I’m fully aware that, since the dawn of the 21st century, the Goo Goo Dolls have been embarrassingly tepid MILFcore. Still, anytime someone name-checks the Goos as a symbol of mediocrity, I can’t help but judge them. How can anyone exhibit shameless excitement over a Sleater-Kinney reunion record (groan) while thinking the back catalog of Buffalo’s best rock export is anything to be ashamed of?
Let me drop some wisdom on you: The Replacements have some killer songs here and there, but they really only made one great album and no, it’s not Let It Be. On the other hand, many of their imitators have cranked out solid album after solid album, frequently overtaking their heroes in the quest for rock's teen angst throne. Chief among those worshiping at the altar of Westerbergian woe are the Goo Goo Dolls. And while you could be forgiven for wanting to pierce your eardrums in protest against their more recent work, you’re a damn Philistine if you’re skipping out on what came before.
Their first three albums are completely beyond reproach. Solid punk rock with a melodic and mournful edge, tempered with a totally dumb sense of humor, as heard on tracks like “Don’t Beat My Ass (With a Baseball Bat).” Jed and Hold Me Up showcased a growing talent for songcraft and gained them the respect of the late '80s CBGB crowd, not the easiest group in the world to impress.
Then came Superstar Car Wash in 1993. This is when the 120 Minutes crowd first got introduced to the band. And while “We Are the Normal” (co-written by Westerberg himself) was a sign of decidedly bad things to come, the album itself is solid. Robby Takac continued to do his miserable sack of raspy shit thing to perfection. Johnny Rzeznik started feeling more comfortable as the band’s resident pretty boy and crooner.
The Goos last effort with Metal Blade Records (yep) is when everything changed for the boys. It was their last album with original drummer George Tutuska, with whom they would soon be embroiled in the biggest drummer vs. band royalties dispute this side of Stephen Adler. More importantly, however, this was the album which contained “Name,” the totally unfuckwithable track that catapulted them out of a decaying, fart-scented tour van and into senior proms o’er the land.
Still, I urge you to fire up the ol’ Spotify and give that album a listen. It might just be their best. “Long Way Down” opens A Boy Named Goo, showcasing Robby and Johnny’s ability to write a killer melodic rock track with a punk edge. “Burnin’ Up” could easily be an Alkaline Trio song — in fact, it’s better than anything those guys have done in a hot minute. “Naked” sounds like it could be a rewrite of The Replacements' “Unsatisfied,” but, y’know, good this time. “Slave Girl” clued in anyone who doubted that they were still capable of
writing performing catchy, heavy riffs with an edge of irreverent stupidity.
But what of Dizzy Up the Girl? Sure, it’s slicker. Sure, the band decided that they really liked money a whole lot. Sure, Robby got relegated to dumpy fat guy bassist status once the personal stylists and media moguls got their hands on Johnny. Still, it’s not just one of the better rock albums of 1998. That would be faint praise indeed. I’d put it head-to-head against anything the summer alt-rock crowd puts out this year.
You can still hear the faint echoes of the band’s humble Buffalo, N.Y., beginnings on tracks like “Broadway” and “Dizzy.” And hey, they even let Robby sing a couple! “January Friend” is a gorgeous bit of Kinksian garage pop, as is “Amigone.” Part of them had sold out, but part of them had just grown up.
If anything, the Goos just saw the writing on the wall: Rock & roll finally died its long-touted death as a topic of mainstream interest. Kids were more into music that sounded like video game soundtracks, with lyrics about lean or vodka tampons or whatever. The rump of post-2000 rock fandom ultimately decided it valued ironic detachment over earnestness, and cutesy-poo cultural references over lived experience. Rather than running a fool’s errand, Goo Goo Dolls decided to chase those sweet, sweet Adult Album Alternative radio dollars.
By now, Johnny’s probably had more plastic surgeries than Pam Anderson. You can't help but wonder if he thought it was the only way he could stay marginally relevant. The moms of America’s suburbs will always take a polished blond guy telling them their sadness is precisely what makes them beautiful. And so, the band didn’t give up, but the mission statement changed drastically.
Remember that when you and your college buddies are paying $400 to see Bad Religion go through the motions next year at Brochella. At least the Goos are honest with themselves.
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[Correction: "Slave Girl" is actually a Lime Spiders cover, which is sort of more awesome than if they wrote it themselves. That's some serious Killed by Death territory. I knew this a million years ago when I cared more about punk rock. To the reader who caught my error: Thanks for making me look like a moron on the Internet. I deserved it. — N.P.]