MUSIC IS NONE OF MY BUSINESS #1
The column title “music is none of my business” is a Marge Simpson quote (from ‘Homerpalooza’) that Dillinger Four appropriated into a song title, thereby combining elements of two things I dearly love. I’ve decided to start writing music blogs on this site because (1) I’m going to try to make them comedic as much as they are sincere reflections of my love of music, (2) I already have too many blogs I control, and (3) I don’t feel like sitting down to write my philosophies about comedy (outside of occasional nice citations I find and metaphorical high-fives to people who are doing it right) because even I wouldn’t want to read that. Furthermore, when a band creeps into my realm of favorites, there are densely layered reasons they have earned that real estate in my brain and my lip service whenever I bring them into conversations (or in the case of the QED shows, cover their songs).
This is what brings me to one of my favorite bands, the Dead Milkmen.
There’s a reason I’ve probably written more words about them on the internet than any other band, even within writing about other bands. If you want to learn more about The Dead Milkmen, you can look them up on Wikipedia. If you want to understand why they are one of my favorite bands, actually sit down and listen to their music beyond the whiny vocals, off-kilter subject matter, and whatever other pretensions you may have that keep their music difficult to throw on in mixed company. Years ago, I interviewed Joe Jack Talcum, the band’s virtuoso guitarist and often-lead singer (check out his page and especially his “Bootleg of the Month” section; they’re fascinating time capsules and usually very good). Joe started singing much more after the Milkmen eked out a hit single in 1988 on which he happened to sing lead. He told me that, post-success, the Milkmen made it a point to not put anything out there that critics would find purposefully “silly,” or “goofy.” This was because it was a crutch for lazy music writers when it came to describing them. Of course the vocals were snotty and amelodic much of the time, which kept a lot of people away from the sadness, truth, and Earth-scorching satire that laid underneath them.
A couple of years ago, I got into a civilized argument with a friend about satire and trolling. He thought they were the same thing, and I disagreed. His argument (a fair one) was that Patton Oswalt was a master troll, confronting stupid realities by making people mad over said stupid realities. I maintain that people like Patton Oswalt are a burning exception to the rule. To put it bluntly, the satirists are The Dead Milkmen, writing catchy pop songs that call out the abuses of chemical companies and then bringing the whistleblowers from said companies on the road with them to help protect them from corporate retribution (in other words, walking the goddamn walk). Trolls are the kids who are stealing their instruments and jacking off into them. I highly doubt the latter has ever happened, but the former did during the band’s late-80s heyday.
Actually, check that. The Dead Milkmen are still “a fully functioning punk rock band,” as Rodney Anonymous said a recent gig in Florida. They originally fizzled out in the mid-1990s, splintered off into various projects (musical and non), and came back together upon the suicide of their bassist Dave Blood. One of the people making the bass look cool in the 80’s indie circuit, dressing in drag for multiple music videos, and often cited as the funniest guy in the band offstage, took his own life in 2004. Since then, the band reunited with a new bassist “Dandrew” Stevens and have been producing music at a fairly consistent clip. Who has any right to say that they’re not still in their heyday? They’re middle-aged, successful, and beloved by more and more people on a daily basis. If you pin the late-80’s as their heyday, then your definition of success is probably based squarely around record sales and radio play. You probably love the Yankees and Jeff Dunham, too.
Anyway, the Milkmen haven’t let the death of an irreplaceable member (Dandrew would agree), age, and basically the heat-death of the music industry which once threw them a bone, stop them. The only sticking point in their history, really, was their unwise decision to sign with Hollywood Records in 1991. Apparently, only one person at Hollywood was even paying attention to what they were doing at the time, and the label bogarted all the recordings they made across two records from any best-of compilations. This was a bummer for many reasons, but mainly because the second of which, Not Richard, but Dick, is really fucking good.
Whether the lack of traction they got from their compilations hindered what might have otherwise been greater success is impossible to say, but I can say with impunity that all of their compilations are lacking. First of all, their singles were all generally pretty good, though not representative of their best work. Second, the first one I ever bought, Cream of the Crop, felt like a thrown-together comp to make a quick buck for BMG (because that’s absolutely what it was). Third, their authoritative best-ofs are missing a few fantastic songs from the Hollywood releases. And fourth, their actual best-of comps are too disparate. One, Now We are 20, is great at scraping unheralded classics like “Girl Hunt” together, but is missing a lot of highlights at the forefront of their releases. The other one, Death Rides a Pale Cow…. um, I don’t even know. It puts four tracks from their 1995 misstep Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig) at the end – FOUR. It had two tracks (and not even the best ones) from Metaphysical Graffiti, which wasn’t their best work but had a handful of unforgettable songs, which I’ll explain more about below.
What I’m getting at is, The Dead Milkmen deserve a proper, actual, faithful “best of” compilation that doesn’t lean too heavily on the ‘hits’ or too heavily on the deep cuts. This is mine. I’m cutting it off at 21 tracks, which is difficult but possible. Feel free to listen along:
- “V.F.W.” (from Big Lizard in My Backyard) – This was the disenchanted suburban teenager’s national anthem in 1985, whether they all knew it or not.
- “Girl Hunt” (from the A Date with the Dead Milkmen tape, or the b-side to the “Smokin’ Banana Peels” EP) – Apparently, there was a urban legend that banana peels could make you high, mainly because the government couldn’t make bananas illegal. This was the best song on that EP, though: a re-recording of an early cassette-era demo that is fantastic on its own.
- “Let’s Get the Baby High” (from Not Richard, But Dick) – It took me about 9 years to figure out what this song was mocking, and it’s brilliant. I may be thinking too deeply into it, so I’ll just leave you to pick it apart on your own. I’ll give you one clue: they don’t actually support babies getting baked, and they also don’t think it really happens.
- “Serrated Edge” (from Big Lizard in my Backyard) – This may be my favorite Dead Milkmen song. Dave Blood’s bass intro is legendary and ironically, it may be Charles Nelson Reilly’s most lasting cultural legacy.
- “Ask Me to Dance” (b-side from the Instant Club Hit 12″ single) – After Dave Blood died and before the Dead Milkmen officially reformed, Joe Jack Talcum would break this out during solo sets and tell the story about how they made this song together. It was a fitting tribute to such a touching song.
- “Watching Scotty Die” (from Bucky Fellini) – Remember what I wrote about whistleblowers? Such a happy-go-lucky song about such a fucked up issue that you could tell ground their gears.
- “Big Lizard” (from Big Lizard in my Backyard) – another issue that you could tell ground their gears, Rodney Anonymous in particular. Why the hell was the US blowing up things they couldn’t understand in central America, anyway? One of the best pieces of political satire in pop music history.
- “Stuart” (from Beelzebubba) – I couldn’t leave this one off, mostly because it was so iconic, actually very musically wonderful, and it mentions a young John Wurster before he became the comedy powerhouse he is today. It works perfectly while looking at the photo of Rodney’s dad on the cover.
- “Dollar Signs in Her Eyes” (from Metaphysical Graffiti) – Just beautiful and carries a similar sentiment to “Let’s Get the Baby High.”
- “Not Crazy” (from Not Richard, but Dick) – The lyrics are so gorgeous and Genaro presents them so graciously that you’re never ready for how fucking dark-weird the song is, and it doesn’t change with repeated listens.
- “Methodist Coloring Book” (from Metaphysical Graffiti) – This is Joe Jack’s “The Beautiful Ones” moment, and probably about as stereotypically punk as nasal vocals and distortion-free guitars could have sounded.
- “Going to Graceland” (from Bucky Fellini) – There’s a really bizarre “fuck you” element to basically any generation (including his own Bastards-of-Young generation, at times) that permeates a lot of Rodney Anonymous’ most confrontational lyrics.
- “The Secret of Life” (from Soul Rotation) – So beautiful and sad (and free). This is the type of song I want everyone who calls them a “joke-punk band” to hear.
- “All Around the World” (from Soul Rotation) – So beautiful and weird. That choral backing. Dave Blood was so incredibly proud of this song.
- “Bitchin’ Camaro” (from Big Lizard in my Backyard) – It took me a while to appreciate what they were trying to accomplish with this one. There is something almost TOO ‘Philly’ about this.
- “Beach Party Vietnam” (from Eat Your Paisley!) – Vietnam fucked up their generation in the way that Iraq and Afghanistan are fucking up ours. But what choice is there but to laugh?
- “Punk Rock Girl” (from Beelzebubba) – You probably know all the lyrics to this one, and for a good reason.
- “The Guitar Song” (from Beelzebubba) – Hey Mama, where you going? I hope you’re not going very far.
- “Dean’s Dream” (from Big Lizard in my Backyard) – They opened with this one the first time I ever saw them play, and it was insane. Rodney seemed to be enjoying himself.
- “Two Feet off the Ground” (from Eat Your Paisley!) – Rodney’s “The Beautiful Ones” shrieking vocals moment, and such a wonderful encapsulation of the band’s musical powers early on.
- “The Woman Who Was Also a Mongoose” (from Not Richard, But Dick) – I couldn’t not end the collection with this song. The fact that the band couldn’t put it on any other best-of comps (since it was on one of their Hollywood albums) was what inspired me to put this list together.
I think the most impressive thing about this list of songs is that it has 10 Rodney-fronted songs, and at least 9 Joe-fronted songs, several of which (like “Two Feet”) on which they duet. I honestly have no idea whose voices those are on “Let’s Get the Baby High.” I guess I’ve got a tweet to send.
Joe & me, playing around with pitch-shifters https://t.co/D9IhYInFNy
— Rodney Anonymous (@RodneyAnon) October 6, 2015