FLIPPER: GENERIC (SUBTERRANEAN)
RELEASED MARCH 30, 1982
Hardcore punk was a reaction to many things: Reagan, a worsening economy, deepening racial tension, the inability of the Sex Pistols to stop impressionable young people from buying Foreigner records. By contrast, the troublemakers in Flipper were a counter-reaction to the hardcore punks: a mocking challenge to the sanctimonious Puritanism of straight-edge types like Minor Threat, Flipper absurdly reveled in turgid, even dirge-like rhythms and song lengths in a scene that championed brevity and brutal speed. Fondly notes Mudhoney's Mark Arm in the 2006 documentary American Hardcore: “There seemed to be kind of two approaches that bands would take in hardcore. One was: what is the thing that the kids are going to like and how are they going to respond positively to our band and what can we do to make that happen? And then there was [Flipper’s] school of thought, which was like, fuck with the crowd: get ‘em pissed off.” If there was ever a band that made a mission of spellbinding an audience by perversely subverting their expectations, this notorious San Francisco quartet is it.
How musically crude was this band? So crude that the two lead singers, Will Shatter and Bruce Lose, traded bass duties on each other’s songs – and even without having to concentrate on a vocal, could barely play regardless. Guitarist Ted Falconi eschewed the power chords of standard hardcore in favor of dark washes of sound that suggested a deeper knowledge of effects pedals than an appreciation or even an awareness of basic song structure. Drummer and musical anchor Steve Depace proudly boasts in retrospect: “[Will and Bruce] would have rather had four people in the audience that hated us than 400 that loved us. There was a show in New Orleans where 100 people showed up; by the time we finished playing, there was like six people left. We just gave ‘em our instruments and went to the bar.”
“The band that you love to hate” recorded 1982’s Generic over the course of the year – not because they were devoted perfectionists, but because of money and time constraints. And, I suspect, because no one in the unit dreamed they were making something even remotely resembling a rock and roll classic. But a classic it is, combining the attitude of punk with the moody churn of Black Sabbath, with a unique dash of – and here’s the bit of magic that made this record one of the great hardcore touchstones – earnest armchair philosophy. Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic observes in the liner notes of Water’s Generic reissue, “I once witnessed Buzz [Osborne, founder of the Melvins] try to spread the gospel to one person who outright rejected it. They said, ‘I know that shit,’ they then started singing with spastic convulsions, 'I wanna fuck my mom, I wanna fuck my mom!!!'” Lose and Shatter had no interest in such facile shock tactics, summing up their worldview by quoting, of all people, radical Austrian psychoanalyst Wilheim Reich: “You stand on your head and you believe yourself dancing into the realm of freedom. You will wake up from your nightmare, Little Man, finding yourself hopelessly lying on the ground. For you steal where you are being given, and you give where you are being robbed. You confuse the right to free speech and to criticism with irresponsible talk and poor jokes. You want to criticize but you don’t want to get criticized, and for this reason you get torn torn apart. You always want to attack without exposing yourself to attack. That’s why you always shoot from ambush.”
That excerpt is derived from the 1945 essay "Listen, Little Man!," Reich's indictment of the "common man" and his complicity in the rise of Fascism -- and if you think Flipper want you to draw a direct parallel between the goose-stepping Nazis and the conforming anti-conformists of hardcore punk, score a point for the world that George Santayana glimpsed both in the rear view mirror and the road leading to the present. Consider for a moment Minor Threat's "Guilty of Being White," which crams into a frenzied 1:17 Ian MacKaye's blustery anger at being beat up at his predominantly African-American high school: "I'm sorry/For something that I didn't do/Lynched somebody/But I don't know who/You blame me for slavery/A hundred years before I was born." MacKaye, who humbly recalls his debt to his mentors in the black hardcore outfit Bad Brains in American Hardcore, explains that the song is meant to be anti-racism, a demand to judge him for who he is and not for his race. Yet while that assertion is unassailable given MacKaye's left wing pedigree, in the same breath he confesses shock and amazement at European fans who interpret the song as a white power screed, the naivety of which only sums up how oblivious the adult MacKaye is even now to the inherent ambiguity of his seventeen-year-old self's overly simplistic worldview.
There are no such gaffes to be had from Flipper. Rather than ram ideology down your gullet in the manner of your typical hardcore punk aggregation, they begin Generic by positing a series of rhetorical questions: "Ever live a life's that real?/Full of zest, but no appeal?" They build on this, leading up to the pseudo-climax: "Ever wish the human race didn't exist?" Then, after a brief moment stoking their audience's base adolescent self-pity, amend the snarky punchline: "And then realize that you're one too?" Then, over a hideous squelch of guitar feedback and loping bass that they've somehow made listenable -- nay, gloriously addictive -- for two minutes plus via goddamn hand claps in the fashion of "I Saw Her Standing There," Bruce Lose muses: "Well...? Have you...? Ever...? I have...so what!" So much for giving the world the finger.
Recorded live in the studio with little thought to production values other than kinda-sorta balancing the instruments, the remainder of the album continues in this amusing but ingratiatingly metaphysical mode: refusing to cry for martyrs and suicides ("He has made his choice"), shrugging "That's the Way of The World" as if fusing Seneca and Maurice White and Johnny Rotten, telling a nihilist "Once you were a good friend of mine," and joyously singing the praises of, well, life: "It's the only thing worth living for!" Then, after taking an easy shot at "a real cheap fucker like you, copout," they launch into 7:49 of the magnificently epic "Sex Bomb," which consists of seven words repeated over and over, two of which are "she's a" and another three of which are "my baby, yeah" (well, they do sneak a "mama" in there). A "Louie Louie" that refuses to end yet never wears out its Dadaist welcome, it completely upends every single one of hardcore punk's sacred tenets, not just concision in form and length, but also in regards to significance and sloganeering. In the time-honored rock and roll manner, they aim to mean more by not meaning anything at all. And when they did grasp for "meaning" -- with the overwrought metaphors and gravely-delivered banalities of 1984's more squarely recorded acid rock blunder Gone Fishin' -- they stumbled and never recovered. Three years later, in December of 1987, the band sent New York Times critic Robert Palmer a private message in a plain white envelope marked "personal and confidential" that read: ''Will Shatter died last Wednesday. He married in November and his wife is expecting their child. Flipper always appreciated your reviews; thought you would want to know.'' All of which makes this longtime heroin addict's losing battle with addiction, as well as his struggle with "the only thing worth living for," all that more poignant.
Generic went over my head for years, until one day I experienced the album as the way their paying audience would: as a totality, from beginning to end. This time, I was riveted by Flipper's spirit, their heart, their humor, their complete disregard for the pious strictures of their stringent subculture. Once holding my ears at the back of the bar, I'm now a bemused enthusiast in the front row, chuckling at the audacity of a band that thinks that rubbing an annoying slide whistle figure in my face for almost eight minutes is uplifting rock and roll. Because it is -- and sometimes, the four lone, uptight people remaining in a cleared-out room could stand to drop their precious pretenses and dance.
April 25, 2014