Reading Music: This Brats Autobiography is Kind of a Fucked-Up Fairytale

Andrew Matheson’s new book about his failed punk band is the anti-happily-ever-after.

The great ’90s grunge expert and critic Everett True once posted this scenario to his website Collapse Board: “Imagine if Beat Happening had sold thirty million copies, not Nevermind.” That thought floated through my mind while reading Andrew Matheson’s autobiography, Sick on You: The Disastrous Story of Britain’s Great Lost Punk Band.

Often compared to their peers (and more financially successful American counterparts) the New York Dolls, the Brats were hailed as a proto-punk inspiration for a scene that was just about to give way to the Sex Pistols and the British punk rock revolution. What really got me about Matheson’s book was the eternal question: what makes some bands famous while other equally good (or better) ones languish? The one record that the Brats made is so fucking great, but I guess sometimes a band doesn’t make it because they just have bad luck — they’re at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Brats” could not be a more appropriate descriptor for what little shitheads Matheson and his crew were.

The events of the book mostly take place when the ultra-flawed protagonist and Hollywood Brats frontman/narrator Andrew Matheson is struggling through ages seventeen to twenty-one. Although a music fan boy enamored of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, he was utterly disgusted with the sandal-wearing, hippie-infested music scene surrounding him at the time. Powered by hatred and disgust, he comes up with a description of his perfect band members, and conducts years of hilariously stupid Melody Maker ads seeking musicians. Consequently, the band ends up with a Spinal Tap-worthy revolving carousel of bass players.

“Brats” could not be a more appropriate descriptor for what little shitheads Matheson and his crew were as they struggled through the trials and tribulations of becoming a band.

They put the deep pockets of their fake fur coats to use. They stole groceries, picked locks to steal their roommates’ hash, pissed on the headliner’s beer stash (because they had been vibing them out). Just shitty things that you would expect from young rocker dudes set loose in London with overwhelming amounts of confidence — not unlike many of the punks I knew coming up in a DIY punk scene (minus the sense of solidarity from other peers or legacy of the bands that came before them).

Also, their penchant for wearing glam women’s clothing and makeup got them pretty much constantly harassed, booed off stage and sometimes cornered and beaten up. At one point in the book, they’re getting out of jail for some hijinks and the officer remarks, “You disgust me,” as he hands Andrew back his tube of “Cherry Blaze-Outdoor Girl” lipstick. Andrew simply responds with a simple, “Yes, sir.”

Matheson is unabashedly vain about his hair and clothes, and often gives extremely detailed descriptions of his flamboyant velvet outfits. This usually hilariously contrasts with the fact that, while wearing these outfits, he is often getting arrested, stealing cans of tuna and living in squats.

The Brats’ music catches on with some fans, like a drunk Keith Moon who tells them that they’re the best band he has ever seen. But it fails with many — like one sound engineer who bails on the project during the recording of the band’s non-hit, “Sick on You.” At first he thinks the song is a joke, and then he proclaims, “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand this,” and walks out on the job.

Oh, also before I forget — every punk rock biography seems to be incomplete without the story of how a musician first got crabs or STDs. From Viv Albertine’s mother plucking crabs off of her one by one (in her amazing memoir Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys) to Iggy Pop getting his first case of the clap from Nico (in Please Kill Me). In this case, Andrew meets a cool girl at a show and contracts a horrifying case of crabs. He has to go to a library and research what is happening to him, and then goes and gets himself something called Dettol, which, apparently, he was supposed to dilute before using. He ends up screaming his head off in pain in his building’s shared bathroom and scaring the hell out of his neighbors.

(One thing to note about this bio is the thick-ass English slang that’s thrown around throughout most of it. The way it’s written sometimes remind me of being on tour in Northern England when someone at a bar is trying to talk to me. I can only nod dumbly and blankly stare back at them, trying to process what they are saying in my head. “Somebody grassed, that’s for sure. We got out of the chippy clean. The bobbies were there within a couple of hours.” Wait…chippy is jail, got it. Bobbies are cops. OK, got it.)

In the end, the Brats throw in the towel and wander off in different directions to other bands, drugs, geographical locations — which is obviously when this bad-luck-ridden band finally get a post-breakup album offer from Mercury Records in Norway. Although their album, Grown up Wrong (1975), only sells around five hundred copies, it gains a cult following and the band is briefly solicited for management contracts by Malcolm McLaren (who Matheson writes off as insane). Still, Andrew feels totally washed up by age twenty-one and does the unthinkable as a gesture of defeat: he has their ex-manager/ex-hairdresser Ken cut off all of his fabulous feathered hair, a sheared Samson.

The Hollywood Brats is a tale of underdogs who never exactly make it, and it’s really kind of a punk rock fairy tale — a fucked-up Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, where the mermaid dies at the end.

Bree McKenna is a musician, writer, Libra and feminist witch living in Seattle. She splits her time playing bass in Tacocat, the Hardly Art punk pop band responsible for anti-street harassment anthem “Hey Girl” and celebratory menstruation surf-rock hit “Crimson Wave,” and in pregnancy-themed supergroup Childbirth, who write funny feminist punk songs gleefully commemorating questionable sexual decisions and skewering dudes who ask rude questions about scissoring. As a writer, McKenna’s work has appeared in She Shreds, Vice and Seattle alternative weekly the Stranger, notably satirizing music journalism misogyny in a “Men Who Rock!” issue and calling out punk scene sexism in her essay “Sexist Queers.” McKenna loves chihuahuas, essential oils, and spell-casting.

(Photo credit: Michael Levine)