Grebo — Spotlight on the spotty

Grebo was the name given to a short-lived music scene/subculture in the late 1980s/early 1990s which was centered in England’s Midlands region. Key bands in the scene were Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Carter USM and The Wonderstuff. Other bands associated with Grebo to varying extents include The Levellers, Zodiac Mindwarp, Crazyhead, The Bomb Party, The Hunters Club, Scum Pups, Gaye Bikers on Acid, The Senseless Things, Mega City Four and New Model Army. These musically diverse bands on the surface had little in common with one another but were united in their incorporation of (to varying degrees, given the band in question) musical influences taken from many of the more marginal scenes of the day such as heavy metal, alternative, dance, glam, hip-hop, punk and industrial. Though rarely, if ever, termed Grebo; Jesus Jones and EMF applied a strong pop sensibility to an undeniably Grebo-esque formula which carried them to considerable, though short-lived, heights.

Still, where there is little recognizable commonality to the musicologist, there is an undeniable vibe evident in their attitude, sartorial sense and Chaz’s Grebo dance, which the subcultural anthropologist can recognize easily. The Grebo look often involved dreadlocks, topknots, crimped hair or otherwise unflattering, grubby coifs. The clothing often saw long-sleeved lumberjack shirts or Ts combined with shorts and heavy boots.  Skate brands and surplus were often topped off with odd hats which were popular in the early 1990s and will prove an essential, if unflattering, ingredient in any upcoming 90s revival. The result was deliberately ugly, comical and political, in keeping with most of the music.

The term “greebo” existed in the UK much earlier than the development of the Grebo scene. In the early 1970s greebo entered the British vocabulary as a perversion of “greaser” and was used to describe long-haired leather boys/bikers who favored, generally, Harleys as well as Japanese, British and Italian motorcycles and who were generally fans of progressive and hard rock music. How this transformed into the Grebo scene is murky and obscured by the mists of time but several most likely apocryphal explanations have been offered. Whatever the connection, the greasy, grubby look seems to be central. Now, as then, it is rarely a self-identifying term, but rather one applied derogatorily by chavs, scallies, trendies and other class and/or macho-conscious subcultures to socially awkward, skateboarding types that populate the social margins and town centers of England’s suburbs who have little connection to the music scene of the previous generation.

Historically, a few bands had already melded some of these Grebo-favored ingredients in a prescient manner. These proto-Grebo bands include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, The Beastie Boys, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Big Audio Dynamite. The true Grebo bands were both championed by the likes of NME and Melody Maker and simultaneously derided, alongside Shoegazer, as “The scene that celebrates itself”- a comment on the genre’s existence outside of the approval of the critics and popular audiences.
Grebo was pretty much brushed aside and wiped out by the importation of the much more popular Grunge and the advent of the shortlived Britpop scene. After those two scenes declined (within a few years), a new crop of American bands carried on in a similar but more simplistic hybrid of styles not completely dissimilar to Grebo which was branded Rap-Rock. Rap-Rock, however, evinced the disparate influences in a less fully integrated, more cut & paste fashion than the more fully integrated Grebo.

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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