Take the Skinheads Bowling All Over Again
"And life is grand / And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor / With those of you who have appointed yourselves / To expect us to say something darker." -- Camper Van Beethoven, 1986
Unlike other decades we could name, if you remember the 1980s, chances are you were there. Problem is, at least musically, not everybody remembers the same '80s. To be sure, "official version" British giants like Duran Duran and Haircut 100 walked the earth, making the future safe for innocuous nightclub theme nights. But this was also the era of straight-edge hardcore punk as well as the first groundswell of modern-Americana-as-we-know-it, exemplified by proto-alt-country shitkickers Jason and the Scorchers and jangly popsters the dB's, not to mention their patron saints, future arena-hounds REM. Elsewhere, weirder bands like the Gun Club and Sonic Youth were merging experimentalism with this same Americana to create self-importantly "dangerous" new hybrids. The de facto court jesters of this whole scene were the members of Camper Van Beethoven, who caused much hipster head-scratching when they brought their "trashy punk-folk-ska-weirdo-psych" sound on tour with REM and whose first self-released LP, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, contained a brutally deflating cover of Sonic Youth's "I Love Her All the Time" and a goof on the waning hardcore scene in the form of "Club Med Sucks" ("I hate golf! / I don't wanna play lacrosse!").
Fittingly enough, Camper Van Beethoven broke up at the end of the '80s, but it never really went away. Most visibly, front man David Lowery streamlined the Camper ethos into the more digestible Cracker throughout the '90s and also had the unpleasant quasi-honor of appearing undisguised as a character in guerrilla-rock critic/fabulist Camden Joy's 2000 novel Boy Island (see "Stalker Fiction," June 1, 2000). Meanwhile, the willfully perverse kitchen-sink eclecticism and smirking dada lyrical abstraction that relegated CVB to sub-indie DIY status back in the day has since permeated rock culture to the point where the reappearance of these guys in 2005 is more like Moses suddenly materializing in the forbidden promised land than it is a typical rock-reunion cash-in. It's arguable that alternative/indie bands from Pavement to Cake couldn't have existed at all without Camper, and it's not hard to discern their Californian post-punk pothead stance in the curvature at the very spine of the jam band nation.
"Someone in The New York Times did describe us as a 'concise jam band' once," chortles Lowery today. "How's that for a contradiction in terms? Actually a lot of those jam band and indie rock and alt-country guys have told us how much they like Camper or that they cover this or that song. I remember years ago we played with Uncle Tupelo, and I got into this long conversation with Jeff Tweedy where he asked me in great detail how we got all the effects on the Key Lime Pie album. And if you think about it, you can definitely hear the Camper influence in Wilco. At least when Jeff's not crawling up his own ass."
CVB also gained a relatively recent toehold in the collective pop-culture unconscious when its anthemic "Take the Skinheads Bowling" was featured in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. "It's really strange how a song which was intended to be complete nonsense has taken on this obliquely political edge over time," muses Lowery. While we can all be thankful that the producers of The Hunting of the President didn't appropriate "Where the Hell Is Bill?" for any montage sequences, politics are at the core of the latest Camper disc, the 26-track prog-rock opera New Roman Times. The songs on the CD trace the adventures of an American soldier boy who winds up having to choose sides in a cultural-religious war, and many of the lyrics ("For when we smite them with our swords / In the name of our just lord / We do bring glory to his name") seem as applicable to the Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East as the Christian ones in the White House.
"We started recording the album in 2002, so it wasn't written in order to depict the Iraq war per se," explains Lowery. "I guess circumstance turned our allegory into a metaphor. Or is that the other way around? Anyway, it was originally more about domestic issues, the sort of deep fake divide that gets created in any imperialist climate where the roots of nouveau McCarthyism can take hold and you can do fun stuff like get large numbers of people to vote against their own economic interests. There's no United States now, anyway, it's just North America, really, covered with a bunch of little conquered countries. No offense, but the Texas of today is like a bad combination of Iran and Brazil."
Harsh words from an expatriate San Antonian. This mordantly offhand Texas-bashing makes an appearance on New Roman Times in the form of the record's oddest track, the menacing and atmospheric broken-Spanish soundscape "I Hate This Part of Texas," which Lowery explains is a reference to a common piece of rock club dressing room graffiti. "For years, wherever you went to play, whether it was in Illinois or, you know, Helsinki, someone would've written 'I hate this part of Texas' on the wall. I'm not sure how that got started, but it stays with you."
The music on New Roman Times actually owes more to psychedelic-era California innovators like Frank Zappa and Kaleidoscope than to more obvious sources of parody like the Who or Andrew Lloyd Webber, although the band does manage to work in both a Steve Reich cover and an extended disco vamp. They're still more comfortable with satire than anything resembling straight-ahead emoting, but the Camper Van Beethoven of today is undeniably a mature, contemporary beast, leaving all that presumed '80s nostalgia writhing in the dust. Much of the new disc is touched with a pained bemusement that (perhaps accidentally) sometimes verges on the soulful. Unintentional soulfulness, allegories turning into metaphors and back again -- all in a day's work for these eternal court jesters of the American zeitgeist.
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