I was 13 years old when The Dead Milkmen came to Providence to play the Living Room — not quite old enough to attend night-time shows in the big (ha!) city, so there was no showdown with my parents over whether or not I could go. We had to drive out to visit grandma in Grand Rapids, Michigan that night, anyway. Ma assured me that they’d be back around again, which of course ensured that they soon broke up and never came back to Rhode Island.
Clearly, I’ve never gotten over this. But for good reason. When I was 13 years old in suburban New England, few things spoke to me more than Beelzebubba.
A couple years ago, I picked the record up again on a whim and found that, far from being a simple piece of teenage angst for those transitioning into punk rock, it’s a bona fide rock & roll masterpiece. It’s nothing short of the White Album of its day. “Punk Rock Girl” might have been run into the ground 1,000 times over, but the rest of the record is just as fresh and funny as when it was first released.
It’s 17 songs that run the gamut from klezmer music to sex funk. Everyone remembers the lyrics to Dead Milkmen songs, but the music itself can be seen as a form of parody all its own. “RC’s Mom” turns sexy, baby-making R&B on its head: Over soaring horns that could be found on a James Brown record, the protagonist threatens to smack his wife with a lead pipe. “Sri Lanka Sex Motel” is some kind of bizarre outtake from the greatest porno flick never made. “Born to Love Volcanos” is a pretty little pop ditty about PBS’s seemingly never-ending fundraisers, firmly in the tradition of happy songs with horrible lyrics.
Ah, yes. The lyrics. Spinal Tap talked about the fine line between clever and stupid. I’m not sure this is better exemplified anywhere than with lyrics like, “Let’s call the sheriff a cocksucker/See if he’s read The Killer Inside Me.”
“Everybody’s Got Nice Stuff But Me” and “Life Is Shit” were the perfect one-two punch for my miserable, yet bizarrely blithe adolescent existence. Nothing better steeled me for either another day of middle school or a trip down to the city for an all-ages matinee gig.
“I Against Osbourne” is a hilarious send-up of conspiracy paranoia set to oompa band polka punk. It’s difficult to hear any substantive differences either in content or delivery between this track and the latest episode of Infowars.
“The Bleach Boys” merges the two halves of the album. It’s a pitch-perfect parody of first-guitar-lesson rockabilly while Rodney Anonymous sings an ode to drinking bleach. It’s not the only paean to fake drugs on the record. Two songs later, another junk-funk masterpiece, “Smoking Banana Peels,” speaks of the pleasures of … well, smoking banana peels. And also saving the seals.
The Dead Milkmen are exemplary in their ability to skewer popular culture with seemingly little effort. It’s a quality sorely missing from rock’s underground today, which prefers its satire to be less actual satire than easily digested missives designed to make the listener feel smart. The Dead Milkmen challenged listeners not only with their sonic diversity, but also with their politically incorrect irreverence. The next time they roll through your town (happily, they did eventually get back together), go ahead and give them a dollar.