I hope you all had a great April. Mine was incredibly busy with a lot of projects in the pipeline. Hopefully I’ll have a few new announcements soon.
For now, enjoy this flyer I found in an old Spain folder this afternoon. I don’t remember the occasion, but I have reason to believe that somebody from CGT handed it to me in Madrid 18 years ago today.
I tell ya – this modern society a select few have built has got me jerkin’ back and forth between thinking “Maaaan, what a beautiful world” and “we’re all deep into de-evolution, everything is controlled by morons.” Well, once again, I’m back in the crate of the Not-By 30-Day Music Challenge monster I created toward the beginning of the COVID era, and yet again it is my birthday month. So, prepare yourselves to get sloppy while fighting that uncontrollable urge with the…
I had another idea that I may unveil this coming summer provided the usual suspects I know are still engaged with these song-a-day challenges then. But for now, go ahead and download this, share it with your friends, and hashtag it #NotByDEVO to guarantee good times.
If you’re curious, someone on the internet there’s a photo of me dressed up as Mark Mothersbaugh (or Bob, or Gerry, or Alan, technically) for Halloween in 2010. I even made my own energy dome. My best friend dressed up as Thor (bear in mind this was a year before the first Marvel movie for that character came out), and that January we put on a variety show called ‘Ragnarok’ where I hosted one segment in character as Mothersbaugh. Five years later, my friend hit me up, practically freaking out when they announced that the music for Thor! Ragnarok (2017) would be done by Mark Mothersbaugh. Life imitates art imitates full circles, sometimes.
I scanned these photos with the impression that Irving took them both at Marineland, a marine life expo located on Highway A1A between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. According to the manager behind Marineland’s social media accounts, the first photo (of a trainer with a gator) was not taken there, but the second photo, which features a dolphin jumping for a treat in a tank with spectators, absolutely was.
This certainly creates more questions about where Irving may have snapped a photo of a trainer with a Gator. I wonder if the St. Augustine area had any accessible “gator experiences” at the time. It may have been at Gatorland, which has been called such since 1954, but that was far down the road in Kissimmee.
Marineland, especially in the last two decades of Florida’s pre-Disney era, was a well-established attraction. The cover of the Marineland guide, which I’ve scanned into JPEG format and will share below, along with a few other highlights from the program, has become an enduring image of Florida’s pre-Mickey tourist trade.
The guide’s opening salvo is particularly interesting, especially because it begins with a reference to Mohammed. The reference was hardly inaccurate (given the can-do attitude that permeated throughout Florida’s post-war attractions), but something tells me a program for a popular tourist destination on Florida’s space coast (ghost to ghost) would not open with a Mohammed anytime this century.
Click to enlarge the above pages and check out their sales pitch to visitors! Read about how new and exciting Oceanariums were at the time. I’ve also cropped and enlarged the “Gull’s-eye” view of the park, which appears to be facing south, looking at the Porpoise Stadium under the Marineland sign.
It’s still difficult to tell exactly which of the Oceanariums (Oceanaria? …It’s not a word I tend to use much in conversation or writing) Irving’s photo of the clever jumping dolphin was taken in. The Porpoise School tank at the foot of those blue bleachers would make sense, but according to the program, the Circular Oceanarium had dolphin shows as well.
Because of a scheduling crush for conference space in Manhattan that became a moot point when it pivoted to fully online for the third consecutive year, Happy Virtual AAG Week, everyone.
Though I wouldn’t have been able to get to New York anyway, I was beginning to regret missing the chance to reunite with some friends and colleagues from all over the states and some (depending on COVID-related passport restrictions) from around the globe. Granted, considering how Omicron variant numbers were skyrocketing last month and NYC tends to be a vector of disease transmission, the Association of American Geographers decided to hold this year’s meeting virtually. Despite the pandemic restrictions, I’ve been happy to serve the Cultural Geography Specialty Group as their Program Director for that time.
For our AAG 2022 Keynote, our first choice was Arizona State’s Dr. Rashad Shabazz – a name I’ve known for some time in the world of musical and critical geographies – and fortunately, he was honored to do it. He will be delivering the CGSG keynote talk on his long-going research about Prince, entitled “Prince and Place: A Premier on the Geography of Music.” I will be chairing the virtual talk along with my good friend and colleague Hannah Gunderman (CGSG Chair) this Sunday at 5:20pm ET.
As of this writing, I don’t have the precise details on how AAG digital registrants can access Rashad’s talk, but once we do, I will try to update them here, and the Cultural Geography Specialty Group will also post them (as the image says) at our website CulturalGeographySG.org along with various conduits on Twitter.
“See” everybody then! Check our Rashad’s bio below this video.
About Rashad Shabazz
Rashad Shabazz’s academic expertise brings together human geography, cultural studies, gender studies, and critical race studies. His research explores how race, gender, and cultural production are informed by geography. His most recent work, Spatializing Blackness,(University of Illinois Press, 2015) examines how carceral power within the geographies of Black Chicagoans shaped urban planning, housing policy, policing practices, gang formation, high incarceration rates, masculinity, and health.
Professor Shabazz’s scholarship has appeared in the journals Souls, The Spatial-Justice Journal, ACME, Gender, Place and Culture, Cultural Geography, Occasions, and Places. In addtion, Shabazz has also published several book chapters and book reviews. Professor Shabazz’s scholarship is also public facing. He has also appeared on local, national, and international news programs such as the BBC, Time Magazine, and 20/20. He is currently working on a book that uncovers the development of the Minneapolis music scene from its beginning in the mid-19th century to the release of Prince’s magnum opus, Sign O’ The Times, in 1987.
There are two things “wrong” with this entry. First, Bazooka Tooth wasn’t my favorite album of 2003 (that designation belongs to either Blur or the Twilight Singers), but it remains my favorite hip-hop album of the 21st century so far (unless Clipse nudges it out). Second, I’ve already published this essay before on ZME Music, in 2013, to honor’s the album’s 10th birthday. However, I noticed that my entries have hit a snag recently, and I wanted to get this onto my personal site because increasingly more I.P. is vanishing from the internet, even from the early 2010’s, a point when most of us can agree that the internet had become culture. I’ll stop here and let you enjoy it. I’ll be back with some new, original material for you all to peruse soon. For now, good luck on the new semester to both students and professors! – Tyler
A Decade of Seeing New York as Ancient Rome: ‘Bazooka Tooth’ Turns Ten
“People can label me whatever they like. I don’t really care any more…I get told that I’m weird—but you forget that the whole reason you liked [Boogie Down Productions] in the first place was because you never heard anything like that before.” – Aesop Rock, quoted in the Harvard Crimson, 2003
As Ian Bavitz was writing the songs that filled out the 70 minutes of Bazooka Tooth, hip-hop was undergoing a protracted identity crisis. When the album dropped, ten years had passed since The Chronic had redefined the way that hip-hop was produced and marketed. Even as the 21st century ushered in an era of exponentially caving-in space-time compression, five years since a pair of game-changing deaths (in addition to the events of Columbine High School, September 11, 2001 and immediate eternity of unfocused war) gave an increasingly corporate hip-hop industry plenty of time to back away from controversy in a cartoonish manner. This is not to say that 2002 was a bad year; Phrenology, Quality, Original Pirate Material and others provided antidotes to the ubiquity of Nelly and Ja Rule. Unfortunately, the canon of chart-topping hip-hop across the end of the century contained an insurmountable number of songs about absolutely nothing.
In early mid-2013, Jamie Meline and Mike Render released a collaborative theme album entitled Run the Jewels, a front-runner for many critics’ hip-hop album of the year. The second track opens with a verse by superstar Big Boi.
“If you told me ten years ago that El-P was going to release a single with Big Boi, I would have called you crazy,” said my friend Ted the first time we listened to the song.
In 2003, Company Flow and Outkast were more so marketable ideas than extant groups, but both had been immeasurably influential on drastically different scales over the prior five years. By the turn of the century, Funcrusher Plus had put El-P and subsequently his label Definitive Jux on so many nascent hip-hop fans’ maps, and Stankonia put Big Boi and his erstwhile partner Andre 3000 into bigger houses. But within a few years, Outkast had split into two colorful halves and the brains behind Company Flow had set out on his own and unleashed his own fantastic brand of damage on an overindulged hip-hop world. Neither Facebook nor YouTube would exist for another couple of years, so MTV still had some artistic stranglehold. Hip-hop’s identity crisis played itself out on dying legions of CRT-monitors across the world. While Nelly was busy scanning a credit card in an exploited model’s ass at the end of the “Tip Drill” video, El-P was wandering around New York, getting radioactive guns pulled on him everywhere he went as he rapped “Deep Space 9mm.”
Had Def Jux’s moment in the sun come today, who knows how the lethargic minefield of PBR-financed music blogs and YouTube videos disguised as lazy websites would mishandle the label’s collective message. But by 2003, still well after the Napster-ingrained moment when college kids regularly saw fit to apprehend music by whatever non-monetary means necessary, every release branded with the Def Jux label was feverishly devoured. These included landmark releases by El-P’s friends in Cannibal Ox, the midwestern turntable wizard RJD2 (Deadringer, seriously) and most significantly, an enigmatic, racially ambiguous Long Islander who called himself Aesop. In 2001, Aesop Rock had helped rocket Def Jux from relative obscurity (amongst anyone without their ear to the ground of the East Coast indie hip-hop scene) when he created and dropped Labor Days. Unprepared for the circumstances of this trajectory, he recoiled as his label blew up amongst indie tastemakers and increasingly influential online music filters. On September 23, 2003 he released his auto-iconoclastic follow up, complete with surreal cartoon album art, a nonsensical name, and an unforgettable pastiche of antisocial hip-hop songs splayed across the album’s seventy minutes like a string of tags and slogans spray painted on the side of a rusted-to-death cargo train sitting forgotten on Staten Island.
The most nostalgic cats are the ones who were never part of it. (El-P on “We’re Famous”)
Allow me to begin with the story of how Bazooka Tooth evolved into this writer’s favorite hip-hop album of all time. I had missed the Labor Days train two years prior, which still disappoints me, but my introduction to Ian Bavitz later came at a crucial point in both his career and my own life.
As a budding music fan, I was unable to avoid hip-hop. When I was in fifth grade, Snoop and Dre hit my television screen at least once a day. It took me well over fifteen years to realize how important (and legendarily good) “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” had been. Legions of my fellow white kids swallowed the romanticized fantasy world of gats, rims, and bitches, but I rejected it wholeheartedly. I was adequately disillusioned when Tupac died, but his music had never gotten through to me. It simply seemed insincere to me (and still does) that people who never really had to struggle for anything were coddling together sympathy for immaculately marketed thugs and “thugs.”
For the majority of middle school and high school, I avoided disappointing my mom by bringing home any CDs defaced with Tipper Gore’s two-tone ego crest. From what I recall, the first pieces of music I bought that carried the Parental Advisory tag were cassettes, The Bloodhound Gang’s One Fierce Beer Coaster (a gem of mid-90’s mookish satire) being among them. I kept dabbling in hip-hop, rap, and techno as the 90’s progressed and got weirder, but it wasn’t until I was firmly lodged in the pseudo-intellectual bubble of the four-year university that the “hip hop as sociology” puzzle began making sense.
I kept a radio-censored version of the album on steady rotation throughout my junior year of college. I was still accustomed to mainstream, professionally engineered radio edits on hip-hop songs that covered their audible tracks, but these weren’t clean and didn’t seem professionally engineered. They simply highlighted the swear words, twisting and reversing them on an ostensibly limited budget. To this day, I still imagine Skipper labeling dolls with the name of “Yiddish” rap artists prior to “tearing their still-beating hearts out of the loose-leaf carcass.” It took me a couple of years to get my hands on the original version. I was actually disappointed to hear that Aesop had in fact referred to “shitty” rap artists on “NY Electric” rather than slide in this nod to his own ambiguous Judaism (I never knew anyone with his last name and wasn’t the only one of my friends who wondered this; he was actually raised Catholic).
I had no idea that Aesop’s longer-time fans held Bazooka Tooth, with its undeniably muddled production and less-coherent lyrics (than that of his first few releases, at least) in relatively low regard, particularly next to the mind-blowing dexterity on earlier tracks like “Flash Flood” and heart-stopping storytelling of “No Regrets” (I still care deeply about Lucy, whether or not she was based on a real person). I was not the only one who liked this album, yet I was one of the few people I knew who loved this album. I saw nothing wrong with a rapper challenging his listeners with double-talk and mondegreens. Considering the post-internet, pre-social networking era that Aesop’s mid-twenties works existed in, this was not much different from David Lynch challenging his viewers with analeptic plot devices or David Foster Wallace challenging his readers with a novels’ worth of dense footnotes.
In fact, when I continue thinking on this, the Bazooka Tooth triple-LP set was the first record I ever bought new. Until that point, I was a dilettante accumulator of used vinyl for leisure and novelty. After this shiny, beautifully illustrated record broke the ice, I increasingly began taking vinyl more seriously. (Equally noteworthy, if connected more to Aesop than this particular work: When I joined Thefacebook.com in 2004, I listed “Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives” under my interests section. It stayed there for a surprisingly long time).
Anyway, that’s enough self-absorbed nostalgia from me. I included this to illustrate one of several reasons why Bazooka Tooth deserves this level of tribute, especially since I know that my story is hardly unique. This record is a difficult one to explain and (whenever necessary) defend, but there is too much insanity packed into these fifteen tracks to explain under the pretense of linear thinking. Let’s go to the tape.
Hyde heckles Jekyll and makes Hitler look cuddly. (Aesop on “Cook It Up”)
When you are white and male, society opens an extraordinary number of doors for you. This flies in the face of an irreparably shitty post-millennial job market, privatized higher education producing near-lifelong debt, and any memory of when this system you were born into was completely worth the hassle. It’s particularly unfortunate having entered the real world right as any hope of succeeding in your parents’ footsteps faded over the horizon and crumbled behind the World Trade Center, surrounding for years by people who can still smell metal in the air tonight. Regardless of when or how you fail, you get chastised if you blame anybody but your hegemony-feeding white male self. You never had to fight racism, sexism, or (necessarily) classism, so what claim do you have to a struggle?
Bazooka Tooth wasn’t my introduction to twisted, nerdy hip-hop progenitors, but to put it bluntly, it was the first time one of these weirdoes (as C-Rayz Waltz proudly declared his crew on a VHS documentary about their label) blew me away. Aesop Rock led to El-P led to Sage Francis led to me starting to actively disintegrate the prejudices I’d had against hip-hop in a whole new context. While it would be patronizing and unfair to juxtapose the “black struggle” with any type of “white struggle,” Aesop, Sage, and others illustrated that there was such a thing as the latter with increasing proficiency. It just wasn’t externally inflicted. Growing up unable to meet high expectations, being condescended to by peers and adults for being “weird” or “different,” and unable to find a comfortable medium through which to develop, aren’t tantamount to society thinking you’re a problem, a leech, or “not a real American,” but that doesn’t mean one’s life can’t objectively suck. A generation of suburban kids who had grown up thinking (for some reason) that Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan understood their frustration now had a whole new fucked up set of intellectual leaders that were nerdy, wore their damage on their sleeves, and couldn’t care less if they fit into any profession. Even the most highly trained were capable of failing and shooting forty-one shots over par. El-P and his friends decided to build their own scene, and around the time that Bazooka Tooth dropped, kids of all races who loved television and manic depression were listening.
“No bad moves allowed when you are in the public eye; kill it, you are the weakest link, goodbye.” – Aesop on “Easy”
This exposure and ground-level fame came unwelcome to an under-prepared agoraphobic who admitted that, for a stretch of his early twenties, he couldn’t leave his house without getting dizzy and falling over. Ironically, this was exactly the anti-bravado that hip-hop needed to recapture its appeal to those alienated by raw materialism, including cars that creditors had probably already repossessed from Mystikal. To even call this music “street level” would be a misnomer, as its progenitor spent much of his early twenties too much of a jittery, drooling mess to walk down any street, risking exposure to either the cameras or guns, one of which were going to shoot him to death. “Aesop Rock” was already a suitable stage name for a gifted lyricist and uncompromising personality, but now, even his pseudonym needed an alter ego into which he could safely retreat. We all made Bazooka Tooth; we’re all guilty.
Wisely, Bavitz and his cohort gave the obtuse Bazooka Tooth a few years to age before he demystified his back catalog with an official lyric booklet in 2005 with the deluxe release of the Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives EP. Reading along with these songs for the first time (and each subsequent time) brought about dozens of aural epiphanies (I’ve been listening to this record consistently for a decade without noticing the ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot’ reference). This was particularly true in the case of tracks like “NY Electric” and “Freeze,” where Aesop’s anger over both New York’s compromised life condition and his own fame were palpable, if not completely coherent at first. Provided with the comprehensive lyric sheets, the listener was able to connect these dots, but a tangled jungle of pop-culture references still confronted them. Bavitz’s categorical obsession with comic books of his youth and obscure political scandals lent itself surprisingly well to critically dense poetry that almost transcended his formal (four-year college) education. He had already established himself as one of the most impressive MCs in independent music, but now he had proven himself one of the most confrontational lyricists, too. It came at a time when Hip-hop needed a solid set of middle fingers to flash at convention, and Aesop, Murs, El-P, Mr. Lif, and company were happy to extend them. It still surprises me to remember that Bavitz was only in his mid-twenties when he recorded Bazooka Tooth. At the time, it wasn’t so shocking to college-age kids like me, since 25-year olds had so much life experience that we lacked. The surprise is that even now that my cohort and I have surpassed that cornerstone age and then some, Aesop’s wit and perspective on songs like “Babies with Guns” and “Kill the Messenger” still sound like they come from a mind way more developed than my own.
“Ain’t it strange it’s a fad to bite your idols when the only reason you liked them was cause their shit wasn’t recycled?” – Aesop on “Frijoles”
If the blatantly unsolved murders of Biggie and Tupac sent hip-hop into a political regression of sorts, it was equally unsolved, untimely murder of Jam Master Jay that really stepped on the collective throat of Bavitz and his label mates. The violent realities of an out-of-control capitalist venture had already begun setting in by the time that Meline began burning his poetry onto vinyl in the early 90s, but it all paled in comparison to watching a pioneer fall. Run-DMC was suddenly no more, and as painful as this reality was, the slate had, in many ways, been cleared. On “Freeze” (the closest thing this album had to a single), Aesop concludes the song with a nod to Jam Master Jay’s “resurrection and second death,” which acknowledged how nobody was forever, even if your heroes’ music lived on eternally. Mizell’s October 2002 murder happened right around the moment before Hip-hop had come of age sufficiently to reflexively capitalize off its own nostalgia. Before long, a new race to the top had begun. As his label hit an arguable peak with this succession of releases by Can Ox, RJ, and Aesop, El-P didn’t waste the opportunity to remind people about where he and his progeny had won any succession of little victories as the hip-hop “industry” allowed over the turn of the century on “We’re Famous,” a very unconventional version of one of hip-hop’s great conventions (the diss track).
Nobody involved in the Def Jux process seemed content resting on any laurels. Countless rappers that Ian and Jamie had grown up watching had worked (and innovated) their asses off until earning that coveted SNL appearance, that insurmountable platinum record, and then simply got lazy. In retrospect, Bazooka Tooth was a logical step in a career for a rapper who never cared to be confined to peoples’ expectations. In the decade since, he has reunited with Blockhead (“None Shall Pass”), united with Kimya Dawson (“Uncluded”) and even, in the single most controversial move of his career, left New York for the Bay Area. The man that once thickly territorialized his domain over the five boroughs might have taken his own advice and shot himself in the foot while it was in his mouth if he honestly gave a shit what people thought. The white rapper with a Boston University diploma, dropping Suzanne Vega references during free-styles, had his mind made up. Satisfyingly, he has found ways to grow musically as well as ways to keep getting weirder; he promoted his solo album Skelethon with a web-series that featured him dragging a dead cat around a hallucinatory San Francisco. Is he trying to lovingly deconstruct his new city in the way in which he did New York? Bavitz may not be Jewish, but one could make the argument that he’s successfully evolved into hip-hop’s fucked-up take on (the positive part of) Woody Allen.
“Brinker 1-9, 9-11-01 Witness. Maybe you don’t get this.” – Aesop on “NY Electric”
(from Cryptic’s tumblr)
While hip-hop was floating relatively irrespective of the streets, Aesop Rock and his cohort were engineering hostile beats and noises on personal computers in smoke-filled apartments. Whether or not they realized it at the time, they were setting the tone for an exponentially increasing trend in bedroom-production. Additionally, their love of the music they were creating transcended their hatred of their situations, and it showed. Despite Aesop’s professed love of soaking up dialogue from films that ‘take place in other eras and other places,’ the early 2000s had locked him solidly into New York, as if there was anywhere else he could have gone. This once-invincible urban wonderland had folded to this dystopian reality where it was suddenly possible to curfew the city and shut down every block. The Big Apple has yet to regain its glory.
To New Yorkers, especially starving artists, 9/11 wasn’t the end of life as they knew it, but it did exacerbate everything that had already been shitty about their lives. “When you’re a poor person,” confined Vast Aire in the aforementioned documentary, “24 hours is like 10 years… When you’re not poor, time is leaving you. Money is everything, and that’s just sad.”
In 1961, activist and urban studies guru Jane Jacobs wrote that “Time, in cities, is the substitute for self-containment. Time, in cities, is in dispensable.” The poor urban dweller is consistently wondering where their family’s next meal is going to come from; days, hours, and minutes move slowly. Time stretches out like the poly-rhythmic, cumbersome beats on Aesop’s record. Nobody intended to let anyone dance to this joint. Why would anybody want to? On the most arguably dance-able track, “11:35,” Mr. Lif cites a poor immigrant named Jose falling to his death in an industrial grinder like something out of The Jungle or Manhattan Transfer, among other modern-day micro-tragedies, before the beat cuts to a jerky, uneven shuffle. Building upon a series of sentiments (alienation, depression, inertia, paranoia, agoraphobia), Aesop mans the production helm, mixes molasses into the aesthetic, and paints that long-overdue picture of a dystopia-tinged New York, that defeated metropolis where biggest brother’s watching bigger brother watching big brother watch you, spectral particles of the world trade center permeate the atmosphere, and in distinct corners, angry young men dig through neighbors’ garbage and shoot decrepit, sickly dogs behind barns. Fittingly, Vast Aire materializes at the end of “NY Electric” to eulogize the world where buildings fall and hopes crash.
Instead of turning this anxiety inward as he did so often and effectively on Labor Days, Aesop was now projecting these sentiments clearly across the world’s picture-in-picture widescreens and outward onto the human race (itself now an endangered species and willfully hunted by each other, including their infants). The species is ripe for a takeover at the hands of Martians, which is exactly what happens at the end of the album. Conceptually, Aesop’s fantasy of a decisive Mars victory is far-fetched, but hypothetically who could argue in favor of humans after over an hour of unflinching misanthropy?
“Every leader dead and it’s making you upset.” – Aesop on “Kill the Messenger”
There’s no way of knowing where Bazooka Tooth would have gone if Def Jux or Rhymesayers released it today. It would still have acolytes, no doubt, but who would be downloading any of the singles off iTunes or which radio stations outside of New York’s proudest independent and pirate stations would take a risk on any of it? It remains a document of a particularly triumphant era for underground hip-hop as the underground emerged, rubbing its eyes at the strobe lights and adulation. Considering how much has changed in this past decade for both Aesop, El-P, and backpacker hip-hop (if anyone even uses that term anymore), their string of timeless works under the strangest conditions is remarkable, fomenting a style of revolution that will not be apologized for.
To me, Bazooka Tooth is the strongest microcosm of this moment in time, and I know that many people (possibly even Bavitz himself) may disagree. But as the record proved [eighteen+] years ago, cryptically and consistently, we live in a world with no simple answers, and the answers that seem simple are going to fall out from beneath us when the impending end of days crushes New York along with the world that its residents believe revolves around it. In Meline’s half-joking words to an interviewer a decade ago: “You didn’t realize that we were in the middle of World War III and that we’re all gonna die soon?” Aesop Rock understood that time, his crew’s city, and even the human race were changing too fast to even recognize when he pieced this disturbed anti-masterpiece together. [Nearly two] generally painful decade[s] later, we can still take comfort in how no matter what happens, we’ve got something built if we all die tonight.
“Bazooka Tooth,” baby.
Here are my top 10 albums of 2003, for anyone interested:
- The Twilight Singers – ‘Blackberry Belle’
- Blur – ‘Think Tank’
- Aesop Rock – ‘Bazooka Tooth’
- Prefab Sprout – ‘I trawl the Megahertz’
- Dizzee Rascal – ‘Boy in Da Corner’
- Airbag – ‘Ensamble Cohetes’
- Junior Senior – ‘D-D-Don’t Stop the Beat’
- The Shins – ‘Chutes Too Narrow’
- The White Stripes – ‘Elephant’
- The Unicorns – ‘Who Will Cut our Hair When We’re Gone?’
Body Politics were a New Wave band from Boston active in the mid-late 1980s. I discovered their video for “Land of the Free” recently on an old VHS tape of music videos my father pieced together in 1986. His recording was pulled from broadcast on V66, a Boston UHF channel that hit the air in February 1985. Though it was modeled after the nationally dominant MTV, it served a local niche of artists and fans who still couldn’t pick up that channel.
According to both Discogs as well as the caption provided by YouTube user embee2006 (who I assume is Body Politics guitarist Michael Bierylo; they uploaded a pair of songs from the band’s 1987 gig in Allston, too), the band consisted of Bierylo on lead guitar, Mickey Pipes on drums, George Bunder on bass, and Kerry Fusaro on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. Apparently, Pipes had previously played in a band called The Eggs, who released one 7″ single in 1981.
I’m unsure how long Body Politics existed and played around the Boston region (and possibly further afield), but it seems like “Land of the Free” was the band’s biggest stab at mainstream attention. It was one of 4 tracks on their self-released 1986 EP Cool Man, which is their only release accounted for on their Discogs page (other than a questionably titled song “Stop Acting like a Blonde” they contributed to a Boston rock compilation in 1984).
The reason the “Land of the Free” video ensnared me was not only because of what a great time capsule it was of quotidian mid-80’s Boston, but also a time-stamped installment of the perspective that diversity, immigration, and public/civic life are what make America great. As Bierylo writes in the caption below this video, “The song was a reaction against the policies and rhetoric of the Reagan era, and oddly enough is as relevant, perhaps even more so, some 20 years later.”
I may still do a rip in the original display resolution for my Vimeo archive once I have time. What an insane time/place to have lived: affordable, mid-’80s Boston. I often wonder how much different my life would have been if my family had stuck around there.
Classes resume today. Happy Spring Semester to all those teaching, learning, and administrating.
The first time I saw Ash, I was in middle school. The band were a trio on a bizarrely packaged tour promoting their (arguably*) second and (inarguably) best record, 1977.
The second time I saw Ash, they were a quartet, and I was wandering around Irving Plaza under the directive to promote a tour-only EP they put out to help boost attention for their album Free All Angels. I was interning for their label at the time, and I was downright indignant that none of their singles had gotten any real attention in the US, especially “Burn Baby Burn,” a scorcher that had all the ingredients of pop chart success (including a couple of high-profile UK awards) but barely even scratched the United States.
Six years later, while record shopping in London, I found an original vinyl copy of 1977, lamenting to the clerks that Ash were one of my favorite bands, but no matter what they did, they could barely even get arrested in America. The clerk replied that they couldn’t get arrested there anymore, either, citing how they hadn’t really put out any great records in a while. In the interim, they had released Meltdown (2004) and Twilight of the Innocents (2007), neither of which, despite the gaudy cover art of the former and the title of the latter’s opening track, really caught fire.
I don’t remember if the band announced it before or after that London record shop conversation, but Ash had floated the idea of stopping making albums altogether to focus on singles. It seemed like a bizarre move at the time, though history has certainly not proven it misguided. Ash were within their right to do whatever the hell they wanted, but looking back now as an American fan of 25 years, I can sympathize with their frustration at the time.
I’ll never forget bumping into an old college radio friend (who ran WERW-AM from 2001-2002) at that Irving Plaza gig, watching his face light up when the band broke into their early single “Jack Names the Planets.” He repeatedly commented that he hadn’t heard, or even really thought about, that song in forever. Ash had spent their first decade (and four records) as a band being touted as “the next big thing,” and by 2003, even most music nerds in the states barely had any idea who the hell they were.
I think the importance of 1977 is self-evident in how the band have centrally the band have incorporated the year 1977 into their brand. I would argue that no record had a greater impact in simply helping remind Americans – who were, despite Weezer’s golden era and the ‘punk revival’ led by Green Day and Rancid, deluged with grunge’s watered-down cousin Modern Rock – that bands were still playing power-pop and garage-laden punk across the pond in 1996.
I’m going to assume I was watching MTV (or possibly M2 during a “free sample” weekend on my local cable provider) relatively late one night that year when the video for “Goldfinger” came on. I remember being intrigued. There weren’t a whole lot of other bands who sounded like that: sugary tenor vocals, grungy guitar that didn’t feel very “grunge” to me, and willing to take that commercial suicide-risk of resting their instruments almost completely several times per verse.
It took a sequence of life-changing events to arrive there, though. I had already seen the video for “Goldfinger” once, and likely heard it on the radio a couple of times, when I ran into a record shop in town adjacent to mine to see if they had a single for Stabbing Westward’s hit single “Shame” (an infectious bit of industrial-pop-metal with a music video so stupid I could write a separate essay on why). The clerk had no idea what I was talking about, but some dude in a leather jacket turned to me from down the counter and asked “Are you coming to the show tonight?” I had never had anybody ask me about coming to a show, much less a guy who looked like he could have been in a band as bad-ass (to 13 year old me, anyway) as Stabbing Westward. Stunned, I replied that I didn’t know. The labret-pierced Alt-Rock dude told me they had a bunch of copies of the single at Toad’s Place.
Intrigued, I convinced my Dad to take me to New Haven for the gig that night, a supportive gesture that has no doubt changed the path of my entire life. Stabbing Westward happened to be touring with Ash and I Mother Earth. Even at the time, that lineup seemed strange to me. If I ever meet Tim Wheeler, my first question would be how the hell that happened. I would assume some record company glad-handing, since a teenage Irish power-pop trio did not pair well with a brooding industrial quintet from Los Angeles (that weren’t even on the same label), but it may have just worked out that they played some festival together and Stabbing Westward invited them on board. If there weren’t just enough digital evidence to prove that the two bands played together in the Midwest that Fall, I would probably doubt my own memory. Brian Phelps’ new book about Toad’s place lists Stabbing Westward and I Mother Earth in their official band index, but not Ash. I don’t have any ticket stubs, photographs, or concrete third-party documentation that this show ever happened. I don’t have a copy of the “Shame” single, either, which makes me think labret-piercing dude was lying to me.
I’m certain that 1977 wasn’t the first album I evangelized to anyone who would listen, but boy did everybody I know get an earful about Ash around the time. I remember showing the CD insert to my friend Alison (no idea why I had it with me), who gave me a blank cassette to copy their music onto just because they looked like a cool band. My 8th grade art teacher, who played us Echo and the Bunnymen tapes while we drew, allowed me to put 1977 on in class. All I remember was my friend Jeff joking that the intro to “Kung Fu,” which sampled a fight scene from a Sammo Hung film, sounded like his house when he pissed of his parents. I even scanned the album cover (my first time I can ever remember using a scanner) for a class project explaining how Compact Disc technology worked.
I can’t quite compare 1977 to anything else I remember hearing as an adolescent. The naivete and strings on “Oh Yeah” and “Let It Flow” both felt equally sincere. “Girl from Mars” featured moments of the nastiest guitar distortion imaginable for a pop group, but was still somehow the most sugary punch on the album. Though it wasn’t my priority as a listener at the time, Rick McMurray’s drumming is incredible on this record (and, without combing through dozens of retrospective reviews, I’m unsure whether he got enough credit for such). The band tacked several minutes of drunken vomiting as a “hidden” track onto the fireworks-laden finale of “Darkside Lightside” – a bit of buffoonery that they probably laugh off/regret now, but still the edgiest shit in my whole music collection at the time (provided I hadn’t bought that One Fierce Beer Coaster cassette yet). It seemed punk as fuck, although the band’s connection to punk was about as specious as their connection to Britpop.
1977 would be a first-ballot record in the Power-Pop hall of fame no matter what year it had been released, but releasing it in 1996 doomed the band in several ways. A decade later, after the Libertines had revived the British garage movement, the Arctic Monkeys kicked up a (well deserved, now that we know about the staying power of Alex Turner and Company) shit-storm of hype on the heels of their first record – a storm that Ash may have gotten a solid chunk of had they been born a decade later.
Or not. It’s pretty clear that American music fans are fickle about which British artists to which they’ll lend a moment of their time. Considering how ginger and toothless so much British crossover success has been, it’s hard to imagine a moment in the post-punk era where Ash would have gotten as big as they seemed on the heels of even their best work. Even Two Door Cinema Club, whose Millennial fans nearly trampled me to death at Coachella in 2013, didn’t seem to lead a new crop of indie-dance-pop fans down that Irish rabbit hole.
I kept up with the band for the remainder of that decade, though I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t paid too much attention to their new singles-oriented output. Not that I had necessarily written them off (unlike another Irish band of note, they had put out some good material since 2000), but I couldn’t stop returning to 1977 whenever I did revisit Ash.
This changed, though, when I took my first trans-Pacific flight in 2019. On the way to Sydney from Los Angeles, somewhere over Oceania, I got restless and started browsing the airline’s music catalog to sample through the tinny, shitty proprietary headphones they passed out in their pre-COVID way. This was how I found out that Ash had, despite their promise not to^, released a new LP called Islands. I clicked play on the first track “True Story,” and enjoyed it quite a bit, but it didn’t strike me as a “return to form” where their teenage bursts of energy were concerned.
Then, “Annabel” started.
NOW THE PATH AHEAD IS GONE
NOW THE FIGHT IS REALLY ON
What a catchy opening! I felt my heart rate going up.
I CAN SEE REAL TROUBLE IF WE WAIT
My eyes were nearly welled up with tears even before the chorus hit. What a fucking amazing song.
HAVE NO FEAR
YOU CAN BE
Oh god yes! Tim Wheeler is still a master popsmith. I wanted to fight somebody over this.
IN THE STORM I WILL
DRAW YOU CLOSE
IN THE TEMPEST
IN THE SNOW
I hit “repeat” and listened to “Annabel” at least 10 times before moving onto the third track, the admittedly corny yet memorable “Buzzkill.” I felt like such an idiot for falling off with this band, especially since I’d been a fan since I was thirteen. Tim Wheeler hadn’t lost his ability to write an amazing song, and Ash hadn’t lost an ounce of relevance. I put “Annabel” firmly within my list of 10 favorite songs of the decade, and it felt great being able to do that nearly 25 years after Ash became one of my first favorite bands.
It was hard to compartmentalize in 1996, especially considering how young I was, but Ash were truly singular within the international pop-rock landscape. They were never meant to be clumped in with Britpop; they just happened to be British citizens putting out great pop music in the mid-Nineties. I misguidedly considered them punk because I didn’t have a much better frame of reference (having no idea who Teenage Fanclub were back then). Now that we’re not so shackled or silo-ed by calcified ideas of genre, it’s great to be able to enjoy the brilliant 1977 without scraping to figure out exactly where it fits. Ash still don’t, and one thing is for certain: they were always, and remain to this day, simply ASH. I’m so grateful they decided to be a band.
*I refer to 1977 as Ash’s second album, even though it was technically their first album recorded and released as a full-length LP. Their “first” album Trailer, which came out before 1977, was a compilation of singles, b-sides, and EP tracks to get fans excited for the band’s next LP, hence the title. For reasons of congruity, I’ll refer to 1977 as their second album, mainly because it’s always felt that way to me.
^ I was so out of touch with the band in 2015 that I had completely missed out on their return to the LP format, Kablammo! that year. I’m not proud of this.
Happy New Year, everyone.
I don’t have a whole lot of time to write at the moment, but with 2022 finally here, I’m going have a whole bunch of new essays and announcements in the upcoming months. December has been quite busy, to say the least.
Anyway, no sooner had I come out of retirement with the Not-by-the-Cure challenge had I already written half of the clues about Weezer. I owe a tip of the hat to the Wizard and the Bruiser, who did a great episode of their podcast recently that put me into a more positive frame of mind about Rivers Cuomo and his compatriots. Also, Jake Young referred to Matt Sharp (who I long considered the band’s secret weapon early on) as an “alpha-Chad,” and I haven’t been able to think of anything else regarding Weezer since.
Here you go! Tell a friend, make sure to hashtag it #NotByWeezer, spread some New Years’ cheer with power-chords and songs about nerd stuff, and never forget to bring home the turkey if they bring home the bacon.