1991 was around the time I (Read Hard) had my first memory. Me and my dad were going to an electronics store and then to a bakery and we heard about this new waterpark that just opened. It was also the year Olav the fifth, king of Norway died and his son Harald the fifth took over as the monarch of Norway. A maybe more important event internationally was the fall of the Soviet Union that happened in December. It was also the year the Grunge wave really spread from Seattle, Washington to the rest of the world with the success of Nirvana’s huge multi-platinum selling album Nevermind.
Released March 26 1991 Ribbed on Epitaph was a turning point for NOFX’s career. 28 minutes of snotty punk rock there. This was also the first time we got to see Fat Mike’s influence from Broadway and the musical theater. To me songs like “Shower days” and “The Moron Brothers” are songs that to me could fit in a musical. So could the doo-wop part of “New Boobs”. I’ve written several times about the time I got this album in the mail. I had heard songs from it before, but as a whole I remember it as a great and almost unexpected experience. I’ve always split Fat Mike as a singer up in three periods. The early years (up until 1990), the middle period (1990-1993) and the more professional period (from 1993 and beyond). I remember thinking that Fat Mike’s singing on White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean brought the album down a lot, even if the production was pretty great. From Punk in Drublic on his voice became more listenable to the public and it also showed in the band’s fame. There’s something very charming about the earlier NOFX records and I think NOFX fans are very divided on them, albums like Liberal Animation and the early Mystic stuff is unlistenable to many, but some punk fans find them to be their only good stuff. While S/M Airlines showed a huge step forward in songwriting, Ribbed showed a step forward in vocal performance.
I remember being shocked that I enjoyed it so much when I first heard it. I still think it sounds better than White Trash, because the sort of bad vocals go well together with the somewhat lo-fi production, where White Trash has a really great production that Mike’s vocals can’t live up to. I think Ribbed is very special in that regard. It’s not for everyone, but as a punk album it’s phenomenal. All the songs are great and they touch on important social issues. “New Boobs” explores body image and objectification of women, “Where’s My Slice?” takes a somewhat unexpected jab at the left and “Nowhere” didn’t stay relevant for long as the Soviet Union, as mentioned earlier, broke down later in the year. The song argues that the openness and reform that was proposed in the USSR was also needed in the US and that fear between the two powers only made the cold war worse and concluded that it was time to make the cold war history. Ribbed, like S/M Airlines had Steve Kidwiller on lead guitar and was replaced by El Hefe later in the year, and had more metal elements than the other albums. There are also elements from classical music and ska and Steve’s own “Together on the Sand” was the band’s first experiment with jazz and it was still being played by Hefe after Steve’s departure. It’s also obvious that the band, probably especially Fat Mike incredibly inspired by Bad Religion at the time and it shows in the songwriting and in the vocal harmonies. The album was also produced by Brett Gurewitz.
Screeching Weasel-My Brain Hurts
I remember abstaining from writing about this classic album in the first article of my column “Read Hard’s Classic Pop Punk Picks” in 2014 and chose the Weasel album Wiggle instead. One of the main reasons for doing was that everyone seem to mention MBH at Wiggle’s expense. I don’t regret this choice, but as a fan of both albums I’m glad I get to write some about MBH now. It was released in September. Like Wiggle, I think it starts out with its worst songs and just get better and better. “Making You Cry” is to me one of the weakest songs they ever recorded (including their first demo) and how it ended up being the first song on their probably most important album is beyond me. As the album progresses we get to hear all the timeless hits. “Guest List” is the third song on the album and though the lyrics are quite silly it always gets me in a good mood and it’s a song that fits my jumping rhythm perfectly while jumping around to it. However, I think the reason the albums starts with “Making You Cry” is that it’s the closest they would get to their older records, except “Fat head” that originally appeared on “Punkhouse”, my pick from 1989. The album saw more use of “pop” melodies than they had ever done before and many see it as the start of modern pop punk. There are times when the band go back to their more “hardcore” sound, in one of my favorites “I Wanna Be with You Tonight” they start up with an aggressive punk song with sophomore lyrics about being secretly infatuated with a girl in what appears to be a classroom or a school setting that he doesn’t even know the name of, inspired by Green Day’s “A the Library”. The chorus includes 60s “nananas” that make the song more suitable to its quite juvenile and cute theme. The conclusion is that the protagonist thinks she had a boyfriend who is “probably a lawyer or something”. It has the classic lyrics “if you kissed me I would blow up, if I kissed you would you throw up?”. The song is followed by the album’s title track. “My Brain Hurts” is a reference to the Monty Python sketch “Gympy Brain Specialist”. The song reflects on alienation and belief and in this track, a nameless girl is more seen as a queen straight out of a magazine that breathes different air than him. There’s a paradox that the protagonist self-loathingly wonders, “what the hell is wrong with me?” and sings “If I wanna do something right I gotta do it myself or someone else will fuck it up” so arrogantly.
When it comes to doubt and belief, we find the best songs in the middle of the album. “Teenage Freakshow” seems to be like a 20s-something rejection of the teenage fantasy of punk rock and apathetic and even condemning views of the scene, something we even saw in Ben’s lyrics as a teenager. “What We Hate” is probably my favorite track on the album. It doesn’t really take a stand on belief or religion, but in its nihilistic ways show how change is inevitable and even good and that we will at some point have to challenge our views or have them challenged. The faithful will lose their faith and the faithless will become desperate and search for something to believe in and the bottom-line is that we become what we hate. Our lives are pretty much meaningless, as the world will still go on without us. We can make a mark, but it won’t matter to us, we’re dead. Clinging on to religion won’t matter, clinging on to atheism won’t either. “Science of Myth” proposes another view of religion. Inspired by the series “The Power of Myth” and an old newspaper article about rape and the power of believing in God, the song defends belief rather than attacking it. Rather than viewing religion from a religious or theist point of view, it views it from an agnostic point of view. It proposes that we can only get the bigger pictures by letting science and religion evolve instead of choosing between two extremes. The second verse is a story from the newspapers about a woman who was raped and cut up and left for dead in a trunk, but her faith in God helped her make it through. The agnostic conclusion in the song is that it doesn’t matter if what she believed was the actual truth as long as it fulfilled its purpose, to help her stay alive and find salvation in such a terrible predicament. It also shows that what is seemed as untrue to one person could be true “without a doubt” to someone else. The song was also inspired by Dr. Frank of the Mr. T Experience song/thesis “The Complicated History of the Concept of the Soul” from their A Night at the Thrill Factory album. Their Milk Milk Lemonade is a contender for one of the 1992 picks.
Billy Bragg-Don’t Try This at Home
I actually thought the MTX album Milk Milk Lemonade was released in 1991, so I had trouble finding a third one. I could’ve gone with the Nirvana album, but then I realized Billy Bragg released an album this year, so I was like nevermind. I consider Don’t Try This at Home to be the last of the classic Bragg albums. It continues in the same style as 1988’s Worker’s Playtime, with some slow ballads and other more upbeat tunes. It was released 17 September on Elektra. It starts up with the pretty much classic Bragg-style song “Accident Waiting to Happen”. A great recording, even though I prefer the Red Star recording just because of the lyrics “My sins are so unoriginal” instead of “dreams”. I think my favorite line in the song is “I have all the self-loathing and all the sheep’s clothing in this carnival of carnivores”. There’s also a reference to the Kinks’ classic “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” (“A dedicated swallower of fascism”) in the chorus of the song. I often think the ballads on the album get a bit boring after a while, but “Tank Park Salute”, a tribute to his deceased father always makes me incredibly sad. A beautiful melody with lyrics about a father and son relationship that death tore apart. The best songs on the album are more upbeat tracks like the country jam co-written with REM’s Peter Buck: “You Woke Up My Neighborhood” and the closing song where the album got its title from “Body of Water”. “The Few”, an attack on modern neo-nazis and wannabe patriots is as relevant as ever. “North Sea Bubble” is a look at revolutions and getting stuck in political ideology as well as thoughts about the Soviet Union during Gorbachev. Some wonderful lyrics here: “In Leningrad the people say/ Perestroika can be explained this way/ The people who told us/ That two and two is ten/ Are now trying to tell us that two and two is five”. And I will not forget to mention Billy’s biggest hit in America, “Sexuality”, a song with at times entirely cringe worthy lyrics, but that at the same time are meaningful and has a generally body positive and sexuality positive message and lots of puns on the word “body”, that puts Elvis Costello to shame. “Sexuality”, like many of Billy’s other hits have back-up vocals from the great late Kirsty McColl. It’s such a catchy and positive song and the music video is one of my favorite videos of all time. The song charted at #2 in the Billboard modern rock charts and #27 in the UK pop charts.
Screeching Weasel- My Brain Hurts
My Brain Hurts means so much to me. It’s nostalgic for me, reminding me of my teenage years, not in the early ‘90s when this was released, but years later. This album blew my mind, introducing me to a brand new world of underground pop-punk. As soon as the guitars kick in on “Making me Cry”, I get tingles on my skin. It brings me back to being 16 and not giving two fucks. I was already fairly into punk at this point, but I felt that My Brain Hurts was finally an album I could relate to. It was truly an outsider album, lighting up the margins and giving the finger to the outside world. This was the moment Weasel morphed into a proper pop-punk band, so much so that Ben apparently wanted to change the band name. And yes, I also think that it’s Screeching Weasel’s best album. Anthem for a New Tomorrow isn’t too far behind and had an interesting concept and Wiggle is great, but My Brain Hurts was the moment when everything just clicked for Screeching Weasel (which I think Ben said himself at some point). It’s pop-punk hit after pop-punk hit.
There’s great variety on this thing, too, with silly love songs (“Guest List”), crossing paths with theological musings (“The Science of Myth”) with sad tales of drug abuse (“Cindy’s on Methadone”). For me, the opener “Making You Cry” is the weakest song on the record: it’s quite bratty and melodically is not very memorable. I would still regard it as decent though; John Jughead said on his Youtube show that this was chosen as the first song because of how hard-hitting it was, rather than it being the best one. It’s true that it puts you straight into the Weasel den, and, to be honest, from then on in, it’s pure gold. Every time I time I hear those opening guitar leads on “Guest List”, I get a little smile; “Teenage Freakshow” makes me want to do a silly little jig; the lyrics on “What We Hate” and “Science of Myth” are up with the best; “I Can See Clearly” is one of the best punk covers of all time; and then there’s the closer “My Brain Hurts”, surely one of the best album closers of all time. I’ve tried to keep this as tight as possible, as I could ramble on for hours, but essentially: the cornerstone of modern pop-punk and Weasel’s best work.
Green Day- Kerplunk
Hey, one year later, and it’s another classic Green Day release. This really was golden era Green Day. I used to always think Dookie was their best, but, over time, I’ve come to realise that it’s probably Kerplunk. Before they got mangled in the major label machine, this was the sound of pure, undiluted Green Day. Don’t get me wrong, Dookie is great and everything, and it wasn’t until much later, that things really turned, but nevertheless, I think it’s Kerplunk that I think of when I call to mind Green Day as a pop-punk band. Fuck all these articles which suggest that Kerplunk was merely a ‘dry run’ for Dookie; no, I’m not having that! I mean, the real hits are here: “2000 Light Years Away”; “One of My Lies”; “One for the Razorbacks”; “Christie Road”.
At this time, Green Day were just so fucking melodic and poppy, it was great; as a bunch of music sites have already discussed, it was only later when Green Day went over to Reprise that their image and sound became ‘punked up’ somewhat. I ultimately prefer the sound they have here on Kerplunk: the Beatles and Kinks-influenced hooks and the tales of adolescent failings, when things felt a little less forced. Just listen to “Christie Road”: it’s the kind of melodramatic, mid-tempo number that Green Day could only pull off so well in this era; the balance is just right and the tune could soundtrack a thousand teenage dramas. “No One Knows” and “Who Wrote Holden Cauldfield?” are perhaps the highlights of the record, but, really, everything on Kerplunk just flows so well, despite the presence of the super-silly “Dominated Love Slave”. Billie-Joe’s songwriting was arguably at its peak here, laying out his teenage diary for all to see: “Why should my fun have to end/for me, it’s only the beginning”. The first Eps were great (as previously discussed), but Kerplunk built upon these and tidied up their messiness, while retaining their top-class melodies and naïve songwriting; it’s taken me a long time to realise, but, with Kerplunk, Green Day produced their career-high, that was pure, uncontaminated, bullshit-free pop-punk and that has survived the ages.
Bikini Kill- Revolution Girl Style Now!
As Rene did, I also considered having Milk Milk Lemonade as my third pick for 1991, until I was made aware that it was actually a 1992 release. So, I’ve gone for something altogether different instead: Bikini Kill’s first release: Revolution Girl Style Now! It’s referred to as an ‘album demo’, but that’s still an album in my book! It’s the band’s grittiest and most caustic output; you can really feel the resentment and vitriol spitting out of lead singer Kathleen Hanna on this album. The band was credited with co-founding the Riot Grrrl movement and it all started here with these early songs. Pussy Whipped (their first album proper that came out in 1993) is great, but I think many of their most hard-hitting and memorable tracks are on Revolution Girl Style Now! It’s a manifesto for equality, essentially. They explicitly open “Double Dare Ya” with “We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution now”. I love that the band was borne out of a radical feminist zine (of the same name) that Kathleen wrote in college, along with drummer Toby Vail.
So how does this thing sound? It’s essentially punk, I guess: forthright, urgent and politically-motivated punk. Clearly, the band were influenced by X-ray Spex and then turned the notch up to ten on ’77 punk; the demo is vitriolic in its messages of equality. On “Suck My Left One”, there is clearly anger, but it’s very well channeled and directed towards its targets: primarily the patriarchy and male oppression. The dirty, lo-fi sound gives the song a grunge-y feel, too, with the band coming as they did, out of Washington. A link to the 1990 list is that Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto mixed this thing! “Liar” is a fast-paced, passionate call-to-arms against domestic abuse, with the end of the song including a clip of a women screaming in pain. One of the most fascinating songs is “Carnival”, a one-and-half minute, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, melodic punk blitz that describes girls giving head “for free hits and rides” that is both shocking and compelling. Bikini Kill do slow it down a touch for “Feels Blind”, essentially the ‘ballad’ of the demo, but, largely, the album is intense, visceral and scuzzy. And the political message is, unfortunately, as relevant today as it was then. We want revolution now!