It happens all too often. In the hustle and bustle, in the desire to make “art,” in the compulsion to get attention, in the need for compensation, it’s easy to forget that live music is largely about entertainment. We’re not talking about “Masterpiece Theatre” here. We’re talking full-on goofy, happy, wave-your-hands-in-the-air-like-you-just-don’t-care good times. Fortunately, the Nuns of Brixton — Denver’s habit-wearing, Clash-song-playing quintet — haven’t forgotten how to have a good time.
“The goal is to purely entertain people at a bargain price,” says Tim Beckman, the band’s bassist and founder. “And isn’t that lacking? I think we’re the best entertainment value, honestly.”
Beckman — best known for his stints in the Geds and major label ’90s alt-rockers Spell — had literally dreamed of starting a Clash cover band, but finally decided to make it a reality while watching Jim Yelenick (of Pitch Invasion) play acoustic covers as his alter ego, Sputnik Slovenia.
“Who else is gonna be Joe Strummer?” Beckman asks to explain his choice of the veteran singer and performer. “I just knew I wanted to be in a band with that guy, playing Clash songs.”
Soon, the two recruited Tony Weissenberg — formerly of Boss 302 — to take on drumming duties. “Weissenberg is the only drummer I know who can do that type of drumming,” explains Beckman. “Topper Headon [Clash drummer] is an exceptionally intricate drummer.”
Meanwhile, Yelenick roped in longtime friend and Westword music scribe, Jon Solomon (also of improvisational scronkers Aenka), to take on guitar duties. The two had shared a love for the Clash since their high school days at Regis.
To ensure that the boisterous Yelenick was free to bounce outrageously around the stage, the band put an ad on Craigslist for a second guitarist. The ad dug up Robb Froschheuser, formerly of Fort Collins rockers Social Joke. At a birthday party for Solomon, the group came up with the name Nuns of Brixton — playing off the Clash classic “Guns of Brixton” — and a concept was born.
“We just chose it because it rhymes,” laughs Beckman. “If you play this music, you can’t dress up like the Clash, so you might as well take it to the most uncool extreme possible.”
Weissenberg concurs. “The goal is not to be a tribute band. We’re just five dudes who like the Clash.”
“We’re just five transvestites who like the Clash,” Yelenick corrects.
The outfit’s shared passion for the music of one of punk’s progenitors is a large part of what makes Nuns shows so entertaining. As the quintet belts out song after song with simultaneous conviction and abandon, anyone for whom the music of the Clash is meaningful can’t help but be caught up in the energy.
For his part, Yelenick remembers vividly his first experience with the Clash.
“When I was 12, it was my sister’s birthday, and my dad took me to Sears to buy her a record. That’s when Sears sold records,” he chuckles. “She said she wanted that song that went ‘stand by your man’ — it was ‘Train in Vain.’ We got it and it’s a four-record set. We put it on in her room and I found myself being transformed as each song went on.”
For Yelenick — who’d been schooled in the classic rock his older brothers so loved — “London Calling” was a revelation. “Anyway, we’re getting to the end of side four and thinking maybe the song isn’t on there. It was an unlisted song, right after ‘Revolution Rock.’ As soon as it came on, she hit the record button on her cassette deck. Once it was over, she told me I could keep the record. I proceeded to go back to my room and listen to it for eight days straight.”
Solomon’s musical interests were also shaped by obsessive Clash listening. “I remember sitting down in my basement for six hours a day, learning guitar at 14, 15, 16,” he says. “I learned how to play solos from Mick [Jones of the Clash].”
The Clash played an important role in Beckman’s musical education, too. “When ‘Sandinista’ came out, I used to take that empty sleeve into Underground Records — now Twist and Shout,” he recalls. “I’d wave it in the air as I walked in, to say I was going to trade it in or sell it or whatever, and then I’d go back in the bins and load it up with Buzzcocks, the Clash, whatever. And then I’d wave it on the way out to say that I’d changed my mind or hadn’t found anything I wanted to trade it for. I stole a lot of records,” he admits. “But I reconciled with Paul Epstein years later. I felt really guilty.”
Guilt — in spite of the group’s austere Catholic costumes — is not part of the Nuns of Brixton experience. Thanks to the band’s musical proficiency and Yelenick’s captivating stage presence, the five veterans bring the raw excitement and spirit of the Clash’s music back from the dead without remorse.
“It’s so accessible,” says Yelenick of the band’s performance. “In the ’70s, you had bands like Yes and you’d think you could never be in a rock band. But the Clash made me feel like I could be in a rock band. It’s complicated, but it’s simple.”
“I like that it wasn’t pretty,” adds Weissenberg. “The Beatles, to me, were the original boy band. The Clash were not a boy band. It was just good, rippin’ music!”
“I think the whole thing is creative,” Beckman says of the Nuns of Brixton’s own rippin’ approach. “We’re playing covers, but we have everybody putting their effort into making this thing that’s really entertaining,” muses Beckman, who knows first-hand how hard it is to find and keep an audience any musical project.
“There’s always people that want to see our band,” he adds. “And that’s hard to do!”
Eryc Eyl is a veteran music journalist, critic and Colorado native who has been neck-deep in local music for many years. Check out Steal This Track every Tuesday for local music you can HEAR, and the Mile High Makeout every Friday. Against his mother’s advice, Eryc has also been known to tweet. You can also follow Steal This Track on Twitter. Sorry, Mom.