The Hives seemed to come out of nowhere. By 2002, the garage rock revival was in full swing, and unless you were wearing red and white, leather jackets, Converses, or some combination of each, you weren’t really part of the gang. You had to look like you were on a four-day bender, and you had to play like it too. Suddenly, here comes this sharp-dressed band clad in black and white suits, armed with power-chord riffs as loud and biting as their handsome lead singer. They looked like they gave a shit and they played like they didn’t. Who the fuck were these guys, and where did they come from?
As it turns out, the Hives were under our noses the whole time.
The story of the Hives begins in Fagersta, Sweden, a small industrial town 92 miles north of Stockholm. In 1989, before all the bravado, the suits, the gold records, and Hive Manor, they were just kids making music to stay warm in the frigid Swedish north. It wasn’t until 1993 when a man by the name of Randy Fitzsimmons encouraged them to change their sound. He’s been their manager and “sixth member” ever since. The only problem with this story is that the dude doesn’t exist. Any endeavor to discover Randy Fitzsimmons’ whereabouts will be about as successful as Charlie Kelly’s attempt to find “Pepe Silvia.”
Nevertheless, at the behest of this Fitzsimmons character, the band adopted a set of pseudonyms (“Howlin’ Pelle” Almqvist on vocals, his brother Nicholaus Arson (the real Randy Fitzsimmons) on guitar alongside Vigilante Carlstroem, Dr. Matt Destruction on bass, and Chris Dangerous on drums) and spent the late ’90s honing their sound and their infamous live show. During that time of growth, the Hives released a couple of EPs under Sweden’s Burning Heart Records, albeit to little acclaim outside of Scandinavia. Their debut album, Barely Legal, and its follow-up teaser compilation, boldly titled Your New Favourite Band, provided a taste of the hot sound that was melting the icy clubs of Sweden, but it wasn’t until their second album when all hell was unleashed.
Well, sort of. Timing is everything.
Believe it or not, Veni Vidi Vicious, the Swedish band’s raucous breakthrough album, turns 20 today. I initially didn’t realize this because the Hives have traditionally been lumped in with the garage rock revivalists of the early ’00s, and they didn’t break in America until after the initial boom was already in motion. In my head, the video for “Hate To Say I Told You So” exists perpetually in rotation on MTV2 next to “Fell in Love With A Girl.” I always assumed that they were more hangers-on than leaders of the scene, but the Hives were doing this long before girlfriends and grandsons could understand.
In reality, Veni Vidi Vicious was slightly ahead of its time. It took a couple of false starts for the album to gain some major buzz, and it wasn’t until the Hives toured North America in the fall of 2001 with label mates and fellow countrymen International Noise Conspiracy that they started turning heads in the US. By January of 2002, thanks in large part to the success of the Strokes’ Is This It, there was now an appetite for like-minded bands. Epitaph, their label at the time, was hell-bent on breaking the band, but they didn’t have the bandwidth to do it.
Enter Warner Bros., who felt the timing was right and bought the rights from Epitaph to sell the album. They then rereleased Veni Vidi Vicious in late April 2002, two years after it initially dropped, to try to capitalize on the garage rock revival. I do wonder, however, if Epitaph had put all their muscle into promoting the album when it originally came out, would the garage rock revival have happened a sooner? Their VP of Sales, Ron Coleman, once admitted that things would’ve been different if they had only seen them live first. Maybe we’d be talking more about Fagersta, Sweden instead of Brooklyn, New York… on second thought, maybe not.
Either way, Veni Vidi Vicious remains as brash and confident as it was at the start of the millennium. As the band themselves put it, the album was “a velvet glove with brass knuckles, both brutal and sophisticated at the same time.” From start to finish, save for the cover of Jerry Butler’s “Find Another Girl,” the album doesn’t let up or hold anything back. Every guitar riff cuts and struts, like Devo by way of Gang Of Four. Every track lands like an atom bomb, leaving no time to assess the destruction. Songs like “A Get Together To Tear It Apart” and “Outsmarted” are as tight and sharp as the band’s black and white suits, and by the time the closer “Supply And Demand” cuts out, all that’s left from the barrage is the buzzing in your ear. The great thing about this album is that by the end, you feel like you just experienced a Hives show. You can practically taste the sweat. It’s a deliriously dizzying 27 minutes of garage punk, and as advertisements for the band once put it, Veni Vidi Vicious made the Strokes sound like the Eagles.
In fact, in 2000, there were very few bands making music that sounded anywhere close to Veni Vidi Vicious. The landscape was littered with cheap Eddie Vedder knock offs and bubblegum teen starlets, characters “Howlin’ Pelle” Almqvist bore little resemblance to. With the strut (and looks) of a young Mick Jagger and the yelp of Iggy Pop, Almqvist was the loudmouth ring leader amidst the chaos. “I’m stuck in ways of being an ass,” he shouts on “Main Offender,” one of the other singles released from the album, and on “Die Alright” he’s “Too messed up to sit and settle down/ Too messed up to even mess around.”
At the heart of Veni Vidi Vicious lies “Hate To Say I Told You So,” the single that put the Hives on the map and one of the main reasons we’re still talking about this band in 2020. Like a bratty sibling of Blur’s accidental jock jam “Song 2,” “Hate To Say I Told You So” sports the catchiest guitar riff the band has ever written, but it’s Almqvist who really sells it. He doesn’t plead for your attention, he demands it, and he’s going to get it because he wants to. Don’t say he didn’t warn you.
Almqvist’s charisma on the record is undeniable, and he has since become one of the most commanding frontmen of his generation. He is an endangered species, a rock singer who isn’t just unafraid of the spotlight but prefers to bathe in it. Almqvist is both the hero and the anti-hero of every Hives show, and his unpredictability only adds to the spectacle. Off stage, he’s a reliable quote machine who makes it hard to tell if he’s taking the piss or not. For example, some Almqvist-isms:
I don’t have to promise myself anything. That’s all part of the wonderfulness that is me.
We always thought that a band who react negatively show a sign of weakness. You know, when someone throws an empty beer cup at them and they almost walk off stage or stop the song. That spoils the fun for everybody. A band onstage should be unstoppable. You should feel that you could throw a rock at the head of one of them and they’d still keep playing.
Pyrotechnics are for bands who don’t do anything on stage and need other stuff to do stuff for them. I am a human pyrotechnic.
And my personal favorite:
So many bands are like, “I’m real because I’m dirty.” If you have money for guitars, you can afford soap.
It’s a very un-Swedish thing to be so immodest, but that’s what makes Almqvist and the Hives all the more fascinating. “Hate To Say I Told You So,” is not just a killer single, it’s a mission statement from a band that lacks any sense of humility. They don’t hate to say anything, they only revel in antagonizing. “Hate is better than nothing,” Almqvist said around the time of the album’s rerelease in 2002. “It’s usual that when we play, 90 percent of people like us and 10 percent hate us.” You can throw bottles, cans, and shoes at them, but the Hives are just going to keep plowing forward. Like the rash they’re named after, they don’t go away so easy.
Power chords and charisma, that’s the Hives’ brand of rock and roll. Every album since Veni Vidi Vicious has more or less improved on this formula, but they haven’t been able to recapture that flame from their second record. To be fair, the never really sought to change up their sound either. Why would they? Does the world really need a Hives synth-rock record? Probably not (although I’d be curious as to what one sounded like). These days, their live show remains their biggest strength. On stage they’re still a powerhouse, and they’ll remain a must-see act as long as “Howlin’ Pelle” is in charge.
The unfortunate moral to the Hives’ story is they won’t ever be on the same echelon as their peers in the Strokes, the White Stripes, or even the Arctic Monkeys. You have to wonder why, though. They certainly aren’t lacking for songs, thanks to bangers like “Walk Idiot Walk” and “Tick Tick Boom.” Maybe the music is a bit too unapologetic, too campy to be canonized alongside their more “serious” peers? Is “Howlin’ Pelle” Almqvist too self-confident for his own good? Perhaps. Or is it simply bad timing?