Tool Undertow

Tool’s Undertow, 1990s Culture Wars, and the Rehabilitation of Gen-X

After Tool whapped us upside the head with Undertow, you knew you’d never listen to that hairband boom-bap with a straight face ever again. 

6 April 1993

For two nights in April of 1993, 300 ticket-buyers gather, moshing like it’s Black Flag at the Palladium, except this shindig is happening beneath the glass dome of another Hollywood venue, a ballroom headquartered by the Church of Scientology where tonight’s musical entertainment is Tool, a Los Angeles band only two weeks removed from the release of Undertow, the group’s debut LP. Now for the obvious question: Was this some kind of mix-up?

Anyone venturing to the local music house in 1993 would know Tool’s first record was the six-song EP Opiate (1992), as in “religion is the opiate”. As for the band’s role in tonight’s incongruity, Tool are merely following the itinerary, initially unaware of who runs the place— but now they know, and the singer’s having a field day. The frontman, an Army veteran resembling a mohawked Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, is milling about the stage like a hunchbacked evil lab assistant, baaa-ing like a sheep between songs. Under the circumstances, one might imagine this logistic as a cleverly-designed prank or an intervention. 

Hard to believe, back in 1993, that Tool, with all their progressive rock proclivities, came out of Los Angeles, the land of Motley Crue. (Though, to get things straight, the band’s members— guitarist Adam Jones, vocalist Maynard James Keenan, Drummer Danny Carey, and then-bassist Paul D’Amour— came from other places: Illinois, Michigan, Kansas, and Washington). But Undertow is one of those records from the early 1990s that flipped everything on its head.

The standard-issue explanation goes that, in the preceding year, the great evangelist Kurt Cobain blew the doors open at a time when all a band had to do to conquer the world was overrun rock radio and MTV and sell a million records. Once Nirvana checked those boxes (seemingly overnight, some would have us believe), alternative rock moved to the forefront of popular culture. Of course, that oversimplified narrative overlooks the role of a band like Jane’s Addiction and the establishment of Lollapalooza (an alt-rock event inspired by Britain’s Reading Festival) in shaping the musical trajectory of the early 1990s.

Lollapalooza, in particular, fueled an atmosphere where record labels imagined commercial possibilities for alternative hard-rock music; hence, a supply-and-demand dynamic where the corporate apparatus enticed new bands to sign on the dotted line with the promise of the musician’s holy grail— creative control, albeit with (financial) strings attached. In a 1993 interview, Tool’s Keenan explains how his band and their contemporaries were willing to work for less money in exchange for creative control because they were all so exasperated with how the corporate machine “churns out clowns” (Musiqueplus). 

Undertow is hard rock without the clown show. Hearing Tool in the 1990s, one likely associated the down-tuned guitar and bass with Black Sabbath, but the songwriting aligned more with progressive rock. This atmosphere of creative control had implications for everything from art direction to songwriting that requires mental effort on the part of the audience. About those lyrics, perhaps “narration” is more appropriate. Undertow’s opening track, “Intolerance”, has encouraged frenzied interpretation; perhaps the ravings of a misanthrope or just an old-fashioned railing against blind obedience.

Meanwhile, “Sober”, with the ode to “Kashmir” riff, evokes what we might hear at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, where the speaker monologues on how addiction shadows him, has left him a worthless liar, an imbecile, warning the listener, “Trust in me and fall… I will chew it up and leave.” Then there’s “Prison Sex”, which isn’t about San Quentin. The song features two narrators, victim and predator. Opaquely, one character relates the weight of childhood trauma, presumably sexual, and that trauma’s cyclical nature (“Do unto others what has been done to me”); the other character clarifies the nature of the crimes (“My lamb and martyr, this will be over soon”).

“Sober” and “Prison Sex” also merit emphasis for their videos. Tool refused to farm out album artwork or videos as part of the creative control arrangement. They already had an artist-in-residence anyway; guitarist Adam Jones in his pre-Tool days, worked in the film industry as a sculptor, special effects, and set designer (his film credits include Terminator II). Rejecting the adage that a band must appear in their videos, Jones conceptualized stop-motion animation videos for both numbers, recruiting director Fred Stuhr (responsible for Green Jelly’s “Three Little Pigs”). If you can imagine H.R. Giger, Tim Burton, and Fritz Lang collaborating to produce a couple of rock videos, you get the concept. Both videos aired in the usual places— Headbanger’s Ball and Alternative Nation. That is until MTV pulled “Prison Sex” off the air. 

The banishment of a claymation video whose meaning was indiscernible to 98 percent of the population always felt like the premise for a Mr. Show sketch. Next thing you know, K-Mart wouldn’t sell Undertow; the album art featured a cow licking itself (see “indiscernible”). Let’s bear in mind that in the year Undertow was released, former and future presidential candidate Pat Buchanan declared, “Culture is the Ho Chi Minh Trail to power.” I suppose you have to feel for these people, those who brought you the satanic panic of the 1980s. They didn’t have Krokus videos to mope about anymore. What were these poor souls to do when bands like Tool came along and offered something more “literary” and psychologically dense?

Moralists could no longer call our music satanic, so they called it angry, lumping Tool with Soundgarden and the whole Seattle contingent, disaffected Gen-Xers, offering a soundtrack of angst. The week of the Scientology concert, Keenan told the Los Angeles Times that he didn’t mind being mentioned alongside the Seattle bands because, despite the trendiness of it all, those artists and albums would eventually stand on their own. “Angry or not, “he said, “they’re good musicians” (Boehm). 

At this writing, Undertow now reaches its 30th year— which means the infamous Scientology concert and Pat Buchanan’s culture war cockadoodling turn 30 as well. It’s funny how all these things happened so close together, where the Scientology concert, with Maynard James Keenan the resident ubermensch and all the sheep baaa-ing, is the most imaginative, artistically, and philosophically-appropriate response to what amounts to the satanic panic wrapped in different paper.

By the way, Keenen conjectures that the Church of Scientology sought Tool’s endorsement to recruit Gen Xers (Keenan and Cross). Instead, the audience underwent history’s most badass, wisecracking deprogramming event. Then again, the early 1990s rock scene pretty well deprogrammed its share of Gen-Xers. After Tool whapped us upside the head, you knew the time to cast off childish things had arrived, and you’d never listen to that hairband boom-bap with a straight face ever again. 

Works Cited

Mike Boehm. “Giving in to the Lure of the Undertow, Tool Suffers Gladly”. Los Angeles Times, 22 April 1993. 

“Maynard Keenan and Ken Andrews”. Musiqueplus, May 1993

Scott Schalin. “Sob Story – Tool Will Give You Something to Cry About”. BAM, November 1993. 

Maynard James Keenan & David Cross. “Tool’s Infamous 1993 Scientology Centre Shows | Maynard James Keenan & David Cross Look Back”. YouTube, YouTube, 9 March 2022.