So, Camper Van Beethoven is back. True to the band’s bizarre, absurd form, it’s to promote the album that has been hinted at for years: a note-for-note cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album, recorded in its entirety on a 4-track way back in 1987. Although CVB has unofficially played together a number of times since its breakup in the early ’90s, this marks the first true reunion of one of the most obtuse acts to come out of the post-punk scene. And the question is, should you care?
Rather than let the cheerily ridiculous Tusk project speak for itself, Camper Van Beethoven has collected the majority of its early recorded material into a limited edition box set in order to answer that with a resounding “Yes!”. Cigarettes and Carrot Juice brings together their first three proper albums, Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985), II & III (1986), and Camper Van Beethoven (1986), plus Camper Vantiquities (a previously released (1993) collection of rarities and the entire 1988 Vampire Can Mating Oven EP), plus a previously unreleased live album titled Greatest Hits Played Faster. In five discs, the case for Camper Van Beethoven is made without apology or plea; it’s simply a collection of albums that are hard to find now, but were and still are a testament to just how far rock music could be taken without shattering.
From the very start, Camper Van Beethoven was a band that defied all rock logic. Its propensity for merging pieces of the punk aesthetic with country-flavored guitars would have been no big deal, nor would the influences from ska and folk music have made it wholly unique, had these aspects stood alone. But Jonathan Segel’s place in the band made them something altogether different. With Segel, CVB added violins, mandolins, and keyboards to the standard guitars-and-drums format, giving its music an instrumental element that had no other ready parallel in the mid-’80s. But even this instrumentation doesn’t really explain Camper Van Beethoven. It was the approach to music that the band took that made it a force from a galaxy of its own.
Telephone Free Landslide Victory introduced the world to a band that, by all auditory accounts, might have been bipolar. On the one hand, you had the more readily identifiable pop/rock/punk/country songs. “The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon”, “Oh No!”, “Where the Hell is Bill?”, “I Don’t See You”, “Opi Rides Again-Club Med Sucks”, and especially the low-key cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted” and the classic “Take the Skinheads Bowling” give the impression of a post-punk band that is simply very eclectic, although certainly displaying a distinctly warped perspective. Maybe just the result of punk influences on a band raised on a diet of Tex-Mex and psychedelic rock. But then there are the instrumentals, and suddenly all rock-and-roll bets are off. You could overlook the Tijuana sound of “Border Ska”, but then you hit “Paved Vacation, Greece”, “Vladivostock”, “Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China”, and “Balalaika Gap”. Imagine taking the basic rhythms and guitars of ska and then overlaying traditional folk violin from various regions of the world. The geographical references in the song titles aren’t accidental, they’re indications of the regional musical flavors captured in each piece, albeit fused with a skanking beat. Then realize that the songs are almost completely evenly dispersed, bouncing back and forth between quirky rock numbers and international folk fusion pieces. The band’s self-description of “surrealist absurdist folk” was entirely appropriate at the time.
Even more impressive was the level of success that this indefinable, barely describable band managed to achieve in the California punk/post-punk scene. Despite having more in common with the Dead Milkmen than the Dead Kennedys, it was the latter rather than the former that asked CVB to open for them, along with opening for other acts like the Minutemen and the Butthole Surfers. And yet, the off-kilter humor of one half of the CVB experience appealed to the irreverent novelty music fans as well. Like the Dead Milkmen, Camper Van Beethoven was given some unexpected national exposure through the camp and kitsch radio program of Dr. Demento, thanks to the lyrical absurdity and accessible musicality of “Take the Skinheads Bowling”. A large part of the reason this worked was the subtle ambiguity of the band’s intentions (“Ambiguity Song”, anyone?). Despite the fact that CVB’s songs seemed to be making fun of the pretensions of the underground rock scene, particularly punk, they also seemed to embrace it, working from within to expose its inner lunacy. It was a stance that would serve them well on follow-up releases.
If anything, the albums that followed TFLV showed that the band was willing to go beyond bipolar into full-on schizophrenia. II & III can be classified as the most straightforward effort by CVB, while Camper Van Beethoven leans more heavily towards the acid-laced freak-out (thanks in no small part to the influence of Eugene Chadborne on that disc), but neither of these albums ever sit still, nor do the songs from the Camper Vantiquities collection. Camper Van continued to poke a stick into the snarling caged animal of punk with songs like “Cowboys From Hollywood”, “(Don’t You Go to) Goleta”, “No More Bullshit”, and “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac”. They continued to produce wildly mashed-together instrumental tracks that slammed a variety of styles into a folk synthesis, such as “No Krugerrands for David”, “We Workers Do Not Understand Modern Art”, and “Hoe Yourself Down”. And, in between, managed to come up with songs that were truly beasts unto themselves, such as “Cattle (Reversed)”, “Seven Languages”, “Surprise Truck”, and “The History of Utah”. Even their covers were inventive and erudite, from an early honky-tonk rendition of Sonic Youth’s “I Love Her All the Time” to the precise reproduction of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”. Camper Van Beethoven feared no music as alien, despite creating some music that was completely foreign to most people’s experience.
With five discs in this set, it would be possible to go through and analyze each album and talk about the transitions between each album, how things changed and what remained the same. There are literally dozens of songs that deserve attention in this collection, and as very little of their music is self-similar, it would be a feat indeed to discuss the variety contained here. The live album — which, despite the subtitle The Santa Cruz Years that’s slapped on this set, is made up of songs from the band’s two major label releases, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988) and Key Lime Pie (1989) — is full of gems, particularly the orchestral version of “All Her Favorite Fruit”, but is just as “all over the map” as their studio releases and shows that the strange chemistry evident on the album came from their working together as a unit rather than studio trickery. Interestingly, the disc omits the few songs that achieved some tiny level of commercial success, which means no “Pictures of Matchstick Men” and, more disappointingly, no “(I Was Born in a) Laundromat”. With 81 songs and multiple hours’ worth of music, this collection invites the well informed to analyze it thoroughly, trying to grasp each little piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, I’m not the Camper Van Beethoven historian for the job.
Instead, I’ll admit to having been a casual fan who’d heard a handful of CVB songs and had always found the band interesting, but had never really sought it out. For me, Cigarettes and Carrot Juice has been a revelation, and a bittersweet one at that. I don’t want to promote some sort of false nostalgia for a time I never fully interacted with, but a certain freedom pervades the albums in this collection that I can’t help but feel has been lost. It was a freedom imbued in this music that only cared to be whatever the fuck it wanted to be, and the rest of the world be damned. The extensive essays that make up the liner notes, both the one from Richard von Busack, a schooldays friend of the band, and the one from Jill Stauffer and Kacey Carmassi, make note of the fact that Camper Van Beethoven was about as indie as you could get, being a true “alternative” to just about every other kind of music out there.
Von Busack’s essay in particular makes the inclusion of the aforementioned label, The Santa Cruz Years, seem especially important to understanding CVB. Santa Cruz has rightly earned itself the reputation of being an alternative lifestyles mecca on the West Coast, even more progressive and New Agey than their San Francisco neighbor, but von Busack is careful to point out that the town, and Camper Van Beethoven, are born out of isolation. You could compare some of CVB’s aesthetic to R.E.M., but von Busack is quick to point out that Santa Cruz in the ’80s was no Athens, GA. The young bohemian aspect may have fueled the band’s eclecticism, but the natural despondency of Santa Cruz gave it its tense, claustrophobic sound. Conversely, the Stauffer and Carmassi essay points to the fact that Camper Van Beethoven’s transition from little-known college band to major label act was almost accidental and not without its problems. But more to the point, they make clear that the conditions within the music world that gave rise to CVB were of a different time.
Whether or not it’s possible to be an “underground” band in exactly the same way as when the post-punk scene first emerged is open to debate. You could hold up Telephone Free Landslide Victory against, say, the recent revival of garage rock bands with “lo-fi” production, do comparison/contrasts until you turned blue in the face, and never arrive anywhere. Similarly, it’s difficult to say whether a new band making as diverse and unique music as CVB would be facing comparable challenges in getting heard. But what strikes me the most about this collection is that Camper Van Beethoven can never go back to Santa Cruz, never go back to being in college, and can never really go back to that time in music history. No one can.
Sure, years later it’s still the odd audiophile or music journalism junkie who knows much about Camper Van Beethoven. As with myself, this collection of discs allows those of us who care to discover this band for the first time, fifteen to twenty years after the fact, and color ourselves converted while waxing poetic about the alleged purity of the past. However, it’s impossible to turn back time or erase the history of the Monks of Doom or Cracker, some of the more visible post-Camper works by these musicians. Like von Busack notes, the houses that the Camper family inhabited in those freewheeling days have stood vacant for a long time, and the various individuals have acquired a lot of new and rather expensive furniture since those days. David Lowrey may have returned to the fold, but the moment when these kinds of independent discoveries could be fresh and new is obviously gone. Now they’re steeped in history and mythology. More than likely, no matter how accomplished, the Tusk recording won’t launch CVB into sudden mainstream acceptance, and it probably won’t do much to win them new converts in the contemporary indie scene. And in reality, no matter how funny or bold an act it may be, it’s as if the band is trying in some measure to work backwards.
Instead, you should care that Camper Van Beethoven is back because it brings these albums back into the light, courtesy of the Cigarettes and Carrot Juice set. As individual albums, they are still as inventive and bizarre as any other recordings that have followed them. No category of music has emerged in the wake of CVB’s original incarnation that comes close to encompassing the band. Over a decade later, they still defy labels. For that reasons alone this set is seminal. But there’s also the fact that Cigarettes and Carrot Juice provides for a glimpse backwards in time to a historical moment, a period in music with different limitations and different possibilities. Just as certain classic rock albums help explain music in the hippie era, or the metal years, or define punk, these albums capture a certain essence about the ’80s post-punk epoch, and whether you’re looking to relive your past experiences or create new impressions, this collection is an excellent and highly unique place to start.