In her brilliant and incisive review of Her, fellow TMTer/drinking buddy Lorian Long takes Spike Jonze to task for dressing up a technocratic nightmare as some kind of futuristic Annie Hall. While most critics and viewers (myself included) were taken in by the peculiar dilemma facing Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly and his OS paramour voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Lorian saw beneath its surface “corridors of menacing and horrifying truths about our capitalistic ennui.” While we were busy rooting for Twombly and Samantha to make their relationship work, we were ignoring the unsettling implications that make such a relationship possible: total corporate control, total loss of privacy, and perhaps most frightening, the total complacency of everyone in the film in the face of these things. Where Jonze saw a love story, Lorian saw dystopia.
“The Temptation of Adam,” from singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s fifth album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, is a work that trades equally in the romantic and the dystopian. The most delicate cut off an otherwise raucous release, “Temptation” follows a soldier manning a secret nuclear missile silo who falls in love with his only companion, a maintenance staffer named Marie. The temporal setting of the song is ambiguous. There’s a quaintness to the language and imagery suggestive of the Cold War 1950s, but we could just as easily be glimpsing some near or far-flung future where America has once again helped drag the world to the the brink of nuclear annihilation.
The story starts, as is fitting for a romance, with the two lovers at odds with one another. Our narrator makes a boorish pass on their first meeting, which rankles Marie, who might be a bit of a cold fish. The turning point comes when Marie, working out a crossword, asks, “What five letters spell apocalypse?” and her companion shoots back “W-W-I-I-I.” There’s a romcom cadence to their banter, but underneath is something infinitely dark — a wry, grim acceptance of the threat of apocalyptic conflict that has become inseparable from our protagonists’ lives.
From there, time begins to distort. We don’t know how long our lovers spend locked in their isolated, connubial bliss, but we do know that it’s all drawing to an end. Marie is going away, either discharged or reassigned, and the narrator knows that when that happens, the spell they’ve woven in that dimly lit subterranean bunker will be broken. In the song’s final verse, wherein the narrator fantasizes about the life he and Marie could have if only she could stay, Ritter hauls out some of his most haunting and poetic lines:
Oh we could hold each other close and stay up every night
Looking up into the dark like it’s the night sky
And pretend this giant missile was an old oak tree instead
And carve our name in hearts into the warhead.
That passage conjures up a powerful storm of feelings. There’s a seductive quality to that image; we can feel ourselves drawn into the lovers’ subjective space and through their eyes experience beauty in their cold, utilitarian surroundings. Yet, taking a step back from the scene, we can perceive a sadness here, and we mourn the courtship this young couple should have had on the surface. And slithering through this garden of beauty and melancholy is a serpent with a grin like death, a cruel absurdity to this affair that no amount of poetry can fully disguise or erase.
And in case you find your sympathies hopelessly entwined with Ritter’s protagonists, then consider this: In the song’s concluding lines, the narrator contemplates his present happiness, his lover’s impending departure, and the impossibility of their love affair; he considers whether they would be better off if the world went Defcon 1. “If you hold me here forever, like you’re holding me tonight,” he muses, “I think about that great big button and I’m tempted.” If we can bring ourselves to see through the doe-eyed romanticism of the moment, we will come face to face with something truly chilling: a love so all-consuming and monomaniacal that billions of lives and all of human civilization seem a small price to pay for its continuance.
With Her, Spike Jonze gave us a dystopian hellscape disguised as a tender tale of boy-meets-girl. With “The Temptation of Adam,” Josh Ritter shows us that the two need not be mutually exclusive.
While potentially about her THEN husband Tommy Mottola (a.k.a. Little Gino), Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” — co-written by São Paulo, Brazilian Vladimir Nikitich Afanasieff — was initially acclaimed for its flagrant holiday and gospel-backed cheer, but then fluttered itself religiously apart from the rest of the album Merry Christmas, as Butterfly don’t need nothing but her man. This proves that (1) Michael Jackson was right when he was quoted as saying “Tommy Mottola is a Devil,” and (2) Mariah Carey is p-much like all of us, but NOT, and with a Glitter of swag (e.g., setting “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in the people’s key of G, while spanning a vocal range of G3 to A5). When the song was released in 1994, Brian Wilson immediately tried to sue her for harmony infringement, but Pope John Paul II caught this wave, conducted Holy Research between Mariah and Beach Boys vocals on born-deaf people, and Carey miraculously cured 15 out of 20 in the study, and was — on-the-low — appointed modern sainthood. Why do you think this is the seventh time you’ve heard about “All I Want For Christmas Is You” within the hour? You don’t really think those 254+ million views on the Carey-directed music video YouTube page are of all-time, right? ANSWER: also all within the last hour.
But let’s cut to the chase: LORE. Fuck all the heavy bits of reality regurgitated in the paragraph above, and let’s get to the mystique. For one, its been proven with the use of a thousand vibrating champagne glasses (excluding the one being held by Mariah) that “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is the clearest Carey vocals in any of her recorded performances. During one of the initial press conferences for 2014’s Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan listed off influences that led to the intentional lack of CGI in the film, including the kaleidoscopic parts from the “All I Want For Christmas Is You” video, followed by dimensional shifting gasps of relief. There were also eight dog actors in the video, three of which were put down by Columbia Records (against Carey’s wishes, leading to her Columbia to Virgin to Def Jam buyouts, rly) for biting the talent more than 100 times. Five lived thereafter in [a country only rich people know about], and all of these dogs were stuffed and sold at private auctions, the last most recently seen via the Black Market rivaling Nazi art in “most Bitcoins spent on an item.” However, the bunny featured in “All I Want For Christmas Is You” was a solo act and has since vanished from public view after being cloned during the filming.
Furthermore, the electronic sounds in “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has been highly and heatedly debated between FKA twigs and James Ferraro (a.k.a. James Ferraro) as the most influential piece of music on all modern synthetically-driven R&B, both claiming Rraro’s 2013 EP God of London as the end of this argument moving forward. In fact, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” remains Carey’s #1 single in Japan, and after a release party thrown in honor of it becoming the theme song for 29才のクリスマス, Mariah took a private jet to an island where she broke her peace with the world to human-hunt that Santa who drops her in the video (obviously not Little Gino, mebbe). But the half-human-sized dancers were legit flown in from the North Pole, as they live there in a tribe but can’t spell the name out of fear. The dove and reindeer are witchcraft, honestly. I’m familiar with all these details because Mariah Carey is a telepath. For example, this Santa hunt situation occurred after my Grams’s mind was hacked by Carey, witnessing the first date my grandfather took her on, ending in being dropped in the snow as a joke, and following their next conversation a year later; Mariah bare-witnessed true love y’all and just couldn’t let this “Santa” perpetrator stand between her and her artistic measure.
Mariah is telling me right now to start wrapping this up because Mottola ain’t a clone rn, no.
I have a cellphone (again). I’d rather ship it to someone outside this country who actually needs this piece of technology. However, I settled on this “first-world problem” by setting up a constant loop of Mariah Carey videos on YouTube and typing this post on it. And now I’m down in Florida, soaking up sun on Xmas, but without my fiancée. Talking about Mariah with nobody but my phone. Shout out to Max Power for unknowingly instigating me to write this up. Mottola isn’t a clone, nor is the original dead because of Mariah Carey. Merry Christmas!
I read a review of this box by another writer and the dude got stuck in the question of WHY? Why is this box set being released, who is it for, and what is the ultimate goal for its release? And normally I’d find those to be cogent questions, but in this case I found myself shifting from my initial thought upon receiving this, which was, “Hey, I fucking love The Turtles and haven’t spun that antique-shop LP in years, and now I won’t have to,” to, “Hey, he’s right, why the fuck are they releasing this?”
But isn’t that just another sign that reviewing has changed? I mean why the hell would I care who this box set is FOR? I’m not trying to ‘move units’ or encourage you to buy one thing and ignore another in my reviews. I write about music because I love it, and I’ve always had a soft spot for The Turtles, and… So what else the-fuck is there? And yes, there are no liner notes or little extras to help contextualize the ‘importance’ of this release; it’s pretty much a gaggle of 7-inches, made to order and ready to play. And you know what? That’s totally fuckin’ fine with me!
You might think Mrs. Rigby was the only famous rock n roll ‘Eleanor,’ but tweak the spelling a bit and you have one of my favorite anti-nuggets (as in not obscure enough to make it on the psych comps, yet not huge enough to show up on a lot of the ‘Best of the 60s’ bone-ups) of all-time, so sweet and affecting you forget the chords are so simple a baby could swipe through them. Then you have “Happy Together,” which soundtrack’d a Golden Grahams commercial at one point in the sad 80s but never even quite made The Turtles bona fide stars; from what I’ve been able to gather they were above The Mindbenders on the stardom scale but well below acts like The Hollies, which is a goddamn travesty (or at least a mini-tragedy) because I’ll put that tune up against just about anything hitting the charts around that time.
THOSE ARE THE SONGS YOU KNOW (plus that middling cover of “It Ain’t Me Babe” and the delightful “Guide for the Married Man,” perhaps?), but there’s a lot more to dive into here, particularly if you have an appetite for slightly sweet, un-psychedelic 60s rock with a twist of the sort of awkward lack of surety many of us experienced in our twenties. The Turtles’ stilted nature didn’t show up in their ‘hits,’ but it was exposed for all to see on a lot of these tunes, in particular “Sound Asleep,” a cut that features samples of a saw cutting wood, woodblock, and there are tips of the cap to “Tomorrow Never Knows” in the drums and the Indian instruments. Don’t get me started on the extended instrumental version…
From there I prefer to skip around a bit, as is my eternal wont in life in general. “You Showed Me” is the first Turtles song to chart and a lot of you will recognize its retro (even at the time), ‘safe’ feel, and almost shamefully innocent, Everly Brothers-esque harmonies from the radio if you have a decent oldies station in your town. “You Baby” rings of compromise with commercial gains in mind, and almost certainly influenced The Miracles’ “Love Machine.” One of my personal favorites despite its inherent corniness, “You Know What I Mean” is a fun, Association-style jaunt that puts forth a pleasant vibe without investing much in its drab aftertaste. “Love in the City,” for its total lack of chart love at its time of release, holds up just fine and is another example of how The Turtles managed to sound great without ever adhering to a specific ‘sound,’ jumping around wildly from track to track.
As occurs so often in life, the deeper you dig the more you get your hands dirty. “Grim Reaper of Love” pushes more of that young-guy confusion up front in the form of pained choruses and a strangely swinging constitution. This is about as trippy as the Turtles got, and it’s a rather dazzling side of the band I hadn’t experienced. “The Story of Rock and Roll,” on the other hand, despite being penned by Harry Nilsson, is just flat-out bad, in case you couldn’t tell from the title (and that’s a real thing; if you can’t tell a song sucks from its title you have no business discussing music in any public forum), one step below the rung of “Cover of the Rolling Stone” on the ladder of empty, self-congratulatory rock bluster.
And so on and so forth; by the second paragraph you knew if you wanted this or not so why do I rant so? Then again, I’ve only covered about half of the tracks on this set, so there’s a lot more nosing around to do. It’s like an everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-The-Turtles-but-were-afraid-to-ask kind of thing, except you were never truly afraid of asking, just overwhelmed by the thrust of today’s fast-moving music machine. I say, take the time to disconnect from the streams, premieres, and glamor-shot publicity photos and dive into some more of the rock n roll that birthed this ridiculous culture in the first place.
1988: Fugazi - First Demo
“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy… As a band, we’re flesh and blood. We can be ignored, we can be destroyed, but as a symbol? As a symbol we could be incorruptible. We can be everlasting.”
– Fugazi (or Batman, we forget which)
The legacy of Fugazi rests on so much more than the sum total of their six albums and sundry EPs and comps. Without minimizing the importance of their discography (which earns every iota of praise lavished on it by fans and critics alike), Fugazi’s greatest function within the realm of independent music is a symbolic one: They are the Band That Did It Right. Adhering to their own strict professional code, they took control of every aspect of their craft — releasing their albums through co-frontman Ian MacKaye’s own label, booking shows at venues where they could set their own ticket prices at reasonable rates, refusing to do press with publications that ran ads contrary to their values. Fugazi entered the music industry on their own terms and somehow enjoyed a long, successful career in it.
It’s fitting, then, that like that other stalwart symbol of justice, Fugazi should finally get its own Christopher Nolan origin-story treatment. Recorded at D.C.’s Inner Ear in 1988, First Demo was originally committed to cassette and given away free at early Fugazi shows, with only a single track, “In Defense of Humans,” seeing release on Dischord’s 1989 State of the Union comp. As a window into the developmental days of one of the most titanic figures in punk rock, First Demo gives us some valuable insights. Since Guy Picciotto had only joined the band a few months prior to recording, most of the 11 songs that make up the demo were all written for a single guitar. Yet despite his newcomer status, he’d already established himself as a critical presence, lending his voice to the likes of “The Waiting Room” and “Song #1” in arrangements that would very closely resemble their final recorded versions, and even taking the lead on “Break-In.” The band’s preoccupation with reggae during this period is also prominent, with Joe Lally’s rubbery bass lines bringing the cool ranch to offset MacKaye’s flamin’ hot guitar.
Fans will no doubt notice that many of the tracks that appear on First Demo were given a second life on the band’s official releases, and the versions that appear here are not, for the most part, dramatically different from their final recorded forms, but some of them provide interesting snapshots of songs still in the process of becoming. The demo version of “And the Same” is a little undercooked compared to the one that appears on Margin Walker, sporting a more leisurely pace, a rather Spartan intro, and an entirely different lyric during the outro. By contrast, longtime fan-favorite “Furniture” packs a little more slow-burn menace in its raw, mono-guitar form than the official studio version recorded decades later. A natal version of a rarity like “The Word” and the never-before-released “Turn off Your Guns” help to sweeten the pot a little, even if neither one is likely to totally rock your world.
So, as far as revisionist origins go, maybe First Demo isn’t quite Batman Begins. Like most demo releases, it showcases some subtle variations on the old familiar favorites and offers a few fleeting glimpses into the musicians who make up the band (the false start on “Waiting Room,” the brief intrusions of studio banter between songs). If nothing else, it will go a little way toward plugging that Fugazi-shaped hole that you’ve felt in your heart ever since they peaced-out back in aught-three. For a little while, at least.
1993: U2 - Zooropa
As the rest of the music world chooses to heave a collective middle finger at U2 over the release of their latest record, Songs of Innocence, I decided to engage with a record of theirs that I really care about and to also, in some ways, come to terms with the fact that a band I really like pretty much sucks now. 1993’s Zooropa is worth revisiting because it serves as the last time U2 delivered a consistently good record before they devolved into the earnest, boring stadium rockers they’ve become over the course of the 2000s.
Released after the game-changing Achtung Baby, Zooropa finds U2 further embracing electronics, hip-hop, and industrial music. It’s arguably much more daring than its predecessor, because when listened to today, Achtung Baby sounds a lot like your standard U2 album, albeit with programmed beats and spacey guitar textures. Where that album and the resulting ZooTV tour took on media overload mixed with post-Wall European culture, Zooropa encapsulates the feelings of hope and anxiety that accompanied the reunification of Germany and the beginnings of the Internet Age. “And I have no religion, and I don’t know what’s what, and I don’t know the limit, the limit of what we’ve got,” Bono sings on the title track, echoing the theme of identity and place present throughout this album and a good portion of their work. The way it’s expressed here feels more in-the-moment and intimate than the wide-reaching, give-me-a-hug vibe present in so many of their hits (“Beautiful Day,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” etc.). That feeling carries over into “Babyface,” and by the time you reach “Numb” (where the Edge gets the chance to “rap”), you start to absorb that information-overload theme that permeated so much of their work in the 90s.
The highlight of the album — and in my opinion, one of U2’s best songs — is “Lemon,” a low-key, synth-driven tune that features one of Bono’s strongest vocal performances. Apparently inspired by seeing old home movies of his mother, the song tackles our reliance on technology to relive and hold on to the past. “Man makes a picture,” the Edge sings in the closest thing to a chorus, “man captures color, man likes to stare, and turns his money into light to look for her.” This track always gives me goosebumps, even after hearing it dozens of times.
The rest of the album balances personal lyrics (drugs, love, death, and faith) and broader themes (politics, our relationship to technology). If you listen to the whole album (which you can do here), there’s a coherence to the many styles they draw from (techno, Krautrock, blue-eyed soul) that makes this one of their last enjoyable records from start to finish. Lyrically, they were way ahead of their time, as it took about 20 years for information overload and impersonal digital communication to become common talking points.
While 1997’s Pop and 2001’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind had their moments, Zooropa was the last time that U2 justified their status as ostensibly the most popular band in the world. From then on, it became more about U2 the brand rather than U2 the band. It’s ironic, then, that an album all about technology’s ability to dissociate us from the real world has become their final great statement.
All the Wu like to bask in gansta rap’s infatuation with urban machismo, but Ghostface Killah embraces it with a rare gusto. Borrowing an alter ego from one of the Marvel Universe’s wealthiest denizens, Ghost often depicts himself as a powerful, ruthless drug kingpin and, most recently, has upped the ante by affording himself a comic book backstory and supernatural powers, to boot. But if the majority of Ghost’s street-hardened tales exist primarily in the realm of wish-fulfillment, “Walk Around,” from Big Doe Rehab is something else entirely.
In the song, Ghost plays the part of a would-be gangster who finds his entire life turned upside-down after he kills a man over an altercation with Ghost’s girlfriend. The body count of a GFK album often rivals that of a latter-day Tarantino film; enemies are dispatched ruthlessly and often with devilish creativity. Yet this time, after shooting his adversary three times at close range — two in the stomach and a coup de grace to the dome — Ghostface says “Everything got real slow, I ain’t hear shit, my word/ At least 40 seconds I stay dead stiff.” It’s entirely possible that the cops could have found him frozen in that grisly tableaux, but a friend takes the gun out of his hand and whisks him away in a car. In subsequent verses, the consequences of this rash and bloody deed will begin to seek him out, but seemingly more than anything else, it’s the sheer enormity of his actions that haunt Ghostface. He pukes in his friend’s car and later tries fruitlessly to wash the blood out of his clothing, all the while the memory of what he’s done plays over and over in his mind.
Slowly, Ghost’s world closes in around him. The police start raiding his spots, making life a living hell for his family. He’s pursued by his own connects who, sensing weakness, try to shake him down for more money. Ghost is bounced from safehouse to safehouse; his friends try to convince him to flee to Tennessee, but he clings to his increasingly transparent gangster facade, saying “No, I got these two snow-bunnies in Venice Beach.” By the end of the song, Ghost is a caged animal, asphyxiating from his cloistered existence and raving about his intentions to go out in a violent standoff with the police.
Ghostface is famous for his frenetic delivery, and there’s no more perfect vehicle to showcase it than “Walk Around.” It features a tense, claustrophobic narrative, and Ghost invests it with kilowatts of paranoid energy, his lyrics practically tripping over one another. The jitteryness of Ghost’s verses strikes a sharp contrast to Anthony Acid’s smooth soul beat, sampled liberally from Little Milton’s “Packed up and Took my Mind.” Severed from its original context, the song’s opening lines evoke Ghost’s sense of dislocation and help to complete the picture of a man who has suddenly and unexpectedly reached the end of his tether. This is one of Ghost’s most vivid tracks, the work of a master storyteller operating at the top of his game.
When Southern Records announced their reissue of Nomeansno’s Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie earlier this year, they made no secret of how divisive the record was upon its release in 1998. Between the ballooning song lengths and the band’s increasingly melodic sensibilities, maybe a lot of longtime listeners were feeling left out in the cold, with even the album’s supporters dubbing it “inaccessible.” In the rosy glare of critical hindsight, though, it’s harder to see what got everyone’s knickers all bunchy. While the Victoria prog punks’ 10th album captures the Wright brothers at their most expansive, it sacrifices nothing in the way of immediacy, and the snicker-snack shifts in rhythm and tempo all fit naturally into the songs’ natural trajectory.
Besides, expansiveness really seems to agree with them; the two best songs are the longest ones. The title track might clock in at eight minutes, but it’s as pure an example of Nomeansno’s particular brand of damage as you could ask for. A nice spare arrangement puts the Wrights’ sinister rhythm front and center, with Tom Holliston’s guitar adding accents to the verses and a righteous sense of fury to the thrashy post-chorus instrumental passages. Each verse is framed as a ransom note written to a rich man whose wife, son, and daughter have been kidnapped, one after another, and bound with “ten sticks of dynamite/stuck together with duct tape” around their heads. It all culminates with the kidnappers coming after the rich man himself, admitting:
“We have no political beliefs.
We don’t want your fucking money.
There’s just one thing that motivates us.
We hate your fucking guts.”
The menace of Tom Wright’s delivery elevates these pronouncements to a level of genuine hilarity while maintaining a sense of paranoia and danger.
On the other side of the coin sits “The World Wasn’t Built in a Day.” While “Dance” resonates with the black-hearted comedy of their college radio hit “Dad,” “World” reminds us that, on his best days, Tom Wright could be one hell of a lyricist. The sprawling, surreal narrative follows a man who dreams that everyone he ever knew died simultaneously in a series of random accidents. The prospect initially fills him with elation that soon cools into a lonely desperation, only to end with an oblique moment of epiphany. There’s an almost hardboiled quality to the language, with the protagonist driving down darkened streets where “Streetlamps cast their mockery of light” and enjoying a chance encounter with a woman who lets her hand fall on his leg and “there she let it stray.” All this is set against a portentous bass line that remains constant and almost completely unchanging throughout the song’s nine and a half minutes.
Other songs explore themes of mental illness (“I Can’t Stop Talking”), boorish behavior (“I’m an Asshole”), and sexual abuse, one in the form of horror-story reversal (“The Story Must Be Told”) and the other in a far more unsettling look inside the mind of a violent misogynist (“The Rape”). The album snaps back and forth between moments of silliness and introspection as easily as it switches gears in time signatures. If you’re not willing to keep up, the radical shifts in tone might put you off, but for those who revel equally in the gallows humor of Big Black and the introspection of Richard Hell, Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie should provide plenty to love.
2001: Fugazi - The Argument
I’m sick of reading the same things about Fugazi, characterizing them as a one-dimensional. Yes, we all know they have never “sold out,” that they changed the face of hardcore, that one in every five persons thinks Ian MacKaye is a hypocrite.
But Fugazi were in constant motion, growing both artistically and philosophically throughout their career. One of the cornerstones of the band was their supposed austerity, exemplified by both their ability to express different moods and sounds without changing or augmenting their basic instrumentation, and their ever-present “question everything/no violence/anti-consumerism” stance. But if their first two EPs and Repeater were propaganda to some — releases that commanded the listener to do or not do certain things — then The Argument was a question mark to all, inviting listeners to hear the band’s point of view and get them to think for themselves.
On the album’s inner sleeve, there’s a picture of a memorial plaque for Sandra Scheuer, victim of the Kent State massacre. The picture reminds us of the price of speaking out against war. Released a mere month after 9/11, the band asks big questions about freedom, protest, and multinational corporations, with the ghost of war lingering throughout, much like it does on the video of them playing “Turnover” on an anti-Iraq demonstration more than 10 years before. But the greatest lesson Fugazi imparted was that punk meant anything was possible, as long as you stay true to your convictions while remaining independently critical. In fact, they taught us by example to the point of ridicule, but one thing no one can deny is that have thus far lived by their own sword.
Mr. Anus and Mr. Horribly Charred Infant — Happy Flowers, that is — were responsible for a whole series of disturbing and demented songs enacting childhood misadventure, fear, and ill intent, all set to the noisy backing of creatively mistreated instrumentation (and occasional riffs). And for a band operating almost entirely on the basis of this one joke/concept — as far I’m concerned the two are pretty much interchangeable here — they certainly managed to cover a broad spectrum of the misery and foolishness of children, from misplaced curiosity and frustrated desire, to powerlessness and unexpected victimhood (some sample song titles, for illustration: “Bobby Made Me Eat a Frog,” “I’m the Stupid One,” “Why Didn’t You Tell Me You Were Bringing Home a Baby,” etc.). They had a particular talent for capturing precisely those moments when reality starts to fall cruelly short of childish demands in a highly entertaining fashion. But even though Happy Flowers’ output might have almost always been amusingly grotesque and exaggerated, it was strangely sympathetic too — there’s always something to identify with, no matter how surreal the situation. We’ve all been children at some point, I suppose (and some of us still are, despite our advancing years).
“I Said I Wanna Watch Cartoons,” off 1989’s Oof, is a perfect example. Some of their songs might have been a bit more noisily deranged, others perhaps kinda more “sophisticated” in their bizarre storytelling. But none captured the moral deprivation of childhood, none expressed the child’s sheer uninhibited, undeveloped bundle of desires and the terrifying confusion of want and need — so easily transfigured into rage — with such a perfect combination of menace and recognizability. (Also noteworthy: voices are pitched up to heighten the demonic child factor; Mr. Horribly Charred Infant apparently “played” a guitar lying on the ground with his foot, in addition playing to bass the usual way.)
So are children by nature good, pure, innocent? Doesn’t seem much like it if “I Said I Wanna Watch Cartoons” is the least bit accurate. But then again, there’s no TV (or mittens, or lawnmowers, etc. etc. — corrupting influences all, I’m sure) in nature. I’m certain, though, that according to Happy Flowers’ comically dark vision of infancy, “innocence” really means not understanding consequences, to horrible and funny effect (some more song titles: “Mom, I Gave the Cat some Acid,” “There’s A Soft Spot On The Baby’s Head”). They know not what they do, but damn, what they do really can be pretty fucked up.
1989/1993: Helmet - “Born Annoying”
Helmet occupies a crucial, if somewhat controversial place in rock history. Signing to Amphetamine Reptile in 1989, they represented a new level of punk penetration into heavy metal. By merging crushing riffs with scalding waves of feedback and packaging it all in an everyman presentation that eschewed some of the genre’s more bombastic trappings, they patched into an audience that might have had trouble relating to a Slayer or Obituary album. The buzz that surrounded their debut Strap It On was such that Interscope (allegedly) wound up signing them for a million-dollar contract in the wake of a massive bidding war. Despite moving a boatload of units with Meantime, they never achieved the superstar status that had been projected upon them, and they gradually faded from view before disbanding (temporarily) in 1999.
But the key to Helmet’s thorny legacy (and the reason so many people write them off) is the shadow they’ve cast over heavy music in the 90s and early 00s. Like a heavy metal Velvet Underground, Helmet was never a household name, but their records found their way into the earholes of a lot of angry kids in bands. Helmet were pioneers of drop-D tuning and staccato, groove-based riffs, both of which would become ubiquitous in the decade following their earliest releases. While there were a fair number of bands who took elements of this sound and ran with them in interesting directions (Pantera, Tool, and, hell, maybe even The Jesus Lizard), this also means that Helmet had a hand in birthing nu metal.
My first exposure to the band came in high school when my buddy John gave me a mix tape with their 1993 reprise of “Born Annoying” on it. (Still my preferred version, although the only standalone video I could find on YouTube was the original 1989 demo version, below.)
“Born Annoying” was pure Helmet, pivoting between verses built around a repetitive, frustratingly compressed riff, and a totally headbang-able hook for the chorus, and climaxing with a solo that gradually devolved into shrieks and wails. Best of all, though, are the lyrics. Paige Hamilton bellows, in his angriest, most throat-rending-ist snarl:
I open my mouth
I talk about me
I follow you around
I talk about me
The goofiness of the song’s subject matter cuts a pretty stark contrast to the ruthless construction of its melody. So much so that going on 15 years later, this sad sack narrator still elicits a chuckle from me.
“Born Annoying” is a perfect illustration of why it’s wrong to throw baby Helmet out with the nu-metal bathwater. Regardless of what they helped give birth to, Helmet wrote the kind of funny, catchy, and utterly brutalizing songs that the Korns, Limp Bizkits, and Static Xes that sprang up in their wake could only dream of. Helmet was a mutant gamete swimming around in alt-rock’s uterus, an abrasive genetic suicide bomb stuffed with a stew of punk and metal chromosomes that somehow gave rise to a new breed of commercially accessible heavy music. Check ‘em out for the history lesson. Come back to them for the riffs that’ll take the top of your goddamn head off.