Dropping Names, Cutting Tapes: Beastie Boys – “5-Piece…”/”Looking Down the Barrel…”

Beastie Boys
Paul's Boutique

Side two of Paul’s Boutique begins with “5-Piece Chicken Dinner”, a 23-second, straightforward bluegrass number that samples “Shuckin’ the Corn”, a tune by Eric Weissberg of “Dueling Banjos” fame. It’s fast and celebratory, prominently featuring the fiddle and banjo. On top of this instrumental we hear whooping noises and downhome utterances like “Get away from the barbecue pit”. What an odd song to include on an otherwise relentlessly urban record.

Of course, the Beastie Boys know exactly what they’re up to. The name of the game is often “irony” with this group. They give us “5-Piece Chicken Dinner”, a brief, bright roll in the hay, only to juxtapose it with “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”, one of the darkest, dirtiest tracks on Paul’s Boutique, and also one of the best.

Any discussion of “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” has to start with its unique sound. The track features a mid-tempo, muddy groove that samples Ocean, Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, and Pink Floyd. The Beasties also play some of the instrumentation live, so the bass and guitar especially have an immediate, in-your-face quality. This is the Paul’s Boutique track that is most reminiscent of the band’s quasi-hardcore origins. The live electric guitars give it a punch and a sonic violence that are somewhat uncharacteristic to the record as a whole.

Lyrically, the Beasties are going to a darker place as well. We’re not talking about girls covered in honey or dropping eggs out of hotel windows here. The references to the Anthony Burgess novel and Stanley Kurbrick film A Clockwork Orange seem apt, since the boys are giving us some of the “old ultraviolence”. The speaker says that he “Seen him get stabbed / I watched the blood spill out”. The repetition of the line “It’s gonna get you / It’s gonna get you” gives off a creepy, horror-movie vibe, especially when coupled with the large amount of reverb the vocals are drowned in.

The song includes one of the most chilling, memorable moments in the entire Beastie Boys catalog. At the song’s approximate halfway mark, the boys chant this line in unison: “Looking down the barrel of a gun / Son of a gun / Son of a bitch / Getting paid / Getting rich”. There’s a perfect poetic symmetry to this lyric, and it rolls off the tongue like few other lines in the Beastie Boys oeuvre. The word-association game with “gun”, “son”, and “bitch” is simultaneously clever and creepy. The song’s rhythm abruptly stops at the end of this phrase and the word “rich” reverberates through the breakdown. The boys then come back in with the line “ultraviolence be running through my head”, with the violence of the lyric reflected in the abruptness of the breakdown that just occurred.

It’s moments like these that make me return to Paul’s Boutique again and again. Through all the complex sampling and cultural allusions, the Beastie Boys manage to keep the fundamental principles of good songwriting and musicianship at the forefront. “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” has become one of the more culturally ubiquitous songs on the record, for good reason. There’s the “surf” music video that accompanied it, the Anthrax cover for the Beavis and Butt-Head Experience in the early ’90s, and the reference to the final line (“Get hip don’t slip knuckle heads / Racism is schism on the serious tip”) in the Sublime song “Don’t Push”. There must be some autobiography going on in the line “I’m mad at my desk and I’m writing all curse words / Expressing my aggressions through my schizophrenic verse words”. These eloquent aggressions have stood the test of time.