Why Make-Up Is the Most Important Reunion of the Year
The Make Up

Make-Up photo courtesy of Dischord Records. Photo: Glen E. Friedman

It’s a big year for reunions: Blur’s been playing shows. Missy Elliott and Timbaland released two new tracks. Greg Dulli got back together with the Afghan Whigs. Even the Spice Girls managed to put their sequin-covered differences aside to performer together for the first time in years at the Olympics closing ceremony. But despite the fanfare and glitz that come with big-ticket reunions, none of this is as extraordinary as the reunion — for a smattering of shows at least, including a set this weekend at All Tomorrow’s Parties — of the Make-Up.

The impeccably dressed, soul-soaked Washington, D.C.-based foursome — the impossibly magnetic Ian Svenonius out front, Steve Gamboa on the drums, James Canty on guitar and Farfisa and Michelle Mae on bass — split after releasing four studio albums, two live albums, a singles collection and two movies. But their brief, bright tenure is not without a legacy. The band’s smart, sexy sound — which splashed Svenonius’ high-pitched screams and smooth, baritone speaking voice over organ-heavy, funk-tinged rock — and strongly curated look made a huge impression. Here are five reasons their reunion is worth paying close attention to.

They Invented a Genre
Other bands, like Make-Up frenemies the Delta 72, were also playing soul music mixed with rock, but the Make-Up spun their mix of soul, rock, church music and slave spirituals into a movement and called it “Gospel Yeh Yeh.” The group’s shows took on the energy of a religious revival, with Svenonius walking out onto the shoulders of crowd members and oftentimes laying hands upon eager fans as if to heal them. Since, groups from Les Savy Fav to Dan Deacon have taken pages from their playbook. It might have been unexpected for a group born of the hardcore scene, which generally eschewed organized religion, but it was no accident that the band’s best-known track was titled “R U A Believer?”

They Redefined the Way a Band Should Look
What started out as all-black ensembles (see the art for their debut, Love: Live at Cold Rice) eventually evolved into elaborate, impeccably tailored suits that gave the group a powerful visual impact and a sense of refinement in the flannel years. Without the Make-Up, bands like Interpol, the White Stripes and the Hives would have weathered the new rock revolution sporting ripped jeans and ringer tees. And like it or not, the coif was an integral part of music in the ‘90s and the Make-Up, from the proto-Spock-Rock style that Svenonius favored to the epic beehive that Mae wore, was ahead of the curve that would come to include the gravity defying, Gravity Records-adjacent haircuts that San Diego grindcore fans were known for and the dyed-black mops that identified the early aughts mod renaissance.

They Elevated Borrowing to an Art Form 
Whether it was the lines lifted from the New York Dolls and the Shangri-Las, the stage moves torn directly from James Brown’s playbook or the flat-out covers, like that of the old spiritual “Wade in the Water,” the band made the most of Oscar Wilde’s quip that talent borrows but genius steals. Some small-minded folks found the group’s antics derivative, but those who were in on the trick appreciated the pastiche and took the cue to pick up some soul records of their own.

They Made Politics Sexy
Whether they were raising money for the people of Cuba (a pet cause) by playing a benefit show with Royal Trux, or releasing songs to demand the freedom of then-incarcerated Love frontman Arthur Lee, the Make-Up latched onto political causes but without any of the crunchy earnestness of your average benefit show. While Rock the Vote events raged and Rage Against The Machine plastered Che onto their merch, the Make-Up took up more erudite causes that, while not necessarily more worthwhile, had an air of importance and smarts that gave the band a rebel-intelligentsia bent.

We Deserve It, For All the Reasons Above
Sure, it would be great to hear new music from Make-Up again, but there’s nothing wrong with listening to a favorite album all the way through. And rarely does a band like the Make-Up, which burned brightly and rather briefly, come around again. If you’ve never seen the band, you owe it to yourself to take in the experience, if only to see how this band of borrowers and stealers ended up getting borrowed and stolen from in the years since their break up.