Thursday, December 4, 2008

DEAF COMEDY JAMZ: Teen Punks in Heat

DEAF COMEDY JAMZ is a new (hopefully) weekly feature on music.

Here, we analyze the last record by the band Screeching Weasel.

The band I listened to most in middle school and high school was the Ramones, but Screeching Weasel was right behind them. This wasn't surprising at all considering that Screeching Weasel led the late-80s/early 90's Ramones revival movement known as "pop-punk".

Screeching Weasel was started and lead by one Ben Foster, aka "Ben Weasel". He was a Reagan-loving nihilist that wrote for the most important punk rock publication Maximumrocknroll. For this mag he wrote a controversial article about the punk rock "scene" with, if I remember correctly, rules of what was and what wasn't considered punk rock. I can't really look this up because MRR is (or at least used to be) anti-internet. Ben probably wasn't the most qualified person to write such an article, considering that he lived in Chicago, thousands of miles away from the 824 Gilman St. scene that MRR was part of. Also, Screeching Weasel stopped performing live in 1994; it was later learned that Ben Weasel suffered from extreme agoraphobia, eliminating him from part of a "scene".

If you were to compare to him a member of the Ramones, it would definitely be Johnny Ramone due to his love of conservative thought and baseball. His Wikipedia entry is regrettably too small, but it does mention that he is now the host of a weekly radio show for ESPN 1070 in Madison, Wisconsin (where he has lived for the past few years). The entry's writer gets in a subtle jab: "which is a Clear Channel station." Oooohh, burn.

With a nasally voice and a limited range, he was the perfect punk rock singer. And like the Ramones, he knew how to write a melody. Although there were other singers and writers for Screeching Weasel songs, it was always his band. He knew what The Kids (like me) wanted, and it seemed that he even had us in mind when he wrote the lyrics. Later he would start the Panic Button Records label, churning out pop-punk records by other bands that I would love as well. He was the Phil Spector of pop-punk. Or the Dr. Dre of pop-punk if you need something more current. Ok, the Kanye West of pop-punk.

The 8th and 9th-grade years of my life were spent delivering newspapers after school and spending most of the money I made by sending money orders to Lookout! Records for CDs, 7"s, stickers, pins and t-shirts of my favorite pop-punk bands. This was before there was much of an internet so you had to decide on what you were going to buy based off of the small cards that came inside the CDs of other Lookout! releases. These albums were rarely at the mall's music store, and besides, why pay $17.99 when you could just wait a few weeks and get it for $10? Screeching Weasel was the focal point of all of this for me and to this day I pretty much own everything they have ever released.

Yet, Ben Weasel was a hard guy to like and defend. He seemed to revel in being an asshole that a lot of people hated (or so it seemed). He was a famous curmudgeon, inspiring the Queers song "Ben Weasel" (He rants and raves, he screams and shouts / He always flips his lid / But deep down inside / He really loves you kids) and the No Empathy song "Ben Weasel Don't Like It". Reading his articles, I knew I hated Reagan even though I wasn't completely sure why yet. I didn't really like Screeching Weasel because of the lyrics, and the music itself didn't divert much from the same four-chords in different orders. My love for the band didn't make sense. And even though I didn't like him, Ben Weasel was my hero. Looking back on it now, I think he just personified the love/hate of life that I also felt as a bored, internally-rebellious teenager.

Screeching Weasel broke up for real in 1994, but then got back together to put out a few new albums, a Ramones cover album and a rarities album in the late 90s as proteges Green Day broke big. In 1999, the band released Emo, a raw, honest and decidedly not pop-punk album.

And then in 2000 they went back to the old bullshit with Teen Punks in Heat for one last go-around.

By this point I was a senior in high school and was for the most part over Screeching Weasel, but I bought this album anyway. Ben Weasel was doing everything in the band now: he sang all of the songs and wrote all of the music. He was backed by his trusty sidekick "Jughead" on guitar and essentially punk rock session players in drummer Dan Lumley, bassist/producer Mass Giorgini and guitarist Philip Hill (quick side note: it's hard to digest that there were punk rock session players, but these guys pretty much were).

And when the album isn't being ridiculous and embarrassing (like in "Erection": erection, erection it's hard / erection, erection oh god!) it can't seem to get away from the past and the victorious days of pop-punk yore that were diminishing with every passing day. Weasel was preoccupied with either regret ("Pauline", "The Edge of the World", "Things Seem All Fucked Up Today"), revenge ("You're Sorry Now", "21 Months") or how the kids sucked now. The standout song for the latter subject is "You're The Enemy". The song starts with Weasel sarcastically yelping "this one's for the kids!" and then as the music kicks in: I stand here bored and look at you / Clapping like monkeys in the zoo. He was essentially trashing the lame Oi! kids depicted on the cover; the song was the sonic equivalent of the guys in the hazmat suits annihilating them.

But the next song is the turning point in the album: "I Wanna Fuck". Played at the speed and aggressiveness of so many lame Casualties songs that he mocked in "You're The Enemy", as if to say, "we can do this too," Weasel sings about how much he wants to have sex: I wanna sweat, I wanna scream, I wanna make you my wet dream come true. How much do you want to copulate, Ben? I wanna fucking overdose on pussy. Well, then.

Listen to "I Wanna Fuck":

It's the strangest Screeching Weasel song ever. Where do you go from there? Nowhere but potentially the most punk rock lyrics ever in "Message in a Beer Bottle":

I've got a message for you: I've done okay in spite of you
I've got a message for you: I did the things you said not to do
I've got a message for you: I never saw your point of view
I've got a message for you: F - U - C - K - Y - O - U
I've got a message for you: I fucked it up and I still turned out okay and I'm happy being everything you hate
I'm still walking like a jerk out in the rain
I still wake up with a smile on my face

Listen to "Message in a Beer Bottle":

Seriously, what is more punk rock than that? Yeah yeah, scream about drugs and hating the government, to which I reply: snooze! But to reject everyone, even the person listening to the song? Well, ok, you've trumped me there.

The album fades after this and when it was over, Screeching Weasel ceased to exist. A bunch of their albums were re-released on Asian Man Records (did you know The Queers are still making new music?!?) a few years ago and another greatest hits compilation may have been released as well. And since Teen Punks In Heat, Ben Weasel seems to have mellowed out as well. He's got a digital-download only record label, he does the aforementioned radio show and he Twitters. It seems like he's embracing technology and living a more relaxed life.

And ultimately, I still love him. So Ben, if you're reading this, know that I don't hate you. I just bought your new album and the third Riverdales album on iTunes, I plan on digesting the last year of your radio show over the next few weeks and maybe I'll even read your book Like Hell. And I can't stop listening to Teen Punks In Heat. -Dave Walk


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,
This is Ben. Speaking from the dead. Because I have TRULY OVERDOSED ON PUSSY! YEAHHHHHH!
- Ben Foster

Anonymous said...

Dave --

This is an incredibly well-written piece, first of all. Great stuff.

Secondly, I, too, love Screeching Weasel. I Wanna Be A Homosexual is one of my all-time favorite songs. I also grew up reading his MRR columns and I had at least one Riverdales albums.

I still love goofy, energetic and fun pop punk. God bless The Ramones, Screeching Weasel and The Queers, whom I've seen play 14 times live.



Pruneface said...

I miss Screeching Weasel. I used to listen to them a lot in Junior High.