Every week in Second Listen, Frank Macarthy looks back at lesser-loved albums from well-loved bands’ discographies.
“I can tell you how I got from Deep Purple to Howie Wolf in just 25 moves.”
“And…if I want to find the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.”
(From High Fidelity)
How do you organize your music collection? Alphabetically by title? By artist? Chronologically? Maybe you just let iTunes make that decision for you. How about autobiographically? We all can’t be Rob Gordon, as much as we may want (or not want) to be. But music does have an autobiographical effect. Some songs hold a resonance that sparks specific memories of where and when you first heard it. I remember lying on the floor in my basement with my (then) girlfriend the first time I heard “Straight to Hell” by The Clash. I remember asking my father to constantly replay “American Pie” by Don McLean the first time I heard it on one of those Time Life compilations. I also remember the first time I heard “Take the Skinheads Bowling” by Camper Van Beethoven: a snippet of the song was played during the menu animation on the Bowling for Columbine DVD. Cool story, right?
I wish I had a cooler story to tell you about Camper Van Beethoven, but sadly, I don’t. There’s really not much to tell. A group of seven friends from Redland, California formed a garage/pop/punk/world/ska fusion experiment they aptly named Camper Van Beethoven and the Border Patrol. Several lost (and gained) group members and a shortened name later, Camper Van Beethoven was conceived with an album boasting a stranger title than the band name – Telephone Free Landslide Victory. I guess the title had to suite the music and the music had to suite the band name. Kind of a chicken or egg situation (more like weird begets weird).
Now, I’ve reviewed (and praised) weird before (remember Ween’s The Pod?), but this is a whole new level of schizophrenic, genre-confused kind of weird. And I mean that in the most endearing way possible. Telephone Free Landslide Victory is a mix of instrumental and vocal tracks without much rhyme or reason behind the order (let alone much rhyme at all). The tracks with vocals have this folksy, punkish, ska sound to them. Think Uncle Tupelo meets Cake meets Ween meets the 1980s. Oh, and maybe a dash of the horn section from your favorite ska band.
Then there are the instrumentals. Almost every track on the album clocks in at less than three minutes (I miss the days of minute-long punk), with the instrumentals hovering around two minutes apiece. This album is an adventure across the globe. Start your journey by chilling your hot heart with the cool island-y sounds of “Yanqui Go Home.” Trek over to Eastern Europe with “At Kuda.” Pop on down to the Middle East with “Balalaika Gap.” Finally, finish your Camper Van Beethoven-sponsored vacation in Italy with the spaghetti western inspired “Opi Rides Again – Club Med Sucks.” Please make sure that your seat backs and folding trays are in their full, upright position as we begin our descent into lyrical madness.
Let’s start with the first track: “The Day Lassie Went to the Moon.” I’m not sure I need to say much more about this song; the title speaks for itself. But, I guess since we’re both here, I might as well say a few more words. The subtle progression (or stagnation, depending on how you look at it) is juxtaposed with the droning vocals that only gain momentum during the last 1/3 of the song. Like Weezer without the distortion. Or the complexity. But, you know, kinda like Weezer.
“Take the Skinheads Bowling” is a catchy, incoherent mess of a jangly pop song. Again, I mean this as a compliment. This is probably the closest Camper Van Beethoven comes to a mainstream Billboard success. Ignoring the repetitive structure, monotone vocals, and unintelligible lyrics, “Take the Skinheads Bowling” is a Billboard Chart topper. Wait a second…(har har)
If you can think of a popular counterculture movement from the 80s, Camper Van Beethoven probably mocked it. Hippies, skinheads, punks, surfers, etc. You label it, they made fun of it. Affectionately mocked. Think of them like a fat Henry Rollins from an alternative universe in which he would occasionally drink, but still write songs like “Drinking and Driving” and “TV Party.” Speaking of Black Flag (I sense a connecting transition ahead…), Camper Van Beethoven’s “Wasted” is (shockingly) an obscure Black Flag original (from the good ol’ Keith Morris days). Stripped of all of its lo-fi, power-chord drive, “Wasted” drones on as an anthem for slackers and burnouts. Mocking the counterculture, but doing so with several tongues in several cheeks.
Some critics played Camper Van Beethoven off as nothing more than a novelty group. Are they correct in their immediate dismissal? Absolutely not. Camper Van Beethoven deserves a little more credit than that. Telephone Free Landslide Victory is not the forgotten Sgt. Pepper’s, but it also isn’t the forgotten The Path of Totality (what the hell was up with that, anyways?). I’m glad my love for this band didn’t fade like my love for Michael Moore.
This review is based on the 2004 reissue of the original 1985 album.