[21 November 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Allow me to boil a solid decade down to a couple sentences. Around the time of the UK’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s DIY post-punk movement, where the likes of Josef K, Orange Juice, and Joy Division solidified the underground as a source or relevance and modest commercial success outside of the major labels, the US was forming their own RIAA-raiding Trojan horse. Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, the Misfits, and their cohorts launched the American hardcore movement in the shadow of the Ramones, while the likes of Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, and Big Black kindled “alternative rock” in preparation for Nirvana to forever change the meaning of the term (followed up by a sleight of flimsy, same-sounding Nickelhack bands after Kurt’s demise, but pop will eat itself, they say). Like so many innovators, California’s Camper Van Beethoven didn’t really operate within a scene, per se, but their addition to what would become the modern running definition of “indie rock” cannot be understated. Actually, I suppose it has been understated, hence the tone of this opening paragraph. Upon further investigation, I’m sure you’d agree that such oversight is due for change.
While the ‘80s Billboard charts were smeared with synth-pop and hair metal, Camper Van Beethoven walked an utterly unique path through the fields of ska, punk, psychedelia, Eastern European folk, and country overlaid with often absurdist lyrics in a Frank Zappa vein. They immediately became college radio mainstays on the back of minor hits like “Good Guys & Bad Girls” and “Take the Skinheads Bowling”, a song revived and sent spinning in high rotation after a Teenage Fanclub cover made the soundtrack to Michael Moore’s weapons sensibility-themed opinion piece Bowling for Columbine. Especially with their first three self-released records in the mid-‘80s, CVB helped deflect underground currents from the new wave towards much older influences without sounding yearningly, anachronistically nostalgic. Laying their influences on out in the open, Camper Van Beethoven’s quiet revolution helped pave the way for the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel and Arcade Fire to enjoy their sweeping success.
In part a celebration of their 25th anniversary, Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty is the first career retrospective enjoyed by the band. It’s not really for fans, though. Unlike just about every major label artist for the past decade, this compilation is not padded with a couple of superfluous new songs to screw over completists. That essentially renders the fact that five songs from the band’s two Virgin records had to be re-recorded for this release a moot point of possible note. With the original line-up reunited, these re-recordings were undertaken with such painstaking accuracy that they are virtually identical, with slightly glossier production and the more mature voice of power animal David Lowery being your only clues. Plus, when you think about it, retaining the publishing rights for the Virgin material and re-releasing it with Cooking Vinyl reclaims it as born-again indie, while thankfully cutting off Virgin’s gravy train. Integrity? They’ve got some to spare.
“Opie Rides Again/Club Med Sucks” will immediately impress those new to the Camper Van Beethoven experience. Being dragged through a pokey country intro to then land on a dissonant, guitar-heavy post-rock groove, and finally a ripping punk chorus with the line “Club Med sucks / Authority sucks / I hate golf” creates a lasting impression. Underneath the violin of Jonathan Segal, which eventually takes the role of lead vocal, “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt” is a ‘70s hard rock jam with a faint outro similar to the intro for Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”. Those two are both instant pleasers.
The re-recorded “When I Win the Lottery” still rings true, with a bittersweet Charlie Daniels Band vibe supporting musings of hope from an unsavory character. His dreams are a mix of ego and charity, toeing the line aptly enough to make him likable. Also re-recorded, their cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” still counts as one of their finest moments, while clearly betraying their psychedelic infatuation. Unless you listen to them back to back with the Virgin versions, it’s doubtful you’d notice or care about any sonic differences.
With selections grabbed from across their early career from 1985-1989, Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty is about the best introduction to these Californians you could ask for. Sweetening the pot, the fact that they’ve managed to cut out the RIAA altogether asserts their commitment to true independent music in spirit and practice. I’m sure you’ll find it as shocking as I do that Camper Van Beethoven never got the respect granted to the likes of Sonic Youth. Most fans will already have the essential Santa Cruz Years box set, and probably the two majors, if not their 2004 return and the 2002 cover album of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. For those beyond mixtapes—and, since The New York Times already marked the passing of the audiocassette, there are many—now is the time to stocking-stuffer these magnificent bastards to the notoriety they deserve. History is what we make of it today.