For most British teens in the early '80s, rock and roll was guitar music, plain and simple. And that was true regardless of whether your tastes ran to the jangly pop of Aztec Camera, the power chords of Def Leppard or the dark drones of Joy Division - however you pl;ayed it, the guitar ruled English rock.
But not as far as Nitzer Ebb's Douglas McCarthy and Bon Harris were concerned. Nor were these two much interested in the technological alternative suggested by the synth bands of the day. What they wanted was something more elemental than that, a sound that had an aggressive edge to it, music that was truly physical.
They wanted drums.
"We firmly were against the idea of playing keyboards onstage, and firmly against the idea of playing guitars," explains McCarthy, over the phone from his home in Cambridge, England. "We knew we didn't want to be part of the English music scene that was around at that time; it was predominantly jangly, very depressing music, and we knew we didn't want to be part of that."
So the two, who will play Odell's tomorrow night, decided that drums were the most logical basis for Nitzer Ebb's sound. "It seemed that the most aggressive and energetic instrument to play was anything based on percussion," McCarthy says.
Nitzer Ebb does use synths and other instruments in its music, even if you don't see them onstage (in concert, Harris and tour percussionist Julian Beeston use electronic drum pads to trigger the synth sounds). But as McCarthy points out, the important thing isn't a band's taste in instruments, but how it plays them.
"There was a German group in the early '80s, called Abwarts, whose records are very, very hard to find," says McCarthy. "But they used percussion in a very innovative way. Abwarts would use a combination of synthesizers, guitar and percussion, but they'd use everything as a percussion instrument. So they'd hit their guitars."
Indeed, the band's early recordings are throbbingly intense, almost beating the listener over the head with their rhythmic energy. But "Ebbhead," the newest Nitzer Ebb album, finds the band taking an unexpectedly melodic tack in its songwriting. Could Nitzer Ebb be mellowing?
Hardly. "We make no bones about our attitude to Nitzer Ebb. It's a very egotistical, selfish attitude. It's our band, and we use it purely and simply to reflect [our interests].
"When we first started, it was a real backlash against the overproduced, overplayed musicianship of the early '80s. We found it enjoyable that it totally offended people -- that was exciting for us. And then as soon as we started to get bored with it, we saw no reason to carry on with it.
"It so happens that with 'Ebbhead,' what is interesting for us now is a melodic approach to writing music, with very strong structures, keeping to an almost traditional structure in a lot of cases. That, for us, is exciting."
When: Saturday, Feb. 8, 9:30 p.m.
Where: Odell's, 21 E. North Ave.
Call: (410) 332-7393