Vandals Make Fun of Musical Trends
Music with a message is selling once again, as the booming careers of the Amnesty International concert crew attest.
The trend toward sober commentary in rock championed by the likes of Tracy Chapman, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Peter Gabriel has been duly noted by the Vandals, a band that makes a point of keeping up with the times.
“Maybe our next album will be right along those lines,” the Vandals’ lead singer, Dave Quackenbush, mused recently over a bottle of beer in a favorite pub in Huntington Beach. “If not, it’ll probably be making fun of those people.” Judging from Quackenbush’s grin, it’s a safe bet that the Vandals will be out to satirize, rather than canonize, the rebirth of stardom-with-a-conscience.
Since their beginnings as Orange County punk rockers in 1981, the Vandals, who play tonight at Bogart’s, have devoted themselves to poking fun at musical trends.
“I could see the uselessness and futility of being a political punk band,” said Joe Escalante, one of two founding members left in the group, which is now based in Long Beach. “It seems kind of hypocritical to try to solve the world’s problems when you’re on drugs. But I could see the point in having a good time.”
One of the Vandals’ first targets for fun-making was country music. Escalante maintains that the band’s 1982 song, “Urban Struggle,” a satire on the “Urban Cowboy” phenomenon that sought to market country music and cowboy style to a mass audience, was “the first cowpunk song that I know of.”
Ironically, Escalante began listening in earnest to the music he had set out to spoof. Consequently, a country influence pervades much of the Vandals’ new album, “Slippery When Ill.” Instead of parodying country music itself, the album uses country as a vehicle for jokes and tall tales.
Among the album’s best slices of satire are “Susanville,” which undercuts the typical country reverence for the interstate trucker’s life by portraying a driver whose mind and posterior have been left numb after an 800-mile run. In “Elvis Decanter,” the song’s protagonist receives a gift of an expensive, Elvis-shaped bottle of whiskey from his girlfriend, then proceeds to drink the relationship into oblivion.
“This is a song that is completely respectful of Elvis in every way,” Escalante said, wanting to make it clear that the Vandals aren’t jumping on the kick-the-King bandwagon. “I’m getting sad and teary, just thinking about him.”
The main exception to the album’s country slant is a new version of "(Illa Zilla) Lady Killa,” a takeoff on rap music that originally appeared on a 1984 album, “When in Rome Do as the Vandals.”
Rap is another form that the Vandals first approached merely as fodder for their satire but later came to enjoy for its own sake. Escalante, 25, and Quackenbush, 23, both say they are now big rap fans. In one of several odd happenstances connected with the Vandals’ career, the punk group has shared concert bills with such rap acts as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, LL Cool J and Public Enemy.
Another incongruous development is the Vandals’ endorsement deal with Billabong, an Australian line of sportswear. Escalante, as much an ironist in conversation as he is in songwriting, said he had no qualms about aligning the band with a product.
“We don’t have any real serious convictions about anything,” he said. “Free clothes are free clothes.”
In satire, there is always a risk that listeners with serious convictions--but without a sense of humor--will fail to get the joke. One of the best examples is “Short People,” Randy Newman’s satiric hit. Lots of short listeners betrayed their own short fuses by taking Newman at his word when he sang, “short people got no reason to live.” (“Short People” was an attempt to point out how casually pervasive bigotry is--and it worked because Newman made his character a witty bigot rather than a pinheaded one.)
The Vandals’ satire has more in common with Alfred E. Neuman than Randy Newman. Their aim is to get a laugh or to mock pomposity, after the fashion of Mad magazine, rather than to say anything trenchant. But they have gone out on a limb with songs such as “Slap of Luv” (from “When in Rome . . . "), a satire about domestic violence in which a wife-beater sings cheerfully about the advantages of administering the “slap of love.”
“I didn’t write that song,” Escalante said. “I thought it pushed (good taste) too far, and I didn’t want it on the record. But after it was all over and I heard it on the radio, I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Quackenbush said that at least one black listener has taken offense at “Lady Killa,” with its parody of rap and black English. A couple of epithets on the new Vandals album also could offend gay sensibilities, but Escalante and Quackenbush maintain that it is possible to use such language in a way that is humorous rather than hateful.
“Gay people with a sense of humor will think it’s funny,” Escalante said. “Most of ‘em have a pretty good sense of humor, and they’ll know we’re not vicious.”
Over the years, national touring and a couple of film appearances have helped spread the Vandals’ cult. They’ve been seen in “Suburbia” and “Dudes,” both directed by Penelope Spheeris, who made the two “Decline of Western Civilization” rock documentaries.
Between tours, the Vandals work at an assortment of day jobs--guitarist Nils Ackermann sells firearms at a gun shop in Westminster, Quackenbush reads novels aloud for a service that provides tapes to the blind, drummer Doug Mackinnon is a lifeguard and bassist Escalante is a substitute teacher in Long Beach. Warren (Waf) Fitzgerald, a prolific guitar soloist who also plays in the heavy metal-comedy band Gherkin Raucous has joined the Vandals for recent shows.
“With him in the band, people don’t notice that the other guys can’t play their instruments,” said Escalante, who isn’t beyond indulging in a little self-satire. “It takes a lot of the pressure off.”
The Vandals, Chain Gang and the Squids play tonight, starting at 9, at Bogart’s, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway., in the Marina Pacifica Mall in Long Beach. Admission is $10. Information: (213) 594-8975. GUITARS, GUITARS AND MORE GUITARS: Those who like the sound of acoustic guitar can hear their fill tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, where Robert Fripp, former King Crimson mainstay, plays an all-acoustic show with his League of Crafty Guitarists. The League is made up of students from Fripp’s guitar instruction seminars, in which he teaches a self-invented method he calls Guitarcraft. Live performances by Fripp and his proteges can involve as many as two dozen players sitting in horseshoe-shaped formation. Call (714) 496-8930 for information on ticket availability.