Camper Van Beethoven

Popular Songs Of Great Enduring Strength & Beauty

There’s a case to answer here, obviously. The 80s-vintage tracks collected on Popular Songs – or, to unfurl its full and characteristically sarcastic title, Popular Songs Of Great Enduring Strength & Beauty – amount to a Rosetta Stone for what is, plausibly, the most wretched, misbegotten genre of music to sully airwaves: college rock. While every species of music produces worthless groups and worthless records, college rock was uniquely loathsome in that the distinguishing trait of its practitioners was that they believed that what they were doing was a laugh, a joke, beneath them.

They Might Be Giants were partly Camper Van Beethoven’s fault. So were The Presidents of the United States of America. So were Pavement, The Dead Milkmen, and legion other smug, floppy-fringed, time-wasting amateurs who should have been conscripted into an expeditionary force and packed off to invade somewhere. Saturn, ideally. Next to the recordings of any of the above-mentioned, the soundtrack of This Is Spinal Tap is a model of earnest integrity, and has better tunes.

And yet, and yet. Though Camper Van Beethoven’s 1980s recordings were certainly culpable for the encouragement of scoundrels, they had then, and have now, a charm as undeniable as it is irresistible. What distinguished CVB from their more winsome camp-followers was that their whimsy was leavened by a certain belligerence. This is discernible in David Lowery’s rasping snarl of a voice, in the Randy Newman-ish cockeyed malice of the more readily comprehensible lyrics (’When I Win The Lottery’ and ’The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon’ especially) and in the genre-mashing instrumentals with such leadenly ironic titles as ’Border Ska’ and ’ZZ Top Goes To Egypt’. It was also always clearly a part of CVB’s collective psychology: due to continued contractual wranglings with CVB’s former label Virgin, five of the cuts on Popular Songs are note-perfect re-recordings of the originals. (This is just the latest skirmish in an ongoing struggle: Lowery’s post-CVB band, exemplary country yahoos Cracker, re-recorded an entire album of their greatest hits to scupper a similar Virgin package, and explained their feelings further in a new song called ’It Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself’.)

Camper Van Beethoven, then, may well be the only redeeming legacy of the entire college rock disaster, even if they also helped invent the tiresome fad for indie covers of fossilised rock standards (CVB’s version of Status Quo’s ’Pictures Of Matchstick Men’ is something they could have afforded to let Virgin keep). Their most serious claim on immortality is still, of course, the perfect, ridiculous, brilliant, thunderously daft singalong and universal rehearsal-room favourite ’Take The Skinheads Bowling’ (it has been covered by Teenage Fanclub, Manic Street Preachers, among approximately a billon others). It’s easy to understand how so many thought that this was something they could emulate: it’s a boneheadedly simple three-chord thrash with lyrics that sound like they took less time to write than sing. It is also, however – which its successors assuredly were not – a gleeful and highly rocking Dadaist rewrite of the Modern Lovers template, riddled with careful detail: the daffy lead riff percolating through the later verses, the vocal harmony on the second “bowling” in the chorus. A joy forever, if not necessarily a thing of beauty, and more than enough reason to ungrudgingly permit Camper Van Beethoven this victory lap.

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