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Bad Grunge Music

September 10, 2010

At some point I must have come back to this tape and renamed one side of it “Bad Grunge Music”. I was ashamed of it enough to label it so, but not quite willing to tape over it. How bad could it be, I wondered, slotting it into the tape player.

The first song was “Low Self Opinion” by the Rollins Band.

I’ve never known exactly what to make of the Rollins Band, or Henry Rollins himself. Why is he so angry?

A song about the immobilising effects of self loathing, Rollins grunts out lines about alienation and bitterness, before building up to a chummy abbreviation of the song’s title. “Low-S.O.” This, I have discovered, is a handy shortcut to explain one’s moody behaviour. I was feeling depressed over the weekend, feeling like a bit of a loser as one does sometimes. To explain all I needed to do was turn on the tape and let Rollins tell it for me.

As for the rest of the tape, there are some truly low moments, such as “Would?” by Alice in Chains, the chorus of which includes the line “So I made a big mistake…”, “Yes, sir, you certainly did!” I replied, a habit I have of talking back to song lyrics. In the same category is “Psalm 69” by Ministry, who I can’t remember ever having liked, but here it is, in between “There She Goes” by the La’s and a song by Frenzel Rhomb.

The tape’s not all bad, but it general it was a difficult listen.

I used to like the La’s song, but now I just picture car ads when I hear it. What do you do when you are a one hit wonder? I guess just squeeze the most out of your hit. I always feel a bit sad when I hear songs I like on ads (especially car ads, for some reason).

One of my rules for this project is to listen to the tapes all the way through, and not fast forward. It was difficult with some of the songs on this tape, but having to listen to Alice in Chains made me consider something about timeliness and creativity. This music, which then seemed perfectly reasonable, now seems so 1990s, dated, at times embarrassing. But then, is there anything wrong with it being of the time, and not being for the ages?

It makes me think of the caution, espoused by some writers, that pop culture references date your writing, and should be avoided. Unspoken is the motivation behind this: to write something classic, something eternal, that is going to speak to the human condition and not be fixed in time. What arrogance! I like writing that is of its time. Imagine having to only read books that have descriptions of the natural world and people listening to Beethoven, attempting to be classic. It can be more powerful to make something that speaks of now.

Whether this applies to Tumbleweed, I’m not sure, but I can’t say it was entirely painful to have to listen through a whole Tumbleweed song, it made me picture early 1990s hippies, reliving their parent’s childhoods.

The other side, which I imagine would have once held much the same mix of music taped off the radio, has been taped over with a Broadcast album. When I used to go and stay with my friends in other cities, usually Melbourne, I would inspect their record collections and tape the most promising sounding records. Although I loved music, I never felt as if I liked the right kind, and others were always a step ahead. In some ways I didn’t mind this, after they had moved on I could quietly go about catching up. I didn’t like music in order to show off my knowledge to other people, in fact I didn’t really like talking about it, because when I really liked a particular band or artist I couldn’t stand to have them rated. I am not the kind of person who stands up for what I love, I go quiet, then go secret.

Broadcast make me think of red velvet curtains and concerts in local halls which were built in boom times and are slowly falling apart. But, with the lights low enough, you can pretend you are still in those promising times. They make lonely songs that are nevertheless uplifting, about not really connecting to others, but trying to.

When I used to imagine what kinds of things were going on in Melbourne, while I was trailing around after my friends’ bands in Sydney and getting drunk to cope with the fact I’d heard their songs too many times, it was shows by bands like New Waver. Maybe to say bands “like” New Waver is incorrect, because there are no other bands like New Waver.

I knew a little about them from reading about them in “Circumstantial Evidence” zine. They satirised songs from a loser’s perspective, but unlike most satire it is low on arrogance. This was not telling me that they knew better, it was wallowing in suburban loserdom, bad office jobs and social rejection, and looking to social Darwinism for an explanation.

I don’t really find many things funny. Whether this is a fault of me or a fault of things that are meant to be funny, I don’t know. I find New Waver funny for many reasons, though. One of the reasons is that the songs are delivered with the utmost seriousness. This highlights both the absurdity of the lyrics (Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” changed to “The Office Seat”) and the stupidity of the songs they are based on, especially the more popular ones. We Will Rock You, for example, is a stupid song. It also picks up on one of my habits, which is changing the lyrics of popular songs to reflect my own interests. Do other people do this? I guess they do.

One of the other things about New Waver is that they aren’t just for laughs. While someone like Weird Al Yankovic spoofs songs, his versions are primarily about having silly fun. When I listen to New Waver sometimes I think about how the desperation and dissatisfaction behind the office losers and unpopular school kids, constantly beaten up by popular peers, are actually real people. These songs highlight the cruelty and ridiculousness of work, normality, and social interactions. And let’s face it, these things can often be cruel and ridiculous.

Listening to this tape, I imagined the singer, working a public service job, recording songs at home at night after work, using the photocopier to make cassette covers, but all in secret. This only added to the band’s appeal. I never did get to see a New Waver show.

I didn’t know, until I looked, that New Waver are still around, but there’s a website, and details of the latest album, at

Despite having the cover of Low Self Opinion, the tape inside is Mr Loser Boozer Goes to Town. A mix up must have occurred at some point with another New Waver fan. And there were quite a few in my circle for a while, although I did find that either you got it or you didn’t. I was proud to be on the losing team.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Penny Spent permalink
    September 11, 2010 10:33 am

    Broadcast are playing in Sydney on the 8th of December! Sorry, I just had to mention that, because they are my second favourite band in the whole world.

    I very much enjoy reading about your cassettes.

    • Vanessa Berry permalink*
      September 11, 2010 11:51 am

      That is good news! Broadcast do make me think of you, I was going to write that but then got shy.

  2. Closely Observed permalink
    September 15, 2010 5:38 am

    During my first year of teaching I found a text book which used “Low Self Opinion” as the basis of a lesson. The students would fill in the missing words and then we would have an edifying discussion about esteem, confidence etc. I played the song the requisite three times. After each I was met with blank stares. Finally I implored the class to tell me at least how the song made them feel. One boy said. “You must be crazy to listen to that.”

    • Vanessa Berry permalink*
      September 15, 2010 9:31 am

      Oh you poor thing, what an awkward situation! The only person who learnt something that day was you! Keep Rollins out of the classroom.

  3. earleycurley permalink
    September 17, 2010 8:38 pm

    Um – the New Waver tape problem might be my fault, as I may have placed the New Waver cassette into a New Waver sleeve, without checking which was which about ten years ago …

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