Punk Rock Twirl: The sharp, smart fury of the Dead Milkmen and the nerding-out ’80s

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. — Albert Einstein

A lot of people are singing about how screwed up the world is, and I don’t think that everybody wants to hear about that all the time. — Mariah Carey in the early ’90s

Popular culture has had a love-hate relationship with intelligence, mostly having to do with the fact that we all want content that will make us happy (even if we need to feel sad to feel happy), but we hate being condescended to. The best pop music, for instance, tends to hide its intelligence within the fortune cookie wisdom of clever epithets: “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, for instance, doesn’t actually tell us why, nor does it imply that the listener is one of the aforementioned fools. It is for this reason that smarty-pants wiseguy rock tends to get kicked to the curb, popularity-wise; like the real life wisenheimers eternally growing flowers on the walls of our remembered teenage slow dance gymnasiums, self-conscious intelligence in rock music tends to be shunted to the dark far corners of our collective mindspace.

It is important to note, however, that an important exception to this rule was made in the mid-1980s, when reveling in what we would now call “snark” was briefly all the rage. It was a nerd storm that raged through pop culture and in many ways made the ’80s “The 80s”, allowing the mass culture to deal with the fear and confusion of both imminent nuclear annihilation and the inevitable computer takeover of the human race. This decade-long nerd-gasm would culminate in the precocious uber-blluurgg of the Beastie Boys, who managed to somehow merge an encyclopedic cultural knowledge with wedgie-giving party dude abandon. For those that remember the times, however, it is important to give props to the Dead Milkmen, who set the precedent for dork-rock without necessarily reaping the rewards of stadium-filling fame.

The Dead Milkmen are primarily remembered for two things: their 1985 underground college radio hit “Bitchin’ Camaro”, and their 1988 alternative smash “Punk Rock Girl” that found the band briefly sharing MTV airtime with the likes of Midnight Oil and Def Leppard. Their success in these terms is primarily seen as a leap from ’80s college rock to ’90s alternative rock. It may seem like a piddly distinction, but prior to the explosion of so-called “alternative rock” in late 1991, nascent underground music was often categorized as “college rock,” a name which made sense: these were bands that were played on college rock stations, a world away from the media blitz of mainstream popular music. Before Nirvana’s Nevermind overtook Michael Jackson’s Bad on the Billboard album charts in 1992, it was common knowledge that there were two kinds of music: the dumb stuff for the masses and the smart stuff for the kids in the colleges. You either loved Mariah Carey’s trilling melismatic odes to love’s perfection or you were wearing oversized flannel shirts scrawling Smiths lyrics on your Mod Lit notebook.

My guess is that Joe Genaro was in neither of those camps when, as a child in the late-’70s, he came up with the concept of Dead Milkmen as a band. A skewering of pop and rock history that was filled with fake names and outlandish histories, Genaro’s imaginary band was snotty and irreverent, if non-existent. Once he shipped off to Temple University, he assembled a group of actual humans to fill the roles: college pals Dean Sabatino on drums and Dave Schulthise on bass, and old high school acquaintance Rodney Linderman as the motormouth frontman. Together, they did the musical equivalent of lighting their farts on fire, creating incredibly obnoxious music that managed to be both hilarious and catchy. If they were musically inept as well — well, this was punk rock, remember?

It was, of course, part of the charm of their debut album, 1985’s Big Lizard In My Backyard — not just their amateurishness, but the way that they spat out jokes faster than the listener could keep up. A single like “Bitchin’ Camaro” was almost too much for mid-’80s culture, which is why it wound up being the quintessential viral-before-there-was-such-a-thing underground of hit of its time. Initially a slow-burning hit on college radio, it eventually found its way outside of collegiate ivory towers, becoming a shared secret for clued-in high schoolers and middle schoolers all over the country.

“Bitchin’ Camaro”, musically and stylistically, wasn’t far off from the blueprint set forth by sarcastic punkers at the time: Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks, to name just two far more entrenched punk institutions, had cemented the concept of first-you-play-like-a-lounge-band-and-then-you-explode-with-punk-rage. It was a song idea that would soon become the template for another college rock darling, the Pixies, who would of course bring the quiet-loud-quiet-loud strategy to bands like Nirvana who themselves would ultimately make the style the rock cliché of the following decade. The difference, though, between all of these bands and the Dead Milkmen is just the sheer goofiness of “Bitchin’ Camaro” — the meat of the song is the semi-improvised intro, as Genaro and Linderman attempt to skewer rich kids, surfer culture and general rock/party tropes with maniacal glee. In essence, what is being celebrated is being on the outside of a party you never wanted to be invited to anyway.

Which might sound weird, but you kind of need to place “Bitchin’ Camaro” in proper context to get why it was so funny: by 1985, culture was becoming inundated with a first wave of “nerd” culture — first came “Whip It” by Devo, then came “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Weird Al” Yankovic and his foodbased parodies, then the hit film Revenge of the Nerds in 1984. After Revenge, it was a deluge: you had not just the obvious follow-ups to the trend, like the films Weird Science and Real Genius, or television shows like Misfits of Science, but the way that the nerd-y sidekick was actually the hero, like the dude on Riptide. The nerd thing took over pop culture for a good five years in the ’80s, if not longer; anyone alive during this time, for instance, can verify just how inundated we all were with things like that smarmy kid with glasses who did those Encyclopedia Britannica commercials:

Anyway, Dead Milkmen and “Bitchin’ Camaro” were kind of the underground punk rejoinder to this increasingly-mainstream bubble trend. “Bitchin’ Camaro” lampooned getting wasted and being rich, sure, but it also wanted to make sure you were smart enough to understand basic geographical concepts. In the intro, both Linderman and Genaro play loathsome rich kids, with Linderman bragging about his new car amidst jabs at Motley Crue and Jim Morrison; but it’s a thin performance, as Linderman is the talking-too-fast jokester and Genaro pretending to be a clueless airhead:

DL: The important thing here is that we get to the part where you ask me how I’m gonna get down to the shore.

JG: Oh, how you gettin’ down to the shore?

DL: Funny you should ask, I’ve got a car now.

JG: Ah wow, how’d ya get a car?

DL: Oh, my folks drove it up here from the Bahamas.

JG: You’re kidding!

DL: I must be, the Bahamas are islands.

Trust me when I say that this was gut-bustingly funny in 1985, and even in 1987 when this song finally made it to the suburban middle schoolers that were its true intended audience. The song was mean, it was pointless, it was mercifully short, and endlessly repeatable — for a certain segment of the population, quoting Dead Milkmen lyrics briefly supplanted quoting Monty Python sketches as a way to while away free periods during drudgerous school days.

The band grew to consider Big Lizard as an adolescent first step in their musical career, which is a sensible way of letting fans know several decades later why you don’t want to be known as the guys who wrote and recorded “Takin Retards To The Zoo”. They followed up Big Lizard with 1986’s Eat Your Paisley and 1987’s Bucky Fellini, which yielded another college radio hit in “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance To Anything)”. “Instant Club Hit” made plain the band’s disdain for a very specific type of pretension, taking aim at dance music purveyors by name (with a now-dated jab at the Communards) in a way that was probably way over the heads of most of the band’s fans. “You know what you are? You’re a bunch of art fags” was probably very on the nose and offensive to a specific segment of college-aged Philadelphia, but lacked the we-are-nerds-you-are-jocks populism of the band’s earlier tracks.

By 1988, the band had found a way to reconcile the ebbing of the nerd wave — they would be essentially a comedy-leaning college rock band. The result of this strategy was Beelzebubba, a relatively slick-sounding record that yielded their biggest hit, “Punk Rock Girl”. An accordion-fueled rave-up sung atypically by Genaro, “Punk Rock Girl” rhymed “Let’s travel ‘round the world” with “We’ll dress like Minnie Pearl”, and was again a hilarious comedy send-up. The thing is, by 1988 pop culture was primed for comedy music: And no, I’m not talking about Rick Astley’s #1 single that year, “Never Gonna Give You Up”. I’m referring more to songs like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince — while “Weird Al” was still minting money with straight parodies, the success of Will Smith’s first single proved that the success of rap was priming younger audiences for straight-up comedy music.

How else were fans supposed to take something like the clownish video for, say, 1986’s “Walk This Way”, or the previously mentioned Borscht Belt raspberry that was the Beastie Boys’ mangling of rap music tropes on 1986’s Licensed To Ill? It’s important to remember that none of this stuff was assumed to be important or built to last into anything legendary; like most comedy aimed at a younger audience, it was seen as ephemera that was not as important as, I dunno, the serious work being done by U2 or Jackson Browne or Midnight Oil. All of this was great news for natural cut-ups like The Dead Milkmen, since their humor wasn’t political or serious or dangerous either; while they were yucking it up with their send-ups of art-school pretensions, a band like the Dead Kennedys was destroyed by a costly obscenity trial (brought about by objections to the H.R. Giger cover for 1985’s Frankenchrist). As more and more within late-’80s music culture were drawn to political extremes during Reagan’s second term and Bush Sr.’s first, Dead Milkmen continued to be sophomoric pranksters who appealed to an eternal adolescent id.

The end of the band’s reign can be pinpointed clearly to the failure of 1992’s Soul Rotation; their major label debut, plopped down in the middle of alternative rock’s Year One, it was the band’s chance to reinvent themselves for the new era, as so many other ’80s underground veterans had already done (Bob Mould, Soul Asylum, Paul Westerberg, Steve Albini, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Henry Rollins, Ian McKaye, etc. etc. would all reinvent themselves for a ’90s generation that wasn’t there when they spent a decade getting their hands stamped in grimy clubs nightly). The album the band turned in, however, wasn’t “Punk Rock Girl, Pt. 2”, nor was it “Bitchin’ Camaro, Pt. 2”; instead, it was a strange pop record, mostly sung by Genaro, that was filled with wide-eyed tunes brimming with a child-like exuberance. It was a great record that showed the band evolving and growing out of the pit of snotty ‘tude that marked their prior records — unfortunately, by losing the ‘tude they had made a record that appealed to pretty much no one.

Hollywood let them follow Soul Rotation up with Not Richard But Dick in 1993, but clearly they were unhappy with the iteration of the Dead Milkmen they had gotten; a few years later, the band quietly called it quits. For the next 13 years, the members of the band did a lot of growing up, with relatively little throwing up mixed in — Linderman became a journalist and blogger, Sabatino started a family and went to grad school, Schulthise got a PhD and taught English in war-ravaged Serbia, while Genaro plugged away at an extensive solo career. The band was brought back together in 2008 for a somber occasion at odds with the irreverence of the Milkmen legacy, the suicide of Schulthise.

The band has kept at it since, and the two long-players they have released since their ‘08 reunion (2011’s The King In Yellow and last year’s Pretty Music For Pretty People) see the band revisiting the snotty mayhem of their youthful selves in a way that is pleasing to the enthusiastic cult that the band has cemented since their 1996 split. Like many ’80s underground heroes, their reunion stints are almost more successful than those of the band’s most popular original periods. And yet the legacy of the Dead Milkmen will always seem rooted in the mid-1980s and its weird momentary permission to nerd.

Of course, in our current culture, nerd ascendency is all anyone will talk about; but it’s important to understand that 1980s nerd culture was not about dressing like a comic book superhero so much as being staunchly outside of the prevailing culture of success and conformity that so epitomized the Reagan era — it wasn’t just being “smart”, but being oppositionally sarcastic and being willing to take mainstream rejection and create a viable subculture from it, while also resisting the urge to turn the pain of rejection into an artistic statement. As Linderman wails in the refrain of Bucky Fellini’s “Theme From Blood Orgy Of The Atomic Fern”, “No art! No art! No art! No art!”

In this sense, the band’s aesthetic mirrors our cultures eternal war of opposing forces of intelligence and stupidity: We love the thought of containing the capacity of the former while we fight for the right to be the latter. Both are especially warring within the adolescent mind, and the finest of rock poets are able to capture this smart-stupid dichotomy and bottle it for posterity. If the Dead Milkmen never taught us anything self-consciously profound, they at least elevated being a sneering teenager to an art form whilst simultaneously railing against the act of anything being elevated to anything.

THE DEAD MILKMEN + WALTER SICKERT AND THE ARMY OF BROKEN TOYS :: Saturday, October 17 at the Sinclair, 52 Church St. in Cambridge, MA :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, sold out :: Bowery Boston event page