable than “Suicide Is Fun” or “I’m Tired”.
Lyrically, the Prostitutes were keenly attuned to the debauched, drug-addled realties of life on the wrong side of the tracks. With black humor and a perverse intelligence, McGovern snarled like the poet laureate of suburbia’s seedy underbelly, songs like “Living Wreck” and “No Good” quickly turning into anthems for outcasts, dropouts, and derelicts everywhere. Choice lines from “Rock N’ Roll Outbreak” (“You look real ugly tonight/at least you’re doing something right”), “Suicide Is Fun” (“And then when she slashed her wrists on Wednesday night/That’s when I knew that she was out of sight”), and “Teenage Girls” (“I hear teenage girls like to be alone/I hear communists like to sit by the phone/I know they like everything I am/Give me action, put a bullet in my head”) demonstrate the sick brilliance working inside McGovern’s mind. 1997’s Can’t Teach Kids Responsibility, the band’s first LP, is full of songs articulating the frustrations of a messed-up pariah embittered by the phoniness of society and doomed to a life of alienation and drug abuse. “I’m just a fuck-up/in a fucked-up world,” McGovern sings on “Living Wreck”, and no punk lyric has ever been more honest or accurate. Throughout the album, he sinks his skewers into oppressive authority figures, poser punks, and the small-minded assholes next door, his supply of venom seemingly inexhaustible. “22”, released in 1998, is a definitive statement of youthful disaffection, made all the more convincing by McGovern’s choleric vocal delivery. “I’m 22 with nothing to do,” he cries. “I’m surrounded all day by people like you!” Coming from a lesser singer, such sentiment may have seemed trite. Coming from McGovern, it’s a stinging indictment of a hollow, conformist society. An essential Prostitutes track, “22” is a musical firebomb hurled at respectable America.
The original Prostitutes’ recordings are now out-of-print and probably difficult to obtain, but I’d urge the uninitiated to make the effort. The best place to start would be the discography CD released by Pelado Records in 2000, which collects all the band’s singles, the entirety of Can’t Teach Kids Responsibility, and two cuts from the first Pelado comp (one of which is the must-have “Suicide Is Fun”), all recorded between 1995 and 1997, that classic period of the punk revival. In addition to his incredible Inversions project, McGovern has revived The Prostitutes a number of times with new band mates, and the current, Los Angeles based incarnation released a new album a couple years back called Kill Them Before They Eat.
So many punk bands in the ’90s were transparently formulaic, their music mere imitations of yesteryear’s greats, their songs lacking the urgency and conviction that are supposed to define punk. The music of the Prostitutes, on the other hand, was anything but a copy of other
bands’ genius. It was more like a compulsion, a destructive mission born out of the deepest, darkest place in man’s soul. More so than any of their contemporaries, the ‘tutes were convincing. Reckless, ornery, and defiantly radio-unfriendly, they embodied Pelado’s “punk rock that’s real” ethos. Sure: no band’s music can destroy the fabric of society or cause physical harm to the world’s collective douche bags, dickheads, posers, and phonies. But I love to hear groups that play like they’re single-handedly capable of obliterating everything and everyone they hate, solely through the power and fury of their music.
And that, in a nutshell, is why The Prostitutes ruled.