One critic tries to figure out why everyone loves Fat White Family and she doesn't.
It can feel quite disorienting when seemingly everyone with an opinion unanimously loves something that you see nothing in. This feeling is even worse when that thing is something you would ordinarily be keen on. Fat White Family’s Champagne Holocaust was released in 2013 to a bounty of praise from the British press. Nearly all the critics who encountered the album wept with joy over a perceived return to rock ‘n’ roll rawness and edge, while also heeding that the outrageous six-piece had to be seen live for their esteemed christening of “best young British rock band in the UK” to truly click.
After seeing Fat White Family live, and then listening to Champagne Holocaust half a dozen times, I still don’t get what the big deal is. Sure, in a live setting, lead singer Lias Saudi was exposing himself within the first few minutes of the first song, and I left the show with butter smeared on my boots, but I never once felt uneasy, threatened, shocked or converted. Sean Lennon was Instagramming the whole show, for goodness’ sakes – and no one in attendance was going to start urinating on the band, ala a degenerate at a Birthday Party gig (see the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth for full anecdote) in the early ‘80s, although I guess this speaks to the staidness of the average indie audience as well. I would even go so far as to say the highlight of the night had nothing to do with anything Fat White Family was actually doing. Rather, it was when the far superior Shilpa Ray, who had played earlier that evening, stuck a dollar down Saudi’s pants – after he finally put them back on.
Musically, Fat White Family’s touchstones are quality: Iggy Pop, the Cramps, the Mekons, and a little bit of the Fall. So why does most of Champagne Holocaust sound so damn inconsequential? Apart from a few songs that are actually pretty entertaining, it grabs the most attention when it’s blatantly appropriating the Cramps (as on “Heaven on Earth”) or annoying to an almost overwhelming degree (see “Who Shot Lee Oswald”, which for some reason is the third song on the album). What’s more, many of the songs just aren’t that provocative. There’s just not much shocking these days about a minor indie band touting socialism or titling a song “Bomb Disneyland”, even if that song includes lyrics about dead children.
There are still a few tracks on Champagne Holocaust that are keeping me from totally dismissing it, although the fact that one of these tracks wasn’t included on the original UK release maybe should. “Is It Raining in Your Mouth?” is by far the best song here, a bell-strew masterclass in tastelessness. The song title should say it all, but the refrain, “five sweaty fingers on the dashboard” manages to up the ante. “Special Ape!” is definitely dumb, but its brevity keeps the silliness from growing stale. And that US-only cut, “Touch the Leather”, is the only time Champagne Holocaust really feels like an album only a serial killer would listen to. The band’s humor also helps to elevate the song, with Saudi’s ridiculously accented “Oh oh oh oh”’s being particularly memorable.
Ultimately, though, I sit dumbfounded by Fat White Family’s praise. Something in me wishes that they had something new or interesting to say about bad taste, even though they certainly have no obligation to do such a thing. As someone routinely bored by the current music scene, I still find the Fat White Family’s hysteria “canned” in a way that makes it impossible for me to just lay back and take their ribaldry. Don’t overthink things, though, and perhaps you will.