July 11, 2008
Back in the mid-to-late ’80s, during the rise of (and some would argue the heyday of) indie rock, college-radio rock, or whatever you want to call it, there was a slew of quirky, sometimes unabashedly goofy, bands seeped in spunk and irony that could be hip and childlike at the same time — groups like They Might Be Giants and Beat Happening, not to mention lesser-known outfits like Royal Crescent Mob, King Missile, The Swimming Pool Q’s, Mary’s Danish, and Thelonious Monster.
Perhaps the most original and most vital of all of these was Camper Van Beethoven, a California “surrealist absurdist folk” (as they called it) band with one foot in roots rock and one foot in pyschedelia, plus a weird fondness for Balkan and Mexican music and ska.
It was one of the first indie rock bands with a full-time fiddler (The Mekons created their own brand of violin-infused country punk with Fear and Whiskey, released in 1985, the same year as Camper’s first album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory).
Camper was funny and refreshing. And its new compilation, Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty, shows that the band is still relevant.
Actually, the group proved that in 2004 with what should have been its “comeback” album, the underrated New Roman Times, a crazy rock opera dealing with war, terrorism, and Patriot Act paranoia. (That actually was the group’s second album since its break-up in 1989. The first was a song-for-song remake of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, released in 2002.)
Sadly, none of the songs from New Roman Times (or for that matter, from Tusk) made it onto the new compilation — nor did my personal favorite Camper tune, “Jack Ruby,” one of the darker songs the band ever recorded. And another historical song to miss this boat was “Tania,” a love song to Patty Hearst.
Still, Popular Songs is an excellent collection of ’80s-era CVB tunes — a great introduction for those who missed the band the first time around and a welcome reminder for fair-weather fans who have forgotten how cool its music was.
Camper’s biggest “hit,” “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” is here. Over an upbeat two-chord guitar jangle, David Lowery, in his half-singing/half-speaking style, chirps inspired nonsense:
“Every day, I get up and pray to Jah/And he decreases the number of clocks by exactly one/Everybody’s comin’ home for lunch these days/Last night there were skinheads on my lawn.”
One of my favorites is “The History of Utah,” which originally appeared on CVB’s self-titled third album. It’s an alternative-universe version of Utah with barely-visible traces of actual history:
“He built an empire out of the desert/Out of the dust and the sand, just like Las Vegas/But he never took the route that the Mafia did/And he thought the Indians were some lost 13 dudes/But he didn’t treat them any better/And they were never on his side ... I’ve never seen this heaven or this place any differently/But now and then I dream of the flying saucers and they’re coming to take us away.”
The music is a basic blues that allows fiddler Jonathan Segel to explore weird spaces.
Then there’s “Opi Rides Again-Club Med Sucks,” which starts off with a Joe Maphis-influenced country-guitar instrumental that slips into a discordant dirge with a classic punk-rock refrain: “Club Med sucks/Authority sucks/I hate golf/I wanna play lacrosse.” This might be the only mention of lacrosse in the entire annals of punk rock.
Camper goes pure country on the aptly named “Sad Lover’s Waltz,” which reminds me a lot of Richard Thompson’s “Waltzing’s for Dreamers.”
I never realized until now how many fine instrumentals Camper did. “Border Ska” is more border than ska. Los Lobos almost could have done this one. Gogol Bordello probably is jealous of the Balkan-drenched “Skinhead Stomp.” “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt” (yes, there’s some boogie in the beat) is a showcase for Segel’s violin. “Circles,” featuring a wild (uncredited) sitar, is sheer postmodern raga rock.
While original versions of songs from Camper’s first three albums (which were on the old IRS label) are used on Popular Songs, the songs from the band’s last two albums of the ’80s, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie, are rerecordings. It seems that Virgin Records refused to sell the band the rights to those albums.
Have I mentioned lately how much I hate the music industry?
The new recordings are pretty good replicas of the songs from those albums, but don’t really add a new dimension, except maybe the energetic reworking of “All Her Favorite Fruit.”
I prefer the original Camper version of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” — the only cover tune on the compilation. But I’m happy “When I Win the Lottery,” a skewed outlaw tale originally on Key Lime Pie, is included. “Well I lost an eye in Mexico/Lost two teeth where I don’t know/People see me comin’, and they move to the other side of the road.”
I hope more people discover Camper Van Beethoven. And I also hope the band gets busy and records some new material.
Good news and bad news: First the bad. Camper Van Beethoven isn’t scheduled to come to New Mexico any time in the near future. Now the good. David Lowery’s other band, Cracker, is scheduled to play Summerfest in Albuquerque at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 12, at the Harry E. Kinney Civic Plaza (corner of Third Street and Marquette Avenue N.W.). And the really good news is that it’s free!