Since last month was pride month, I think it was about time there was an actual queer album in this column, so this month seemed to be the perfect time to write it. During this month, big corporations and businesses use the rainbow flag as a marketing tool to sell products, even if they never seem to care about LGBT issues the rest of the year and I hope this article will not be a part of an exploiting tradition, but a contribution to Pride month. Pansy Division is, of course, an important name in the pop punk genre and their lewd homoerotic lyrics have fascinated and offended quite a few people over the years. Jon Ginoli started the band because there were very few queer rockers. At the time Freddie Mercury and George Michael hadn’t come out. In the beginning, Pansy Division wasn’t a band, but a solo moniker of Ginoli. Later, Chris Freeman joined the band on bass. About the band name, Ginoli wrote on the Pansy Division website that “In January 1991, before the band had formed, I was sitting at my desk in the San Francisco office of Rough Trade Distribution, trying to think of a name for this queer rock thing I was starting. I looked up at the bulletin board next to the desk and misread the name of an upcoming release by some band called Third Panzer Division. I flashed on Pansy Division by mistake and thought it was good, and it stuck.”
The song “I Can’t Sleep” was released on a queercore compilation called Outpunk Dance Party on the label Outpunk in 1992. The same year the band signed to Lookout and released their debut single “Fem in a Black Leather Jacket” there. A single that included the fantastic Christmas tune “Homo Christmas” (one of the gayest yuletide songs in my house, in both senses of the word) and the Nirvana cover “Smells Like Queer Spirit”. ‘Queerifying’ popular rock songs became a thing Pansy Division started doing, like the Ramones cover “Rock ‘n’ Roll Queer Bar”. The first album Undressed was out in 1993, when being out wasn’t as safe as it is today, not that it’s safe today. The album’s lyrics balanced the line between sex positive and risqué and includes some of the band’s finest work. The next album Deflowered was released a year later. It continued the sex positive theme of its predecessor, but also included the sad cautionary tale “Denny”, about the HIV virus and about hard it can be to love oneself. There were also some covers, like Pete Shelley’s queer-anthem “Homo Sapien” and a queerified Jonathan Richman cover. It was also the first album we got to hear a song from Chris Freeman; the wonderful “James Bondage”. In 1994, they went on tour with Green Day when they were promoting Dookie, PD encountered lots of homophobia from the young, macho fan base that Green Day had at the time. Throughout the 90s, there would be many good releases from Pansy Division like the album Absurd Pop Song Romance recorded and mixed by Steve Albini, and the heavy metal inspired single “For Those about to Suck Cock”, that included a cover of the Judas Priest song “Breaking the Law” two years before Rob Halford officially came out. Metallica’s Kirk Hammet also played on the single. Let’s not forget the single with the name “Nine Inch Males” (maybe the best title ever!). After almost ten years on Lookout, they signed to Jello Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles in 2001, which gave us Total Entertainment (2003), That’s so Gay (2009) and Quite Contrary (2016), and of course the compilation Essential: Pansy Division, which I surprisingly found at a Salvation Army shop, but sadly without the DVD.
Wish I’d Taken Pictures was released February 13 1996 on Lookout and Mint Records. It was produced by Pansy Division themselves and engineered by Timothy Daly. It was recorded in Razor’s Edge studio in San Francisc in November 1995. The two men appearing on the cover; Mark Ewert and Moon Trent, also appeared on the Quite Contrary cover in the same location. The photographer who got to take the picture was Marc Geller. Drummer on the album was Dustin Donaldson. It was their third album. The cassette version comes in a purple shell.
1. “Horny in the Morning”: The album starts with the perfect song to use for your morning alarm. It’s written by both Ginoli and Freeman. The lyrics are relatable to people of all sexual orientations and genders, at least to those individuals with penises. It’s of course about waking up in the morning with an erection or ‘morning wood’ as they call it, but there is no one there to share it with, so one has to take matter in one’s own hands. It is the song that gave us the great lines “Want a guy on the horizon/ When the sun comes up that’s when I’m risin’”. In the liner notes to the Essential Pansy Division comp Jon Ginoli wrote “I was always wearied by gay bar hours…and thought morning wood was a deserving topic for a song”.
2. “Vanilla”: After two albums that were
quite sex positive and raunchy, “Vanilla” is about boundaries and is a bit
more, well, vanilla. The song’s
character is pursued by a man who is into BDSM, but realizes it isn’t his
thing. The song is about respecting other’s boundaries as well as respecting
other’s kinks. The “you’re liberal, but fantasize right-wing” is a classic. The
song is secluded, but not judge-y or kink shame-y. “Vanilla” was also written
by both Ginoli and Freeman. In the liner EPD liner notes Ginoli writes “This
was my personal response to “James Bondage” to balance the scales”. The vocal
harmonies are wonderful in this one!
3. “I Really Wanted You”: 1996 was the year that Pansy Division ended up on MTV, specifically on the alternative show ‘120 Minutes’. The video was for the outstanding pop tune “I Really Wanted You”, about the universal theme of unrequited love. In the song, the protagonist hears about the man he has a crush on getting married to a woman. I’m not sure if the protagonist tries to stop the wedding or tells him the truth (I really wanted you), to move on, but if a song like this doesn’t work to stop a wedding, nothing will. Ginoli actually wrote the song for his first band the Outnumbered, as early as 1985, but improved by Pansy Division, according to the EPD liner notes.
4. “Dick of Death”: Probably the most “pop punk” Pansy Division song. The band also describes it as one of their “gayest songs”. In live shows nowadays, it’s the band’s straight alibi Joel Reader who sings it. The song is written by Chris Freeman, and it’s about something that actually happened in Australia on tour. In the EPD liner notes, Ginoli denies that the song has anything to do with AIDS and I think it’s obvious that the song is about a guy with an abnormally large member, rather than about AIDS.
5. “Expiration Date”: One of the band’s weirder songs with its megaphone vocals and experimental bass lines. The song of course is about condoms reaching the expiration date. A song about a failed quest for sex among macho men, catty queens and drug addicts.
6. “The Summer You Let Your Hair Grow Out”: Another collaboration between Chris and Jon. It always sounded like a hippie song to me, not in a bad way, if hippie in a good way exists. It’s actually one of my favorite PD songs. It’s a great summer song, again about unrequited love. It’s about a dude who spends his summer with the guy of his dreams, who apparently let his hair grow out this summer. These two guys spend all their time together, with all this sexual tension, at least it seems that way for the protagonist, but in the end it turns out to be nothing and disappointment ensues. Ginoli wrote the lyrics while listening to Gram Parsons while cooking.
7. “Wish I’d Taken Pictures”: The title track is also one of my favorites on this album and it’s a shame it didn’t make the EPD collection. The song starts off really romantic, about memories of past lovers. The song’s main character describes three of his exs. The first one seemed like a prima donna, but the main character wishes he had taken pictures because he misses his face. The next one is an “alabastard” with alabaster skin and he wished he would have taken pictures of him as well. The third boyfriend he wishes he would have taken pictures of was a goth who took himself too seriously and made his bed an altar and this relationship ends as well. In the end, he fines a new beau and gets a camera. His pessimistic side decided this won’t last either, so he takes pictures of his boyfriend’s ass because that’s what he wants to remember.
8. “Pillow Talk”: The eighth song on the album is a quite catchy one. For some reason all the hits are on side-A, so most of the songs on side-B, even if there are great songs on there, seem less memorable. The song is about two men in an open relationship and one of them wants to know what the other one does with other guys through pillow talk and in the end he also confesses he wants in on the action. It’s an upbeat pop punk song, and my favorite instrument, the tambourine, is here.
9. “This Is Your Life”: Another of my favorites is “This Is Your Life”, it’s definitely the best song on side-B. The song is about realizing that after you entered a relationship you’re not part of your own life anymore, just playing a part in someone else’s life, and that it’s time to get out. I’m pretty sure this one is sung by Chris Freeman. I think it stands out from the other PD songs. There’s something Gin Blossoms/Lemonheads/ about it and there’s something strangely beautiful about the melody.
10. “Don’t Be So Sure”: The first ballad of the album. The lyrics are rather sad and is about being someone’s safe choice when they are tired of sexual adventures and the heartache that comes with that. I feel like Pansy Division got the reputation of being the queer, sex-positive, promiscuous and fun band, but sometimes we get songs that show insecurities and “Don’t Be So Sure” is definitely one of them.
11. “Kevin”: In many ways, it reminds me of “Denny”. Unlike Denny, who struggles with self-love, Kevin struggles with confusion about his sexual identity. Kevin is clearly an attractive man, but he is secretive and frightened by intimacy. He has kissed a woman while drunk, but he won’t talk to his friends about his sexuality. He won’t be pinned down or labelled, he won’t say he is gay or bi or not. It seems as though Kevin could be what is known as “questioning”. “Kevin won’t talk/ But maybe Kevin’s more confused than we are”. Not really one of the strongest deep cuts of the album, but a fine song.
12. “The Ache”: The second ballad of the album. With an acoustic guitar and a tambourine and soft vocals stimulating your emotions, it’s one of the band’s slowest songs. It’s quite beautiful, and very different than the rest of the band’s output. It also has a cello-part played by Kirk Heydt. There’s something almost Replacements-esque about it. Lyrically, the song leans more on the insecure and emotional side that we’d later get to see in songs like “Sweet Insecurity”. The protagonist in the song has entered a relationship and wonders if it’s worth it when all he is left is an empty ache.
13. “Pee Shy”: Probably the most rock ‘n’ roll track, it almost sounds like a Joan Jett tune or an early 70s glam rock song, but the subject matter is very different from either of those. It’s about a man who is confident and fearless, but pissing when someone else is there is his Achilles heel. “If you can’t pee quick enough/They’ll think you’re beating your meat”. If that’s not relatable, I’m not sure what is.
14. “Sidewalk Sale”: A short little album closer and a catchy one too! The song is about when the gay bar closes and the last chance to get laid is the sidewalk sale. I’m not sure if the sidewalk sale is a reference to prostitution, but the protagonist feels like pursuing someone at the sidewalk sale is below his dignity, no matter how desperate he feels. In the end, he ends up passing on the sidewalk sale.
Check out Wish I’d Taken Pictures here: https://pansydivision.bandcamp.com/album/wish-id-taken-pictures
I will be looking back at No Use for a Name’s 2002 album Hard Rock Bottom.