Sole Criterion: Beastie Boys Video Anthology
By Brett Ballard-Beach
August 2, 2012
The highlights from other directors extend to “Gratitude” (from David Perez Shadi), a mostly straightforward performance with the trio playing instruments, a welcome reminder of their musical chops as well as their far-flung and exhaustive knowledge of music history spanning all genres; and “Hey Ladies” from Adam Bernstein, a tongue-in-cheek lampooning of ‘70s lifestyles and the call of the disco floor. Dig the woman as the clock hands, Adam H. in bed with the fish at the end, and actual visual representation of the greatest cowbell break ever.
And if I may diverge ever so slightly, listening to Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique in close quarters recently (as one has now eclipsed its 25th anniversary and the other is only two years away) and considering the totality of the Beastie’s career since then, I think they may have only been equaled by Radiohead over the last 25 years in the category of “delivering a commercially successful first album that in no way prepares you for the second album and in no way whatsoever suggests a long, ambitious, idiosyncratic career will follow.” It isn’t as if they grew up massively in the two and a half years between those albums. They simply had the commercial clout to call the shots and stay even more true to their far-flung musical tastes. Listening to their instrumental album The Mix-Up for the first time, I would have to say I prefer it to at least some of their other studio albums.
The thought struck me that the album titles and cover artwork themselves overtly suggest the worlds of difference. Licensed to Ill with its punny title and crushed compacted wrecked jet accurately captures the brattiness of the lyrics, the minimalism of the music, and the narrow scope of the worldview overall. Paul’s Boutique contains an NYC reference in its title (found again in the 11 second penultimate track) and in its glorious foldout album art, cinematically encompassing several downtown blocks of their bustling home metropolis on a sun-blessed day.
Paul’s Boutique plays like the album in which a band includes everything they may never get a chance to include again - whether that be a 23 second country interlude; a staggering 111 songs sampled (per the list on Wikipedia) which also encompasses four of the band’s own songs, or the massively ambitious nine part/12 minute closing track “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” which plays like a shout out to the five boroughs as well as a sampling of their far-flung inspirations. Paul’s Boutique was also far ahead of the curve in its embrace of the ‘70s after only a decade of distance. Mixing up heavy metal, rap, funk, R&B and country and tossing in juvenilia (“Hey Ladies” and “Shake Your Rump”) with more sinister odes to a criminal lifestyle (“Car Thief” and “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”), it retains a loosey-goosey sense of fun and improvisation, even as one considers the effort and skill that went into its arranging, recording, and production. I was confounded by it when I was 13 (I had missed out on Licensed to Ill, so this was my first experience with them), and I was smart enough to recognize that there was a lot there that I would be able to appreciate one day, even if it would be some time down the line when that moment arrived.
To circle back to where I began: it was MCA’s death that spurred me to do this column, to become at least a little more familiar with a band so ubiquitous and popular and beloved and who had written the path of their career and played the music that they wanted to. Based solely on his voice, and the charisma he exhibits in the videos (as well as his progression in photos and footage from young hoodlum to billy goat gruff to distinguished grey-haired elder statesman of rap), I would, if pressed, pick MCA as my favorite. I have struggled over the last few weeks to find “that phrase” that accurately conveys the sound of his voice as well as my predilection for it. As coarse and rough as it sounds, its tones still emanate with a swell of good cheer: call it “whiskey sandpaper with a sunrise chaser” and pour a little on the ground for an MC silenced too soon.
Exitlude: A few thoughts on “Sabotage.” I was in the second half of my freshman year at college when the single came out. I feel certain that I must have seen it accompanying the video clip before I first heard it on the radio. I had seen the video numerous times over the years and caught it on the dial from time to time. I did not realize until I listened to it on The Sounds of Science some 18 years later, how much the goofy video has colored my perception of the song. “Sabotage” is quite simply, one of the angriest and most bitter songs ever, something that had never fully penetrated my consciousness. It’s not angry in a funny ha ha way or angry in a cathartic cleansing way. It doesn’t need a speed metal lick or an aggro political viewpoint to make its case either. There is no release after its three minutes are up. It ends abruptly and brutally. Buddy Rich pop culture reference aside, the song dwells outside of the Beasties’ latter day wheelhouse. There is no passing of the mic, no sense of fraternity in the vocals, as Adam Horvitz nasal’ whine takes center stage and gets pushed to feral wolf howls. It has the energy of their earliest songs (the three play guitar, bass, and drums) and the snarl of the couplet “While you sit back and wonder why/ I’ve got this fucking thorn in my side” reverberates forwards and backwards through the wall of sound.
Next time: DVD Spine # 440. Director Guy Maddin’s phantasmagoric Brand Upon the Brain!