So I get this 12-inch record in the mail; front cover proclaims “Not if You Were the Last Dandy on Earth!” The vinyl itself has no artist names or song titles or words at all on its white label. The A-side does appear to be an actual song, but the B is this seemingly endless psychedelic mastermix collage – droning guitars, “Highway 61 Revisited,” a talked thing apparently called “Lou Reed,” “Manic Depression,” Donovan's Eastern-undulating “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” repetitive Arabic chanting giving the rave-up a Velvet Underground feel. In the forefront, a smug voice monotones half-awake about guys from his scruffy rock band happening upon a more spiffy band playing at a party full of beautiful Mod kids who never heard of the Small Faces. At the time, he says, his own band was better known. But these new guys hypnotized him, so he helped make them famous. Then they snubbed him.
His target, I later figured out, is Portland's Dandy Warhols, who last summer had an alt-rock novelty hit called “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth,” about how heroin's not trendy anymore. The song aimed for sarcasm and achieved only radio-ready preciousness, but its rhythm twisted with infectious energy, and its kitschy drug- scare video had syringes dancing a Busby Berkeley floor show. The Warhols look like decadent Lower East Side beatniks from the Velvets era, one with his hair sliced into an Andy Warhol shag. The ballsiest moments on their major-label debut, Come Down (following one indie album), have punchdrunky garage riffs and '60s organs underneath, managing to sound simultaneously grounded and stoned while deep Arthur Lee-like vocals quaver about how girls and boys better beware of each other and how if the singer makes it to “Minnesoter” he plans to rock some girl like a doctor and jack off when her shirt's off. The inner sleeve shows the band's female bassist with her shirt off, and I can empathize.
There's also a Breeders parody about how Kim Deal is more cool than smart, and “Every Day Is a Holiday” could be an electro-wah-wah version of “Legs” by ZZ Top. But half of Come Down is mired in eternal spirals of swirl and clank. Kraut-fuzz tapestries wobble back and forth while shoegazing mumblers loop “I love you” mantras into boringly pleasant head-music sculptures and feedback hums on and on, like My Bloody Valentine trying to dance. Capitol Records rejected an earlier draft of the CD for not having any real songs on it.
Here's what the A-side of the mysterious 12-inch single in my mailbox said about the Warhols: “You look so groovy/And the chicks all scream/It's like a '60s movie/you know the one I mean.” Progressing from ba-ba-ba bubblegum into more-manic-than-depressive Joy Division, “Not if You Were the Last Dandy on Earth” eventually turned up on the current Give It Back! CD by San Francisco's almost-as-dorkily-named Brian Jonestown Massacre, which disc otherwise consists of in-one-ear-out-the-other '60s cruisin'-revivalism, coming alive only when the Massacre let on that they live in the '90s. The Dandys diss is rivaled by BJM's 1996 statutory Stones stomp “13” as their most rocking track ever. And in “This Is Why You Love Me,” a “Here Comes the Sun” melody turns “Hey, come out and play” Offspring fightin' words into a seductive plea to a gal pal.
Absurdly prolific, the guys have put out six albums since 1995, with a seventh supposedly imminent; they even tend to tack epic noodling excursions onto the end to stretch CDs toward 70 minutes. A Brief History of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, a promo-only cassette their new label, TVT, sent to critics this fall in a white cigarette box, is an edifying overview, but their only consistent album is Thank God for Mental Illness (1996), also their most committed to slavering R&B and minor-key Appalachian melancholy. Their lesser sets feature isolated standout stabs at raga exotica (“In India You”), eight-mile-high soaring (“That Girl Suicide”), Hunky Dory fop-folk (“Since I Was Six”) and what might've happened if Humble Pie had sounded Black Lebanese in “30 Days in the Hole” instead of just singing about it (“Monkey Puzzle”). Liner notes have been known to list didgeridoos, French horns, glockenspiels, Mellotrons and “weird fucking Chinese shit.”
Which somehow doesn't prevent the Massacre's music from usually being so limited to mere nostalgic competence that, like Oasis, they obviously feel the need to drum up nonexistent controversies to divert bored fans' attention. Frontguy Anton Newcombe even claims he mailed each of the four Dandy Warhols a shotgun shell with his name on it. And that was before his group got edged out by them in my Battle of the Bands!
THE DANDY WARHOLS/Come Down/(Capitol)
THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE/Give it Back!/(Bomp)
“NOT IF YOU WHERE THE LAST DANDY ON EARTH!”/(unlabeled 12-inch single)