Walking around the dance floor of Webster Hall Friday night before World/Inferno Friendship Society took the stage, looking up at the projections above the stage of Peter Lorre’s M playing in reverse, things were not as they’d always been.
There was a noticeable contingent of middle aged well-dressed individuals attracted by Wednesday’s glowing story about Inferno on the cover of the New York Times Arts section, an equally large high school-aged group looking out of place in windbreakers and sports jerseys, and then the rest of the crowd, who might proudly refer to themselves as Infernites if asked. It was as if the crowd of a suburban basketball game and the crowd for a Brooklyn Jonathan Safran Foer book signing had both gotten directions to a punk show, and everyone, especially those who had shown up to see World/Inferno in the past, was looking bewildered.
After an opening monologue by Raja Azar, the band began its orchestral overture and, as a minority of the crowd opened up the dance floor and knowingly switched from dance to dance in coordination with the music’s rapid transitions—waltz, swing, two-step, polka, back to waltz—the rest of the audience looked on in annoyance, an irritation reflected back twofold by the dancing fans. The neo-classical overture turns into the hard-hitting punk song “Peter Lorre”, the full-stage paper barrier is torn through by frontman Jack Terricloth to reveal the band, dressed to the nines in black and white formal wear beneath a chandelier, and the crowd goes absolutely wild.
A brief history of World/Inferno: The band formed sometime in the distant past of 1994-1995 by Pete Ventantonio of iconic Jersey punk band Sticks and Stones, whose 7” entitled “Tattoo’s Fade” included the titular song—played as an opening song to nearly every non-theater show they have performed—and a B-side, “Nothing to Begin,” that, as far as I know, has never been performed live. Their first full-length album, “The True Stories of the Bridgewater Astral League,” was conceived as a musical, although its only performances were at venues a publication like the sweater-clad Times-crowd among us might not be as quick to attend (roof tops). The songs centered around a mythical suburban gang of Bridgewater teenagers and their leader Jon Gilch, who is given the power to astrally project (Google it if you’re curious) by his spirit-guide Nosliw Pilf (flip the name).
The band became a mainstay of the New York punk scene despite borrowing music far from what is traditionally considered punk, influenced as it is by Klezmer, Kurt Weill, and American Spiritual, among other things. Their musical repertoire expanded much faster than their recording, and the band developed a following that some non-initiates have deemed cult-like, with fans dressing up in suits to shows in grimy clubs and performing rituals associated with specific songs without any on-stage cuing from the band. Vestiges of that might have been noticeable at the Webster Hall show, but the tight-knit community related to shows became less and less noticeable as the band’s following grew.
With the release of Red Eyed Soul in 2006 and Addicted to Bad Ideas (an earlier incarnation of the current stage show) in 2007, their popularity has continued to grow, although it’s heavily concentrated in the greater New York area.
Two months ago, I saw the band play a long and energized set in the basement of a Northampton club. The crowd managed to dance despite the near-constant presence of stage-diving surfers supported above their heads. The bouncers looked scared and at least one person was thrown out after some shenanigans with a garbage can located a little too close to the dance floor.
Standing in the sold-out 1,400 capacity lower Manhattan venue on Friday night, there was a barrier separating the crowd from the stage and three mean looking bouncers trying to prevent people from stage diving (with limited success towards the show’s end – some of the more seasoned Inferno photographers took it upon themselves to stage dive from the stage, over the fenced in photo pit, into the crowd). Not an ideal setting for a punk rock songspiel.*
World/Inferno’s live performance consistently tops their produced, recorded form—a combination of their absolute control over the material, a joyful exuberance missing from their albums, and a small improvisatory element controlled by Terricloth, acting as conductor, cuing keys or guitar with a vocal shout out (“Go Lucky go!”) or gesture or, as during “I Remember the Weimar,” conducting a call and response with the audience during the song’s break before finally triggering the rest of the band’s return.
As a song cycle, Addicted to Bad Ideas manages to bring cohesion to a plethora of musical influences, and to a narrative about the life and work of Peter Lorre. The show begins with a fast and wild song “Hey Peter Lorre! Hey Peter Lorre! Where’d all the money go?” It ends with a waltz, Terricloth crooning, “What a wonderful wonderful wonderful wonderful world.” It covers a lot of territory in between.
“Everybody Comes to Rick’s” is a tribute to late-’80s NYC hardcore, with its driving drums and melodic bass line, but with a melody transferred to saxophone and a New Wave-esque keyboard part. “M is for Morphine” begins with two measures of complex harmonies outside the normal musical conception of punk or popular music. “Anti-Fascist Cabaret” is influenced by Weimar-era musical theater. Despite some bookish origins, every song also brought with it that devoted circle of hazardous dancers (personal injury report: scratched cornea, cut on neck).
“Heart Attack ’64,” the last song of the songspiel about Lorre’s death (note: he actually died of a stroke), is a poignant waltz with a Klezmer-tinged clarinet melody and effectively sentimental lyrics. Yet, in reviews of their performances, it is always the crowd that draws writers’ attention for this song: after an hour of moderately violent dancing, suddenly everyone is civilly waltzing, although within the tight confines waltzing couples smash into each other constantly.
There is a reason “Infernites” keep returning, willing to travel long distances or endure the attitude of bouncers at a corporate venue. Their music is a much more fruitful step away from the ashes of punk rock than the genre titled “post-punk,” and, over the 13 years they’ve been playing, they have injected the rebellious stirring of klezmer and the revolutionary tenets of Weimar musical theater into American music.
A note on ‘songspiel’: The term was originally conceived for Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel in 1926. It was a set of twelve related songs surrounding the mythical city of Mahagonny on Florida’s ‘gold coast’ with text attributed to Brecht but mostly composed by his lover Elisabeth Hauptmann or appropriated from poems by Rudyard Kipling and Francois Villon. The neologism was conceived by borrowing the vernacular English ‘song’, as distinct from the German equivalent ‘Lied’, which had connotations of the bourgeois concert hall and high art, and combining it with the German ‘spiel’, meaning ‘play’. Inferno’s use of the term is, by all accounts, a deliberate nod to Brecht and Weill and the all-but distinguished Weimar tradition of critical, anti-establishment musical theater best exemplified by The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny (both Brecht/Weill collaborations) and Jonny Spielt Auf (composed by Ernst Křenek).