The guy who put out Klaxons’ first single a year ago called it “new rave” for laughs, and since then the boys have made it clear they were playing along with his joke; without the eagerness of the British music press to dog anything that looks like a trend, their piss-take never would’ve inspired an actual revival, both in the UK and beyond, of mid-90s rave fashion and DayGlo techno. But all the same, when Klaxons played their first show in Chicago, birthplace of the house music that inspired the original rave scene, they really should’ve done it at a dance club. They’re more dance punk than rave–I’d peg them as one of the dirtier bands descended from the likes of the Rapture and Radio 4–but they’re still absolutely danceable. At least they could’ve done better than an afternoon in-store at Urban Outfitters.

Klaxons were at the Urban Outfitters in Wicker Park on Sunday thanks to Toyota, which is aggressively marketing its Yaris models to hipsters. Two Yarises were parked out in front of the store; one had a stripe job that looked like something you’d find on a 15-year-old sweatshirt dragged out of a bin at Village Discount and the other was equipped with a thumping sound system and a huge flat-screen TV that erupted out of the rear hatch at the touch of a button and broadcast the goings-on inside the store. When I showed up at around 5 PM there wasn’t anything going on inside, but the line out front ran down most of the block. There were probably 200 people, mostly girls who looked to be in their early 20s, standing there squinting in the sunlight–I recognized lots of them from going to DJ nights at Sonotheque and Tini Martini. It was like the contents of a 4 AM club had been dumped right into the middle of post-brunch-family-stroll time.

When the store finally let the fans in, they almost filled what’s normally the home decor section but had been redone for the day as a performance area. The band seemed uncomfortable, despite the abundance of neon-colored decor, clearly an homage to their aesthetic: “I think this is the first time we’ve played in daylight,” announced Jamie Reynolds, the scruff-bearded bassist who handles most of the lead vocals. But they were game. They opened with “Atlantis to Interzone,” easily the raviest song in their small catalog with its howling synths and uh-uh-uhh vocal sample. The fans gave as good as they got, returning the band’s energy with crude gyrations and pogo jumps, and Klaxons rewarded the first row by passing around beers from their stash. Deeper in the crowd people shared cocktails smuggled in juice bottles–I got a swig of somebody’s vodka and OJ–and guitarist Simon Taylor-Davis interviewed someone’s girlfriend over speakerphone by holding his cell up to the mike. People even crowd surfed. It was killer. Klaxons ended the show by blowing a fuse midway through their last song. Straight-leg corduroys and “diner cups” were on sale, but I don’t even know if the registers were open.

I expected the band’s first club gig in town to absolutely destroy. The Schubas show had sold out quickly enough to weed out less hard-core fans, and based on what I’d seen the day before I doubted the venue’s back room would be able to contain the energy of a capacity crowd–especially since a lot of these people would be the same people who’d started a full-on local rave revival that combined stuff like Klaxons with the trance-hop bubbling up from the Dirty South. But I was let down: the band worked up a good sweat in its 50-minute set, but hardly anyone who wasn’t onstage got so much as damp. My guess is there were too many industry types there–just Klaxons’ own guest list had 30 people on it.

Though the audience didn’t seem to pick up on it, Klaxons worked just as hard at the club as they had at the in-store. They opened with their cover of “The Bouncer,” a breakbeat-techno novelty song from 1992–though coming from them it was less like a track from a Zoo Rave comp and more like a noisy postpunk B side Frenchkiss Records would put out. Their onstage instrumental sound is all about grotty bass and choppy, tinny Fender Mustang guitar, not the keyboard squealing from stage left. Maybe that kept the less club-savvy portion of the crowd from realizing that this stuff is as danceable as, say, Bad Boy Bill. Or maybe those people just don’t dance.

Notwithstanding their apparently indelible link to club music, Klaxons mostly sound like some supremely devilish combination of Blur, the Bee Gees, and the Jesus Lizard. (No, really–that dirty bass tone, combined with the way they push themselves right to the brink of flying apart, makes me think of the fast songs on Liar and Down.) And like Blur and the Bee Gees, they hang each of their songs on at least one hook that’s absolutely perfect, the Platonic ideal of catchiness. That’s how you know you’re listening to great pop music–when even if you hate a song it ends up stuck in your head for days.

In their lyrics and titles, Klaxons reference J.G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, and Thomas Pynchon, among others, but all that stuff does is create the illusion of depth. The double-tracked ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh we ooh ooh ooh ahh in “Golden Skans” is so simple and complete in and of itself that it’d work even if all the rest of the words were nonsense too. You don’t talk about lines like that–you just hum them to yourself in line at Walgreens. I haven’t taken the trouble to parse all of Klaxons’ lyrics, and I can’t sing along to any of their songs (except during the really good parts–see above), but all the same I’m totally confident that “Golden Skans” is about love and “Atlantis to Interzone” is about partying. Those are the archetypal subjects of great pop, and a song can convey them with barely any intelligible words–which is why everyone on earth intuitively understands “Louie Louie.” If Klaxons break in America, if they outlast their hype, it won’t have anything to do with the new-rave fad. It’ll have to do with how happy they made all the out-of-uniform suits who were hanging around the bar afterward with huge grins on their faces.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.