Misunderstood satirist or homophobic, sexist, insensitive asshole? Such has been the question dogging Joe King, who with his long-time New Hampshire punk band the Queers has never failed to crawl under the skin of PC standard-bearers with such charmingly titled songs as "She's a Cretin," "Gay Boy," "Boobarella," "Fagtown," and "No Tit." Actually, it's all for laughs, claims the 35-year-old King, calling from a pay phone in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood on a rare day off during the Queers' current trek across the U.S.
"Nearly everything we do is tongue-in-cheek," King says of his band's often offensive material, which you'll find scattered among numerous singles, EPs, and albums, the most recent of which is Don't Back Down, issued last month on the Berkeley-based Lookout label. "We aren't trying to hurt people with our songs. But these PC people are so uptight you wonder if they ever smile. We get flak every once in a while about this song or that, but I think most people know we're just doing it for a laugh.
"We sometimes get a hundred letters a week," he continues, speaking at his usual mile-a-minute pace, "but only one person ever complained about 'Gay Boy,' which I wrote about a guy who always used to hassle me and grab my ass. I wouldn't like that if it was a girl coming on to me either; I just don't like pushy people. But I wrote this person back and told him what I meant by it and what the song was about. I must have been in a charitable mood that day," he adds, laughing, "because usually I would've just told the guy to fuck off."
Despite their occasional lapses in taste, the Queers have been responsible for some of the funniest and finest punk songs in the loud-fast lexicon, songs that are linked thematically to the similarly scabrous observations of the Angry Samoans and musically to such three-chord pioneers as the Ramones, DMZ, and the Descendents. The band was formed in the decidedly unpunk coastal confines of Portsmouth -- Joe King on guitar and vocals and a rhythm section of Tulu on bass and Wimpy on drums. After selecting a moniker designed to offend the city's macho rock scene regulars, the Queers banged out a few originals and released them on their own Doheney label. Love Me, issued in 1982 in an edition of 200 copies, was a slam-bang riot featuring rabble-rousers such as "Trash This Place," "Terminal Rut," and "We'd Have a Riot Doing Heroin," all delivered by King in a faux Brit warble (save "Love Me," a piece of one-take improv featuring a drooling vocal by a Queers drinking buddy named Pappy). A handful of live gigs followed, but mostly the band lay low before resurfacing in 1984 with a revamped lineup that moved drummer Wimpy to vocals and Tulu to drums, with Keith Hayes added on bass and King sticking to guitar.
This was the Queers lineup that cut the now legendary EP Kicked Out of the Webelos, issued, like Love Me, on the band's own label in similarly limited edition. In barely eight minutes, the Queers ripped through seven gloriously goofball, uproarious classics: the title cut, "Tulu Is a Wimp," "At the Mall," "I Spent the Rent," "Don't Wanna Work," "I'm Useless," and "This Place Sucks." Practically out of print before it was even released, Webelos was becoming a sought-after rarity among punk collectors just as the band once again splintered.
"We didn't know anything about selling records or touring," King says of the Queers' salad days. "We knew we were on to something. We felt we had some power, and when we listened to stuff like Black Flag and the Meatmen, we thought we were as good. But we just didn't know where to take it, so it fell apart for a while." King bounced around the country, spending some time on the West Coast, surfing and working construction, oblivious to the growing interest in the Queers' early records. By 1990 he had moved back to New Hampshire and formed a new version of the Queers with drummer Hugh O'Neill and bassist B-Face. A British label called Shakin' Street enlisted the band for one album, Grow Up, which attracted the interest of Screeching Weasel bandleader/Maximumrocknroll columnist Ben Weasel, who steered the Queers toward Lookout. At the same time, songs from those extinct Queers EPs were surfacing on bootleg reissues such as Feel Lucky, Punk?! and the Killed by Death series. The acclaimed Columbus punk group the New Bomb Turks covered "This Place Sucks" on their Drunk on Cock EP, further bolstering the Queers' hipster status.
"I always felt like there was some unfulfilled potential there," King says of his decision to re-form the Queers. "By then I knew that the first two EPs were becoming these cult items. Why? Because there are some good songs there. I've always believed in them. I think people like them because, universally, it's stuff kids can relate to. They're fun songs and kids still go nuts over them. People ask me if I get tired of singing the old songs and I say 'Fuck, no.' It's the greatest thing in the world to be able to tour all over the place playing these goofball songs like 'Kicked Out of the Webelos.'"
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Following up those goofball songs with worthy newer stuff hasn't been as easy for the Mach III Queers. Both Grow Up and 1993's Love Songs for the Retarded have their moments -- albeit most of them minor -- but last year's Move Back Home was a listless mess, with half-baked songs and heavy-handed production (by veteran Queers knob twiddler Mass Giorgini) that buried whatever good was on the album. "It mostly sucked," King admits.
Not so with the new Don't Back Down, a roaring fourteen-song slab of pop-laced punk that rivals those classic early sides (which were finally compiled by Lookout last year on the essential document A Day Late and a Dollar Short). In addition to the expected Queers rants ("No Tit," "I'm OK, You're Fucked"), Don't Back Down finds King revealing his fetish for cheesy Sixties pop ("Janelle, Janelle," "Punk Rock Girls") and the sweet-surf harmonies of the Beach Boys (the title cut is a straight reading of that group's 1964 nugget).
"My first love has always been surf music," claims King, who also latched on quickly to the surf-laced work of the early Ramones. "I've always been into the Beach Boys. And I've always believed that if the Queers can do anything, it's blaze a trail somewhere between the Beach Boys and the Ramones -- between 'Surfin' U.S.A.' and 'Rockaway Beach,' taking that surf-punk aesthetic one step further. They may just be goofball shit tunes, but the message in that stuff is to just have fun. You have all these rock-star bands like Pearl Jam and Oasis and Blur and all these cornball groups with their big fucking messages -- they don't realize that there ain't gonna be another Bob Dylan, you know? That doesn't mean I don't care about the state of the world or that I want to hurt people. But I've always turned to the Beach Boys and surf music and the Ramones because it's fun. It's fun entertainment. If I want to hear about all the bad shit in the world, I'll turn on the TV or read the newspaper."
The Queers perform Saturday, October 12, with the Swingin' Utters and the Crumbs at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-9333. The all-ages show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $7.