In the final stages of editing our manuscript, Vickie and I, during one of our semi-daily State of the Book conference calls, agreed that we needed to include a comprehensive Geek Rock discography. The reason for this was simple: there was (and still is) a lot more ground to cover. Weâ€™re both proud of every single chapter included in Geek Rock, but my only lament was in regard to what wouldnâ€™t be in the book. I even hinted with a not-so-subtle nudge and wink that maybe, just maybe, we could someday do Return of the Son of Geek Rock to enshrine at least another dozen more artists from this genre within the framework of legitimate academic discussion.
For me, the most glaring omission (and sorry, kiddies, but Iâ€™m calling dibs on them in the event Return of the Son ofâ€¦ becomes a reality) is The Residents. In short, they represent the most esoteric depths of experimental music from the classic rock era, with a discography that spans four decades and gives Zappa a run for his money in terms of their eclecticism. Just about the only thing one wonâ€™t find in The Residentsâ€™ discography is a hit record. Commercialism has always been their target, not their goal. It may also be worth mentioning here also that The Residents have existed in some form since 1972 with no one knowing for sure just who the Hell these guys (and maybe gals) are.
There is plenty to discover and discuss from mining the bandâ€™s career. In my experience of getting into The Residents, I found the easiest point of entry to be their tribute albums â€“ songs I already know, albeit in vastly different form. Covers can be a touchy subject, especially in this day and age where we can all rest soundly knowing just what Avril Lavigneâ€™s rendition of â€œImagineâ€ sounds like, and yet at the same time there is a litany of cover tunes that not only do justice to the original, they surpass them. Iâ€™m sure there is a sizable segment of the population who think The Beatles did â€œTwist and Shoutâ€ first, no doubt because of the energy and vigor they put into their performance. Or how about Ike and Tinaâ€™s rendition of CCRâ€™s â€œProud Mary?â€ I love Fogerty and the gang, and they have their own share of dazzling covers (turning â€œSusie Qâ€ and â€œI Heard It Through The Grapevineâ€ into sprawling swamp-rock jams? Brilliant!), but Ike and Tina made â€œProud Maryâ€ theirs. In that same vein, Trent Reznor, the angriest man in music, was gracious enough to concede that Johnny Cashâ€™s version of â€œHurtâ€ was the best.
Beginning in the early 1970â€™s, cover albums became somewhat of a trend â€“ David Bowieâ€™s Pin-Ups, The Bandâ€™s Moondog Matinee, John Lennonâ€™s Rock & Roll, side A of Todd Rundgrenâ€™s Faithful â€“ meant to be a fond look back on the past, its yearning for yesteryear (for Todd and Bowie, it was back to the mid-60â€™s, while for Lennon and The Band, it was back to the early days of rock â€˜nâ€™ roll) a sign of dissatisfaction with the times. Released in 1976, The Residentsâ€™ second album, The Third Reich and Roll, subverted the standards of the above-mentioned tribute albums where the past was held in such a lofty view.
Beginning with an actual clip from the German version of â€œLetâ€™s Do The Twist Again,â€ the snippet is cut short by flatulent sound effects and a tribal drumbeat. When the vocals come in, it is an atonal take on the chorus from Wilson Pickettâ€™s â€œLand of 1000 Dances.â€ The barely intelligible lead singer calls off all the dance styles from the original before going back to the tribal drums. With the emergence of a plonking piano, the band segues into â€œMy Baby Does The Hanky-Pankyâ€ by Tommy James and The Shondells. Each side of the original record makes up one long track, segueing from one song to the next, making it less of a traditional album than it is a work of aural art.
It is seemingly obvious from the outset that The Residents were throwing tomatoes at pop music: just look at the cover, which Wikipedia matter-of-factly denotes as featuring â€œtelevision entertainer Dick Clark in a Nazi uniform holding a carrot while surrounded by swastikas and pictures of a dancing Adolf Hitler in both male and female dress.â€ The metaphor is a hard one to miss: the innate fascism of pop music. The late Clark may appear to be an innocent target, but letâ€™s not forget that in the 50â€™s he dodged the same payola scandal bullet that ruined Alan Freedâ€™s career (which may have had more to do with Freed playing Little Richard, while Clark was plugging Pat Booneâ€™s version of Little Richardâ€¦)
The songs parodied are at times obvious choices: â€œA Horse With No Name,â€ â€œYummy, Yummy, Yummy,â€ â€œA Double Shot of My Babyâ€™s Love,â€ all songs with truly stupid lyrics. However, at the albumâ€™s conclusion, a synthesizer playing â€œSunshine of Your Loveâ€ suddenly shifts â€“ it canâ€™t be! â€“ to one of the most sacred cows of the past decade: The Beatlesâ€™ â€œHey Jude,â€ with its closing mantra that seemed to make all the clouds go away during the storms of 1968. As the singers join in, the keyboardist begins bungling his notes â€“ intentional or not? â€“ adding a sinister quality to the proceedings. The guitar, which begins by doubling the â€œHey Judeâ€ mantra melody, starts to take some liberties here and there before drifting into the Luciferian counter to The Beatlesâ€™ angelic hymn: â€œSympathy For The Devilâ€ by The Rolling Stones. They even throw in a few â€œwoo-wooâ€ backing vocals for good measure. In just 35 minutes, The Residents have torched the very institution of pop music, reminding us that even our gilt-edged heroes were all part of the same big ugly pop machine.
Left off the album, but from around the same period, were two more visitations by The Residents onto the hallowed ground of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. It is worth keeping in mind that by this time â€“ 1976 â€“ both groups were thought of as part of the past, despite everyoneâ€™s efforts to bring The Beatles back together, while the pre-punk revival Stones were busy taking two years to churn out yawn-inducing mid-tempo dinosaur rock sludge. (Black and Blue, anyone?)
The Residentsâ€™ intentions may never be known, but their cover of â€œSatisfactionâ€ takes the roughshod garage band from outer space of The Third Reich and Roll and does it one better. With a vocal performance that is more screaming than actual singing, the cocky swagger of the original is replaced with an impotent, nasal lament, countered with sheer rage on the chorus. This type of cover, where deviation from the original is what defines it, was the first of its kind. Two years later, Devoâ€™s robotic version of â€œSatisfactionâ€ was praised for its innovative approach. Their version is brilliant, but The Residentsâ€™ version is, by contrast, downright scary.
On their EP The Residents Play The Beatles and The Beatles Play The Residents, the band did more than just spoof rockâ€™s most sacred cow. The A-side, â€œBeyond the Valley of a Day in the Life,â€ is an audio collage compiled from Beatles and Beatle-related recordings. They go for deep cuts, too: â€œTell Me Whyâ€ from A Hard Dayâ€™s Night, â€œMr. Moonlightâ€ (itself a cover!) from Beatles For Sale,â€œTell Me What You Seeâ€ from Help!, and even clips from The Beatles fan club-only Christmas records. Assembled like a more commercial â€œRevolution 9,â€ The Residents did one of the first mash-ups. The EPâ€™s B-side is a haunting cover of Magical Mystery Tourâ€™s â€œFlying,â€ one of The Beatlesâ€™ only instrumentals and only one of two to share a group writing credit.
By doing these twisted covers, the aura of reverence surrounding Rundgrenâ€™s note-for-note replications of â€œHappenings Ten Years Time Agoâ€ and â€œIf 6 Was 9â€ and Bowieâ€™s space-glam updates of songs by The Kinks, The Who, and The Yardbirds was suddenly unnecessary, while Lennon and The Bandâ€™s veneration of yesteryear can be written off as silly exercises in nostalgia (though in Lennonâ€™s case, it was the settlement of a court battle for â€œborrowingâ€ some Chuck Berry lyrics in â€œCome Togetherâ€). With Devoâ€™s warped cover of â€œSatisfaction,â€ The Sex Pistolsâ€™ obscenity-laden version of â€œMy Way,â€ and all those surprisingly effective hard rock covers of Britney Spears tunes, cover tunes can now â€“ under the right circumstances â€“ be stripped of their politics, done the way the artist wants to play it, not as an homage or a glowing tribute, but simply because they want to do it. We have The Residents to thank for that.
When Alex DiBlasi and I first set out to academically explore geek rock, we began by defining a set of criteria to describe what, exactly, IS geek rock. Â I had suggested that we present a panel on geek rock at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference, and our panel set the tone and provided much of the feedback for the definition(s) and criteria that you can find throughout our book Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture (which, btw, is the first and so far only book to address geek rock in an academic context). The really fun part (well, thereâ€™s lots of really fun parts) about trail-blazing is the very nature of trail blazing itself–marking out the general path. In our book, our authors (including ourselves) have come up with a set of criteria that we think is pretty good, but which also only serves as starting point to pave the way.
1. Geek rock is â€œgeekyâ€ by virtue of its lyrics. They Might Be Giants allude to Platoâ€™s â€œAllegory of the Caveâ€ in â€œNo One Knows My Plan.â€ TMBG not only reference classical philosophy, but they are referencing it in a song sung by a narrator who is prisoner plotting to escape his cell–and he narrates his unknown plans to a rather calypso tune. This is geekery at its finest, in my opinion, because of the musical geekery (see #2) juxtaposition with the literary geekery.
2. Musical geekery is also frequently seen in geek rock. By this, I mean musically referencing other songs, genres, or artists, and/or displaying a knowledge of, well, music. An example: Barenaked Ladiesâ€™ references to Rush in the song â€œGrade 9,â€ on their album Gordon. Implicit in this reference is the idea that Rush is a band you could not only discover in 9th grade, but that you could fandom in 9th grade (Iâ€™m using fandom as a verb here because I think fandom is a complex phenomenon of joining, allegiance, exuberance, and influence. It seemed the best way to indicate the discovery of an artist in your youth that impacts you significantly.)
3. Geek rockers are geeks. Re: Weezer. After all, they coined the term â€œgeek rock.â€
4. Geek rock is generally, like geeks themselves, not terribly mainstream. This one is a little tricky, because what, after all, is mainstream? The popular in popular culture, the mass in mass media, mainstream is also fickle. And panoptic. And quo. But what do we make of the listing of artists from the first volume of Never Mind the Mainstream, a collection of MTVâ€™s 120 Minutes (the alternative music show) from 1991? Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum, The Stone Roses, The Mission UK, Bob Mould, The Church, The Cocteau Twins, Julian Cope, Sinead Oâ€™Connor, Sonic Youth, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians, World Party, XTC, They Might Be Giants, Camper Van Beethoven, and Modern English. Once obscure, several, if not all, of these artists are far more â€œmainstreamâ€ now than they once were, reading more like a â€œWhoâ€™s Whoâ€ list then a â€œWhoâ€™s That?!â€ list. Even with the fluctuations in the mainstream, this list demonstrates how geek rock tends to cross the streams, and also exist in the realms of alternative music, or indie rock. Perhaps itâ€™s best to use the lingo of the 90s, and say that geek rock is an alternative to the alternative, without necessarily being isolated from the alternative or the mainstream. It may not generally be mainstream, but itâ€™s not exactly not mainstream, either. Which leads to my last point, #5.
5. Perhaps most importantly, audience interpretation is what makes geek rock geeky. Be it mainstream, alternative, or something else entirely, what really puts the geek in geek rock is the listener. When I listen to They Might Be Giants, I hear layers of possibility in meaning, a playground of interpretation, of sophisticated referencing of literary device and musical homage wrapped in panache. The word â€œgeekâ€ for me, connotates â€œsmart.â€ Letâ€™s not forget that â€œgeekâ€ was first equated with intelligence, enthusiasm, and an awkwardly zealous focus on pursuits. They Might be Giants are a geek rock band in my book (literally) because they are, above anything else, a SMART band. They fit nearly all of this criteria (not #3. I donâ€™t think they themselves are geeks, and they donâ€™t claim to be, either). My reading of They Might Be Giants as geek rock musicians is what makes them geek rock, perhaps even more than anything they are inherently doing. As a listener, itâ€™s my interpretation and perception, the connotation that I have of â€œgeek,â€ and my own invested geekiness and geeking out that puts the geek in geek rock.
One of my intentions with this column is to continue to explore geek rock from every angle we can possibly think of. In our book, we have contributions from around the world that explore geek rock from the perspectives of cultural studies, lyric analysis, gender studies, the whole shebang. I want to keep adding to this list, discussing what geek rock is, why it is geek rock, and how geek rock is important to music and, more broadly, culture and subculture(s) in general.
In other words, we intend to geek out over geek rock. And I hope youâ€™ll join us.
Chester Nez, the last of the Navaho Code-Talkers, died yesterday, bringing to an end one of the more curious uses of linguistics in warfare. For those of you who might not know, in WWII the US military recruited around 400 Navaho to be Marines. Nez was one of the first group of 200. Using Navaho language and new terms coined to describe military topics, these Marines were able to speak in a code that stymied Axis code-breakers. They were so valuable that most of the Navajo serving in the war served as Code-Talkers.
In WWI, the US Army used 19 Choctaw Code -Talkers in a much more limited capacity. Wanting to expand on that idea, Philip Johnston, who was the son of missionaries to the Navajo (and could speak it fluently himself), suggested using Navajo because it “is the only tribe in the United States that has not been infested with German students during the past twenty years.”
Perhaps one of the more compelling arguments for funding linguistics and study abroad — because if you don’t, your enemies will say bad things about you and beat you up.