The Dandy Warhols

TrackAlbum
Not Your BottleDandys Rule OK
GeniusDandys Rule OK
Not If You Were
The Last Junkie On Earth
The Dandy Warhols Come Down
Be-InThe Dandy Warhols Come Down
GreenThe Dandy Warhols Come Down
GodlessThirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia
NietzscheThirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia
We Used To Be FriendsWelcome To The Monkey House
(You Come In) BurnedWelcome To The Monkey House
Holding Me UpOdditorium or Warlords of Mars

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Contributor: Duncan Harman

“As far as I’m concerned, Vodafone saved rock ‘n’ roll.”

Well, yes … and strung-out, tour-weary musicians have a habit of sprouting tosh when in the company of disinterested hacks with a dictaphone and space to fill in their tawdry rag.

Except, this is The Dandy Warhols we’re speaking of; the opening quote (drummer Brent DeBoer the guilty party), and there’s a whiff of truth loitering about the bushes.

Backstory: 2001 – a year after it was originally released – and Dandy-in-Chief Courtney Taylor-Taylor signed-off on Bohemian Like You becoming the soundtrack to a thousand mobile phone adverts.

Beforehand, the band were niche; not obscure, exactly, but Capitol Records had already thrown considerable dollar at making them big, without that spend translating into sales. Yet Courtney being Courtney, drifting in some indie-rock/stoner-rock/college radio Bermuda Triangle, where radio play and music press exposure only travels so far, was not part of the mission plan – not when serious cash could be made.

And because the general public (not you, dear reader – just the rest of them) are a bunch of atavistic, tone-deaf simpletons incapable of understanding nuance, grace and composure in sound, Bohemian Like You – the Dandys’ most commercial track, and also one of their corniest – suddenly became ubiquitous, thus instantly obliterating any credibility the band once held.

Artists need to eat, and pay bills, and to that extent there’s always going to be the attraction for mid-table outfits with a catchy ditty or two to whore their material out to the advertising industry – thus riding the subsequent wave of sales. The problem being that the act of selling blows apart any integrity the back-cat stands upon; Bohemian Like You isn’t about flogging phones or airtime … until suddenly it is, and then we’re into territory where Taylor-Taylor demeaning his work in such a cynical fashion is a turn off. “I’m never going to pass up half a million dollars for a song I made,” to quote directly … possibly with the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money LP on in the background.

Not that he gives a rat’s ass what I think; “Grumpy little indie Nazis are good people to piss off,” he’s also on record as saying. But I mention this because on their first two albums – and sporadically thereafter – The Dandy Warhols actually had something. A gloriously stoned, cartoon rock band from the Pacific North-West. A kitsch, primary-coloured, vaguely retro psychedelia pulled straight from Hanna-Barbera animation circa 1971. Help!…It’s The Hair Bear Bunch moulded into a stoner rock aesthetic. A Josie and the Pussycats for the slacker generation.

As the 70s played out, Hanna-Barbera’s output grew tamer in tone, trading off-kilter textures for syndication sales – that’s your awkward, Dandy Warhols career analogy, right there. But just as shows such as Wacky Races retain their appeal, so Dandys Rule OK (1995) and The Dandy Warhols Come Down (1997) have a crackle about their personage; even the painfully-punned track titles they favoured carry a naïve, childlike quality that – whilst droll in the extreme – do at least work in context (Tony, This Is A Song Called Lou Weed? Ah; I see what you did there).

As (deliberately) fuggy as their debut album is, it’s also a record of contrasts, the wasted, cartoonish, car-sick grooves such as The Dandy Warhols TV Theme Song balanced out by slower numbers that display an emotional honesty – a sort of comedown clarity, if you will. Not Your Bottle – “Philip wants to be a rock star, but he’s a bit uptight. So he brings his favourite Bettys with a bottle full of whisky, and he sits on the couch all night” – floats across its languid, minor key guitar riffs like ice in a glass of bourbon. A song of dirty sofas and empty receptacles. Of dawn hitting far too early – we’ve all been there.

(Also: ‘Betty’ is surfer slang for a female accomplice. As in Betty Rubble, from The Flintstones. Almost as sexy as Daphne from Scooby Doo. Not that everything should be framed through a Hanna-Barbera aperture, of course, but it helps.).

Genius is even sharper; delicate, and quite beautiful with it (“It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. Don’t have to be fucking brilliant to see. I’m not as smart as I seem to be”). The production is far too raw to compliment the composition, whilst the vocal is way beyond what Courtney’s register would consider comfortable. But as a study in post-excess self-disgust, this is up there with Tim Buckley’s I Must Have Been Blind, such is the pathos it delivers (as well as being evidence that a track doesn’t have to be complex to carry weight).

It’s not on record what the suits at Capitol thought of Genius. But we do know that by the time of The Dandy Warhols Come Down, band and record label had fallen out. Antipathy that was to endure for the duration of their contract; Capitol really did consider them a singles band, and rejected the original sessions for their second album because the execution was far too hazy for mass consumption. As such, Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth has the feel of two fingers raised in the direction of label HQ on Hollywood and Vine, if only because it is a deliberate single, full of hammy moments (and lampooned rather splendidly by aesthetical allies The Brian Jonestown Massacre on Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth).

Yet as over the top as this track patently is – the David LaChapelle-directed video even features a troupe of dancing syringes – it does demonstrate the musical interaction that underpins their sound, Zia McCabe’s keyboard bass and Peter Holmström’s louche, Sunset Boulevard fretwork key components behind the song’s energy. In a similar vein (but with more panache) is the seven-minute opener Be-In, where the distended, incense-infused intro unfurls into a relentless, druggy dirge, slow-burning deliciously towards pay-off.

The whole drug thing can, of course, be overplayed – by listener interpretation as much through artistic intention (also: far sharper minds than mine have struggled to unravel the symbiosis between music and narcotics, at least eloquently). Yet whilst pharmaceutical assistance (and their repercussions) operate as an underlying theme to much of the Dandys’ back-cat, there’s much to suggest nuance, functioning both within and above the particulars implied by poison of choice.

Take Green, for instance. It’s almost insubstantial. A throwaway, built across concussed acoustic guitar, each chord uncertain yet strangely tender, converting emotion into something playfully evocative. When it comes to his lyrics, nobody is going to accuse Taylor-Taylor of Wildean verve, but what he does have to say – “I came up to your floor. You were dressed just a little obscene. And it shut me down quite sexually like a pre-adolescent, because I’m greener then I’m green” – has an everywhere element to it; in this case the tacit acknowledgment that we all lose ourselves amid awkwardness when the moment takes us; that feelings of inadequacy, whether real or implied, are universal.

The other mistake in dismissing the Dandys as just another crew of stoned chancers left to run amok down the guitar store is that the musicality grew more strident – and far less cartoonish – over subsequent albums. Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia contains many forgettable moments, over and above any phone company subservience. But when it does work, there’s a real sense of what the band could have become had fate not sent them scurrying elsewhere. Godless – as with Be-In, the previous album opener – delivers a sober muscularity quite different from preceding LPs, the trumpet first adding accent to the guitar hooks, then spinning off towards disenfranchisement during the bridge. In a similar fashion, Nietzsche incorporates spaced-out drone inclinations against a buffed-up backdrop, the sound bigger, the harmonies as contused as an AA meeting.

Capitol loved Thirteen Tales. Eventually that is, once the atavistic, tone-deaf simpletons out there started picking it up from the shelves of their local supermarket. Capitol didn’t however love 2003’s follow-up Welcome To The Monkey House, parachuting in Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes to “rescue the project” (the band disliked Rhodes’ mix so much that they self-released their preferred version a few years later). It’s a messy album, the songcraft noticeably weaker than on previous albums, Rhodes’ electro-pop shininess out of place. And yet, in We Used To Be Friends, it contains perhaps the Dandys’ finest single. There’s a glitter-infused spikiness about this, the meaty bass lines, the hand-claps and the posture an extrapolation of the band’s trademark nonchalance. It is, in effect, a pop song – and as we all know, there’s no such thing as too much pop (it’s also far superior to the mix they released themselves).

At the other end of the scale, there’s album finale (You Come In) Burned. A woozy meditation upon alienation, the synth bass playing off the percussion, it’s as uncertain as We Used To Be Friends is assured. And at 7+ minutes long, it could have overstayed its welcome, but for the bouquet of distorted guitar at intro and (more importantly) outro, framing the package in buzz and hum; as such, it’s lovely.

We could end the story here, of course. Creative juices run dry, the muse leaves for a younger model – isn’t that the way with all-too-many an act? Subsequent albums, and despite gaining full creative control after splitting from Capitol, the Dandys sound reheated. There’s even a track – Talk Radio from 2008’s Earth To The Dandy Warhols – that manages to rip-off the aforementioned Green (and suing yourself for plagiarism is only a win-win if the lawyers don’t get involved). And perhaps the final irony is that Anton Newcombe – the washed-up leader of The Brian Jonestown Massacre – has since experienced a critically-acclaimed, creative renaissance, whilst the far more career-focused Dandys are left to Groundhog Day their way through middle age.

The one possible exception is Holding Me Up, from 2005’s Odditorium or Warlords Of Mars LP. Not because it sweeps across unclaimed territory; rather, it acts as a reflection. A simulacrum of band aesthetic, with its false stop, languid strumming, muted trumpet – the sound of grown-ups, with children and mortgages, sharing one last reefer for old time’s sake …

But yes, it’s the roller-skating, day-glo version of The Dandy Warhols that retains the lustre. It’s a little amusing that their record label primarily saw them as radio play, when it’s the album tracks (and the elongated, spliff-fuelled, spacerock-flavoured jams at that) which work best. Or, to quote the lyrics of Come Down’s Cool As Kim Deal: “I’d rather be cool than smart,” which happens to encapsulate pop music as genre pretty neatly.

Those impressed with Bohemian Like You aren’t going to dig strung-out grooves such as Come Down’s The Creep Out, which hangs like a suppository someone from Hawkwind should have taken. And that’s not even mentioning It’s A Fast Driving Rave-Up With The Dandy Warhols Sixteen Minutes – the climax to Rules OK – which despite lasting five seconds longer than advertised, isn’t too far removed from sitting behind the wheel for 300 miles whilst loaded on mushrooms (or so I’m guessing. I wouldn’t know, obviously).

Which is maybe the point; The Dandy Warhols, and their back catalogue represents contradiction. I have zero time for bands that sell previously released (or even subsequently released) material to the advertising industry; as a grumpy little indie Nazi, you’d expect little else (and whilst I’m at it, Vodafone as much saved rock ‘n’ roll as I won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physics). Music snobbery comes with high standards; to hear Prefab Sprout’s The King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll soundtracking an advert for a high street pharmacy chain still triggers palpitations whenever I think about it. Not to mention The First Big Weekend by Arab Strap, ruined forever by a commercial for Irish stout.

Then again, life itself is a contradiction. Hanna-Barbera disappeared as a functioning entity back in 2001, subsumed by a parade of corporate takeovers that asset-stripped characterisation until all that was left were facsimiles and memories. That’s another lousy Dandy Warhols analogy for you, then; if I can only find a way of persuading Vodafone that dodgy metaphor should be the hub of their new marketing strategy, we’ll be in business.

The Dandy Warhols official website

The Dandy Warhols biography (iTunes)

Record obsessive and occasional drunkard, Duncan Harman usually writes at Lazer Guided Melody.

TopperPost #486

5 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Oct 30, 2015

    Oh my lord, We Used To Be Friends.. maaahvellous. Apropos of absolutely.. not much.. I was hipped to Thirteen Tales by good friend @krbronson pre-shenanigans, and absolutely loved it. “It’s the Rolling bloody Stones, intit! The Stones, man! How DARE they?” Glee.

  2. Glenn Smith
    Oct 31, 2015

    Come Down is a great record and formed part of my late nineties soundtrack so my list would have to include Boys Better. And on a similar theme I’d have to have Get Off from Thirteen Tales, a really good slice of C and W freak out pop.

  3. Simon Jones
    Nov 2, 2015

    Excellent list, and hard to fault. Nothing there I would argue with 🙂

  4. David Lewis
    Nov 2, 2015

    Yep, there’s not many songs that are as good as ‘We used to be friends’. It was the millstone around their neck: a lot of old fans hated it, ‘sell outs’. But it’s so goood! I didn’t know about the Vodafone deal which of course would have completely finished them with many of their fans. But goodness they were/are a good band.

  5. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Jul 11, 2016

    Thirteen Tales: the soundtrack to a trip down the west coast by car from Victoria To Monterey and San Francisco. We listened to it over and over again…superb. And then we saw The Dandy Warhols in Victoria live in a small club and what a show it was. A great list. Thank you. The band continues to deliver!

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