Pipettes' mission: Clawing back pop

June 7, 2007


Living in the age of "American Idol," it's tempting to dismiss any act that even hints at being a manufactured pop phenomenon. But just because a group was plotted out on paper before anyone sang a note doesn't mean it's automatically bogus.

The Petri dish creation of England's Pipettes was one of the biggest buzzes at the South by Southwest Music Conference last March, though as many listeners walked away scoffing as were won over by the charmingly retro girl-group revival act. Count me in the latter camp.

Yes, the cooed harmonies of the three polka-dot-sporting front women, the matching yellow tank tops of their backing band the Cassettes and the bad-boy-obsessed pop tunes are all supremely shticky. But they are also irresistible, especially when the Pipettes deliver them with a wink, a nod and a heaping dose of irrepressible enthusiasm.

"People in the States that we've performed in front of so far are slightly more up for it and more relaxed about just having a good time," Becki Pipette (a k a RiotBecki or Rebecca Stephens) recently told Philadelphia's City Paper. And why shouldn't we? This country was home to the best of the original girl groups -- from the Shirelles to the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las to the Crystals -- and no one was unduly worried about authenticity then.

The Pipettes were the brainchild of guitarist Monster Bobby (Robert Barry), who was doing DJ gigs in 2003 when he noticed that the biggest response came whenever he spun a single by one of those '60s girl groups. Joining up with singer, poet and photographer Julia Clark-Lowes (who honed the look and wrote some of the early songs before leaving to concentrate on her other band, the Indelicates) and taking a page from the promotional antics of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (the cheeky Brits behind '80s pop provocateurs the KLF), Barry cast the Pipettes from among friends in the Brighton music scene, eventually finalizing the lineup with Becki, Gwenno (former Welsh-language electro-pop artist Gwen Saunders) and Rosay (Rose Dougall), all of whom use the stage surname "Pipette" in the style of the Ramones.

"Actually, it wasn't until Julia and Bobby asked me to join the band that I really started researching girl bands," Becki added in her chat with City Paper. "[They] made me this compilation CD and I suddenly realized how many of these songs I knew without knowing the names of these girl bands and how prevalent it had actually been in my growing up, and my love, actually, for girl bands in the '80s, like Bananarama and the Go-Go's."

Indeed, there's as much Bananarama in the Pipettes as there is Ronettes, along with the postmodern addition of a slightly more liberated and self-empowered feminist perspective. "We are the Pipettes / And we've got no regrets," the girls sing. "If you haven't noticed yet / We're the prettiest girls you've ever met / We are the Pipettes / We will drop you in our nets / When you're crying in your bed / You'll hope we haven't finished with you yet."

That manifesto/theme song appeared as the title track of the group's first album, which was first released in the U.K. last July. "We Are the Pipettes" isn't due to be released in the U.S. until August, though many indie-rock fans have already download the disc, and Interscope Records has just issued a buzz-building EP, "Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me," with four tracks offering ample evidence of the group's allure.

The Pipettes remain undaunted by charges that it's all an act. "You always get positive and negative reaction to what you do," Gwenno said in an interview with the Web site MusicOMH.com. "It's quite funny when people don't take us seriously, really, because they haven't understood the concept of what we're trying to do."

And that goal is...? "Popular music just seems to be disappearing into this horrible abyss," Becki said, "and we're trying to claw it back!"



 9:30 p.m. Thursday
 Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
 (773) 276-3600