BEATNIK TERMITES – Sweatin’ To The Termites

During their early years, Cleveland pop punk/power pop trio Beatnik Termites were one of those bands that gained a cult following but never seemed to get their full dues. For most people, they will be best known for their contribution to the series of Ramones covers albums, which saw the trio covering Joey & Johnny’s 1981 platter ‘Pleasant Dreams’ in its entirety. It says a lot about the Termites’ relative lack of legacy – especially among UK punk fans – that even that release doesn’t get mentioned anywhere near as much as the Screeching Weasel, Queers, or even The Vinctives’ recordings for the same project. Make no mistake, though, Beatnik Termites are a good band, and their blend of punky power pop, bubblegum and surf rock often suggests they are more broadly talented as the scene’s biggest names. Just one listen to ‘Red Haired Girl’ (from their 2003 swansong ‘Girl Crazy!’) is proof enough. With its mix of Ramones riffs, tight harmonies and shameless barrage of handclaps, it offers a near perfect bubblegum/pop punk showcase in one neat two minute hit.

Released fifteen years after their last studio LP, their 2021 release ‘Sweating To The Termites’ is something of a very welcome return and, in many ways, its best tracks give the fans exactly what they’d want from a comeback. The opening number ‘Pet Shop Girl’ wastes no time in flaunting the bands love of pop and bubblegum by leading the charge with a 50s inspired vocal refrain lifted straight from Neil Sedaka. It’s surprising how well such a melody fits with a riff that’s a little closer to the Ramonscore universe, and it’s credit to the band that the easily recognisable hook doesn’t wear thin too quickly. Across these two minutes, the trio throw out bubblegum punk riffs by the dozen, displaying a tightness and such a love for a well worn style that it sounds anything but stale. This more than sets the scene for ‘Denise Marie’ which sounds even more flippant in the pop stakes. Here, the Termites almost sound like they’re adding a pop punk/power pop slant to an old Bay City Rollers hit, such is the sugary melody. It may be even poppier than the band’s previous work, but but fans will love the riff and recognise Pat Termite’s voice in a heartbeat. He spends the bulk of the number clearly delighting in the delivery of sugar-bomb melodies while the rest of the band latch onto some rather fine pop-punk. Everything about this is “classic Termites”. By cranking the guitars a little more, ‘Out of My League’ sounds far more like the skinny tie power pop class of ’79. Lyrically, it taps into teenage angst in a way that most male listeners will surely relate and lyrics involving “growing a spine” inject a much needed humour into a tale that might otherwise sound clichéd. With no time for musical diversions – not even the briefest of lead guitar breaks – this is a perfect two minute power pop nugget. With a full compliment of harmonies used extensively throughout, a rock solid bassline and the kind of guitar tones that would do The Jags and Tommy Tutone proud, the Termites really shine.

Also very much from the school of late 70s power pop, ‘Tell Me Why’ sounds great throughout thanks to a fuzzy toned, chopping guitar riff that’s been given plenty of space in the mix. From a songwriting perspective, this isn’t shy in playing the quirky card, often sounding like an old Dr. Frank ditty recycled for a new audience. It’s such a sharp and joyous arrangement; it’s even buoyant enough to sustain a slightly yelpy vocal that seems reminiscent of largely forgotten 90s punks Brent’s TV, which is obviously something a lesser band really wouldn’t – or just couldn’t – make work. Long time fans can expect something of an earworm here, while new listeners will discover the kind of tune that’ll make them want to dig further into the Beatnik Termites’ back catalogue. With ‘Teardrops & Lollipops’ providing more shameless bubblegum pop with a punky undertone, ‘Rubber City Roller Girl’ offering a great pop punk energy set against a late 50s surf rock workout and ‘My Darling Mary Ann’ occasionally sounding like a soundtrack for an old sock hop imagined by an old Lookout band, fans are also treated to a brace of material that will seem instantly familiar. The wordless harmonies and doo-wop sounds on loan from Sha Na Na records and old Beach Boys hits during ‘Roller Girl’ in particular are something of a highlight. In fact, the whole number shows off the Termites’ vocal skills brilliantly and, in surf punk terms, it runs rings around Joe Queer’s tired old schtik.

A welcome return this album may be, but it isn’t perfect. A couple of tunes fall flat due to the Termites trying just that little bit too hard to whip up retro melodies. ‘Summer Summer’ opens via a brilliant “shoo-wop, shoo-wop”, while the music taps into the best of The Queers’ surf-punk/Brian Wilson homages. It has the potential to be another of the album’s greatest offerings. However, it’s let down by some particularly nasty vocals. The lead voice is flat throughout, while a killer chorus is ultimately killed by a shrieking falsetto, delivered by a man who can’t quite reach any of the high registers in tune. While it’s obvious what the band were aiming for here – a frivolous Four Seasons/Ramones hybrid to soundtrack your summer – it’s fair to say Frankie Valli wouldn’t lose any sleep. Likewise, the teen tearjerker ‘Kiss You’ – one part ‘Tears On My Pillow’, three parts ‘Earth Angel’ – has some strong musical credentials, but any musical merit is mauled by a vocal that introduces a delivery that sounds like a sneering school bully and then slides into yet more nasty falsetto. It comes across as a cheap novelty, and as most fans will know, Beatnik Termites were always much better than that.

Packing thirteen songs into less than half an hour, ‘Sweatin’ To The Termites’ really doesn’t hang around. For the most part, it values energy over indulgence and keeps the focus firmly on fun. If you have any of the band’s older albums in your collection, you won’t find any huge surprises here, but in ‘Rubber City Roller Girl’, ‘Tell Me Why’ and ‘Out of My League’ you’ll encounter a trilogy of pop and surf oriented numbers that could just be the Termites’ best yet. It’s a record that, even with a few obvious kinks that really needed to be ironed out, can still be recommended to punky power pop fans everywhere.

May 2021