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The post-punk style of the Viagra Boys

The Viagra Boys, who released a new album in July, serve up a brand of post-punk rock that is at once messy and cerebral

Sebastian Murphy of the Viagra Boys.

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One Saturday evening this June, I was hanging out at the neighbourhood bar with a couple of friends, shooting the breeze, when one of them turned to me and said: “What do you say we drive down to Turku tomorrow and watch the Viagra Boys and José González? They are both playing at the festival there.” We were in Vaasa, on the west coast of Finland; Turku, Finland’s oldest city, was nearly 350km southwards and the drive, each way, would take us around four hours. So that meant eight hours of driving because everyone had to get back before Monday morning, when work would beckon.

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We were still mulling the proposal when Madeleine, our spunky friend whose unlimited levels of energy and enthusiasm always mystify me, said: “Let’s go. I will drive both ways.” And that’s what happened. Three men in different stages of inebriation were driven by a sober woman to a rock festival, happy eventually that they had decided to go. We watched three acts that night: José González, the Swedish indie folk singer from Gothenburg, dazzled us with his solo presence on stage, accompanied by his guitar and a loop machine; the legendary American turntablist DJ Shadow, who has been called the Jimi Hendrix of sampling, enthralled us with his classic trip-hop, hip hop and electronic tracks; and, of course, the Viagra Boys, who were quite easily the best act of the day.

I first encountered the Viagra Boys in 2018, when a friend urged me to check out the video of their song, Sports, on YouTube. I hadn’t heard or watched anything like it. The video, the song, the lyrics…they were an instant turn-on. The Viagra Boys moved quickly to my favourites’ list. Hailing from Sweden, they serve up a brand of post-punk rock that is at once messy and cerebral. Fronted by Sebastian Murphy, a US-born Swedish resident who is the vocalist and main driving force of the Stockholm-based band, the Viagra Boys make noisy music, with punk-style minimalistic melodies, and, often, jazz-influenced keyboard and sax solos.

But it is Murphy’s lyrics and stage presence that set the band apart. At the Turku gig, he was, as usual, shirtless, displaying his tattoo-covered torso (he’s a tattoo artist, as is his bandmate and bassist, Henrik Höckert) and had a case of beer and a bottle of vodka handy on stage. The Viagra Boys have a heavy-drinking, hard-partying style. Many of their songs are about drugs and drinking but they also comment on society’s farces and pretensions. And there is a unique brand of irony that runs through many of their lyrics.

Sports, for instance, is a cynical confessional song that is the antithesis of what “sports” would mean to someone. The video, set in a tennis court where people are playing the game, shows Murphy (shirtless, as is de rigueur for him) lurching about singing lyrics that are the opposite of what you might expect: Beach ball/ Volleyball/ Naked girls/ And naked boys/ Do the dance/ Down on the beach/ Smoking dope/ Short shorts/ Cigarettes (Wiener dog)/ Getting high in the morning/ Buying things off the internet/ Sports/ Sports/ Sports/ Sports.

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The Viagra Boys are not for the faint-hearted. Their lyrics, videos and music can come as a shock initially. But I have managed to convert a few of my peers (who are mostly weaned on classic rock of the 1970s and are, in general, risk-averse when it comes to new music). At the Turku gig, the band lived up to their reputation. Murphy was iconoclastic and wild—he has a vocal style that is somewhere between singing and spoken-word delivery—and the sound was at its best. The sax and keyboard solos by Oscar Carls and Elias Jungqvist, respectively, dazzled and the high-adrenaline vibe from the stage quickly infected the crowd gathered in front of the open-air stage. Murphy and his mates belted out old favourites (including Sports, of course) as well as a couple of songs from their soon-to-be released new album, Cave World.

Cave World is their third full-length, and it came out after the gig, in early July. I am happy to report that it is probably their best work so far. Songs such as Punk Rock Loser, ADD (a reference to the attention deficit disorder Murphy apparently suffers from) and Return To Monke stand out. The songs are satirical, full of one-line jabs that mock society and conformist norms; the music is explosive; and the sax and keyboards blaze groovily. What’s not to like about the Viagra Boys?

Well, there is something. At the gig, we watched Murphy drink and smoke while performing on stage. Hard-partying seems to be a sort of lifestyle for him and the band. Last year, the band lost a guitarist, Benjamin Vallé, who died too early at 47. And, as we watched the band perform in Turku, I couldn’t help wondering whether they were going at it too hard. Rock music’s history is pockmarked with early demises, burnouts and other tragedies. Perhaps today’s hard-partying bands, such as the Viagra Boys, should take a moment to consider whether, eventually, that is worth it.

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