“Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”
The Portland quartet known as the Dandy Warhols were born kicking and screaming in 1993, making music to, ahem, “drink to”, an alternative soundtrack for slackers, stoners, and midnight tokers which celebrated the permanent vacations of the elegantly wasted. Think Keith Richards with New Wave hair. Lead Dandy Courtney Taylor-Taylor had clearly been educated at the School of Rock. His motley crew of carefully recruited outsiders looked chic (fringes, cheekbones, hips), borrowed from the best (Stones, Velvets, Bowie, Dylan), fanned drug rumors for kicks, and actively encouraged chaos, disorder, and public nudity at gigs. The doors of perception were wedged permanently open. Just like the truly great, they had their own proper film celebrating their rise (the unmissable Dig!) and, for bonus cool, their own imagined TV theme song. The Mount Rushmore of Rock surely had space for Taylor’s snarling mug.
The Capitol Years captures their time in the fast lane, livin’ la vida loca, lounging in limos popping pills and reading Sartre. Whereas their penniless urchin contemporaries coughed “sell out” from the dungeons of indie clubs, Taylor looked to the stars: number ones, billboards, mansions, initialled bathrobes, art dealing, golf. There are a good half-a-dozen moments here when, dammit, it should have worked. It’s so close you can taste it in the grooves. The Dandys had a gift for fizzy four-minute space pop, from the mechanical bull rides of “Everyday Should Be a Holiday”, “Boys Better”, and “Bohemian Like You”, to the dreamy, twinkling Bowie-esque “Last High” and perky newbie “This Is the Tide”—all white-hot, genius pop with skyscraper melodies. Even the tracks time forgot such as “The Scientist” and “Plan A” now seem expertly fashioned, fixing the foundations for funky futurists like Hot Chip and MGMT. It was exhilarating, joyous pop that deserved to be beamed from radios, clubs, TVs, and enormodomes alike, not chained and weeping in some grimy basement bar to an audience of three devotees and a dog called Bobby.
As the millennium turned, it looked like the Dandys’ star was gonna burn as brightly in reality as it did in Taylor’s brainbox. Put your 3D glasses on now please, folks! For five good years, fate rained down successful albums, soundtrack offers (the peak was the cult gem Veronica Mars), and eight UK Top-40 hits. OK, let’s politely skip aside the fact that their biggest smash, “Bohemian Like You”, was partly indebted to a TV commercial. (Shake your novelty “sell out” maracas here.) Look! There’s LaChappelle directing their breakout video, Mark Knopfler offering guitar spanking services, and Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes tweaking knobs! Hell, they even founded their own Mecca for beatniks and freakniks (à la Warhol) dubbed “The Odditorium”. It was all happening, baby, and they were The Happening.
But then the Rock ‘n’ Roll Removals Van pulled up outside and it all got taken away: the hits, the headlines, the fans, the big bucks record contract, the fancy rugs. Rock ‘n’ roll is the coolest, but it can turn cold pretty darn quick. Listening back today, sipping on a gin and juice and reflecting on those halcyon days, it’s pretty easy to see why things turned out like they did. Taylor-Taylor, for all of his ambition, was always torn between “Pop” and “Art”, the penthouse and the basement studio. His musical twin and the co-star of Dig!, Anton Newcombe from the actually bonkers Brian Jonestown Massacre, was seemingly always clawing at Taylor’s underground conscience either explicitly (the oddly touching lyrics to “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”) or implicitly (the hazy trip-outs like “Good Morning” and “Godless” that float in between the hits). Taylor wanted to sit in the high chair and stick it to the man. The businessman and the artist. Freedom in chains. It was this dichotomy which was always going to confuse and ultimately alienate them from the pop masses who, frankly, just wanna rock. The fact that Dig! showed the Dandys to be educated, mannered, and polite (if a touch snooty) didn’t help either. Rock ‘n’ roll must be wild, dangerous, and preferably dead. The press cried “humbug!” and the Warhols were sent to bed without supper.
You can sell your dreams to Daddy Warbucks and get splashed across Rolling Stone, but immortality is never a given. By releasing songs like “Godless”—six sun-fried minutes crossing the Mexican border whilst loaded on peyote—or the stoned seven-plus minutes of country rock on “Holding Me Up”, Taylor was always subliminally sabotaging his own empire. One of the rules of rock ‘n’ roll clearly states you can only corrupt the mainstream for so long. (It’s page 342, I think.) In their lifetime, Primal Scream walked the same line, too, lauded for wandering off the path, but then finding themselves abandoned. But their heroes never sold many records either. Their reward is that they leave a legacy which reflects who they really were: In this case, The Capitol Years plays a winning hand and is, dear adventurous reader, well worth the trip. If, as their spiritual namesake believed, “Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”, maybe the Dandys just ran out of time. But at least it sounds like they rode the hell out of it.
- Multiple songs MySpace