Saturday, May 3, 2014

You're So Beautiful When You're Angry: The Lyrics' "So What!!" (Deconstructed)

It's hard to convey how out of whack the Eighties felt, for anyone who didn't experience them -- let alone feel like going along with the program. I still hold vivid memories of walking past Brody Hall, at Michigan State University, glimpsing a virtual blue tsunami of Reagan-Bush '84 campaign posters that practically plastered the windows, with nary a Mondale-Ferraro one in sight. I knew then what few anti-Reaganauts seemed unwilling to say aloud: the campaign's ending yawned two months away, but the outcome already seemed like a foregone conclusion.

The whole spectacle left you feeling sick to your stomach, knowing that you couldn't do anything about it, especially when you saw the same graphic tsunami replicated endlessly on backpacks, T-shirts, bumper stickers and God knows what else. Sadder still, the onslaught of celebrating mindless materialism for its own sake was well underway, although -- to be fair -- Hollywood in general has never been terribly good at acknowledging "the other half."

It's in their DNA, for God's sake: a Martian viewing some reruns of "Friends" might well conclude that America consists of nothing but skinny rich white kids who live in fancy lofts and spend most of their whining a lot about nothing in particular. Back in the Reagan Era, TV executives nearly tripped over themselves to do likewise, with "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest" (or "Falcon Crap," as my late father affectionately nicknamed it) leading the charge.

Everybody, it seemed, wanted nothing more than to sport the biggest hairdos and sweaters en route to realizing their Inner Gordon Gekko, racking up toys and trinkets by the truckload -- which rippled throughout all other media forms. That phenomenon most likely explains how I found myself idly flipping through an alleged career guide at a bookstore: "There's no real reason to wear long hair unless you're going to be a professional tennis player." He probably meant Bjorn Borg, who still looked reasonably shaggy; all I can say is, nobody handed yours truly the memo.

"Well, now everything you got is in excess
And it goes without saying, it's got to be the best
From your swimming pool, to your daddy's racing car
To that senseless, useless bomb shelter in your back yard
Well, I guess there ain't too much you haven't got
But all I can say to you about that is So What!!"
--The Lyrics, "So What!!"

And that's why I'm dedicating today's post to this gem by The Lyrics, released in November 1965, and subsequently reissued -- to a whole new generation's appreciation, including mine -- on the Pebbles: Volume 2 compilation (1979), which is considered among the best entries in that particular series. Like many other aspects of '80s life, music seemed hopelessly riddled with pretension, shot through with lameness -- certainly at the Top 40 level, when you read about six-figure sums being sunk into demo studios...a situation that probably marked one of the last times that the guilty parties involved could tell themselves: "Recording budgets? What are those?"

The compact disc had recently come into vogue, enabling the record industry to save its bacon -- on a short-term basis, anyway, until Download Fever struck -- by getting people to buy the music they'd grown up with again. And again. And again. This stuff seemed nonsensical to those of us getting into record collecting on a serious level, especially when we saw the pretentiousness that spread like wildfire as a result...whether it was those never-ending lists of credits spread across page after page of those slick, glossy booklets...or the notion that, this new format is, therefore, we must fill up every second of sonic real estate, because we're charging $12 to $20 a pop for it!

By contrast, platters like the Circle Jerks' debut album made more sense to me on a conceptual level: 14 songs, 14 minutes, what's not to like about that? Among our circle, these things constituted signals of like-mindedness. If someone came into my dorm room and wrinkled their nose at the beat, you could cross them off your social list without feeling guilty about it. However, if their eyes lit up, you'd probably met a fellow member of the tribe, and you wouldn't wait long to hit it off.

From my perspective, "So What!!" fit seamlessly into the above-mentioned litmus test that I've just laid out. Even by '60s standards, it's a pretty freewheeling track, with no less than three -- count 'em -- three blistering harmonica breaks from the singer and lyricist, Chris Gaylord (these days, now making the social rounds as Ray Clearwater; I'll have to ask him the reason for that one).

The intro break alone runs about 40 seconds before Chris even gets around to opening his mouth -- a marked, but agreeable contrast to that "don't bore us, get to the chorus" songwriting style that begat "Always Something There To Remind Me," "Hungry Eyes" and too many other glistening, note-perfect, polished turds just like them, all brimming with those gated drum sounds, synthesized harmonicas and watery DX7 tones that still unleash the Cringe Police today, complete with flashing blue lights and sirens.

"Well, the house you're living in is very nice
Now that I've been shown around it once or twice
I've been racing around it on a guided tour
Trying not to miss the handmade rugs or fancy furniture
You've got an electric typewriter so you won't have to work a lot
All I can say to you about that is -- So What!!"

At any rate, one of my record collecting friends loaned me Pebbles Volume 1 and 2 -- and the minute that I heard them, I felt hooked. "So What!!" stood out from the get-go, partially for its sheer rhythmic drive (especially the bass and tambourine).  In an era where drum machines and sequencers were often leaving conventional drummers on the bench, "So What!!" sounded like a healthy reminder of how to make a track move and groove without cluttering the sound, or relying on production tricks to do all your heavy lifting, which was becoming increasingly commonplace.

And that's before we even get to the attitude on display; apparently, the song is based on a real life experience -- which I always suspected, judging by the sheer venom dripping from Chris's lips. Even so, I had no trouble relating to it, especially I saw so many people around me starting to mouth the era's defining catch phrases ("Greed works," "I am a material girl," "The world is yours," take your pick)...and giving yours truly crap for not mouthing along.  

Like so many '60s garage gems, "So What!!" marked a short-lived triumph for the San Diego-based Lyrics. Not long afterwards, Gaylord left the fold -- he either jumped, or pushed, depending on which accounts you come across -- and his now former colleagues underwent several stylistic makeovers, from raga-rock ("Wait") to midtempo folk-pop ("Mr. Man") to Doors-inflected blues-rock ("Can't See You Anymore"), and the soul-inflected flirtations of their final 45s. While all those departures proved interesting in their own right, "So What!!" will probably always win the cognoscenti's nod for being their brightest shining moment. 

Looking back, it's easy to tell yourself: "Ah, c'mon, man, you're reading way too much into some obscure little garage band's song. At the end of the day, it's only rock 'n' roll, right?" My answer is: "Well, yes, and no: it all depends on how you define the term." For me, this song's withering blast against social climbing and status seeking only tells half the story. Ironically, I related to it on another level.  If you happened to have hair creeping over your collar...and past your shoulders, like I did...people gave you crap for it, left and our song's hero endured, back in the '60s.  The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

People don't remember this stuff now, or don't admit to it -- but signals of social conformity ran deep throughout America in the '80s.  One of my favorite examples are those infamous "Perception. Reality" ads that appeared in Rolling Stone, which painted an unflattering visual contrast between a '60s-era hippie in all his shaggy (hint; unwashed) glory, versus the bloodless, clean-cut yuppie who now presumably made up the bulk of the magazine's readership. Or so Rolling Stone wanted us to believe.

Of course, the resulting outcry caused the magazine's leadership to backpedal a bit ("we're sorry, blah-blah-blah, we didn't mean it personally, blah-blah-blah, we just want to keep people talking about us") but none of their excuses cut any ice with me. Marketing ploy or not, I fucking hated them for doing it, and I essentially stopped buying Rolling Stone for nearly a decade. The whole thing struck me as a betrayal of their roots, such as they were, which didn't strike me as a laughing matter.

I still remember the conversation with this insurance office receptionist, while waiting to deal with an accident claim on the Ford Tempo that my sister and I relied on to make it back and forth on those long, endless trips to East Lansing...the woman kept staring at me, even though we had no reason to talk yet, since she hadn't finished reviewing my paperwork.

Finally, I asked if there was something wrong.  After giving me yet another extended once-over, the receptionist responded: "I have a son in college, who's about the same age as you...and from what he's been telling me lately...he probably looks like you, too."  She shuffled my papers again into a nice, neat little pile, and sighed.  "He's coming up for Thanksgiving -- I guess we'll just have to see what he brings home."

I could see the irritation and disappointment in the whites of her eyes: another dream of propriety flushed down the drain. Another shot at the brass ring willfully knocked away.  Another exercise in ladder-climbing deferred, possibly for good.  I've no idea whether that woman's son ever listened to "So What!!"...but that's why it resonates today. When I hear it, I think of that little conversation, and a million others like it.

Like it or not, every era needs its pockets of resistance.  The majority aren't always right; most of the time, they're so far away from the firing range, it's not even funny. But no way did I ever see myself going along with their program, and records like this one reminded me: "You don't have to give in, if you don't want to. You may suffer awhile, you may hurt pretty badly, but they don't know what you know. And once the disapproval fades -- you'll be OK. Don't worry about it." And that's why this song still means something to me, then and now.  Enough said! -- The Reckoner

Flower Bomb Songs:

Everything you ever wanted to know about "So What!!," and the Lyrics...but weren't sure how to ask.


  1. Apparently the DX7 was capable of much more than what its naff presets suggested - but the only individual known to have manually programmed one is Brian Eno!

  2. Fair point -- if Mr. Eno's '80 successors had invested a fraction of his innovation, we might not have suffered through so much BS as we did during that decade...ah, well! --The Reckoner