Letting the Mind Take a Trip, Part 2: The best songs that sneak foul language past the radio censors
During a venture to Australia, I was stunned by the country’s cavalier attitude towards what Americans consider “bad” words. Being serenaded by an etude of bleeps was standard operating procedure for viewing an episode of Hell’s Kitchen, at least on the mainland. In Melbourne? Gordon Ramsay’s foul-mouthed hooligan routine raised barely a whisper from adults and kids alike. While odd, it was in no way as shocking as being a witness to the same antic on their radio stations. When Ladytron’s “Ghosts” concluded, the DJ from popular station JJJ (“Triple-J”) entertained us with a 30-second story that must have included every word you’re likely thinking of at this moment.
As American television, most notably basic cable networks like FX, have relaxed the previous linguistic limitations that once ruled the paywaves, terrestrial radio still abides by a similar policy towards cursing as Level 2 of Chardee MacDennis. Except a foul mouth will result in a hefty fine that makes being forced to eat the ingredients of a cake seem like having to take an extended drink during the opponent’s slooooow count (if I lost you, Paddy’s Pub should be your next destination). Despite this clampdown, a few songs have snuck through the iron gates of cloistered vernacular, many of which offering an enjoyable joke on the general public’s lack of attention to lyrical detail. Here’s a guide to my favorite tunes to exploit those invisible airwaves that crackle with life (and no, Rush is not on this list, although Geddy and Alex were consultants on some of the more ribald episodes of SCTV). Once again, I’ll ignore the internet for source material, insisting on liberal use of Acoustic Google.
“Jet Airliner” – Steve Miller Band. I had to be the first person in the world to ever begin a list with a reference to these guys. For a fairly-successful act with several tunes on semi-regular rotation on a multitude (or “mulletitude”) of classic-rock stations, I’ve not met a single person that ever intentionally played me one of their albums nor saw them perform live on purpose (as in, they were the main act)[i]. “So what?”, you’d be right to ask, but I spent 20 music-drenched years in small towns where “rock-rock that cranks” (shout-out to Paul the Geek for that term) was the only acceptable style of music, at least if you didn’t want to end up on the business end of a knuckle sandwich.[ii] This means that I’ve seen virtually every other band from the classic-rock genre represented in a record rack or CD tower, painted on the fiberboard of a trailer-park “communal” stereo, printed on a ticket stub that’s been placed in the picture section of a wallet, sloppily scrawled onto a jean-jacket, or intricately emblazoned upon a Trapper Keeper, except for The Steve Miller Band. And I can’t help but find that just plain weird.
I have to recognize the lucky place that Mr. Miller (if that’s his real name, I’ll assume so) has within the rock ‘n roll fame spectrum. These guys have sold records, just not to people I know (unless they’re hiding them), and earned enough from publishing (extra thanks to Seal and Space Jam) to finance a very comfortable lifestyle, all without the trappings of traditional fame. Unless encountered by one of those superfans that I believe do not exist, Steve Miller and Band can basically go anywhere they want at any time without fearing for paparazzi or other societal leeches. It’s not quite the perfect level of fame enjoyed by an act like Ween, where outside of a critical-mass of die-hards (fans with homemade “Big Jilm” and “LMLYP” t-shirts) and “Yeah, I thought ‘White Pepper’ was a fun record”-types, there’s a whole mess of people that don’t give a crap that they exist. But it has to be pretty sweet to deposit those royalty checks every week to a desk clerk that’s utterly confused at from where exactly this money is coming.
In “Jet Airliner”, after a rather-catchy guitar riff reminiscent of “Crossroads” (not the Bone Thugs N Harmony song, you jokers), Mr. Miller throws two verses of that traditional tale of leavin’, you know the one. Radio programmers must have stopped paying attention by the third verse, and its employment of a popular expletive indicating exactly what “funky”ness Stevie believes is “…going down in the city”. Then the chorus repeats, and repeats, and repeats…
“Life in the Fast Lane” – The Eagles. Their role in our modern musical landscape makes it impossible to mention this band without an obligatory hyphen-loaded disclaimer. Long before $200 tickets, exclusive deals with aspiring-monopolist megastores, Malibu cab drivers ignoring the Dude’s ‘mickey’-slipped mug-damaged noggin, pointless reunion rehashes like “Get Over It”, and Thriller-esque album sales, the Eagles were just a relatively-enjoyable laid-back southern-California country-rock band, tasteful enough to find brilliance in Gram Parsons and early Poco, but savvy enough to sand away all those rough edges for a post-hippie middle-class marketplace aching for mellow tunes to accompany those rum-fueled backyard parties. In my eyes, this is not enough to merit the volcano of hate thrust upon this act. Not to mention that when the Eagles felt like doing so, they could almost – dare I say (gulp) – rock.
While I heard this tune ad infinitum as an adolescent within numerous Suburban-chauffered trips through the SoCal desert, I didn’t totally get the song until I saw the closing scenes of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. While Spicoli auditions for his freedom from Mr. Hand within a room of walls festooned with photographs of mammarial papillae, the Ridgemont High graduation dance’s live band rips through a raucous version of the Eagles’ best rock and roll effort. Interestingly, the guitar riff is very similar to “Jet Airliner”, although I think that song was recorded a few years later (I’m not cheating!). Sadly, the dance band does not get to the third verse – oh, those rogue third verses! – where Don Henley explains that his lengthy highway excursion was not fruitful in a manner that requires breaking of the Third Commandment. Fortunately, Spicoli and crew arrive at the big soiree, and when the band breaks into “Wooly Bully”, let’s just say that Jeffrey “knows this song, dude!”
“Legs” – ZZ Top. I was quite surprised when fellow Tweedster Lloyd pointed out how the Gibbons-Hill pre-chorus after the second verse (I’m counting the sequence where “She’s allll-right!” precedes that riff that echoes the musical interlude of “I Will” from The Beatles’ White Album) contained that naughty word. If I could summon Inspector Spacetime’s DARSIT and retrace my musical steps and provide each song with a ranking that indicated my liking at the time of its popularity, “Legs” in 1983-84 would be wayyyy up there, not quite near “When Doves Cry”, but right there with “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” and right above “Photograph”. For some reason, MTV gave fellow Eliminator videos “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’” far more spots in their heavy rotation, despite “Legs” being the superior song. Come on, you have that killer guitar refrain, a “subliminal” use of the English word for caca to add emphasis to why, exactly Billy Gibbons “gotta have her”, a video with that awesome red truck-cum-dragster and some kick-ass women that take none of Billy’s caca, and a wild plot twist as the song reaches the guitar solo (which is in a completely different chord progression than the rest of the song). Not to mention a story perfect for Weekly Reader (Their name makes sure they’re always last alphabetically! The drummer, Frank Beard, is the only band member without one!) that planted the seeds for millions (OK, hundreds) of late-period Gen-Xers towards future music-trivia geekdom. What more could you want, even at age eight?
“Man in the Box” – Alice In Chains. I’ve had to explain to my Minnesota friends exactly why I become involuntarily ill when I hear this song, in a manner that echoes a light-beer drinker’s response to the term “JagBomb” after their first ‘Meister-induced slot-machine impersonation. Since I resided in Classic Rockville in my late teen years[iii], I was completely oblivious to the existence of this song until my first month of college, when Paul the Geek’s infamous roommate “Road to Madness” Rod would skip class, throw Facelift into Paul’s CD player, queue up “Man in the Box”, and hit repeat for what must have been 456,543 consecutive days. While Alice in Chains eventually recorded several solid tunes (“Got Me Wrong”, “Sickman”, “Would?”, and most of Jar of Flies still holds up after 15-plus years), the mere thought of this song makes me want to find that 7-Up Spot-adorned CD player and give it the Office Space fax-machine treatment. Sorry Paul.
“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” – R.E.M. Of this group of tunes, this is the sole entry that still finds its way into my playlists. I absolutely loved this song when it dropped in early 1995, accompanied by the abstract performance-style video that was slowly reasserting its prominence in sorely-missed MTV blocs like Alternative Nation, 120 Minutes and the great Superock, which conveniently aired in that mid-evening time-slice between the conclusion of my last class and the beginning of dinner service. Speaking of MTV, does anyone realize that we’ve now been complaining about MTV’s not playing of videos for more years than MTV actually played videos? Just thought that had to be said.
Anyway, my inability to separate an album as an objectively-evaluated entity from the my perception of said record during the period when it entered my life should not reduce your view of my endorsement of Monster. Sure, I was in the midst of my favorite era of my college experience, and much like “Legs” in 1983, any shortcomings in the music are tossed aside by associations of rowdy times with great friends. Yet of all the R.E.M. records to get heavily criticized, this one just does not earn that scorn. I’ll never understand why Monster is so regularly dismissed as a “fake” glam “pose”, compensating with sparkly rock-star distortion to “hide the places the songs should be”, as I’ve often heard. Outside of the chorus of “Bang and Blame”, there’s nary a misstep on this record. From Thurston Moore’s tuning-peg rhythm guitar track in “Strange Currencies”, to thunderous feedback that opens “Crush with Eyeliner”, the shout-along refrain of “Circus Envy”, the cross-fade lead guitars of “King of Comedy”, and this track, R.E.M. gave us one of the best albums of the decade. In a manner that parallels Lloyd’s revelation of the bawdiness of the Texas Top, I was also unaware of Michael Stipe’s clever misdirection that concludes “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” until intruded upon by one-time Minneapolitan Adam Mac – who can sing this records praises in a manner far more compelling than I. In what appeared to be a well-crafted bit of poppycock, he claimed that the lyric “I never understood…the frequency…oh oh…” was not repeated as such in the final reading of the line, rather Stipe replaced “the frequency” with a statement that he was not to be messed with – and he used that word to do it. I’ll let you fill in the details.
[i] While attending a performance by Louisville’s own Love Jones, my friend Ryan and I were dead-tired by the time they hit the stage. Ryan’s yawning resulted in comments from singer Ben Daughtrey, who insisted that Ryan “get on stage and be ‘me’, so you can see what it’s like to see people yawning at your show”. The band then played the Steve Miller Band’s “Rock’n Me”, leading to Ryan leaning into the microphone and saying, “I fcukin’ HATE Steve Miller.”
[ii] Dalliances from the proscribed genres, particularly styles like Latin Freestyle, Rap or anything not guitar-centric was grounds for ostracism, at least until 1990. Than came…Vanilla Ice and Milli Vanilli, and – at least in my immediate rural-Kentucky surroundings, rap and dance became acceptable. Amazing how often a great cultural change can only emanate from mediocrity.
[iii] Outside of bands for whom I sought out new material, like R.E.M., Rush, Yes, Dream Theater, etc.