As a suburban kid with no siblings to look up to and friends who were primarily interested in things like death metal, huffing coolant, and skateboarding, I didn't have a lot of mentors when it came to finding new music. Certainly, given my limitations, I did all right: By the time I was 15, I was well into The Smiths, R.E.M., and The Cure catalogs, had already schooled myself in my parents' classic rock like The Beatles, The Who, The Doors, and Led Zeppelin, and was deep into grunge, as was the fashion at the time. But in between these early formative years and my blossoming into the completely uppity fucking prick about music that I am today (a process that started, like most people, somewhere around freshman year of college), there was a fallow period where I clearly needed a guiding hand, someone to turn me on to bands I never would have heard of otherwise. Someone to tell me what did and didn't suck.
Enter Beavis And Butt-head, whose influence on me, sad to say, is still palpably evident 15 years on, from the way that I still mentally (and occasionally audibly) "huh-huh" at things to my often frustratingly apathetic worldview. But the most tangible monument to their impact is right there in the lower strata of my record collection, a haphazard arrangement of dust-gathering CD cases representing the earliest off-the-radar bands I ever claimed as my own and the first outward growth of my appreciation for music. There were plenty of missteps along the way, of course–a particularly embarrassing Biohazard period, for example–but also some bands that ended up forming the foundation for what I listen to today. Here are some examples of the best, the worst, and the in-between, all of which I can thank–or blame–Beavis And Butt-head for, coupled with my more wizened, modern-day assessment. (Huh-huh. I said "ass.")
What they said:
Butt-head: I think this chick just like, woke up or something.
Beavis: She probably doesn't start rocking until later like in the afternoon or something.
Butt-head: She probably rocks it around 4, and has a late lunch, and then she goes to the mall.
Beavis: She goes shopping for a new nightie, and then she takes a nap, and then she rocks until 3 or 4 in the morning, and then she sleeps 'till noon.
Butt-head: Yeah. Musicians rule.
Why I bought it: Much like the boys' priapic assessment of the video ("Check it out. She's horny"), I think the purchase of Pirate Prude was driven more by my own prurient interest in singer Mary Timony than the strength of this single. My crush on Timony–coming as it did at such a formative time–grew into obsession when I went off to college in Boston, where she often suddenly appeared at the corners of rock shows like a grunge fairy, all sloe-eyed confidence and smeared mascara, causing indie-rock wusses like me to slouch by her meekly hoping to make contact. Eventually Timony became an archetype for the sort of woman I would spend the rest of my life chasing: baby-faced, slightly pouty, with a penchant for girly dresses and a subtle hint of ironic detachment. Lord, yes.
Was it worth it?: Absolutely, although it was actually The Dirt Of Luck that really sold me on Helium, owing to its wider scope of sounds, slightly more angular numbers like the discordant, atonal chunk of "Skeleton," and less sleepy narcotic drones such as "XXX." Most Helium fans will point to the band's swan song, The Magic City, as its high point, but I always found the skittering off into ren-faire mysticism and prog-rock twittering too fey for my liking. And over the years, I've actually found myself returning to Pirate Prude more often than any of the other Helium records, so Beavis And Butt-head's implicit approval–which later included featuring "Pat's Trick" from Dirt–definitely steered me in the right direction this time.
Railroad Jerk, "Rollerkoaster"
What they said:
Butt-head: Uh, that looks kinda like Conan O'Brien.
Beavis: Oh, yeah. I heard he has a gigantic schlong.
Why I bought it: Like many of the bands that stood out on Beavis And Butt-head, it was a catchy chorus that I couldn't seem to shake. "Rollerkoaster" may be the most conventional pop song Railroad Jerk ever wrote, with a woozy, sing-along refrain that captured vague emotions about growing up ("Many of us are becoming older") like a '90s precursor to "Float On," if you will. Plus there was just something I liked about frontman Marcellus Hall's delivery–a nasally, ironic sing-speak that I realize now was sort of the combination of what would become my two all-time favorite artists: Bob Dylan and The Fall's Mark E. Smith.
Was it worth it?: Definitely. Railroad Jerk remains one of my most beloved bands, and while they enjoyed some success among fervent followers of Matador Records–which I was rapidly becoming, thanks in no small part to the frequent appearance of its bands on B&B;–I always felt like they were my little secret, because nobody I knew seemed to enjoy them as much as I did. Both One Track Mind and The Third Rail are still in constant rotation at my house, and my copy of the band's long out-of-print debut (with the awesome "Participant," a thrashing nugget of ennui blues that I've often considered adding to my ever-growing funeral playlist) is among my most prized possessions. I dabbled a bit in the arguably more popular spin-off White Hassle–a band that, to continue the Modest Mouse connection, was apparently so beloved by Isaac Brock that he had the title of its Life Is Still Sweet EP tattooed on his wrist–but nothing beats the spiky energy of those Railroad Jerk records. Thanks, Beavis.
Chavez, "Break Up Your Band"
What they said:
Butt-head: I bet you could score with some of those chicks in the audience by just going up to them and saying, "Hey baby. I'm NOT in the band."
Beavis: Yeah, yeah! Like, all you'd have to do is say "Yeah, I have nothing to do with these guys. Wanna make out?" That would rule.
Why I bought it: Like Bettie Serveert, Chavez was one of those bands I bought during the time I thought Matador could absolutely do no wrong–a devotion that extended to me seriously contemplating getting their tiny flag logo tattooed on my hand. (Thank God I never did that.) Unlike Bettie Serveert, I didn't immediately feel rooked–and the near-constant treble of Gone Glimmering really seemed to piss off my Dad for some reason, so that was a bonus.
Was it worth it?: A hesitant yes, although the persistently piercing tone of the band's guitars got on my own nerves after a while, especially during a period when I was mostly listening to music on headphones, late at night. Plus, Chavez's clever song titles always seemed to hint at clever lyrics to go with them–particularly true of "Break Up Your Band"–but once I figured out Matt Sweeney's words were as asymmetrically arranged as his guitar lines (what the fuck does "Clip your dreams and push shit through / If you could finger through the piles / Let all the drummers come to meet the champions" mean, anyway?) I was somewhat disappointed. I passed on buying Ride The Fader, but later picked up the omnibus collection Better Days Will Haunt You and discovered Chavez were far more interesting than I had given them credit for. I'd definitely rather listen to them than Mars Volta, that's for sure. And that video is still one of the best of the '90s.
Superchunk, "Package Thief"
What they said:
Beavis: Hey Butt-head, is there a chick in this band?
Butt-head: Uhh, well I think that bass player has boobs.
Beavis: Yeah, that's what I mean.
Butt-head: Well there's boobs, but I can't tell if it's a chick.
Beavis: Seems like all these bands now have chick bass players.
Why I bought it: As anybody who's watched the above video knows now, the lead guitar line for "Package Thief" is insidiously catchy. You'll be whistling it for weeks, much as I was until I finally broke down and bought On The Mouth in an effort to purge it from my system. Also, I like chick bass players.
Was it worth it?: Superchunk quickly became one my favorite bands in the late '90s, so it would be disingenuous of me to say anything but a solid "yes." But On The Mouth was by no means a wall-to-wall solid album–and maybe I'm alone in this, but I feel that way about most of their recorded output. There were hints of greatness in every release leading up to Here's Where The Strings Come In, and besides "Package Thief," On The Mouth had the still-classic "Precision Auto"–which has recently become an awesome staple of Les Savy Fav's live set–and "From The Curve," but as many critics have pointed out, the Superchunk sound (and specifically Mac McCaughan's needling whine) works best in small doses, and nowhere is that better exemplified than on this record. Later I made a monster tape of all the good stuff from Mouth, No Pocky For Kitty, and Foolish (a record whose mushy sentimentality I rather enjoyed, even though a lot of early fans see it as "the beginning of the end" or something) that got more play than any of the individual albums, but "Package Thief" is still a great little brat-pop song. And I have yet to get that damn guitar line out of my head. (Funny sidenote: Does anybody remember when Superchunk were supposedly pegged as the "next Nirvana"? Did anybody actually say that, or was this yet another case of the grumpy old fucks at Rolling Stone trying vainly to wrap their heads around "what the kids are listening to"–something they still do today by trying to peg every band as the "new Arcade Fire"?)
Of course, not every group I bought on the "recommendation" of Beavis And Butt-head worked out so well. Here are some of my more questionable choices. (Unfortunately, WikiQuote doesn't have commentary on any of these, so I'm transcribing from memory here. Feel free to correct me in the comments.)
Low Pop Suicide, "Kiss Your Lips"
What they said: I'm not sure, but I think it was pretty much just some variation on "Ooh" and "Oh baby."
Why I bought it: Gratuitous lesbian action is a cheap ploy to sell some records, but damned if it didn't work on me, coloring my opinion of Low Pop Suicide and getting sex and violence all tangled up in my 15-year-old brain in such a way that I got aroused every time I heard this song. (Although obviously it's pretty much a stacked deck at that age.) I'd love to save some face and say that the reason I ordered On The Cross Of Commerce from the Columbia House catalog was because Gang Of Four bassist Dave Allen was on the record. But no. It was the lesbians.
Was it worth it?: On The Cross Of Commerce had been gathering dust in the bottom of a cardboard box for years until I finally pulled it out recently in a pique of '90s nostalgia. Among the other slightly industrial rock bands I listened to at the time, it doesn't hold up as well as, say, Helmet or even Quicksand, but it's also not as bad as I remembered either–or as puerile as its craptastic cover makes it out to be. Still, Low Pop Suicide encapsulates an era of unfocused adolescent rage that I just don't identify with anymore, and it's hard not to feel a wee bit ridiculous listening to songs like "Your God Can't Feel My Pain" while I'm sitting here with my awesome job, happy home, loving wife, and even an adorable cat curled up in my lap. But "Kiss Your Lips" is still hanging around on my iTunes like a little musical Viagra, just in case I need it.
Gruntruck, "Crazy Love"
What they said: I really wish I could remember. I'm sure they thought it "rocked," however. That main guitar riff is definitely headbang-worthy.
Why I bought it: In the grunge era, the number of "obscure" bands was exhausted pretty quickly by a press corps that returned over and over again to the Pacific Northwest, panning a rapidly draining creek for "the next Nirvana." After I'd already surfeited on Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Tad, Screaming Trees, et al.–bands that even the cheerleaders at my school liked–it was the goal of my formative hipster douchebag years to "discover" someone, and Gruntruck fit that bill nicely. Their sound was basically an amalgam of everything I already liked at that point, and it gave me no small amount of smug satisfaction to put Push on and–when my friends asked, "Is this the new Alice In Chains?"–to say in a voice dripping with arch disdain, "No, it's Gruntruck." Burn!
Was it worth it?: As with all things second-tier grunge, this CD went from kick-ass to embarrassing over the course of a summer where I traded up for vintage punk, and the Gruntruck sticker that came with my copy of Push that I'd once proudly slapped across my stereo speakers was quickly peeled off and replaced by a Black Flag decal. Listening to it today, though, it seems somewhat unfair that a band like this got lost in the shuffle when a group such as, say, Sponge was allowed to thrive. Songs like "Crazy Love" and "Tribe" were, in my opinion, as good as anything Alice In Chains did after Dirt, and while the band never got the chance to stretch out sonically like Soundgarden did, it seems like they were an unfair victim of "alternative rock" fatigue–especially considering frontman Ben McMillan was one of the pioneers of the movement in Skin Yard. Even sadder, while doing research for this piece I learned that McMillan died back in January, news I somehow missed. If I still had Push around, I'd probably be playing it in his honor right now.
Green Apple Quick Step, "Dirty Water Ocean"
What they said:
Beavis: What's he screaming about? That water's not that dirty.
Why I bought it: Indeed, Beavis–what is he screaming about? In fact, I have no idea why I bought this record. The song's not particularly memorable, the band members look like they came straight out of alterna-rock Central Casting what with the chick bassist, the guitarist's Cub Scout uniform, the drummer's little Lollapalooza dreadlocks, and especially the frontman's combination of Cobaings, goofy wool hat, and thrift-store sweater. And apparently, the group's name is a euphemism for "diarrhea." How the hell did I—and, more to the point, Beavis and Butt-head—miss that?
Was it worth it?: In a word, no. "Dirty Water Ocean" was easily the best song on Wonderful Virus—despite being kinda weak—and the fact that it was the first track automatically made the rest of the CD pretty disposable. This album ended up in the pile right next to Dig and all those other "Buzz Bin" bands that were contenders out of the gate and then failed to follow up their singles with anything particularly memorable. I sold this the week after I bought it and never looked back.
What they said:
[Beavis starts singing the chorus to "Paradise City"]
Why I bought it: Stubborn stupidity, pure and simple. My early years as a music listener were marked by a need to appear more knowledgeable than everyone else, yet–and here's what differentiates that from who I am today–coupled with a refusal to do any research. Hence my exhausting all the bands I remembered from Beavis And Butt-head rather than, oh I don't know, picking up a book or a magazine or even just fucking asking somebody. If I'd only been a little less insecure, I might have spent my early teen years listening to, say, Spacemen 3 or Nick Cave. Instead, I bought a Nudeswirl CD.
Was it worth it?: Allmusic says the band's debut "combines the rage of Nirvana with strange atmospherics," and listening to it now, I'm actually sort of taken aback. Despite the fact that saying anything contains the "rage of Nirvana" is automatically full of shit, the review nailed it on the atmospherics: The guitars trail off into weird, raga-like solos and the vocals never really do what I expect them to, making for an experimental edge that I definitely missed the first time. Perhaps they deserve the "overlooked grunge heroes" tag more than Gruntruck? I do have to agree with Beavis that the opening riff does sound like a total rip on "Paradise City." But overall, it doesn't suck–and as we all know, that's the highest form of praise possible.