Fat Wreck Chords
o fully appreciate the magic of Screeching Weasel, one must recall the moribund punk scene of 1987, when SW announced its presence. Minor Threat was a mere memory, but its bland hardcore clones had co-opted the scene. Milo: gone to college; Bad Religion: on hiatus; Mike Ness: well into a half-decade heroin bender. Black Flag was gone, D. Boon was dead, and the Dead Kennedys had gone to trial on ridiculous charges of distributing obscenity to minors for the Frankenchrist artwork. “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” had signified not a revitalization but a last gasp of the Ramones’ power, and the good ship T.S.O.L. had been hijacked by hair-metal goons.
Into this bleak void stepped these suburban Chicago miscreants with their snotty three-chord rants, spearheading a pop-punk movement alongside the Mr. T Experience, the Queers, and Green Day, the little opening act that could. “Pop-punk” is a dirty word today, conveying a legion of smarmy, vapid young corporate rockers intent on licensing their publishing rights to a few commercials and making out with two-thirds of their MySpace friends lists before hitting adulthood and voting Republican, but at the dawn of the 1990s it was still a fresh, vital subgenre, a welcome burst of melody to wipe away the doldrums of the latest Agnostic Front carbon-copy.
Perhaps it’s not so important to contextualize, after all; Screeching Weasel’s prime, which lasted from 1989 to 1994, stands alone on its merits. From Boogadaboogadaboogada to Anthem for a New Tomorrow, SW mastered a formula with a precision chemists could admire: take the crisp snap of Danny Panic’s snare drum, propelling things along with its gloriously accelerating rolls; add the blissful economy of Jughead’s barre chords, where sonic utopia was always four beats and two frets away; insert a rotating cast of bassists who knew exactly how and when to run a quick fill from A to G; and top it off with Ben Weasel’s sharp lyrics and endearingly nasal yelling. Anyone could do it, which was exactly the point, but no one could do it so perfectly.
Weaselmania, the new SW “greatest hits” album, runs into a few problems endemic to its format and confronts them adroitly, to very satisfying if not quite impeccable effect. The first concern, of course, is the very nature of a greatest-hits collection, which can be the bane of fanatical music geeks everywhere; what sincere aficionado can imagine hearing, say, the fade-out to “Aja” lead into anything other than the opening chords to “Deacon Blues,” or the sustained note that closes “Naima” followed by anything besides the sudden jauntiness of “Mr. P.C.?” On the other hand, there’s a case to be made for greatest hits collections in certain cases; artists from the days before the hegemony of the LP format often require such treatment, and other times acts that have a high rough-to-diamond ratio benefit from it (I’m sure there are Blue Cheer completists out there, but one disc will suit me fine, thanks). Screeching Weasel straddles the divide: everything it released before 1995 (except its unenlightening self-titled debut, justifiably ignored here) remains absolutely crucial, but the band’s spotty output after that point hardly necessitates thorough exploration or iconoclastic critical revision. Ben Weasel retreated to a cantankerous cynicism at mid-decade, and for the most part SW trudged out a rote series of albums that barely went through the motions. It is on this front that Weaselmania deserves its strongest commendations, for extracting the salvageable moments from the wreckage and reminding us that, try though he might, Weasel couldn’t entirely conceal his penchant for pop smarts and punk defiance. This collection saves us the effort of sitting through the abominable final album Teen Punks in Heat to find those moments.
As SW’s primary songwriter, Weasel brought a humane, nearly journalistic eye to his lyrics. Male-dominated punk bands showed little insight into women, and female-led groups like the great Avengers were hardly in abundance in the pre-riot-grrl 80s. But Weasel wrote about women with insight and understanding, and his Marys, Veronicas, and Kamalas were more than mere punk rockers or brats; they reached three dimensions in fewer minutes. “Cindy’s on Methadone” details its protagonist’s efforts to go clean with sympathy, as Weasel shouts in the climactic moment, “Stop acting like she’s stupid!” Meanwhile, “Jeannie’s Got a Problem With Her Uterus” discusses yeast infections and ovulation without any trace of the all-too-common masculine revulsion or mockery the topics often draw.
Homophobia, too, plagued the punk scene, with the Adolescents, who “could care less about the queers” because “they’re fucked,” and the Descendants and their fag jokes. The young Screeching Weasel wasn’t immune to the tendency, with a stupid break in the early “Nicaragua” (not included here) about a “butt full of jizz,” but the wickedly delightful “I Wanna Be a Homosexual” more than compensates. Cleverer and catchier than anything Pansy Division ever recorded, the song taunts hetero punks for lacking “the balls to be a queer.” Dispensing with cautious euphemisms in the vein of aggressive activists like Queer Nation, Weasel yells, “call me a faggot, call me a butt-loving, fudge-packing queer / I don’t care cuz it’s the straight in straight-edge that makes me want to drink a beer and be a pansy, and be a homo.” A few notches upward on the social hierarchy but only a few miles away from SW’s relocated homebase in Berkeley, Professor Judith Butler would advocate subverting sexual normativity through satirical, performative self-identity in her queer-theory manifesto Gender Trouble; SW perform a similar trick with less jargon and a better melody, and the song fulfills the radical project of punk with savage wit. That a bunch of straight guys wrote one of the greatest queer-core anthems only highlights the song’s irony.
Other songs on Weaselmania deal with the high-school politics of cool (“Peter Brady”), the coexistence of science and religion (“The Science of Myth”), and the cultural void of suburbia (“Hey Suburbia”), all with the same high level of lyrical acuity and hooks as sharp as a weasel’s tooth. It’s not all sociopolitical treatises; the two minutes of “Totally” pretty much render all subsequent pop-punk redundant, as its joyous shouts of “I totally, I totally love everything about you” serve as an ur-text of sorts for the next 15 years.
The band couldn’t sustain its focus, though; after the great Anthem for a New Tomorrow Weasel seemed to lose interest, killing time in the even more overtly Ramonesian Riverdales before churning out the late-period Weasel detritus. Emo had several moving songs but was hindered by lyrics too often taken from a twelve-step recovery manual, while the aforementioned Teen Punks in Heat saw the band retreating into dismal puerility with ready-for-the-Meatmen duds like “Erection” and “I Just Wanna Fuck.” Weaselmania offers several redemptive moments from these late albums but falls a bit short in regard to the second greatest-hits caveat: song selection. I take it as a premise that no such collection will ever prove 100% satisfying, so there’s no sense in throwing fits about the mediocre “She’s Giving Me the Creeps” (the only of Weaselmania’s first 16 tracks to fall short of greatness) representing Kill the Musicians rather than the immortal break-up song “Celena.”
But while “You Blister My Paint” recovers a stellar moment from the so-so Bark Like a Dog, “Pervert at Large” from Television City Dream sounds like an outtake that Nerf Herder rejected because its humor was too stale. The two picks from Emo represent well, but who forgot its anthemic opening track “Acknowledge?” And did the world need reminding that the rock-bottom EP Major Label Debut exists? Its “Racist Society” is exactly the kind of tepid, doctrinaire hardcore the early SW rose against.
Ah well, even Jerry Rubin went from Yippie to Yuppie, and the vast majority of these 34 tracks smash it out of the park. Fat Wreck might not have gotten the song selection quite perfect, and it drops the ball a bit by putting black dots over the infamous naked-bowling photo from Wiggle included on the insert here (not that there’s a huge clamoring out there for the sight of the band’s little weasels, but still, how punk is covering them?), but it has done its consumer base a service by reminding them about one of the great American punk bands, one that deserves a new generation of fans tired by the dumbed-down, hookless, Warped Tour distortion of pop-punk.
Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2006-02-15