Michael Hann

Why garage punk is plainly the apogee of human achievement

How is it that the kids are still going crazy for the Hives? Plus: Hot Stamp is a band to watch

Ferocious: Christian Grahn, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist and Niklas Almqvist of the Hives performing at Eventim Apollo. Photo: Burak Cingi / Redferns

How is it that a group that sounds like the Hives are selling out the Apollo? In a world configured according to expectation, the highlight of their year would be an appearance at the Rebellion punk festival in Blackpool, probably high up the bill on the second stage. They’d headline their own shows at places like the Dome in Tufnell Park to an audience made up of three-quarters old blokes and a quarter skinny young kids, suited and booted like it’s 1966 and Antonioni’s about to shout ‘Action!’. Afterwards, a DJ would play the Sonics and the Electric Prunes and the Chocolate Watchband.

Garage punk tends to be of niche interest, despite it plainly being the apogee of human achievement

The Hives are a garage punk band, who owe a debt to the forgotten 1960s singles compiled on albums named after rock forms: Nuggets, Boulders, Pebbles, Rubble. Garage punk tends to be of niche interest, despite the music plainly being the apogee of human achievement, a primitive splurge of inchoate fear and excitement and rage and joy. Cheerful mayhem in 150-second doses. Honestly, it’s only the hope that someone, somewhere might record a track as exciting as the Electras’ 1967 single ‘Action Woman’ that keeps me going.

What the Hives shouldn’t be doing is selling 5,000 tickets for a Saturday night gig in London. And the tickets downstairs shouldn’t have been sold, seemingly in their entirety to a bunch of kids, who in turn shouldn’t be going absolutely bonkers for it all. Not after 30 years of basically doing the same thing over and over again (yes, there are always the claims that this album is a bit different – look! Here’s the one where Pharrell Williams did some production! – but then again, if Tyson Fury were to punch me with his left, then his right hand, I don’t think I’d know the difference: I suspect I’d just feel like I’d twice been smashed into next week).

How has this happened? The Hives were granted a tiny window of opportunity in 2001, when Your New Favourite Band, a compilation based on their releases back home in Sweden, came out in the UK and they were able to smash their way through it. They had better songs than pretty much any other garage band; they had a handsome and charismatic singer in Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist; and they had a shtick: they were the greatest, most successful band in the world, and you loved them unconditionally.

Rather than obsessing over having the same amps the Shadows of Knight used on Where the Action Is in 1966, they made themselves into a cross between a superhero movie and an absurdist comedy troupe (the Darkness found success doing the same thing with heavy metal as their chosen medium a couple of years later). People noticed them because they were outrageously good fun, and so they have spent the past 20 years not conquering the charts, but featuring all over smash-hit video games and TV shows and all the places where the Gen-Zers downstairs would actually have heard them.

Each short, minimal and repetitive song was introduced by Almqvist – who repeatedly claimed personal responsibility for bringing spring to London – as ‘Your favourite song, and a close personal favourite of mine as well’. The quintet – as ever, in matching patterned monochrome tuxes – were ferocious, and Almqvist simply allowed his boundless bonhomie to do the rest of the work. If you’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them a thousand times, but they are still filling the Apollo. Songs such as ‘Hate to Say I Told You So’ or ‘Tick Tick Boom’ will always be thrilling because they sound as though they simply exploded into life perfectly formed.

And so to Hot Stamp, a young band who had a bunch of ‘the industry’ in a mild ‘what-if there’s a fire’ panic in a low-ceilinged, east London cellar. They’re a young band, fronted by sisters – one sings, one plays guitar in a style rather reminiscent of Johnny Thunders – and they were musical catnip to me. Garage rock? Check. Bit of Cheap Trick-style powerpop? Oh yes. A dose of the Runaways? By all means. And to top it off: pop songs with actual choruses and hooks. It’s as if I’d been asked to assemble the group.

Not everyone shares my taste, however. So what sounds to me like a perfectly assembled selection of references, with enough intrinsic personality to feel exciting, might very well sound to anyone else like yet another generic rock band. But I’m willing to bet that, a year from now, something will be happening for them.