Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Right band, wrong time

I saw Jawbreaker once at a festival in 1995. I distinctly remember lead singer Blake Schwarzenbach strumming his guitar and saying "That's so out of tune but this is punk rock right?" In response to the affirmation of the crowd, he started playing the opening chords to Save your generation only to stop himself grimacing at the sound being produced form his Les Paul. Apologetically, he started tuning his guitar and said "Even punk rock needs to be in tune."

I fell in love with Jawbreaker that day and bought their cd Dear You at the merch store. When I got home I liked what I heard, three piece pop punk with a gloomy edge and slashing guitars. What I didn't realise that was that I was getting involved in a broader narrative about punk credibility and commercialism as it turns out there's only about three people in the world who like this album.

A few years later when I moved to Sydney, I ended up crashing at my friend's share house in Newtown. The house was made up of my friend, a gentle, goofily dressed artist and a bunch of anarchists. They spent their time complaining, smoking and making terrible pasta bakes with tahini instead of cream (goooooo vegan!). The room where I slept was the band room where the anarchists played their own version of Crass-style punk. One song I remember they played for about an hour which was a slow grinding number where someone screamed "pain and misery" over and over again. I know exactly what they were talking about because my temporary bedroom stank of rancid anarchist sweat. There really wasn't much common ground between the anarchists and I except for my love of punk music (my leftist politics were no where near hardcore enough for them). I did have a box of cds with lot's of Fugazi, Jawbox, The Jam, Clash etc... which made me ok (apart from the fact they were on cd and not vinyl).

Seeing me wearing a Jawbreaker shirt one day, the lead anarchist pulled out his lps and we had an afternoon listening to Jawbreaker's first few albums Unfun, Bivouac and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. The mere mention of Dear You turned him cold and stony and he said something along the lines of "Fucking sell outs. That album is fucking terrible. I can't believe you fucking like it when these fucking albums are so much fucking better." I might have underestimated the number of time he said 'fucking' in that sentence but I think I'm close.

Anyhow, I didn't really know that much about the history of the band. I knew that Blake Schwarzenbach had had vocal surgery that meant the ragged, strained delivery of the early records had been replaced by a newer smoother croon on Dear You. I also know they'd copped some shit for signing to a major label but not that much more than that. Wikipedia tells us more:

When Dear You was released in September 1995, however, its polished production and clear vocals strongly divided the band's fanbase. Ben Weasel was so displeased with the album, particularly the sound of Schwarzenbach's singing, that he he wrote (drummer) Pfahler a letter detailing his complaints with it. Despite a music video in rotation to support the single "Fireman", sales of Dear You were poor. As the band toured in support of the album, audience reaction towards the new material was either lukewarm or outright negative. "I have never seen anything like that—before or since", said Kates, "There was a point where they were headlining the Roxy and there were kids sitting on the floor, with their backs to the stage, when they were playing songs from Dear You. I'm not making that up. If you were to try [to] explain that to somebody now, it would make no sense." Jawbreaker continued touring in 1996, opening for the Foo Fighters that spring, but audience reception did not improve. Samiam's Sergie Loobkoff cites a show at The Warfield in San Francisco as a turning point: "That is when I knew they were definitely going to break up. It was their hometown; they had put out the big major-label record. But then you're looking around and it was like no one cared."

At the time, I didn't know any of this but lead anarchist was a long term fan so he felt the burning sting of betrayal from a band he once loved. And to be honest, I can understand his resentment because Dear You is radically different from the earlier albums. The problem for me is that even though those early albums are great, Dear You has a special place in my heart because it was the first album of their's I heard. It was the right band for me, I just heard them at the wrong time. If I'd heard 24 Hour Revenge Therapy first, no doubt that would be my all time favourite Jawbreaker record... but it wasn't. Now I'm in this position of being a fan of the record regarded by most Jawbreaker fans as the dog of their catalogue. I mean, even Pitchfork hates it, not once, but twice.

I think a lot of the music we listen to is tied to when we first heard it and where we were in our lives. I mean if I had been born a few years later, my favourite Bowie album might have been Never Let Me Down (1987)... shudder. It's already embarrassing enough that I long loved and championed Pink Floyd's Momentary Lapse of Reason because that was the first Floyd album that I embraced. I'm sure I can think of numerous other examples of bands where I like the 'unpopular' album.

I'm not sure what you think but this was a very long winded way of saying that sometimes you catch the band at the tail end of their career or in one of those shit album cycles but you love it anyway because this is your introduction and gateway into their musical world. And regardless of what other fans say, it's ok to like bad albums. Someone has to. I'm sure parents love their ugly children too.



  1. See, I thought it was great that Jawbreaker went to a major label, if for no other reason than it made Ben Weasel, a jerk if there ever was one, public eat his hat in Maximumrocknroll. Gotta enjoy the little things. Speaking of Ben Weasel, I wonder how his punker-than-thou Screeching Weasel reunion cash in, err, tour is going? Hehe.
    ( apart from hitting women, and getting gigs cancelled, that is)
    Meanwhile, Blake is still quietly putting out great indie pop rock. Hmmm, I guess this "selling out" business is more complex than teenagers can imagine. Then again, as one middle aged poseur to another- I don't understand teenagers.
    To buttress your argument, though- the best example i've got of liking the "sell out" record more than the "artistic" records- my favorite Girls Vs Boys record is Freakonica...

  2. I've never been that troubled by bands signing to major labels. I love both the Hüsker Dü records from the Warner years. Yeah, they're poppier but I think they would have sounded like that even if they were still on SST. There's always some guy talking about how they never topped Land Speed Record which utter bollocks. I never really heard Screeching Weasel - sounds like it was for the best. But I think I do understand teenagers - I just don't like them.

    Freakonica - yikes. I'm more of House of GVSB guy myself.

    BTW just read you new post and will definitely check out some of those bands. Already across Autolux but Wye Oak sound like they're worth a listen.

  3. Oh right, now I see. What a charmer:

  4. admittedly even though etc... was the first jawbreaker album i bought fireman was there first song i loved.