The second installment of my “Forgotten (Unjustly — or Sometimes Justly) Albums of the 90’s” series.
“There’s a little man in my head, and he’s drunk all of the time,” the poem began. “He sits there on a bench holding a monkey wrench, sometimes he beats it against my mind.” I was utterly captivated as I sat in my high school creative writing class, listening to a classmate of mine reel off this poem of such humor and surrealism. I looked down at my own stupid teen-angst poem, and was ashamed. I wish I could write like that, I thought. As it turned out, my classmate wished he could write like that, too. He cheerfully admitted later that he had lifted the poem (and several others) entirely from the lyrics of a band called the Dead Milkmen. This tactic quickly bored him, and in short order he discovered marijuana and began stealing Pink Floyd lyrics instead, but I was hooked on the Dead Milkmen.
After years of circulating self-released cassettes, Philadelphia’s Dead Milkmen were finally signed by indie label Restless Records, and put out their official debut, 1985’s Big Lizard In My Backyard. With nary a song lasting over two minutes, and titles like “Veterans Of A Fucked-Up World” and “Takin’ Retards To The Zoo,” BLIMB was the only record in the Milkmens’ catalog that could be defined as truly punk, although that label continued to be applied to them. Over the next three albums, their sound became gentler and more jangly as their musicianship improved (the squeaky-clean guitar lines of Joe Genaro were a favorite element for me), and their snotty childishness grew less aggressive and more whimsical, even adding a touch of melancholy. Fans came to expect certain elements to be included on each album, and by the time of their final release on Restless, 1990’s Metaphysical Graffiti, this had hardened into a formula: A humorous ranting monologue (or two) from lead singer Rodney Anonymous, some sophomoric scatological stuff (“Do The Brown Nose”), some retro pop-culture stuff (“I Tripped Over The Ottoman,” the best Dick Van Dyke Show tribute song you’ll ever hear), and some more “serious” stuff with a light sprinkling of social commentary (“Dollar Signs In Her Eyes”) all played impeccably with a light pop-punk touch. But by Metaphysical Graffiti, the schtick had worn thin, for the band if not their audience. For the first time, the Dead Milkmen sounded a little tired. Continue reading
Alternate title: Unjustly Forgotten Albums.
In compiling the creepily self-indulgent and onanistic blog series known as “This Used To Be My Playground” (Alternate title suggested by the ex-wife: “How Dare They Not Like Me”), I have been listening to a lot of old favorites from the one decade that seems doomed to inspire almost no nostalgia at all. According to the annoyingly still-prevalent Baby Boomers, the 60’s were the pinnacle of Western Civilization (can we unplug their feeding tubes, soon, please?), the 70’s garner a certain shameful, shaggy-dog affection for their hideous aesthetics in all things, the 80’s are now the super-cool decade for the new generation too young to really remember them, but the 90’s are passed over with a few grunge-flannel-Monica Lewinsky references. Maybe not enough time has passed for true nostalgia to really set in, but since VH1 has already trotted out their “I Love the 90’s” series a couple of years ago, it seems they’re fair game for a little “remember when” encapsulation.
Music buying has come full circle since the 1950’s and early 60’s. Once again, thanks to iTunes, “singles” are the dominant format. Only instead of a flat ring of vinyl that spun at 45 revolutions per minute on a record player, we have audio files that can be downloaded at a buck or two a pop. Budget-friendly and hook-heavy, the single was – and now is again – the go-to. But for at least two generations, beginning in the mid-60’s, the album was primary format of music consumption. Which places the 1990’s in the final quarter or so of the “Album Era.”
Some albums are immortal. The Beatles’ Revolver. Led Zeppelin’s IV. Michael Jackson’s Thriller. U2’s The Joshua Tree. And they’re immortal as albums — that is, entire collections of songs, even if certain individual songs from the albums may not be up to scratch (anyone waxing rhapsodic over Thriller’s “The Lady in My Life” or Joshua Tree’s “Trip Through Your Wires”? Didn’t think so.) But as recently as ten or twelve years ago, the album was still the thing, and if you were interested in an artist, by God, you bought their album. Vinyl was (temporarily) dead, so singles existed in the form of “cassingles,” which were for twelve-year-old girls with lots of jelly bracelets, or “CD-singles” which were for no one. If a song or an artist interested you enough to want to own it, you tended to go with full commitment – shelling out fifteen bucks for a dozen or more songs. (Usually more than a dozen. Albums got longer in the CD era. Value for dollar aside, this was not always a good artistic decision.) Continue reading