Art‘s “Ugly People with Fancy Hairdos”–just the intro, please, none of that “we’re all boat people” stuff–is one of the most vicious songs I’ve ever heard, a sneering indictment of precisely the subculture that’s listening to it and nobody else. So, naturally, it had to open “Emergency Ward,” a document of my college years’ musical experience that’s still just about the best tape I’ve ever made, I think, 11 or 12 years later. WHRB’s rock program was called the Record Hospital–still is, actually. The name replaced “Plastic Passions,” and stuck around much longer. Record Hospital alumni tend to be fanatically loyal to it, and to the idea of it–more than any other college radio station I’ve ever encountered–and a lot of us have stayed in touch. In late 1990 or early 1991, I headed into the studio with a pile of my favorite records to make a tape that would encapsulate what the Record Hospital meant as far as I was concerned. I’ve probably made about a hundred copies of it since then. While I listened to it for this, I made another copy. It’s a song about why most of my friends aren’t happy. It makes me happy. I don’t know what this says about me.
We move on to the Dils‘ “You’re Not Blank,” another dismissal of people who adopt punk fashion–I think. The Dils were “The West Coast Clash,” except that they never got around to making an album until they’d turned into a series of much worse bands. On this one, though, they play like they can’t get fast or trebly enough, except there’s that weirdly dragging bass-drum pattern.
Thinking Fellers Union Local 282‘s “Sister Hell” is where things start to get weird. They were from Iowa, and moved to San Francisco, and felt like freaks wherever they were. I have absolutely no idea what it’s supposed to be about, but their anger is _personal_ offense: someone has done something disorienting and deeply unfair to somebody else, and it doesn’t make sense when they try to articulate it, but they both know there’s something really wrong. It ends almost arbitrarily.
And suddenly we’re accelerating into Bastro‘s “Shoot Me A Deer,” a record completely out of control of its own tempo–you know, I remember when David Grubbs thought that rocking was a good thing, and he was RIGHT because he was so GOOD at it. It’s mostly doctrinaire one-TWO one-TWO until it hits that middle section where the guitar signal starts breaking up, and just where he can’t hold onto it any longer he repeats the first four notes of the song, yells “SHOOT!” and we’re off again. The rest is doctrinaire, but it’s been redeemed.
From there, we have to cool down quickly and efficiently, so: Beat Happening‘s “Look Around,” which it sounds like they rehearsed for about a quarter of its playing time. Here’s the thing about the faux-naÔf approach of which Calvin Johnson is the master: there has to be a lot of stuff underneath it, or it just doesn’t work, and there are a million little ideas burbling through this one, even when Calvin is scatting or going oo-oo-oo. “If a black cat’s gonna cross my path it might as well be you”… gorgeous.
The longest gap between songs on the tape occurs here, and I think it’s about two seconds long–having been trained in radio, I’ve always been into ultra-tight segues. The crackle builds up nicely to Pere Ubu‘s “Final Solution,” though. Everyone always talks about what a “Summertime Blues” rip it is, but it’s important to note that nobody is supposed to take the teen-angst thing seriously. David Thomas, for instance, was never a teenager: he suddenly appeared on this earth as a full-grown fat man. The teen angst is merely a formally appropriate setting for the basic throb of the song and the on/off guitar fits. I’ve never liked the bar of silence after “nuclear destruction,” though–seems cheaply manipulative. I remember with pleasure an acoustic show David T. and Jim Jones did on an early neo-Ubu tour where he sang the line as “guitar got a sound like a nuclear destruction… TWO THREE FOUR FIVE SIX SEVEN EIGHT Seems…” Don’t know about that wankity guitar solo near the end, either. But the sequence of this tape is too firmly burned into my neural pathways for me to accept not hearing it.
Afterwards, I need cheering up, though, so it’s the Vaselines‘ “Son of a Gun,” one of those songs like “Dancing in the Street” that’s figured out that it’s a great aesthetic strategy to have one verse and just repeat it a couple of times. I love the way it’s two little private songs–the kind you make up and sing to yourself–jammed together, one from Eugene and one from Frances, and that there’s obviously some kind of sexual obsession going on, but it’s not clear how requited it is. Nice simple guitar solo, nice simple gallop of a riff. For a moment, I tried to imagine an alternate universe where the Vaselines had stayed together and recorded a couple more albums that are just as good, but actually I can’t–it seems like the kind of band whose creators were just having a particularly inspired day when they did everything they ever did, and I know that’s not true, but on the other hand I could live without that live cassette’s proof of their imperfection.
Nice cross-segue from the final riff of “Son of a Gun” into the freakish electronic whoop of Jad Fair‘s “The Zombies of Mora-Tau,” which scared the living hell out of me AND gave me a week-long case of the giggles the first time I heard it. I can’t imagine a brain that wasn’t Jad’s coming up with anything like this–the sound, the words, the shocked delivery. Years later, I got to put out a couple of Jad’s records, and the first time I talked to him I thought “I can’t believe I’m actually talking to the person who wrote ‘The Zombies of Mora-Tau.'” “I was so thirsty”–what a line. Also the ending of the song, which I will not spoil for people who haven’t heard it.
The opening of Mudhoney‘s “Touch Me I’m Sick” hits instantly after the end of “Zombies.” Sort of amazing how that one single was so good it made people think they were a good band; afterwards, they didn’t do anything I liked at all until “Inside Job” ten years later. A friend of mine back in Michigan was simultaneously sexually fixated on Mudhoney and Halo of Flies, so I tended to conflate them. Which is probably why Halo of Flies’
“Headburn” isn’t on here–I pretty much think of them as the same thing.
Short little song, I’m realizing now. We drop off the edge into the Frogs‘
“I Don’t Care If U Disrespect Me (Just So You [heart] Me),” their best joke ever as far as I’m concerned, especially since it seems to have been made up on the spot. I copied this tape for my friend Maya a while ago, along with a bunch of others; months later, she called and was very upset that she’d lost one of my tapes–“the one with the early Beck song, where he’s talking about checking out men’s asses in the clubs”… I figured out that she hadn’t actually lost it, and had just thought that this song–with the
“that was a good drum break” line that Beck sampled in “Where It’s At”–was early Beck. Also once saw the Blake Babies cover it, but that’s another story.
More good cheer: the Clean‘s “Tally Ho!” They’re just about my favorite band in the world, even now–I once nearly flew to New Zealand to see them play, the second record I ever put out was a Clean tribute EP, and when I finally did see them, it was Sept. 16, 2001, and it did more good things for my mood than any other show I’ve seen. Curious that their first single would be so unrepresentative, I’ve always thought, but now that I listen I hear that cheerful brutish rhythm section that got lost under the keyboards for me early on.
The appearance of Big Black‘s “L Dopa” here is a bit of a bringdown, have to say–of all the bands I loved to distraction in my college day, they’ve aged worst. I tried listening to Songs About Fucking a few months ago and couldn’t believe how blustery it sounded and how whiny the guitars were. Inflexible, one-dimensional: music for people who think there’s something somehow cool about serial killers. Though I do like the slide and bam-bam-bam at the end.
Another abrupt stylistic shift into Mecca Normal‘s “Man Thinks ‘Woman'”–an overtly preachy-to-the-converted song that’s still gorgeous because of the genius weirdness of its words–that biting-a-man’s-tongue-at-a-party routine makes me laugh, still–and because of the absolute assuredness of Jean Smith’s voice, bizarre as it is (love those ultra-low notes at the end). There is no template for what they’re doing, but they know EXACTLY what they’re up to. Also, she’s totally correct, in multiple senses.
Pavement‘s “Forklift” is a strange one here–I suspect I initially got into them because everyone else at the Record Hospital adored them, and they took me a while to get into. I suspect that when I made this tape, I was figuring I’d catch on to them eventually. I did (it was “Heckler Spray” that did the trick, and before that a live show with “Debris Slide”). This record does support the contention that they were Scott Kannberg’s band before Steve Malkmus’s. Clearly they’re trying to do “New Face in Hell”; wish I could make out the words. Crudity against sophistication; it bears fruit for them.
Into straight crudity: the Urinals‘ mammoth “I’m a Bug,” a tiny little one-minute joke that can be told over and over. Lots of bands have covered this one, some of them friends of mine, and it’s never lost its fun for me. Highlights: the acceleration of the drum part at the beginning; the way the singer’s voice breaks with conviction; everyone joining in for the “buzz buzz” bit; the terrible/great rhyme that finishes the song.
Minor Threat‘s “Think Again” has the same sort of conviction, though they wouldn’t know a joke if someone slipped it into their drinks, because they wouldn’t touch their drinks. What I like about them and nobody else seems to is that they were great conventional songwriters–at their best, they have the sort of primal simplicity of, say, Hank Williams. A friend and I used to do a very slow acoustic/harmony cover of “I Don’t Wanna Hear It.” Also nice how the riff for the last verse inverts the one from the rest of the song; too bad Ian sounds so contemptuous–it doesn’t look good on him.
I seem to like the big stylistic shifts: off we go into Azalia Snail‘s
“Another Slave Labour Day,” her first single. Azalia’s one of those artists who connects with me in ways I can’t even explain–is this her most heavily
“produced” record? I’ve heard them all so many times I can’t even be sure. But I loved this single so much I tracked her down in New York when I came to town for the 1990 New Music Seminar, and got to be friends with her, and that ended up determining a lot of the course of the past 10 years of my life. (As did the lyric to this, I’m only now realizing; maybe this is part of why I don’t have a day job. “‘Work is not life,’ said Henry Miller; I agree!”) And I’ve still never heard anything else that sidles the same way.
I had totally forgotten the intro to the Eastern Dark‘s “Johnny and Dee Dee”; after hearing it a hundred times, that’s not good. I also can’t believe I put this on rather than, say, the Ramones. On the other hand, I still had barely even heard the Ramones at this point (I was a latecomer, for reasons I don’t understand), and though they came up with better melodies, they never had one quite like this. Still, a weird choice; nowhere near even the best Eastern Dark song (that would be “I Don’t Need the Reasons”). Terrible snare sound; good harmonies; sorta dumb lyric. And an acceptable transition into…
…the Germs‘ “Lexicon Devil” (maybe not; it’s half a step down, I think). Still not sure how a walking mess like Darby Crash managed to come up with something this fine-honed and poetic and jet-propelled. But the last three songs on this side of the tape are illustrating something scary about me at that time–the nasty moods I was fighting at the time, the persistent mental image of flying along at top speed so I could bash myself into a reflective surface. The Eastern Dark did it literally, the Germs did it more or less literally…
…And Negative Approach made their descriptions of it completely convincing and managed to avoid the reflective wall anyway. “Nothing” is a freakishly scary way to end a side of a tape–this sounds like the 7″ version, with the guitars coming out of tiny tin boxes and John Brannon convinced that there is _nothing at all_ for him, no matter what door he opens. That series of howls at the end really does sound like the big reflective surface rising up in front of him.
Art: Ugly People With Fancy Hairdos
Dils: You’re Not Blank
Thinking Fellers Union Local 282: Sister Hell
Bastro: Shoot Me A Deer
Beat Happening: Look Around
Pere Ubu: Final Solution
Vaselines: Son Of A Gun
Jad Fair: The Zombies Of Mora-Tau
Mudhoney: Touch Me I’m Sick
Frogs: I Don’t Care If U Disrespect Me (Just So U [Love] Me)
The Clean: Tally Ho!
Big Black: L Dopa Mecca
Normal: Man Thinks “Woman”
Urinals: I’m A Bug
Minor Threat: Think Again
Azalia Snail: Another Slave Labour Day
The Eastern Dark: Johnny And Dee Dee
Germs: Lexicon Devil
Negative Approach: Nothing
Nightblooms: Crystal Eyes
Stiff Little Fingers: Suspect Device
Bird Nest Roys: Jaffa Boy
Pussy Galore: Cunt
Tease Misfits: Where Eagles Dare
World Of Pooh: Someone Wants You Dead
The Fall: Totally Wired
Sick Of It All: My Life
Sun City Girls: The Fine-Tuned Machines Of Lemuria
Lush: Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep
Frantix: My Dad’s A Fuckin’ Alcoholic
The Chills: Pink Frost
Lucky Pierre: CommuniquÈ
Superchunk: Slack Motherfucker
Gang Of Four: Love Like Anthrax
The Groove Farm: Crazy Day Sunshine Girl
The Mekons: Where Were You?
Swell Maps: Blenheim Shots/A Raincoat’s Room
Onward to side two. The Nightblooms‘ “Crystal Eyes” was a sort of Record Hospital theme song for a little while, especially its monumentally freaked-out whammy-bar-extruding guitar solo in the middle and the ferocious grind at the beginning that resolves itself into some Swedish girl’s barely audible voice and the softest of melodies while the rest of the band keeps Hammering So Hard. Less revolutionary now, esp. after their first album went all shoegaze and their second went all CSNY, but the tune is sturdier than you’d think. I remember seeing the band play a few years after this and thinking the bass player was super-cute. Another virtue this record has that not many of its descendants have: it is SHORT.
And stops dead just in time for Stiff Little Fingers‘ “Suspect Device” to lift off the ground. I played this on the radio again just a few weeks ago and remembered that the singer sings “fuck-all” just in time to bleep it. At the time, I thought “they take away our freedom/in the name of lib-er-ty” was some kind of profundity. It may in fact be, but it doesn’t seem quite as, uh, deep any more. But his voice still sounds like it’s being sharpened against a knife, and so does the guitar part’s stop-and-go in the chorus. I like the fact that the bridge repeats as the very end of the song, too. Apparently SLF are still at it, and still flogging this song to death every night–though my friend who saw them said it was the highlight of their set. Why does this not feel more important/contemporary right now than it does?
Another contrast: after it blows up in your face, Bird Nest Roys‘ “Jaffa Boy” comes insinuating in from one side. Twelve years after I made the tape, it seems to have some kind of weird sexual, maybe even pedophilic, subtext; maybe that’s just the culture that’s changed. Certainly the words are prima facie innocent, and how do they make those guitars so big and their harmonics so hornlike? “Orange lips”: is that like the Jaffa orange part of Jaffa cakes? The whole thing about this song is how much mystery there is to it, how they’re singing loudly and joyfully about something so personal they can’t even explain it comprehensibly. Plus the kid himself gets in the last word at the end of the song, which I’ve always loved. Chorus goes “Jaffa boy/Jaffa boy/Jaffa boy/Jaffa boy,” and repeats. What would I think if I didn’t understand English? Would it work like the Mutantes, say?
I let go of the slipcue mat a little too late for Pussy Galore‘s “Cunt Tease,” so the first note comes skidding in. This is the essence of Rock That Parents Don’t Like, but I don’t think that’s why I like it: they’re yelling “fuck you” like they JUST discovered it and can’t get over how much fun it is to say. My old band Forget used to cover this, with Laura (our drummer) singing it and me doing the “fuck you” bit–a friend who saw us play it said she couldn’t believe how wide my jaw opened when I yelled it, it was like I was some kind of anaconda. So raw, so FUNNY–and so many nuances to the way the slightly out of tune guitar comes through the slightly damaged amp. How did they get through it without collapsing in giggles?
Afterwards, the beginning of the Misfits‘ “Where Eagles Dare” even sounds vaguely tame. Another one a band of mine has covered (Customer Service, a.k.a. Manipulations)–and another one where the cussing in the chorus MAKES it. “I ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch!” Not until we learned how to play it six or seven years later did I realize how utterly weird the rest of the words are (“an omelet of disease awaits your noontime meal”?). Supposedly, the Misfits practiced 40 hours a week, and re-recorded their songs obsessively. And yet it sounds like they made it up in 15 minutes, got high, and kept the first take they recorded in the living room of their uncle’s house.
World of Pooh‘s “Someone Wants You Dead” is a much slower and prettier and, though you wouldn’t guess, infinitely more vicious song. It’s an autopsy of a suicide that keeps shifting the blame away from the killer, or maybe from the victim–Barbara Manning, God bless her, feints and feints and feints and then delivers a couple of punches like Ali fighting Foreman–you can see the sweat flying off the song’s forehead. “Bury the axe and clear the air/There’s always someone who hates you somewhere.” Come to think of it, I’m not even sure how that ties into the narrative, but it’s clear that it does. Their secret weapon is drummer Jay Paget, who twice runs headlong into the bridge to drag it forward and then pulls back. The amount of hate that this band turned into art deserves a technical designation of its own. Quantify it: point three seven World of Pooh. So cruel, so cool.
The Fall‘s “Totally Wired” starts banging away before the last chord has rung all the way through. I love this band to distraction, and have probably played this song until it’s lost a bit of its force for me, but I can still admire its technical details: the band together-but-not, the way they reel in every chorus, the single chord that runs through the whole thing like a sewing machine that spits plastic wire, the hilarious backing vocals, Mark deliberately changing the words (“I’m totally biased!”) even on the formal studio version that would nail down their most famous song more specifically than they ever did it again. And I admire the fact that he hasn’t played this song in public since before I made this tape. The rhythms are so unsteady, too–he has to be signaling them about when to change from one section to another, even while he’s doing that brilliant voice-breaking thing that can’t have been easy on him.
Sick Of It All‘s “My Life” is, as one commentator at Record Hospital wrote,
“the greatest hardcore song ever.” It’s also only about 20 seconds long. A pure lunkheaded Statement of Intent, and if they’d never recorded anything else, they’d be the greatest hardcore band ever. But they did.
I didn’t realize for a couple of years after I made the tape that Sun City Girls‘ “The Fine-Tuned Machines of Lemuria” is actually supposed to play at
33 RPM, and I taped it at 45–that’s what happens when you have an instrumental. Anyway, this is SCG in their finest mode, which is to say Alan Bishop’s guitar blazing away like it’s been left out in the sun and somebody poured flammable aether on it, and the other two following along while whatever they started chewing half an hour ago kicks in. Not a “song” exactly, more like a directed modal improvisation, though there are some bits that are clearly through-composed. Also very much a side of the Record Hospital that doesn’t get represented otherwise on this tape, especially by the end when it dissolves into scribbly modal chaos and then attempts to resuscitate itself a few times with limited success. Edit, Girls boys! Editing is your friend!
So I slipped in something after it with all the formal solidity you could want: Lush doing “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” a ghastly old ’70s pop song which they make float by puffing helium into it and keep control of by having a solidly muscular rhythm section under it. And really: as long as they’re not condescending about it, choruses like this are like bowls of sweet cold soup in the summertime. Sweet cold STUPID soup, but sweet cold soup. Nice detail: the harmonies don’t quite match up, and the bass, on reflection, is a little sharp too, even though its low end is very heavy in the mix. And they don’t make a big deal about the old Eurovision trick of going up a key before one of the final choruses, or of the way they nail down the ending with four quick blows.
Give anyone four quick blows, though, and they’ll sound like the singer of the Frantix, whose bass completely dominates “My Dad’s A Fuckin’ Alcoholic.” And their bass is audibly flat. REALLY flat. The joy of the song, though, is listening to the guitar during the verses: it’s not playing any notes at all, just coughing and wheezing and threatening to destroy its entire signal path all the way from the wall to the tape. The singer can’t quite make his sneering bitchiness heard over it, but the chorus is maybe even more anthemic than “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep”‘s. Actually, both songs are about parental abandonment issues; a nice little dyad in the middle of the second side. Should’ve been a single. And if you’ve never heard this song, it is unbelievably fucking funny, as well as being maybe the bitterest single ever committed by a self-righteous straightedge, or possibly a self-righteous young drunk.
I always have to follow the rough with the smooth, don’t I? The Chills‘
“Pink Frost,” a song darker and more powerful than it actually is, I sometimes think, realizing that that makes no sense. Just wish that Martin Phillipps had realized that what gives it its spooky power isn’t even its words so much as the instrumental passages, which seem to be maneuvering through near-total lightlessness to something they know how to get to but know is going to be scary when they get to it. There are dissonances all over the place, and they don’t call attention to themselves at all. The drums sound mid-’80s, which of course they are. Also not a guitar-driven song, much as the Flying Nun bands have a rep for that: if you took out everything but those quiet, insistent bass chords, you’d still have a sense of the shape of the song. Maybe sort of belongs with “Someone Wants You Dead,” in the cryptic-autopsy-song category.
Lucky Pierre‘s “CommuniquÈ” is the weirdest record here in some ways, and the one that it took me longest to find my own copy of. Trent Reznor’s first band (!), but this was before he joined: a single that’s sort of one-sided and sort of just-over-one-sided (I’m not going to describe the physical artifact here, I’ll just leave the fun to you if you ever happen to see a copy). They’re from Cleveland, and they sound like they’re from your subconscious nasty urges instead. The singer keeps screaming about how he wants to communicate and how something is finally going to be happening tonight, and it’s not about sex, it’s about an ugly internal transformation. At least I think so; his voice keeps shorting out, and all the instruments are overheating, so things are turning at the wrong speed. Which means he can’t really communicate. Which means maybe it’s not going to happen tonight. But I’m thinking about it, and I can’t do that: “crawl to your intellect and ask for its advice,” he’s mocking. A Lucky Pierre is some kind of sickoid sex thing, I know, but I don’t know exactly what it is. But he’s dissolving and going away at the end, so maybe I don’t have to worry about it tonight.
I take refuge in how literal Superchunk‘s “Slack Motherfucker” is. Nobody was surprised, really, when this stuff broke through to the extent it did. I imagined a radio spot for Superchunk live: deep voice goes “Superchunk!” Record clip goes “I’m workin’…” In retrospect, this basically sounds like a Bricks song without the acoustic guitars and with everything turned up much louder–Mac had the presence of mind to work out his craft at volumes where he could listen carefully, and ever since then he’s known how to construct chords and riffs and songs that are put together non-obviously. I don’t even care about the chorus of this one very much. Which is not to say that I don’t think about putting my fist in the air when it comes around.
Back to the A.R.T., with Gang of Four‘s “Love Like Anthrax”–yet another one I’ve covered (this time with the Media–our audience was baffled and offput, I think). I love the figure/ground distinction in music, and this one does it really well: simple (but not quite as simple as it sounds–took us a while to figure it out) bass/drum riff that doesn’t vary at all for four minutes, guitar that’s free-form like a storm cloud, two voices that are mostly out of synch but keep tantalizing us by slipping back into synch. Like a beetle on its back. Like a Beatle on its back. I think the line they based it on was something about the bourgeois having sex “like beetles on their backs.” Forgotten thing about Andy Gill’s guitar parts: he often just let one note or tone-cluster ring for a really long time by most band’s standards.
The Groove Farm‘s “Crazy Day Sunshine Girl” is the la-la pop equivalent of
“My Life,” and typing this sentence very quickly took me as long as the song takes to play. Nifty. (Years later, I realized it was a Faust joke.)
The Mekons‘ “Where Were You?” takes the length of “Crazy Day Sunshine Girl” to reposition the needle on _Fast Mutant Pop_ to find, in fact. As great as a band as they are–well, this isn’t their greatest song, but it’s their most archetypal, the one that would have secured their repetition if they’d broken up the first time they said they were going to. Hence their painting of “The Writing Of ‘Where Were You’?”; hence also the Boredoms’ “Super Roots 7,” which is just its riff elaborated upon for half an hour. “Would you ever be my wife? Do you LOVE me?!” I once found myself air-drumming to this song in my bedroom with a pen in my hand (the intro, with that drum roll) with my eyes closed; when I opened my eyes, there was ink spattered all over the room, little blue-black specks all over the carpet and walls.
Finally, we come to the Swell Maps‘ “Blenheim Shots/A Raincoat’s Room”–it’s that British D.I.Y. axis that I felt closest to the whole time I worked with the Record Hospital (while everyone else got the raw folds of the American underground and knew Lubricated Goat sideways, I was still nosing through the British moment that, in fact, I’m still nosing through). It’s only really got one chord in most of it, and they’re _still_ a little out of joint on the transitions, but like everything else from _Jane from Occupied Europe_, it’s so heavily layered and so out of control that I still don’t have a full grasp of it, and maybe they didn’t either. Which is why I keep listening to it now, and why the Swell Maps have led me (gently, one finger hooked around one of mine, or more often a slight breeze at my back) to the way I live now. And when it dissolves at the end to Epic Soundtracks’ piano (and how about that other one-finger piano part from the rest of the song, huh?), I think: this is what they played as people walked out of the hospital, no matter how long they had been strapped down, now that they’d been healed.