Camper Van Beethoven

Where the hell is the bridge? And Bill, for that matter?

Strongest album: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart
Must to avoid: Camper Van Chadbourne

Take Monty Python and place them in the arid suburbia of a Northern California college town, mix in a healthy dose of a Grateful Dead raised on postpunk and with short attention spans, and you wind up with Camper Van Beeethoven. Their absurdist approach to indie-pop made them the toast of campuses nationwide back in the '80s, and it's easy to see why: they're smart, and they're a lot of fun. In retrospect, much of their output sounds dated - novelty numbers don't age well - but they are still a worthwhile listen. The Campers' importance goes beyond their humor; they did some quite interesting things musically. Their primary modus operandi was mixing straightforward rock with bizarre fake ethnic music, usually of a bouncy stew of Eastern European/Country-Western - both at the same time, thereby underlining the links between the two. The Campers' gleeful ska/polka stomps called into question the very notion of "authenticity", which is a very good thing because when it comes to music, whether or not it sounds good is far, far more important than whether it's "authentic". The Campers' free-range eclecticism often made them inconsistent, but it always kept them interesting - you never knew when they would follow a Cajun/Indian hybrid with a Pink Floyd cover.

Surprisingly, there isn't much CBV presence on the Net (guess most of it's related to Cracker. I saw D. Lowery's new band pull through town a while back; they were okay, but not Camper Van!). Looks like the Camper Van Beethoven/Monks of Doom/&c. Unofficial Home Page is the only major fan site out there.

Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985) ***

The Campers' first album, this was originally entitled Telephone Tree Landslide Victory, only the telecopier misprinted Tree as Free. The band kept the title because it made even less sense than the original title. This album has quite a few fun moments, but far too many interchangeable polka-based instrumentals dilute the effect. About half of these tracks are simply variations on the opener, "Border Ska", though titles like "Chairman Mao Reminisces About His Days In Southern China" are pretty cool. In between the instrumental throwaways are some very funny, sometimes quite catchy, straight pop songs. "The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon" is a song that you can tell is good just from the title, even if it is (like the rest of the album) too thinly produced. The band recorded this dirt cheap, and unfortunately it shows. The woozy "Wasted", complete with squeaking violin and intelligible lyrics, is actually better than the Black Flag original! "Take The Skinheads Bowling" was the big hit on college radio that got the band its first attention. My favorite, though, is the hilarious hardcore parody, "Club Med Sucks", that skewers punk attitudes in two minutes better than Repo Man did in two hours.

Camper Van Beethoven II & III (1986)

The lone Camper Van Beethoven album I don't own, I keep looking for this but never see it around. It contains a cover of Sonic Youth's "I Love Her All The Time" (I hope they did something listenable with it - geez, was Bad Moon Rising a terrible album. Stick to Daydream Nation - but hey, these aren't the Sonic Youth reviews!). I haven't heard the song, but hopefully "ZZ Top Goes To Egypt" lives up to its title.

Camper Van Beethoven (1986) ***1/2

Here's where they start to let their brains show - "Good Guys And Bad Guys" is one of the most incisive songs written about the Cold War, and the smartest thing about it is how lead singer David Lowery makes it seem like a throwaway. Better still is "Joe Stalin's Cadillac", which is also Moses', LBJ's, and General Pinochet's, and ends with a Led Zeppelin spoof. As usual, there's too much filler; for every bright pop moment, "We Saw Jerry's Daughter", there's some instrumental dabbling that they probably wrote and recorded in a half hour, when they were drunk. Of course, the instrumental filler has improved - no longer limited to ska-polka, the Campers indulge in a serious late-'60s psychedelic jamming jones. Heck, they even cover "Interstellar Overdrive"! My favorite song is the wordiest: "The History Of Utah", in which the ever-populist Lowery tells a tall (but coherent) tale of the West that begins with Indians and ends with shopping malls.

With Eugene Chadbourne: Camper Van Chadbourne (1987) *1/2

A collaboration with North Carolina eccentric Eugene Chadbourne, this disc is....well, interesting - but not exactly listenable. It sounds like they bashed this out quick over a weekend with most of the recording budget spent on booze. Like most artifacts of this type, it sure sounds like they had a hell of a time, but the fun just doesn't translate to vinyl. Between Appalachian Country songs that show off Chadbourne's shaky off-key tenor are free form quasi-instrumental excursions that never cohere. Chadbourne picks at his out of tune guitar like a sixth grader clawing at his new instrument, and I mean that literally. The best (well, only good) song is "Fayettenam", about gung ho Marines who beat up guys with black girlfriends and other intolerant attitudes of the Bible Belt. They also cover Frank Zappa and do an amusing parody, "Psychedelic Basement". It ends with an anti-militarism song which has as its key lyric, "They can make it rain bombs/But they can't make it rain" - ?!?

Vampire Can Mating Oven EP (1987) **1/2

An EP of leftovers. Most bands throw away their more experimental numbers away on stopgaps like this, but since Camper Van Beethoven already displayed their weird side on their regular issue LPs, they choose to display their poppier side on this effort. Unfortunately, it's easy to see why the six songs here were discards; none of the originals are very catchy or memorable. The stroke is a version of Ringo Starr's "Photograph" that is better than the original (the Campers don't bog it down with overorchestrated strings). You get the new wavey psychedelia (?) of "Ice Cream Everyday" and a No Wave parody, and some other stuff. Whoopee.

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988) ****

The Campers were a fun little band and a barrel of monkeys, but they never really delivered a consistently satisfying album - with one exception. On their major label debut they go into the studio with a proper producer, and excise a lot of the fat that plagued their instrumental-laden previous albums. The only two instrumentals here, "Eye Of Fatima, Pt. 2" and "Waka" are pleasant changes of pace, and two are really all the band needs. The Campers cover a lot of stylistic ground, but it coheres and flows smoothly, from the gloomy "O Death" to the sweetly lovely pop "She Divines Waters" to the full-out rock "Devil Song" to the folky "One Of These Days" to the horn-driven anti-'60s nostalgia "Turquoise Jewelry". And that's just the first side, and I haven't even mentioned the cinematic crunch of "Eye Of Fatima, Pt. 1"! Side Two isn't quite as good, but "My Path Belated" is incredibly rushed massed-jangly-guitars power-pop, and "Life Is Grand" takes wise aim at the "everything sucks" poseurs that plague too much of punk and alternative. Easily their best album, and since it's widely available, the best place for beginners to start.

Key Lime Pie (1989) ***

Life goes on, and fun loving kids have to grow up eventually. This is where the Campers stop goofing around and get serious. Unfortunately, no one ever told them that goofing around was their reason for existence. The heavy, melancholy atmosphere that pervades this record is interrupted ocassionally by a few welcome lighter moments, thankfully, such as the cover of Status Quo's "Pictures Of Matchstick Men", which is, umm...better than the original (how many times have I said that? Well, it's true!). However, the downcast attitude results in what are arguably Camper Van Beethoven's two best songs. The working class anthem "(I Was Born In A) Laundromat" rocks like they never have, with a driving rythm and a great chorus - "Just give me some tension release". "Sweethearts" is even better, an enormously affecting ballad that says goodbye to Reagan in a stunning indictment of the '80s. It's too bad that the rest of the record doesn't reach those heights; in fact, quite a bit of this is downright boring. Sad, but not quite in the way the band intended. After this album the band broke up, with two major offshoots: the Monks of Doom, who indulged in the Campers' more experimental side, and David Lowery's Cracker, who went in the opposite direction for a straightforward Creedence/Stones rock attack that propelled them to the top of the charts, even if Cracker are less interesting and fun Camper Van Beethoven.

Reader Comments

Samuel Day Fassbinder,

I knew these guys when they were going to UC Santa Cruz in the early 1980s. You've figured them out pretty well -- buncha talented party animals with music degrees. Lowery pretty much got the band into the commercial bigtime -- thus the irony of an album titled "telephone free landslide victory" made possible through Lowery's considerable phone calling effort. Monks of Doom were once doing a lot of prog-rock (at least when I saw them at the Catalyst sometime in the 1980s) tho the Web sez they've broken up; they were Victor, Greg, and Chris Pedersen's band, they formed before CBV broke up.

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