Part 46 of a series that will run throughout 2013 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays
I received my driver’s license in the great state of Pennsylvania just shy of my 17th birthday (spring of 1994). This opened up a world of possibilities for me, from a geek’s perspective. Suddenly I could let my parents know that I was doing all sorts of activities locally (not true) while driving to Allentown, PA with a like-minded cohort. Our goal (as always) was to meet up with some girls we had met at some gathering or party (the same, I guess). In the world of a 17-year-old, all of this made total sense (the girl we both liked didn’t end up with either of us anyway) – but it was the trips to Play It Again Records in Allentown that stick with me almost 20 years later. On one such fateful journey my buddy picked up what he had heard was a punk rock classic from our home city of Philly. Over and over we played the ridiculously catchy pop-punk during our 45 minute drive home. Of course, I still wasn’t wearing my prescription glasses because they revealed me to be a geek, so our soundtrack as I drove into a median on the way home was Big Lizard In My Backyard by The Dead Milkmen. I’ve worn my contacts or glasses ever since by the way.
Sometime shortly after that fateful journey it was announced that The Dead Milkmen would be playing their final show at the Trocadero on Arch Street in Philadelphia. I wasn’t quite allowed to drive down to Center City at that point, being a relatively new driver (and a terrible one at that). I believe it may have been the Fall of 1994. Anyway, I convinced my parents that I had a bunch of local activities lined up for the evening and headed to the city. Outside of the venue the line snaked down a block or so and my friend and I chatted up a man named Dennis who was sporting Bob Marley dreads and might have been under the influence of too many energy drinks. Once we made our way towards the pit and The Dead Milkmen began to play our friend Dennis sought us out in an attempt to slam dance us to the ground. All in fun (I think) and a night to remember. Rodney Anonymous (vocals, keyboards), Joe Jack Talcum (guitars, vocals), Dave Blood (bass. RIP), and Dean Sabatino (drums) played their hearts out and made quite a few teenagers trying to find their identity feel like they had found “their people”. The tracks from Big Lizard in My Backyard were played to perfection reinforcing my love of the record.
I believe in swordfish (album breakdown)
Tiny Town – the album kicks off with a track that mocks hillbilly culture, and does so in style (and with Philadelphia accents). Pop-punk, it is a brief and stunning introduction to the world of The Dead Milkmen. Lyrically it does not hold back, which is something that is a Pro and a Con throughout the album. On this track though, it is perfect. Key lyrics: “This is a tiny town / And we don’t want you comin’ round / We got ourself a sheriff and his name’s Bobby Joe / One day he said to me “Them punk rockers gotta go””
Beach Song – I spent much of the summers of my youth at the Jersey Shore (before that phrase conjured up visions of Reality TV stars). The ocean is my peaceful place, but I can understand where this song is coming from. After 11 summers on the desolate beaches of Washington and the Oregon coast, New Jersey can seem a little claustrophobic. This is a minor punk gem, seemingly written from the perspective of a toddler stuck at the beach. Its hook is the refrain “I don’t wanna be on the beach, NO FUN!”
Plum Dumb – a moody masterpiece that is one of the best tracks on the record. Softly sung vocals on the chorus with spoken / sung verses. Bass heavy, you’ll be singing along in no time. “Freeway riding down the freeway / Cruisin’ now you’re really cruisin”
Swordfish – another track that breaks from the mold of straight forward punk rock. In fact, I think I played this track after a Nine Inch Nails song at a long forgotten party, years ago. The bass bouncing, the punk chanted vocals – it all makes for an intoxicating mix and will have you jumping out of your chair to dance (not safe whilst driving). I don’t really know what the song is about but you’ll believe in swordfish too after its 1:31 running time is over.
V.F.W. – the verses are spoken / sung with slower musical backing before moving onto a bridge of punk rock fury. This is a track that has grown on me over time (maybe after I got knocked down a few times). Simplicity resides in the words but betray an understanding of the world. Key lyrics: “Girls don’t really like me / That’s why I hate myself / Maybe it’s cause of the way I look / Or maybe it’s something else / Fucked up world / We’re all veterans of a fucked up world”
Rastabilly – a really funny song, it sounds like a drunk hillbilly country song – at least as envisioned by some obnoxious youthful punks from Philadelphia. Just a minute or so, but a highly entertaining minute.
Serrated Edge – it is easy to overlook this track on an album with so many highlights – that’d be a mistake. The bass just kills throughout and the entire tune is immensely hummable. Power pop, with some of the abrasive aspects of the band toned down just a bit. The song is an ode (mocking) to the actor Charles Nelson Reilly, featuring these lyrics: “Up on the hilltop where the vultures perch / that’s where I’m gonna build my church / Ain’t gonna be no priest ain’t gonna be no boss / Just Charles Nelson Reilly nailed to a cross”
Lucky – a straightforward punk song with a catchy chorus – one of the highlights of the record. It almost seems like it was made specifically for the mosh pit, which isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, I recall the entire Trocadero moving and jumping around quite a bit during this song. The words betray intelligence at work while the kids dance. Key lyrics: “President laughs shaves his head / Pushes the button and bombs the Reds / Reds hits back with all they’ve got / Now we’re all in the melting pot”
Big Lizard – the title track surprisingly is a mid tempo, straight forward rock song. A deeper album cut that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Lyrics as always are memorable: “Big lizard in my backyard / Can’t afford to feed it anymore / Big lizard in my backyard / Bustin’ down my neighbour’s door”
Gorilla Girl – features slower verses that tell the story of “gorilla girl” followed by an aggressive punk chorus. This is one of the highlights of the record for me – catchy, funny, all wrapped up in punk attitude. Key lyrics: “Gave to the gorilla girl, gobs and gobs of love / No one else would touch that girl unless they wore a glove”
Bitchin’ Camaro – the centerpiece of the record and with good reason – the spoken introduction is funny, off the cuff, and captures the vibe of youth & rebellion. Makes reference to a Doors cover band, Mötley Crüe, and Def Leppard. The whole monologue was made up on the spot (or so I’ve heard). If you had to choose one song by the ‘Milkmen I’d point you towards this song. The track itself is a fast paced punk onslaught with the song’s title repeated joyously throughout. Key lyrics: “Bitchin’ Camaro, Bitchin’ Camaro! / Donuts on your lawn / Bitchin’ Camaro, Bitchin’ Camaro! / Tony Orlando and Dawn”
Filet of Sole – a clever wordplay type song that is a deeper album cut. The song’s title is repeated quite a bit throughout the song in different affectations.
Spit Sink – an evocative track that builds in atmosphere as it progresses (maybe pointing the way towards the post ‘Milkmen project, Burn Witch Burn). The bass really holds it down musically while the vocals layer the 2 minutes or so with a menacing intensity.
Violent School – I don’t think this song would exist if the record was cut in 2013 instead of 1985. The music is incredible, with passionate singing from Rodney Anonymous. The music moves from its verses to the chorus with ease, retaining its melodic sensibility. The lyrics seem to be mocking those concerned about violence in schools which probably seemed funny almost 30 years ago. Listening to it now, it is almost a “I can’t believe they are saying this” kind of song.
Junkie – a slightly clumsy song that can serve as a “deeper album cut”. The chorus consists of stop / start music with the refrain “Shoot up or shut up!” repeated a few times. The tempo is slowed down just a bit so the music isn’t quite punk, flirting dangerously with a straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll vibe.
Right Wing Pigeons – this track was released during the Reagan Administration, so it is safe to assume that the track has a political slant. The Dead Milkmen didn’t really agree with what was happening back then, and this song perfectly captures that angst (Wanna know my political views? Drop me a note sometime. We can have a pointless conversation over coffee sometime.), What I love about this track is how it bounces out of the speakers, a dance worthy anthem laced with questions & anger. “The town in Georgia’s got a law on the books / Says if we all got guns then we won’t have crooks / Now what could make them think that way? / What could make them act that way?”
Dean’s Dream – a nice vibe with this track – dare I say it – dream like. Dean is the drummer of course, and we are treated to one of the top vocal performances of the record along with bass high up in the mix. The words give you the feeling of Dean’s Dream as it progresses – it’s not just a clever song title. This would be mix tape worthy if I could find blank cassette tapes. Or still had a tape deck.
Laundromat Song – tribal drums open up the track, a nice late album surprise. Sounds like a fairly typical ‘Milkmen song until it segues into its surf rock inflected chorus. A twisted love story set to a background of washing clothes at the laundromat. “Clothes go round and round / And my heart goes up and down / She’s drying her jeans / In separate machines / She’s loading up her granny cart / Ah Ah / Goin out the door; it’s breaking my heart / Ah Ah”
Nutrition – bouncy bass riff with bratty punk vocals. Slow build to a stunning chorus, the lyrics owe a bit to the great Jonathan Richman (specifically The Modern Lovers record). Fades out on a funny spoken verse about going to a hardcore show. Key lyrics: “I’ve got nowhere to go / Just hang out on the street / My folks say I’ve got no ambition / At least I give a shit / About the stuff I eat / Yeah! I care about nutrition”
Tugena – the album ends on a high note with this track – the darkness isn’t tempered with any lyrical jokes or snotty vocals. Instead what we have is muted words and a sinister guitar refrain that’ll lodge itself in your brain.
To make a short story long – this is a punk classic out of Philly that needs to be in your collection. The band may have gotten more airplay with the single “Punk Rock Girl” but this album is probably the most consistent of the band’s career. I’ll admit that it makes me just a tad homesick to hear the Philly accents come on so strongly during some of the songs. I skipped a track on this album breakdown because I couldn’t figure out how to talk about a song that is at best lyrically naive. Is that a copout? It just might be. I’ll ponder that thought until next time when I discuss Six by Mansun.