1991: Monster Magnet - Tab
Monster Magnet are a joke, at least to most people who remember them nowadays. Thanks to their attempt at becoming a commercially successful band, they released a song that is perceived as a novelty hit. “Space Lord,” in the parlance of its time, is pretty wack.
Talk to any fan of stoner rock and they will tell you a different story. Monster Magnet is one of the big ones, up there with Kyuss and Fu Manchu. Their first three full-lengths (Spine of God, Superjudge, and Dopes To Infinity) are among the best rawk metal albums of the early 90s, a collection of riff heavy songs with blazing solos, singalong choruses and a psychedelic bend. Having said that, their crowning moment might have been intended as a one-off.
Tab is billed as an EP but it’s almost 49 minutes long, spanning only three songs. The title track is a slow, repetitive 32-minute tune. It’s clear that their closest reference to the spacey, effect and drug-heavy sound was Hawkwind, yet it’s laid back character, hushed vocals, and minimalist percussion suggest Dave Wyndorf, John McBain, and the others spent their share of bong sessions and acid trips playing Spacemen 3 and Loop records. It’s an interesting sound for a band rooted in hard rock.
The results are mind blowingly good. While their regular albums are fantastic – inspired affairs of no-frills, headbanging, and triumphant-shouting rock – Tab feels like something original and transcendental, like they really hit on something special. This is perhaps their most inspired sound. In it, you can hear something similar to Sleep when they decided to shed the rules of genre to write Dopesmoker.
You don’t have to be high to enjoy Tab. Furthermore, I think that misses the point. Monster Magnet did something pretty brilliant – they made head music that can evoke the other-mindedness, numbness, and insight of a heavy drug with just sound. Not bad for some one hit wonders.
1987: U-Men - “Dig It a Hole”
When punk and metal were separate entities, like jealous cousins ready to fight at any given opportunity, a fucked up rockabilly band brought them together. Well, at least in Seattle.
Ah yes, of course; they were “proto grunge.” They were probably THE “proto grunge” band. They had songs on Sub Pop 100 and Deep Six compilations. They played all over the northwest before there was anywhere to play. They were there first and they influenced everybody that came afterwards. But that’s not what’s important about the U-Men.
They owed a lot to the Birthday Party, yet added elements of metallic dissonance that expanded on their vocabulary, predating some of the things added by greats like the Jesus Lizard and Oxbow. It’s no wonder Tom Hazelmyer joined the band briefly and, later, had them contribute tracks to Dope-Guns-’N-Fucking In The Streets on his seminal Amphetamine Reptile label.
The band had a knack for noisy rock that sometimes scratched on manic euphoria, a sense of shouting in excitement to express (or act out) feelings of paranoia, discomfort, and all out madness; a feeling familiar to fans of Flipper and the Butthole Surfers. The U-Men, as heard on one of their crowning moments, “Dig It a Hole,” are a party; a dark and heavy party that, come dawn, might end up in crying fits over finding the body of a friend of yours, dead from an OD.
Listening to them, you can witness their influence on future AmRep bands. You can also see that they were a link between the national network of skronk just starting to happen at the time and local talent like Green River. But above all, they were a band playing lively music for perverted people. God bless their hearts.
1976: Exxon Singers - “America’s Way”
This August LA indie rock outfit Silversun Pickups delivered the Romney campaign a cease and desist order re: their song “Panic Switch.” Much to the chagrin of the Pickups, Mitt and Co. were fond of using the song’s chugging guitars and message of generalized anxiety to pump up crowds at GOP rallies. This little legal dust up makes the band the latest in a long string of musicians tsk-tsking Republican campaigns for co-opting their work. The Romney campaign ran into a similar problem earlier this election cycle over the use of K’naan’s song “Wavin’ Flag” and in 2008 Heart very publicly tore into Sarah Palin for her use of “Barracuda” to chum the waters at her campaign events.
Clearly, the GOP has some trouble nailing down the perfect soundtrack for their political ambitions — after all, even the most gun-ho rightie can’t solely listen to Ted Nugent on repeat. Luckily, in this case the right can turn to the same people they always turn to when they need a hand: giant multinational corporations. I am, of course, speaking of the Exxon Singers.
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of these pioneers in the world of industrial shmaltz-pop. The Exxon Singers never reached the Billboard charts and even the most thorough googling only turns of a brief mention on WFMU’s wonderful Beware of the Blog. However, the group’s album The Spirit of Achievement was surely a hit around Exxon headquarters circa 1976. And with songs like “America’s Way,” how could it not be?
Produced to entertain, inform, and mildly indoctrinate employees at the 1976 Exxon Convention, The Spirit of Achievement is something of a pro-corporate conservative manifesto set to music. As you can guess, it’s not a project steeped in subtlety. Tracks like “America’s Way” gives a full-throated endorsement of liaise-faire economics with lines like “America’s way, the free enterprise way / that’s what got us here today.” Backed by a triumphant slice of sunshine pop, the Singers deliver these hummable slogans with a straight-froward sincerity. It’s the same constructed wholesomeness you find in that group of crazy kids who, just five years earlier, stood atop a hill and declared their intention to buy the world a Coke.
The rest of the album follows much the same formula, matching up Exxon’s political agenda to show tune-quality cuts that sound hokey and dated even by mid-70s standards. The message ricochets between unobjectionable and vague soundbites (the freedom to use, the choice to choose/ that’s what got us where we are today), to unvarnished policy arguments. On the bubbly hit “Efficiency” the Singers really spell it out:
Reasonable government guidelines, well that’s okay
We don’t mind if the government has its say
But too much control, well that just gets in the way
It may be a little moderate for today’s Tea Party crowd, but in this case, job-creators can’t be choosers.
Writing for Cabinet magazine, record collector Jonathan Ward tracks the history and evolution of these corporate music catalogs. His detailed chronology of the genre draws parallels between the genre’s progression and the changing roll of industry in public policy. What begins in the 1940s as a whimsical means to “bolster worker’s confidence in their company’s future,” eventually transforms by the late 70s into vessels of “hubristic corporate fantasies.”
Maybe for the next Republican canditate’s rally, whichever bowtied intern they have picking the music should skip over his mainstream record collection and reach right for Coca-Cola’s 1979 opus to deregulation “That Big Bottling Plant Up in the Sky,” which proudly declares:
In that big bottling plant up in the sky
There’s no FTC and there’s no EPA
No FDA, to spoil your day!
1977: Rita Pavone - “My Name is Potato”
The novelty song “My Name is Potato” gives no clue that Rita Pavone was really famous – once so famous that she recorded with Barbara Streisand, played Carnegie Hall, and was a guest on the Ed Sullivan show. Rumor even has it that Elvis Presley painted her portrait.
Like many internet finds, the song seems to leap out of nowhere, an unceremonious musical mugging (see the Delorean on Ivor Cutler’s “I’m Happy”), shaking up the orderly playlist like the musical equivalent of the fat kid who empties all the water out of the swimming pool. True to the blitzkrieg tactics of the novelty song, it grabs our attention by cranking up the volume and switching a register for the chorus. The chorus, by the way, consists of the words “my name is potato” yelled repeatedly at increasing levels of volume. The song’s music video has Rita conversing with a cartoon potato, who insists “I’m an American Potato,” as he ricochets around shooting guns – all the while wearing a cowboy hat. Is Rita making a crude point about Americans being uncultured and violent? To the casual listener, with no means of translating this relic of Italian pop, nothing is clear.
Most of Rita’s songs are not like “My Name is Potato.” Some of the most popular ones are torch ballads utilizing her powerful ear-splitting range, her voice capable of leading orchestras. She scored massive hits with songs like “Cuore,” and when you hear her, you’re hearing the soul of teen angst beamed back from the Italy of the 60s. A slideshow of Pavone’s career would flicker with images of an affectingly young Rita in doll-like dresses with short boyish hair; or winning a talent contest which rocketed her to stardom and later landed her up (controversially) marrying her talent scout; or as a teen icon in Spain, making a series of Lindsey Lohan type teen movies.
By the time “My Name is Potato” was released, Rita had already had her shot at pop dominance and was aiming various silly songs at the children’s novelty market while mostly flopping in the charts. What is amazing is how much energy she still put into these insane songs. Behind the snark and fun of some internet blogs that have picked up “My Name is Potato” is a person reacting strongly and even impressed by this Trojan horse of a novelty song, out of which tumbles the conquering Rita. Future students of Pavone studies may be able to read into the deeper significance of this track by, for example, translating the Italian, but for now it’s interesting enough that a career like Rita passed us by in the English speaking world, leaving a hit and run moment like “My Name is Potato.”
1988: They Might Be Giants - Lincoln
They Might Be Giants always seemed to have it backwards. In their late 40s and early 50s the Johns (Flansburgh and Linell) revitalized a career by writing fun yet informative children’s music while apparently missing all of the middle-aged bitterness you got from the music they were making when they were in their 20s. But as silly as some of the songs on an album like Lincoln are, there’s a lot going on under the surface of cheery hooks.
Take “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go,” a song which imagines a scarecrow that mocks every unconscious thought behind your back, and describes the horrible aspects of ourselves that we’ll never understand or even be aware of. “Ana Ng,” the album’s hit song, laments how we will never meet the perfect person for us due to the overwhelming size of the world. The endlessly repeated “Ana Ng and I are getting old…” chorus deserves its broken record treatment at the end. You look past the catchiness and realize how horrible of a thought it presents.
But what makes Lincoln (named, not for the president, but for the small Massachusetts town the duo grew up in) kind of a magical record is how all this unpleasant shit gets presented with witty humor and gentle sadness. “Ana Ng” takes that horrible idea, one that countless people have expressed before, and softens the edges with over the top drama (shooting his hometown on a globe, leaving Ana’s town in the exit wound) and the band’s signature goofiness (after so many mentions of a broken record, the end works like the punch line to a great joke). It’s a balancing act that deserves more credit than the band’s often given, but nowhere can you hear it more than on “They’ll Need a Crane.”
“They’ll Need a Crane” offers a glimpse into a painfully universal relationship between the cartoonishly named Gal and Lad (har har see what they did there). One of them can’t be happy without the others love, but still says and does things that cause their partner pain. Each contradictory, yet understandable, verse slides effortlessly into the chorus’ conclusion: that it’ll take a crane to break up their relationship, and another one to put it back together. It’s all sung to the best melody on the album. Every piece fits together perfectly to create one of the sweetest and saddest songs the band ever wrote. Above all, it’s representative of a beautifully melancholy whole. Mel Brooks has a quote I’ve always liked, “tragedy is when you cut your finger, comedy is when you fall through an open sewer and die.” Lincoln is a great album that takes a bit from both.
2008: LoDeck & Omega One - Postcards From The Third Rock
Hip-hop bloggers tend to throw around the term “psych rap” a lot these days, and rightfully so, because it definitely applies to many of the more popular independent records coming out right now. However, I’m starting to get the impression that when the average listener hears the term he immediately thinks “songs about popping molly,” which is a shame because, to my ears at least, psych rap and psychedelic music in general are about much more than simply getting high and touching people. Psychedelia is about the expansion of consciousness via the alteration of perception, a change that can occur in a myriad of ways, and while drugs can play a big part in the experience, they are supposed to be more of a means than an end.
Along with a few other monumental releases like Edan’s Beauty and the Beat and Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth, LoDeck and Omega One’s Postcards from the Third Rock stands as one of psych rap’s landmark releases. An aptly titled concept album, it takes listeners on a vacation of the mind while exploring in great depth all the themes we tend to associate with psychedelics, asking us what is real, how do we perceive time and space, where is the line between genius and insanity, and how does the ego inform our senses of identity, individuality, and community.
The wigged man sitting before you listens intently, his jaw gradually dropping to his lace jabot as you explain: “The rapper recites rhythmic poetry over musical pieces often comprised of looped samples and drum breaks.”
“But samples of vhat and vhat is a drum break?” he demands.
“Of records,” you say, forgetting that for all his musical talents, the man in the frocked coat has never heard an audio recording in his entire life, nor will he. For him, the concept does not exist.
“And you call this music?! Absurd!”
That’s what I imagine when I hear “This is as good as back in the day is/ Absurd like a rap song described to Amadeus.” This couplet from “A Day in the Triangle,” perhaps more than any other rhyme on the whole album, forever remains fresh in my mind. From a technical perspective it’s very basic — a two-syllable rhyme with a couple similes, a set-up, and a punch line. But once we really process what LoDeck is saying, a whole world of interpretations begins to emerge. On the surface, he’s literally saying this day in the Bermuda triangle is ridiculous. Yet on a deeper level, by alluding to a breakdown in the fabric of time, he prompts the listener to question the very notion of time itself, more specifically how our perception of it affects our judgment. If we connect the two lines, what’s absurd could be the very premise of the set-up. “As good as back in the day is absurd.” Calling into question the positive connotation normally associated with the phrase “back in the day” raises a valid point and one that is especially relevant to hip-hop fans. Isn’t it somewhat absurd to romanticize a bygone era in its entirety? It’s not like every rap single from 1979 is amazing.
There is an irony here though, in that the couplet itself, were it not for LoDeck’s Russian accent and gravelly delivery, might not sound so out of place in an early ’80s rap tune. As a matter of fact, there are at least one or two records from that era that juxtapose hip-hop and classical music. Perhaps one of them inspired this line… or maybe it was just the sherm and shrooms. Either way, this type of imaginative thinking is exactly what listening attentively to Postcards from the Third Rock encourages. From the metaphysical meanderings of “On a Path” and “Wipe Out Zone” to the lyrically evolved posse cuts “Nice Kids” and “Titanium,” there is not one track on here that fails to get heads nodding and minds working.
The challenge of simultaneously preserving rap music’s traditions and advancing the art form is an idea that comes up continually throughout the album. LoDeck kicks off his second verse of the title track with a dedication, “I’ma send this one out to pioneers who shaped up my ideas/ writers, MCs, engineers, the placeholders,” while the next song, “No Rims,” bluntly conveys the Bensonhurst-based MC’s rejection of tired clichés, with lines like “Bunch of suckers thought they could bluff they way/ to a castle full of gold relaxing with a centerfold/ kicking that embarrassingly old one-two” and “Who the hell could stand that braggadocios/ stomach that stank flow for the length of a show?” The quest to find one’s own place, both in a given subculture and in the world at large, is further explored in the tragic yet triumphant, stranger-than-fiction parable that is “Understand U.”
Tellingly, the artists’ refusal to conform to prevalent industry standards was likely one of the major factors that prevented this album from reaching a larger audience. 2008 came toward the end of a period during which very few progressive hip-hop records were able to make waves in America, so even though the album was critically praised for its cohesiveness by Cool’eh Magazine and given a phenomenal 9.8 rating by IGN, other review sites were less than enthused. HIPHOP DX, for example, dismissed it as “an acquired taste that some may never acquire.” In the end, Postcards from the Third Rock probably did more to advance the genre than it did the careers of LoDeck and Omega One — possibly their intention from the start. One is forced to wonder if the album would’ve been as widely ignored had it dropped in 2012, now that “psych rap” is all the rage. I sincerely doubt it.