by Matt Wall
Fans, critics with a memory, and those new to the band who've stumbled upon news of the release of The Embarrassment's Blister Pop (My Pal God Records, www.mypalgodrecords, MPG039), may all well ask the question: what's the point? Why issue a "new" CD of a mixture of mostly lo-fi 'pre-history', live, practice, and otherwise secondary recordings of a band that never hit it big in the first place, and hasn't recorded a note in a decade?
I've often described the Embarrassment as the greatest rock and roll group you never heard of, and as the years since their demise have passed this remains generally true. It's been over twenty years since their first recording, seventeen years since the Embarrassment first broke up, and a decade since their last studio recordings as a part-time side gig. They've been a classic story of what-might-have-been that's all too familiar to anyone who's been involved with a creative project that never had success or stamina to match its quality level. Their critical praise and still-faithful following of fans has not created what one might call a lasting legacy except by the long thin line of word of mouth.
It's hard to say the Embarrassment were ahead of their time: they were of their time, as soundly and fundamentally as a band can me. But they were outside of the place and conditions that would've brought them a mass audience. They should have had a long and great career. As a band, they were every bit as good or better than their contemporary Amerindies who've become mega-acts or at least survived in the biz, from REM and the B-52s to Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye to Sonic Youth and J. Mascis. The exposure disadvantages of being based in the Midwest in the pre-internet days, developments in their personal lives, the need to put something more than stale spaghetti on the table, frustration with life on the road, and a healthy dose of outside interests that made the rock'n'roll life seem like the lesser of many alternatives all conspired to break the band up just as they might've been able to take off. It's both a contemporary story and a timeless one of a thousand great bands or artists or writers none of us ever ended up hearing about because they gave it up to get a life -- and there's nothing wrong with that that we need regret.
What they left behind as a recorded musical legacy is relatively scanty. (Details and a discography are available at two fan-run websites, www.embosfans.com and www.embarrassment.org.) Their first incarnation saw only a self-produced single and two EPs, along with a few compilation cuts, to go along with their stacks of critical praise. All three records are now not only cult classics but highly collectible in their vinyl form; the Death Travels West mini-LP made many best-of-the-decade lists and has even graced some respected all-time-greatest-recordings lists. They finally got a shot to make a full-length album in 1989 after they'd been apart for six years, the collection of re-workings of their unrecorded early 1980s corpus that eventually became God Help Us, but between some odd choices of production and the pre-Nirvana sensibilities of the pop market at the time, it neither represented the band at its early 80s best nor what they might've evolved into had they remained together continuously. Still, it was a great album in its way, and was all the more tantalizing to the "what might have been" aspect of looking back at a band.
Their music from their "official" recording history was accessible enough at the time, and still sounds incredibly fresh today. By almost any definition in the pop world, this qualifies their music as "classic": it has withstood the test of time in a way the vast majority of music made by their contemporaries has not. This may be why, among the tens of thousands of bands that have put out as many or more recordings in the past twenty years as they did, the Embarrassment's few records have stayed in minor but persistent circulation. But still, a mass audience continues to elude even these precious nuggets.
It may seem unusual on first glance that the kind of out-take/rarity/ live-track album one associates more with the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix thus might appear in 2001 for the Embarrassment in the form of Blister Pop, a sort of authorized bootleg put together by former band soundman Jim Rosencutter and the band's semi-official photographer, Henry Nelson, with the help of many admirers and fans in smaller doses. This was originally conceived of as a sort of deluxe, archival fan tape of the best of the miscellany and cassette incunabula of the band, and the desire to "do it right" for the ages spurred it on and on until it finally settled into the current released format on My Pal God.
I won't go into the litany of critical praise the band received, which was plentiful, or the range of bands the Embarrassment has influenced, which is also considerable. None of this put the band into the mainstream, and after all these years, the best evidence of the quality is the listenability of the original recordings. Neither the pile of praise nor the great records justify Blister Pop per se.
This one is for the fans. It's full of surprises, interesting in its elements, and has a couple of lost classics.
The Embos' music has always been supported by unusual loyalty among fans. The Embarrassment, a posthumous LP-length record that collected their first EP and a set of unreleased rough studio recordings that had been projected for a real album at one point, was produced and paid for by a fan, Jon Henderson. A decidely lo-fi "Retrospective" tape of unreleased songs and live cuts was put out by Fresh Sounds, the band's first "real" label, after they'd broken up, largely due to the loyalty of label owner Bill Rich.
Their second label, Bar/None, which issued God Help Us, took the unusual step of releasing Heyday in 1995, a double-CD reprising virtually all their recorded work (although some cuts were re-mixed by band member Bill Goffrier, a point of controversy among the hard-core fans) as well as a substantial portion of otherwise unavailable or unreleased material the band had accumulated. It's hard to believe this was done out of anything except massive respect for the band, as the recordings were twelve to fifteen years old at the time and hadn't exactly set the charts on fire.
The band members also kept the fire burning by periodically reforming for reunion gigs, including a mini-tour in 1989. The gigs did not want for attendance a decade after the band's literal Heyday. Again, a mismatch in timing for the band members and the tastes and dollars that drive the pop industry establishment are the only plausible reasons why the reunited Embarrassment didn't become a household name.
And in further testament to the band's staying power, yet another label -- the laudable My Pal God Records -- has taken on production and distribution of Blister Pop to try to maximize the band's legacy and make the recording as widely available as possible to the core of fans.
So Blister Pop, which started out as a discussion idea in 1996 among Jim and a few fans, may be rightly seen as what is probably the final major labor of love by the band's biggest fans. It's certainly arguable that this is not the band's best work, as there's always a reason why this song was never recorded in the studio or that song was dropped from the live repertoire. The best stuff really did make it all out to record.
But one might also say that Rembrandt or Da Vinci or Van Gogh's throw-aways didn't make it onto canvas or were framed and hung in galleries during their own time. Today they're highly prized and in many ways preferred by modern sensibilities. Blister Pop is a great sketch book of an artist that burned briefly and brightly: the sketches can be appreciated both for their own merits, and additionally as providing historical dimension and depth to those of us familiar with the rest of their work.
Would I recommend this to someone new to the band, as an entry point? No way. Death Travels West -- especially the original mix -- is still the great nugget from the Embarrassment, and the first EP and a half dozen selected songs from their previously-issued corpus are nearly as great. Blister Pop is rough in every respect except the love with which it was assembled. It's first and foremost a fan's document, not an entry point. But if this is your first exposure to the band, you'll be delighted to know after listening to this there's about two hours of more polished recordings waiting for you, and I don't doubt that a few toe-tapping classics on this CD will stay with you as well. And a band as great as the Embarrassment deserves to have its rough nuggets put out.
This is likely the last "new" thing you'll ever hear from this band, and as such it's an important, if tiny, and decidedly final coda on a great, if brief band's career.
The title Blister Pop was selected by Jim Rosencutter from amidst a collection of interviews the band gave during its first incarnation. Bill and John supplied it as the Lennon-esque answer to the inevitable and unanswerable question, 'What Kind of Music do you play?' The title is really the story of the band in a tiny lyrical essence. It's ironic and strangely descriptive: pop that blister and the constituent elements of the music spill all over you. Like a blister about to pop, the expectation outlived the gory aftermath. And it was indeed a form of pop that blistered in every sense of that word. The very fact that DJs had to ask this question, and there wasn't a comprehensible answer, is the story of the band's lack of commercial success in a nutshell.
What follows is a track by track interpretation and appreciation. I don't have the direct insight or experience Jim Rosencutter has and has put into the excellent liner notes on Blister Pop, so these may simply be considered as random comments by a fan who had the distinct pleasure of seeing his favorite band's lost treasures finally make it to the mass market.
I'd roughly characterize the songs as belonging to the following frequently- overlapping categories.
First is "pre-history" of some previously released Embarrassment songs: songs in earlier formats than those previously known to fans of their recorded work. "Podman", "Elizabeth Montgomery's Face", "Nothing to Eat", "Faith Healer" and "It's Like It's What You Like" from the Big Dipper catalogue, and to a lesser extent, "Only Want a Date" qualify.
Second are covers, which are also generally (and properly) seen as a bit of an aural resumÈ of the band's primary (although not exclusive) influences before gelling into their unique sound. So we see the seminal Nuggets collections, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, the soundtrack to All That Jazz (released in 1979), the Beatles, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and David Bowie, as literal influences in the choice of covers. Traces of the Sex Pistols, Elvis Presley, Joy Division, T Rex, the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, psychedelia, and a dozen other identifiable bands or genres can be found throughout BP. (One of the great lamented what-ifs about the band, FYI: John Cale nearly produced their aborted LP project, but the band couldn't afford him.) These are not slavish covers: virtually all of them have the classic Embarrassment sound and imprimatur, and are nearly as much the Embarrassment's own songs as those of the original artist.
Third are the "live" songs, an appellation which as Jim points out might be reasonably applied to every cut on the album. I'd also call this the "aural history" of the band, in the sense that the memory of any live gig almost always surpasses a recording in depth. Yet the tracks represent a very nice cross-section of live gigs from 1979 to 1983, at genres that will bring back wistful memories to Kansans who were of that period and will be evocative to anyone who had a favorite club and band attached to a particular place and time. There's a rough band practice cut (Elizabeth Montgomery's Face), radio-studio appearances, gigs at parties, the fabulous and definitive final live gig at the Cedar which literally ended music at that establishment and might symbolically summarize the end of the band's first set of live gigs. The only lamentably missing entry in this catalog is a cut from the reunion gigs from the late 1980s, which by all accounts were among the band's very best work.
Fourth are perhaps the most precious cuts to the Embarrassment fanatic: the great lost tunes, originals that just now are available. These are: "You're Not You Anymore", "Proof", Embarrassment versions of "Faith Healer" and "It's Like It's What You Like", "Man Makes the Clothes", "Song for Val", and "Play". Some of them, like "You're Not You...", show the band's originality and essence in development. A song like "Song for Val" is an unexpected punky torrent that would've been a hot underground single if it had made it to vinyl in 1978, even though it's only vaguely recognizable as an Embos tune. I'd make the case that at least one tune, "Man Makes the Clothes", is what one might call an essentially Embarrassment tune, and along with the better versions of "Podman" and "Only Want a Date" can be seen as topping off the great collection of the originals the band put out.
Listener's note: like a lot of lo-fi stuff, this recording is best listened to at LOUD VOLUMES and with some attention.
THE EP THEY WON'T LET YOU BUY IN STORES,
Having conducted many interviews like this as a college DJ, I can sympathize with the interviewer's problem in coming up with intelligent questions. What I love about this snippet is the sequence/montage by which John and Bill conclude that the proper descriptive category for the Embarrassment's music is "Blister Pop." Who is it that said great art is about the process of discovery as much as the final product...?
This is a classically identifiable Embarrassment tune, much louder and more roaring than the Retrospective tape version thanks to some superior re-mixing. *
A proto-punk snippet with a typically contemporary semi-egg-headed lyric. What I find interesting about this cut is that while the sound is harder and the guitar playing less original than the band came to be known for, there's a clearly distinctive structure to the song.
- Time Has Come Today
Agreeably higher-fidelity than the other version of the Embarrassment's cover of this song. I've always wondered whether the source was the original Chambers Brothers tune, the Ramones cover of same, or some other cover recording. This is one of the great lost Embos tracks: the treatment is their own, the building fuzz-out drama of the song truly amazing. I particularly admire Woody's drumming in the middle. *
- Oh Pretty Woman
The Embarrassment, despite my comments above, may rightly be seen as having been ahead of their time in a lot of ways. One of which was their source material for covers. Roy Orbison was a pretty obscure figure in the early 1980s, before he made his late-career comeback just before his death. Pretty Woman was his most familiar hit on the oldies' circuit and an obvious choice for the Embos' brand of woman-man angst. This version features the trademark Embos organ roar over Goffrier jangle and a nice vocal pairing between John and Bill. John had a vocal subtlety -- and clarity in phrasing, both musically and literally -- not many Indy singers of the day had, which could be heard most clearly on the God Help Us album but which is also evident on this cut.
- You're Not You Anymore
Jim calls this a "Vanilla Fudge dirge" in his liner notes, but this version makes me think of Joy Division bootlegs. It's got that pre-suicidal tonality to it, and the lo-fi quality of this version alternates rollercoaster guitar chords with the vocal wailings. Fortunately, John's vocals were better than Joy Division's and neither was he suicidal. I believe a finished studio version of this song would've fit in very well in the pseduo-conceptual Death Travels West.
- Only Want a Date
This is a rougher version in some ways than the version on Retrospective, and the audio is fuzzy, but there's a certain verve to the tune, particularly with the buzzcut guitar amidst the more familiar jangle. This clearly fits in well with the ethos of the first EP, although the guitar just might as well have been leading into "Careen".
- Elizabeth Montgomery's Face
Just about the most positive proof the Embarrassment were indeed a punk band to start out, and a pretty good one, too. The version that appeared on the EP is clearly more polished and, shall we say, evolved, but this one's a lo-fi slasher. I remain hopeful someone will cover this in hyped up punk style. The song has become nostalgic and nearly poignant now that Elizabeth Montgomery has passed on, but I will always associate the mystery of the two Darrins with the Embarrassment.
- Faith Healer
Emblematic of the band's ability to break through, the only really wide-spread audience for an Embarrassment tune came from Shonen Knife's second-hand cover of this tune. Shonen Knife is such a fine band in its own right, it's tempting to think what they might've done with "Careen" or "Drive Me to the Park". I prefer this live Embarrassment version to the Big Dipper studio version for a couple of reason. First, it has a bit more of a nervy edge to it, partially because of the better drumming and the lo-fi quality of the guitar, but I also like the vocal's over Bill's Big Dipper stylings. It's a fine song either way. The groove-master riff clearly identifies it as a true Embarrassment song, and Big Dipper fans can listen to this as evidence of Bill's bridges between the two bands and what he brought to both ventures.
- Maybe Baby
I've always thought of Buddy Holly as the first pop-punkster, certainly the inventor of the power trio, and the Embarrassment's fantastic live version brings out this aspect of the great one. The Embos being the Embos, the vaguely threatening sarcasm inherent but unspoken in the original is articulated much more clearly in this version. The performance can only be described as crisp, in a taut one minute thirty-five. Awesome. *
- It's Like It's What You Like
An hommage to the Velvets, and I can identify with the sentiment of disappointment in the later work by great bands. Maybe it's just as well that some great bands, like the Embarrassment, disappear before their peak, since after a peak comes the decline. The organ riff at the end is the clearest cop from the Velvets, and while it's probably best that the band dropped this tune from their oeuvre, it's a fascinating little snippet of attempting to incorporate a prominent influence into their emerging style.
- The Man Makes the Clothes
This is a great original: it's got all the earmarks of an Embarrassment song, and fits in very well with the Podman-Only-Want-A-Date period. This one gets my personal vote as the song I most wish they'd been able to lay down in the studio but didn't. *
- Song for Val
Another song so short it's almost a snippet, but if it had been on an LA hardcore compilation instead of buried on a practice tape, it would've had airplay in 1979. I'm not sure the Embos had heard any hardcore when this song was laid down, but it would've qualified as what my friends and I used to call happycore - a nice bouncy three-chord pop song with a simple progression and structure that didn't stay around so long it got boring. *
- Pushin' Too Hard
The studio version of this song is the last great lost Embos tune, unless you happen to own the original anthology on which it appeared. This version, or all the Embos' versions I've heard, can be described as menacing. I get the vague sense this tune was directed at a band member girlfriend of the period, as probably the original was by one of the Seeds. The organ work by John on this song is scarily faithful, and I admire the teeth in Bill's riffing in the middle. One can see why this song appealed to the Embos: it's got the same kind of V8 drive the EP and Death Travels West had, but unlike their originals, it has what a jazz player might call vamp points. This one has a very crisp ending, though.
- On Broadway
There's no small irony here in the boys covering this paeon to unrealistic optimism ("you don't have enough to eat...they say that I won't last too long...but I'm going to be a star on Broadway" -- then the variant "They're all wrong, I know they are...cause Bill knows how to play guitar"). The song also chugs along with Death Travels West-era confidence. Excellent little cover, and I prefer it to George Benson. *
- I Wanna Be Your Dog
Vicious cover wherein the band falls apart a little along the way, a document to the way most bands have a median stage before they put it all together. The treatment simply shreds despite the tune coming apart at the seems -- isn't that threat of falling apart part of punk's appeal?
- Nothing to Eat
A fascinating song of pre-history, since it was re-worked into "Albert" on God Help Us, but its closest kin is probably "Godfrey Harold Hardy". What's cool about this version is you can hear the band begun to wrestle with more complex structure and pacing in the song. It's not all quite there in this version, and the crowd seems to be a bit out of it. There's a recording of the very first time "Godfrey" was played live which would've made a cute bookend to this.
- No Reply
The instrumentals are a bit rough, but John puts considerable drama into this song, and the echoing of the recording adds what I'd call a hollow quality into the performance. Bill does a tortured backing vocal that provides additional depth. I take this song as additional evidence that John Nichols could've been a great interpreter of other peoples' songs, given the right training and time and place: his version of "Burning Love" both live and on God Help Us is another example. The creepy theme of the stalker-narrator in the song certainly comes to the fore in this rendition.
Another punky song from their early days, but one which points the direction the band ended up going in.
A cover epic in treatment, and a wonderful little slice of a live gig. This is one that is best cranked to 11 on the old amplifier, and is agreeably tipsy. It also has ensemble work in live playing and some vocal improvisation that show what a tight group it was, even drunk and at the end of a gig. *
or, the best tracks to select with your programmable CD player
Here's a suggestion for a shorter version if you want the most notable tracks (imho) with a suggested order:
- (13) Song for Val
- (02) Podman
- (04) Time Has Come Today
- (12) The Man Makes the Clothes
- (15) On Broadway
- (09) Faith Healer
- (10) Maybe Baby
- (20) Funtime