Graded on a Curve: Camper Van Beethoven, Telephone Free Landslide Delivery

At the time when the post-punk/hardcore scene was exploding into a thousand disparate sounds, with bands delving into a myriad of new directions (metal, funk, alt-country, goth, neo-psychedelia, you name it), Camper Van Beethoven did something truly audacious–they exploded in every which direction at once.

On their 1985 debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, Camper Van Beethoven delved into, by turns, catchy pop jingle jangle, ska, the sounds of Eastern Europe and Mexico, Spaghetti Western and so on, and the LP so bewildered some–me included–that it took a long while to come to terms with its conceptual originality.

Most bands seek to find a sound and perfect it. Camper Van Beethoven did just the opposite, poking fun at all manner of counter cultural subgroups–skinheads, hippies, skateboarders, waste products, and the like–in the process. So far as lead singer/guitarist David Lowery and the boys were concerned, every manner of youth self-identification out there was a conformist joke. They took one look at their angry skinhead counterparts and decided to take them bowling, strangely humanizing them in the process. Put a bowling ball in their hands, and they were just kids in odd clothing.

Telephone Free Landslide Victory’s 17 maddingly disparate cuts are designed to induce vertigo, but it’s the pop tunes that get you first. The perky ”Take the Skinheads Bowling,” the chipper pre-Slacker anthem “Ambiguity Song (“Everything seems to be up in the air at this time”) and the love as unidentifiable emotion “Oh, No!” (“Oh no here it comes again, that funny feeling”)–are catchy as hell, and once you’ve heard them you’ll never get them out of your head.

Then we come to the ones that are easily categorized under the pop/rock label. “Club Med Sucks” takes youth rebellion (“I hate golf!”) and turns it upside down. “Wasted” is slowed down Black Flag with the stoner-factor turned way up. “I Don’t See You” is a violin-flavored putdown song that may actually be in earnest. “Border Ska” is ska from down Mexico way. Ditto “Yanqui Go Home.”

“Where the Hell Is Bill?” is a country-flavored tune about a friend who’s traipsed off in search of the latest youth trend (“Well maybe he went to get a Mohawk/Maybe he went to get some gnarly thrash boots”). On “Wasting All Your Time” Camper Van Beethoven happily announce “We’re all wasted and wasting all your time.” Thanks for the honesty! As for “Cowboys from Hollywood,” it’s a one liner (“Pawn shop cowboys from Hollywood”). Spaghetti western, and you’ll never have any trouble remembering the lyrics!

The inexplicable ones–at least in a rock context–include “Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China,” “Opi Rides Again,” “Balalaika Gap,” “Paid Vacation: Greece,” “Atkuda,” “Tina,” and “Vladivostok.” Camper Van Beethoven gleefully throw their twisted takes on world music in our face, and let us figure out what to make of it.

If the songs on Telephone Free Landslide Victory are designed to keep you off-balance, the song order only increases the effect. “Take the Skinheads Bowling” is book-ended between “Skinhead Stomp” (which no skinhead in the world could do the stomp to) and “Tina” on one side, and the Eastern European-flavored “Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China” on the other. How Camper Van Beethoven made the trip from Southern China to Eastern Europe is anyone’s guess. I blame a sense of humor.

If music–and art in general–is all about making order out of chaos, Telephone Free Landslide Victory is pure anarchy, and last time I checked pure anarchy was what punk was all about. Compared to Camper Van Beethoven, the Sex Pistols–and every other punk/hardcore band out there–were stodgy conservatives playing it safe. As revolt curdled into conformity–as it invariably does–Camper Van Beethoven were the only real revolutionaries in town.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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