Monster sells for a penny on the Internet and used record stores can't give the album away. But at one moment, it was good enough to gain four million buyers.
In 2002, I did some record store browsing with some fellow copy reporter interns-to-be in Austin. While I was fishing through the ‘R’s, one girl next to me said “One thing you can count on when you go into a used record store is at least five used copies of R.E.M.‘s Monster will be on hand.” At that moment, I saw a solid brick of orange CDs, proving her point. Several hours and several beers later, we started wondering why so many people turned on Monster. A few months later, I vowed I would get a record store clerk to buy my copy – a feat that took more than seven years to complete.
Before going into why people have sold the album en masse, it merits looking back to see why so many people picked up the album in the first place. After all, a used CD once had a buyer. Document put R.E.M. in the majors, but was followed by three less rock-oriented albums that made the band superstars nonetheless. Automatic for the People was regarded in many circles as one of, if not the best work from the band. Still, once that album was released, there was a definite rumbling in the band’s fanbase for the band to return to the more rock-oriented sound of their earlier albums. Enter Monster.
Before I begin, is anyone going to argue that “Basket Case”—Green Day’s second Billboard Modern Rock Tracks number one hit, the result of a vibrantly cartoonish music video and the band’s infamous mud-slinging set at Woodstock ‘94—isn’t one of the best songs on Dookie? Because if you are, you are objectively wrong and you suck and I hate you. Here’s why.
First, let’s look at how the song is laid out. “Basket Case” has a pretty straightforward song structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, and finally outro. Simple, huh? Except that’s not how the listener perceives the song.
You see, in order to keep “Basket Case” from sounding like thousands of other songs with a similar framework, what Green Day does is cast the first verse and chorus as a long intro section, a mere prelude for the mayhem to follow. For much of the first verse/chorus pairing, only singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong is playing on the track, instantly grabbing the listener’s attention with an unforgettable introductory monologue:
Do you have the time
To listen to me whine
About nothing and everything all at once?
I am one of those
Neurotic to the bone no doubt about it
After five potent doses of heady pop-punk, “Pulling Teeth” is the first track on Dookie that really allows the listener to catch his or her breath. Drawing inspiration from an episode where Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt broke his arms while having a pillow fight with his future wife, the leisurely-paced “Pulling Teeth” features a character who is physically tormented by his girlfriend. The narrator is trapped in an abusive relationship, noting wryly “She comes to check on me / Making sure I’m on my knees / After all she’s the one / Who put me in this state”. The track is pure black comedy wrapped up in electric ballad form, as exemplified by the Beatles-esque delivery of the chorus “Is she ultra-violent? / Is she disturbed? / I better tell her I love her / Before she does it all over again / Oh God she’s killing me”.
Sandwiched between album highlights “Welcome to Paradise” and “Basket Case”, the song easily falls prey to “album track syndrome”, where a listener is prone to skip over it in order to get to another, more familiar tune. I certainly do that every time I listen to the record, partly because it’s not one of my favorites, but more importantly because it kills the momentum the album has been riding out up to that point. I know “Pulling Teeth” has its fans, but I’ve always found it a bit boring.
It’s not a bad song per se. Like the tracks preceding it, “Pulling Teeth” displays Green Day’s knack for musical interplay and lyrical character studies. Based on a standard rock ballad structure, the band adds touches like dual lead vocals that harmonize throughout and one of the album’s few proper guitar solos in order to play up the song’s subversive intent. However, Green Day delivers the song predominantly in a chugging groove that moves slower than all other songs on the record save “When I Come Around”. Such grooves are rare in Green Day songs, as the band moves best when it’s jumping around syncopated chord changes at a breakneck pace. The band has a harder time keeping its performances interesting when it slows things down (this is why for all its merits I don’t think the group’s American Idiot megahit “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is all that great). Here, it almost sounds like a chore for Green Day to keep from speeding up and busting loose. Unfortunately, the backing performance can’t be too adventurous, as the lyrics are undoubtedly the main focus of the track. As a result, the appeal of the song primarily rests on the listener finding its gender-tweaking “battered male” concept amusing. If you don’t think that a woman abusing her boyfriend is inherently funny (and why should you?), “Pulling Teeth” loses its center and becomes a two-and-a-half-minute slog that sits between you and “Basket Case”. Despite being a nice exercise for the group, these hindrances make it hard to classify the song as one of the album’s essential tracks.
You may have heard that Fela Kuti is now on Broadway. No really
I’m not sure what to make of a musical celebrating the life of this great man, but its heart seems to be in the right place. And regardless of its ultimate artistic merit, bringing even a few additional ears to Fela’s music could only be a positive development.
Fela was ahead of his time in many ways, and in his prime he was equal parts Nelson Mandela, James Brown, and Bob Marley (if you think that is hyperbole, track down the ‘69 Los Angeles Sessions and/or read a little about the beatings and imprisonment he endured, resulting from his repeated defiance of the powers-that-be).
We could do worse, given the current state of affairs, than to pay overdue attention to an artist who decried the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of many (Put another way, 1969 is 1979 is 2009: Fela’s music is timeless, in no small measure because the injustices he decried remain alive and unwell). Sure, that sounds pretty cliche; but then, so does the notion that Fela’s music is as relevant and applicable today as it was more than three decades ago. Lamentable as it may be, this is Fela’s time.
The answer, of course, is Moses Asch. This month marks the 104th birthday of Asch, who founded Folkways Records more than 70 years ago along with Marian Distler. One of the most valuable musical, audio, and cultural resources of the last century, Folkways Records aimed to document the sounds (and lack of sounds) of the universe. That included titles like Sounds of North American Tree Frogs (1958), Sounds of Steam Locomotives (1956), and Sounds of a South African Homestead (1956).
It also included folk music, not just from the U.S., but from all over the world. Here’s how Asch explained the importance of this music: “Since folk means people, and this in turn means all of us, folk represents all of us. Folk music reflects…a people’s culture, its heritage, its character.” Over the years, Folkways Records introduced the world to voices like Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Pete Seeger. In 1952, the massive six-album collection “Anthology of American Folk Music” put Folkways on the map for good and changed the face of popular music forever. That compilation turned the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith on to folk music, in particular the blues and country sounds of rural America. It was the first time most people had even heard of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, and the effect was gargantuan. (In fact, as I sit here next to my own copy of “Anthology of American Folk Music,” with its six CDs and its ghostly essay booklet, I can still sense the collection’s power, and it gives me chills.)
When the Smithsonian acquired Folkways after Asch’s death in 1987, they agreed to continue Asch’s tradition of always keeping all the label’s releases in print, regardless of record sales. In total, Folkways Records released over 2,000 recordings under Asch and, since the Smithsonian’s acquisition, over 300 more have been put out.
Music lovers owe it to themselves to check out Folkways Records. Here are some other excellent releases from the label, in no particular order, that show the enormous scope of its astounding discography:
Music of the Carousel (1961) Sounds of Sea Animals (1955) Blind Willie Johnson, 1927-1930, Blind Willie Johnson (1965) Angela Davis Speaks, Angela Davis (1971) American Favorite Ballads, Vols. 1-5, Pete Seeger (2009) Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody Guthrie (1964) Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song, Dillard Chandler (1975) Negro Prison Camp Worksongs (1956) Church Songs: Sung and Played on the Piano by Little Brother Montgomery, Little Brother Montgomery (1975) Watergate, Vol. 1: the Break In (1973) Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs (1990)