Happy Days fans may have already guessed from whence the name comes, but for those without Nick at Nite, it refers to an episode of America's favorite '50s nostalgia show in which the cast goes on vacation to sunny California. At the beach, the by-then-potbellied Fonzie is challenged to a duel of sorts by a Charles Atlas reject, but the tiny Jewish paragon of greaser cool will not stand down, and at the show's climax he jumps--on water skis, mind you--over a shark that had been menacing beachgoers and is now being kept in an underwater cage. The episode was the archetypal example of a writing staff that had gone to the well once too often, and was grasping at sharks, as it were.
One night over beer and quaaludes, it hit us: This concept can conveniently be applied to music as well. We know, we know, duh. Nevertheless, it seemed a revelation at the time, and we realized we had at least a rippin' parlor game on our hands (and, as it happens, a two-part feature article--check this space next week for the second installment).
We bandied ideas about for hours, eventually hitting upon the quintessential great band/bad album abhorration: The Clash's 1985 shark sandwich of an album Cut the Crap. The greatest punk band of our time capped a nearly flawless recording career with the biggest turd to wash up on these shores since Moby Dick pinched out Captain Ahab.
Eureka! We had stumbled upon what to call the aural equivalent of "jumping the shark": "cutting the crap," which combines producer-slang for the recording of an album ("cutting"), and crap ("crap"). Now all that was left was to find a way to categorize the remarkably large dungheap of offensive recordings that great artists have plopped into the dollar bins of your local record store.
Lucky for you, we were up to the undertaking. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to us at the time (we swear!), Hein has partnered up with RollingStone.com to expand the Jump the Shark empire into the realms of music and film. But that ain't gonna stop our heretofore groundbreaking efforts at doling out a little punishment. So without further ado, we present the "Cutting the Crap" evaluation system.
Garden Variety Crap-Cutting
This category is the catch-all for bands that haven't even distinguished themselves in their failures. Take, for example, the Pixies, who followed 1989's masterly Doolittle with two releases that amounted to a documentation of their ultimate downward trajectory. Although Bossanova (1990) had one or two gems ("Dig for Fire" and "Is She Weird," which Stephen thinks is "spooky," come to mind) and Trompe Le Monde (1991) had, um, oh yeah, "U-Mass," overall it smelled as if the band had sorta floated an air biscuit in the direction of its buying public, which had rightly come to expect nothing less than greatness.
Further Examples of GVCC:
· Cheap Trick, Standing on the Edge (1985): We haven't heard of it either. We thought "The Flame" was the swan song. Surprise! This stinkbomb predated it by three years.
· Ministry, Filth Pig (1995): Exactly. Rule No. 1: A "scary" industrial band should never cover Bob Dylan. Rule No. 2: Trying to save your waning "scary" industrial career by appearing in the new Spielberg flick (yes, that's them in A.I.) is just plain sad.
· Sebadoh, The Sebadoh (1999): After a string of great albums that featured some of the best love songs and revenge ballads never heard on the radio, Sebadoh frontman Lou Barlow was apparently all crapped out, and couldn't be bothered to write any songs for this sun-blanched piece of manure. While it's not completely unlistenable, one suspects this album was made using Sebadoh-omatic technology: generic stalker tune here, complaint about former boss J. Mascis there; throw in some childhood pictures with scribbling on them, call it album art and you've got yerself a Sebadoh record! Have a pillow handy with this one--it'd bore Al Gore.
· Metallica, s/t, aka The Black Album (1991): Formerly the mightiest avatar of heaviosity since Motorhead, Metallica responded to the hair-metal backlash by hiring an image consultant and securing a hair-gel sponsorship. But getting a haircut never served Samson very well, now, did it? An absolute vasectomy on vinyl, this is the sound of Metallica's mettle being sacrificed on the altar of commerce. Not surprisingly, it proved to be the band's commercial breakthrough, demonstrating the age-old idiom, "Folks has got a hearty appetite for stank!"
The Van Halen Syndrome
Not much explanation is required for this one; once you lose or fire an integral member, the compass needle is inexorably drawn southward. For VH, the David Lee Roth years were golden, but when the Red Rocker took the mic, things turned brown in a hurry. The good ship Van Halen became the poop ship Van Hagar. Just when it seemed they couldn't become any more irrelevant and adult-contemporary, they puckered up and squeezed out Gary Cherone, who led them further into the sewer. The crap that was cut in the post-Roth era was an alphabet soup of fecklessness: 5150, OU812 (which we've affectionately retitled OU8 My Poo), F.U.C.K. (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge), etc. Suggestion for the next release: If Diamond Dave ain't on it, be honest and call it P.U.
Further Examples of VHS:
· Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell (1980): Ozzy rules, Dio sux. 'Nuff said. One bright note: Dio perfected his "evil woman, look out" routine, complete with patented three-finger style of pointing, to go with this album's master"piece," "Lady Evil," which later served as fodder for Henry Rollins' spoken word routine. "Look out!!!" Dio would yell, and if you bought this you probably wish you'd have taken his advice. So do like the song and just "Walk Away" from the odor of doody that this thing kicks up.
· The Replacements, Don't Tell a Soul (1989): For a fleeting moment, Minneapolis' Replacements was the greatest rock band on the planet. Paul Westerberg seemed to have the Midas touch from the Mats' inception in 1981 to the 1986 axing of axman Bob Stinson; 1987's also excellent Pleased to Meet Me was recorded during the gap between Stinson's tenure and the arrival of johnny-come-lately Slim Dunlap, a skilled enough guitarist who contributed exactly nothing to the band's sound. With Bobby in the camp, Westerberg was a modern-day Rimbaud, a heart-on-sleeve punk with a voice of mellow gold. With his drinkin' buddy gone, Westy dried up, literally and figuratively, which had the unfortunate effect of making Don't Tell a Soul sound as if it had been produced by his colon. Westerberg had become a victim of the Mid-ass touch, where everything he lay hands on turned to plop. Soul was followed by the even fouler-smelling All Shook Down, which finds our former hero caught in the tractor beam of mediocrity, never to return to the songwriting heights he once attained.
· The Misfits, American Psycho (1997): While in many respects this steamer can hardly be called a proper Misfits record (without Danzig? Are you kidding!?), Jerry Only scores some points for sheer audacity in thinking anyone would give a heap. From the plodding riffage of "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" onward through the album, the "Misfits" play as if making music is a chore akin to cleaning truck stop toilets. Fortunately, the efforts have been rewarded with the sound of no hands clapping.
Alas, our list runneth over. But fear not, because next week we continue slinging cowmud at those who dare Cut the Crap, with more categories (new! fun!) than you can shake a sewer trout at. We'll attempt to solve the mystery behind why rap groups can't put out more than two good records before cutting the crap, how to distinguish crap-cutting from a mere sophomore slump, and scientifically determine just how large an artist's ego must balloon before s/he will release two albums simultaneously. Plus we guarantee plenty more poop jokes. Lucky you.