Graded on a Curve: Flipper, Album–Generic Flipper

Sometimes I like to imagine how concertgoers, newbies unfamiliar with San Francisco’s Flipper, responded to their first exposure to the band’s murky and monolithic songs. I mean, like, fast and hard like RULED, man, and how could you mosh to this shit? I can almost see the band’s throbbing toothache of a sound pressing all those poor punkers into a corner of the club, where they could whinge and boo hoo about the band’s failure to provide the soundtrack for them to kick somebody in the head, before finally collecting their Mohawks at the door and heading home. Meanwhile Flipper was having a grand old time, giving what in effect was a great big fuck you to the very people who had paid good money to see them.

It’s hardly possible to say too many good things about Flipper. Their grinding din grated on the ears of the hardcore crowd; their lyrics were an intelligent spew of black humor and utter nihilism; and their singing was deliberately abominable. They were the bleakest, funniest, and most annoying band out there, and hence the greatest band out there, because like their spiritual brethren in D.C.’s No Trend they spit in the faces of hardcore conformists: you know, the ones who thought slam dancing and wearing the same badges and patches made them unique, which it did if by unique you meant exactly the same as everybody else.

Most people remember the grimly hilarious distortion rockers (who included Will Shatter on bass and lead and backup vocals, Bruce Loose on bass and lead and backup vocals, Ted Falconi on guitar, and Steve DePace on drums and percussion) for “Sex Bomb,” perhaps the catchiest dance single to never be played on a dance floor. (Or may be it was. The thought of it makes me happy.) But “Sex Bomb” is just one of the wonderful songs on Generic Flipper, one of the best—and most out of step—LPs of the hardcore era. While everybody else was out to set land speed records, Flipper was slowing it down to a Thorazine shuffle; theirs was no rocket to Russia, it was music for mental patients looking for music slow, sludgy, and unrelenting enough to drown out those evil voices in their heads. Henry Rollins said of them: “They were just heavy. Heavier than you. Heavier than anything…” By definition, a monster is a singularity, something that is sui generis. Hence Flipper was monstrous, and happy to be so.

Anyhow, Generic Flipper opens with the remarkably catchy and bleak distortion rocker, “Ever.” One of the murkier songs you’ll ever hear, “Ever” is a drone that features Bruce Loose throwing out such cheery lines as, “Ever look at a flower and hate it?” and “Ever wish the human race didn’t exist/Then realize you’re one too?” to a backdrop of noise guitar and handclaps, and ends with a smattering of applause. “Life Is Cheap” is slower, a dirge-like slog through the sludge with lots of feedback and distortion, to say nothing of Loose and Shatter singing about how life is cheap and freedom is an illusion. Follow-up “Shed No Tears” is one of the LP’s highlights, a propulsive and crushing tune on which Shatter sings while Falconi plays lots of great distorted guitar and the band steamrolls over everything in its path. This isn’t rock, this is an earthmover with vocals, and the amazing thing is that it’s outdone in the bleakness department by the next track “(I Saw You) Shine,” which drags along like six thin men in black slowly hefting the coffin of a fat man across a muddy cemetery. “The lights have all gone out” repeats Loose, while DePace and Loose pound out a rhythm that would make PiL jealous. This is droning noise at its best, thanks in large part to Falconi’s guitar, which ups the brutality quotient immensely. You may not be able to dance to it but you’ll be entranced by it, as it bounds and careens like a miniature monster truck over the wrinkles and folds of your cerebral cortex.

“The Way of the World” is another LP highlight, opening with a great rumbling bass that reminds me of Joy Division. Yet another bona fide catchy number, it features Shatter singing a line, followed by the band singing the song title. And talk about bummers! “There are kisses left undelivered,” sings Shatter, adding, “and signs and moans unuttered.” Add some entrails still on the floor, and you get the message that these guys aren’t exactly walking on the sunny side of life. Or that their side of the street ever gets any sun, period Meanwhile Falconi grinds out great guitar riffs and DePace picks up the rhythm towards the end, and it’s harrowing, even though I can’t escape the suspicion that the lads in Flipper are enjoying themselves immensely, stomping on the dreams of the complacently happy. As E.M. Cioran once put it, “My mission is to suffer for all those who suffer without knowing it. I must pray for them, expiate their unconsciousness, their luck to be ignorant of how unhappy they are.” As for the likeable “Life,” it’s one nonstop din, and features Loose seemingly renouncing his cynicism: “I too have sung ‘Death’s Praise’/But I’m not going to sing that song anymore/Yes, I’ve figured out what living is all about.” And that is? “Life, life, life is the only thing worth living for.” Which may or may not be a tautology (I failed logic in college) but is most certainly meaningless, which makes me wonder whether Loose was being sincere or taking the piss the whole time.

“Nothing” is the only track on Generic Flipper I’m not gaga about; following some distorted guitar, Shatter repeats “Nothing nothing nothing,” to a fast-paced rhythm that really shows off DePace’s Hiroshima approach to drumming. But it’s over before you know it, as is “Living for the Depression,” the closest Flipper comes to a conventional hardcore song. Shatter sings, “We’re living for life to be the way we feel/Not living for life, but the death appeal” (so much for life is the only thing worth living for) and “I say, ‘Who cares anyway? Who listens to what I say?’/This song rhymes and we play it in time” before the whole band ends the song by shouting, “I’m not living life to be/A really cheap fucker like you/Copout!”

The LP closes with one of history’s greatest and most oddball hardcore classics, “Sex Bomb.” A big repetitively throbbing number that opens with some grinding bass and weird sound effects, it features some amazing sax and Shatter and Loose on vocals, singing “Sex bomb baby, yeah!” over and over again as the saxophones grow increasingly frenetic and the melody pierces your cranium like an electric drill. This wasn’t just a song; it was a declaration of independence from the hidebound conformity of hardcore. Shatter screamed and barked and shouted yeah, and those squealing atonal saxes didn’t just expand the concept of what was acceptable, they exploded them like a neutron bomb. After this it was anything goes, and Fear’s disdainful dictum of New York being alright if you like saxophones was instantaneously rendered prissy and passé. I remember hearing this song for the first time and it blew out the windows in my mind. It threw open doors and connected dots, but most importantly it was eight minutes of pure delirious liberation from the trap of faster and harder that hardcore had become. As did the rest of the LP, for that matter, but “Sex Bomb” was the band’s catchiest sign post that it was time for music to make a left-handed turn away from a form of music that, taken to its limits, had become a straightjacket.

Flipper went on to record several more great albums in 1984’s Gone Fishin’ and a pair of live LPs, 1984’s Blow’n Chunks and 1986’s Public Flipper Limited. And they continue to play intermittently, albeit sadly without Will Shatter, who died of a heroin overdose in 1987, shortly after leaving the band. And what else is there left to say, except that if the definition of a great band is one that is out of step with its contemporaries because it’s out breaking new ground, then Flipper is a great band indeed. They may have been a bunch of acerbic life-haters, but being an acerbic life-hater myself I never tire of their gloom and doom. And meaningless or not, they’re right; life is the only thing worth living for, and over the years they’ve helped me to hang onto life, through its ups and downs, and I’ll continue to hang on until this hard cold world fades and the shade of Will Shatter calls me home.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Hank

    You got that right, Mike!

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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