14 min read

Everything (good) Is Embarrassing

Viagra Boys, despite myself
Everything (good) Is Embarrassing

I’m watching the Records In My Life YouTube interview with the rock band Viagra Boys and I’m cringing like mad. Three members of the Swedish outfit are being interrogated by Records In My Life awkward and kindly host. The band is hungover and, embarrassingly, says so. One of the Viagra Boys (god… that fucking name) is sporting a stubble-y casual substitute gym teacher look. The middle V Boy is bald and wearing a tracksuit, looking like a villainous ecstasy dealer from a ‘90s romcom. And the third musician is so pristinely tattooed, handsome, and plain-white-t-shirted he might as well be a Touche Amore lyric come-to-life. All three are trying to explain Anti-Cimex to the interviewer, who is clearly unaware of not just the Swedish d-beat legends, but also every genre Anti-Cimex might be reasonably considered a part of. Still, the journalist is nodding like he knows what crust punk is. I’m flashing back to every time I’ve ever been at a bar, talking to rockers whom I badly would like to think of me as a cool cat equal, failing to fake being even remotely familiar with some obscure death rock band, from some made up city in some made up country, who put out a single out-of-print (except fanclub editions) LP in 1983, who all the true cool cats know; flashing each other the band’s battle-vest patches, like VIP badges to a Copenhagen squat. The whole video is brutally embarrassing. Just like Viagra Boys, the try-hard goony goons with the worst band name in show business, whom I am coming around on.

While the preceding example is more about the shame of us journalists’ refusal to know anything important, I’ve been embarrassed about Viagra Boys for years. Since a publicist first wrote to me about them, sometime between 2017 and 2018. (I don’t know exactly when… it seems I deleted the emails.) I recall it being a publicist I like, who repped punk bands I like, and I recall wanting to like Viagra Boys. I think I even wrote back and said as much, while copping from the jump that the band name might be a dealbreaker for me. It’s not like the name, “Viagra Boys,” is offensive. It’s not. More that it seemed like the band wanted the band name to be shocking. Like they thought somebody, perhaps a schoolmarm or grand dame of the opera, on some planet where Jay Leno never happened, might conceivably pop their monocle over a band name that circuitously referenced erectile dysfunction. The name didn’t make me want to speak to an archetypal store manager so much as it made me want to write to Viagra Boys’ publicist, asking him to write the band manager so he or she could give the band better advice.

Full Disclosure: I am in a band called “Publicist UK.” A name that I not only came up with, but insisted we keep when our label gave us the option to pick something (anything) else. I am not in a position to judge another band’s name. But self-awareness of hypocrisy is the purview of the mind, not the heart. In terms of aesthetic judgement, even about such high stake matters as a band name, I can only go where the spirit takes me.

I was doing regular work for Noisey at the time of that publicist initial email, and was eager to both help new bands and invoice enough VICE payments to equal one paycheck at a pre-internet music publication. I gave the V Boys songs a listen. I gave the V Boys songs multiple listens. I thought a lot about Viagra Boys for a few weeks, trying to pinpoint just what my fucking problem was. Their sound, the songs off of what either was or would become their debut album, Street Worms, was certainly a sound that I historically enjoyed. The throbbing bass of post-punk and ‘90s noise rock, wiry and skronking guitars, a singer alternating between contemptuous drawl and full throated freak-out; Viagra Boys ticked boxes I’d liked ticked since I was just a lil’ amphetamine reptile, fresh out of the noise rock egg. If Viagra Boys’ name was the only hurdle, I’m sure I’d have gotten past it.

Unfortunately there were other concerns. Some as facile as the band name and some completely out of the band’s control. To the former, I hated the singer’s sunglasses and I hated his propensity to shirtlessness. The sunglasses were the sporty, decidedly unclassic, ungarage rock kind favored by men whose online avatars are of them in their cars, surrounded by American flags and just caught trout. And since I was eighteen, as soon as I saw so many of my teenage friends who liked Rollins Band join the Marines, shirtlessness has been a dealbreaker. From RHCP to Fat White Family, unless a singer is literally John Joseph, I expect him to keep his top on. Like I said, facile concerns. Or, as this Rock and Roll we’re talking about, EXTREMELY IMPORTANT CONCERNS. If looking cool was trivial, I’d have quit smoking years ago. And, if I’m willing to die early to avoid looking like a dork, expecting Scott Walker shades and a nice, half unbuttoned at most, dress shirt is not too much to ask of my post-punk balladeers.

The problem beyond Viagra Boys’ control was that, starting with Savages but still going strong in 2018, I was sick to death of 99% of all post-punk bands. Despite it being my third favorite genre, after punk and hardcore, I’d long ago lost my easy adoration for fast-dub basslines and disaffected singers with disaffected hairdos. Not Viagra Boys’ fault. But with bands like Protomartyr and Native Cats performing the template perfectly, with subtly caustic wit and seemingly without effort, bands like Algiers subverting the form into roller-disco, and bands like Rakta exploding the template entirely, I had and have zero bandwidth for merely solid post-punk practitioners merely throbbing along acting pissy. And that’s what a song like “Sports,” Viagra Boys’ most ballyhooed single felt like. Sebastian Murphy’s minimalist recitations of recreation and consumption was cool enough, and god knows the no wave saxophone didn’t (ever) hurt. But it still felt pretty pointless. I mean, “Sports”? That’s the target, even as metaphor, in the 21st Century? Why not just call it “Sporpsball” and to hell with it?

So, in these contexts, I let my blushing eye roll at the band’s name set my perception.

In retrospect, my sense of embarrassment was misaligned. I should have given less attention to the man’s shirtlessness and more to his willingness to really rock his Elmo bod for the song’s video. Or I should have known that, if a band lives long enough, being embarrassing can sometimes go from vice to virtue. Regardless, I moved on. Went back to focussing my snobbish contempt on good old terrible American bands with beards and Springsteen fetishes.

(It should also be noted that many, many people whose opinions I respect have liked Viagra Boys from the get-go. Other writers, punks, Sniffers, Sleaford Mods, etc… all have never found the Viagra Boys remotely embarrassing. So, you know, keep that in mind.)

Recently, however, I got a text from my friend and former editor, Drew Millard. Drew is smart and funny. Both he and his partner, Emilie Friedlander, have edited me out of public humiliation numerous times. Drew mainly writes about stuff like Da Baby. He’s got a book in the works about golf. Drew, finding me to be both discerning and old, occasionally asks my opinion about punk rock music that crosses his radar.

Drew sent me three texts in rapid succession. (Drew, being closer to his birth than his death, doesn’t use punctuation in his texts.)

The first said (asked????), “Is it ok to like viagra boys”

The second, “like are they cool”

And the third, “they seem cool but they’re def more your territory than mine”

I take my responsibilities as token aging hipster friend seriously. Drew’s texts tapped into two of the most important questions that can be asked about art. About anything, really.

Is it ok to like it?

Is it cool?

(The questions are in order of their asking, not necessarily their importance. Their importance, in relation to each other, is above my paygrade. Which is, in this instance, low.) (Please consider a paid subscription to my newsletter.)

My friend’s query demanded more than a lazy response of just yes or no. My desire to be a good/honest arbitrator of post-punk to my younger friends (coupled with some recent extremely sad life stuff that has necessitated my taking handfuls of adderall and writing till 7AM to avoid my own internal life) has impelled me to both revisit Viagra Boys’ early catalog and to purchase their newest album, Welfare Jazz, which just came out. $10.99 on iTunes (Welfare Jazz- embarrassingly- isn’t on Bandcamp), cash on the barrel. If there’s a friend more dedicated to having a strong opinion about a friend’s offhand query about some random bullshit, I challenge you to find them.

I should say that there is a strong precedent for my initially finding a band’s image cartoonishly embarrassing and then finding the Jesus that allows me to love them. When I became aware of Seattle anime-punks, Murder City Devils, (upon the release of their second, ludicrously titled album, Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts, in 1998), it was because Sam Fogerino, not yet in Interpol, was working at Beacon’s Closet (then still on Bedford Ave). I was twenty-one or twenty-two, very lonely, and, thinking Sam was the coolest of cats (he was then in a garage rock band called The Ton-Ups), I’d go visit him at the thrift store so much that other employees thought I had a crush. Anyway, Sam was kind to me and occasionally gave me giveaways that no one at the store wanted.  And he gave me the Murder City Devils promo CD. Even at “free,” and even with my deep and abiding love for garbage garage punk, it was easily the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. Lumbering, beach bingo hooey that seemed like it was written and performed by newly emancipated Warped Tour Oompa-Loompas who had learned human speech from Johnny Thunders’ coloring books read aloud to them by Bukowski’s dog. All the songs were about sailors and cowboys, and these barfly, bar-back jokers seemed to think that their lives as ex-boyfriend cautionary tales and professional sticker books were somehow comparable. The insert photo was of all the band members’ arm tattoos for God’s sake. There was no way I was going to ever listen to this so-far-on-the-nose-as-to-be-Grouch-Marx-glasses horshit again.

Suffice to say that, within six months, I had a flaming 13 tattoo and, to this day, can recite all the words of “Rum to Whisky” from memory.

I cosplayed as the sort of person a Murder City Devil might want to hang out with for years, going so far as to fight my way onto the bill when they played CBGBs. Sorry, members of The Yo-Yos for making you go on close to midnight. Sorry, everyone I made come see us first on that six band bill.

I don’t see that fanboy transformation happening again. For one thing, while I already share Viagra Boys’ singer Sebastian Murphy’s Elmo-esque physique, I don’t think my girl will let me get a full chest piece. For another, I’ve already met my lifetime quota for Nordic infatuation with my only-a-third-kidding decade-long crush on those Denmark princes in Iceage. I’m not getting younger. My heart can only hold so much. Having said that, Viagra Boys, if not completely heart-wormed in, seem to be circling the vicinity. And while I don’t think Welfare Jazz is as cartoonishly embarrassing or embarrassingly life-altering as Murder City Devils at their best, there’s a shared lust for loony tune life that makes a strong argument for the Welfare Jazz’s staying power.

When I talk about Viagra Boys’ new album’s potential “staying power,” I’m giving high, if qualified, praise. It’s impossible to know what any of us will give a shit about in the future. And I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence by calling Welfare Jazz a “classic” (whatever that means). But I will say that Welfare Jazz does feel like an album that would come out back when classic albums were common, possibly by even the same people who made those albums. If your tastes run the way mine do (if you somehow genuinely prefer That Petrol Emotion to The Undertones, Pegboy to Naked Raygun, etc.) then this prospect should excite you. I’m not saying the classics are bad, or that a freakish purgatory of small differences is anything to aspire to. I’m merely saying that Welfare Jazz sounds like it was made by an imaginary band made up of imaginary musicians kicked out of all the best amphetamine goth bands of the ‘80s. In this imaginary scenario, the kicked out musicians, even in their humiliation, have better taste than to form pomposities like The Mission (UK). Instead our theoretical anti-heroes embrace their diminished circumstances, the fact that they owe Kid Congo three months back rent and even Die Haut won’t return their calls, and opt to go further into the absurd scuzz of their own poor choices/record collections. And what they come up with is a degenerate, b-movie, keeper.

The careful reader may have noticed that I’m no longer using embarrassing or humiliating as insults. That’s because nothing in this world is set but death. And I’m only as fickle as the expanding universe around me. As tomatoes become tamahtoes and potatoes become potahtoes, so can a cringe become a blush. While you’re in the kitchen, fixing yourself a light snack, the fatal flaw turns into something heroic. Just look at Achilles. There are few things are more cringe-inducing than dying from an arrow piercing one in the heel (an arrow shot by Paris of all people). I’m surprised he didn’t die of embarrassment. I’m surprised none of the Greeks did. But would we care about Achilles if his foot was merely tasteful? If it kept its shirt on, went to Oberlin, and cited The Byrds as a key influence? Unlikely!

Are the Viagra Boys, on Welfare Jazz, no longer goofy? No longer obvious? Well, the album opens with an Animaniacs swell, a bassline pulled from a Touch & Go scrapheap, and Sebastian Murphy sneering “you can have me if you want me/ all I need is a little (something) money… I ain’t nice.” Throughout, while Murphy attempts to channel Jesus Lizard’s David Yow, it’s the less subtle (lol), spiteful yeehaw spirit of Fear’s Lee Ving that pervades. So much that the most of the sounds that might constitute “jazz” on the record remind the listener less of Mingus than “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones” played by a kazoo orchestra. So…, while none of that is a negative in my book, Viagra Boys are inarguably still goofy.

Then, are Viagra Boys so embarrassing, so committed to doubling down on the grotesque, that they’ve, in the words of Jack Donaghy, gone deeper into the crevasse? And, in going towards the darkness, saved themselves? That doesn’t feel entirely correct either. Because there is a newfound subtlety. Or at least an agility that wasn’t there before. But the doubling down does give a hint. I remember talking to Protomartyr’s Joe Casey a few years back. We discussed that one his sorrows was that he no longer could sing in the voice of dubious characters. Listeners just didn’t have the ability/willingness to differentiate between a song’s protagonist and its singer. People being dumb, it just wasn’t worth the hassle. Well, to Viagra Boys, singing from the point of view of scumbags is worth the hassle. Welfare Jazz is populated by an asshole-dom long out of fashion. In that sense, Viagra Boy’s willingness to bravely inhabit the grotesque works.

Or maybe there is no answer that fits a neat thesis. Maybe songs are just better.

Welfare Jazz explores a variety of styles. Skewed-country ballads next to AmRep barnburners next to art school/discotheque workouts. All performed with the kind of able arrogance and lithe self loathing that comes with suspecting greatness is for other people; corny people doomed to be gods, masters, rock stars, etc. Where others may hear a confusion of influences, I’m delighted that Viagra Boys have strayed from the template of “crazy guy over driving bass” into a considerably wilder terrain, one that has space for spaghetti western cool, plaintively lovely singing (that makes the disreputable characters sleazily sympathetic), and horn charts both considered and ramshackle.

The result is a record that feels like an album that you find in the used bin and take a chance on and are rewarded with a new favorite. That’s better than a “classic” any day. Last thing the world needs is another U2, but we could use all the Fatima Mansions we can get. If that example is too obscure, feel free to trade “Fatima Mansions” out for your favorite Homestead Records act. More than a lot of albums of the past decade, even some I’ve initially liked more than Welfare Jazz, I can actually imagine the new Viagra Boys being pulled out of its sleeve after the bars close, placed upon a record player, and played to friends and/or lovers. Like, even months/years outside the promotion cycle.

Like the music of a number of pasty romantics, Viagra Boys’ relationship with the music of America, from their album’s title on down, is always ludicrous, occasionally veering into the unfortunate. There’s some questionable accents at work throughout Welfare Jazz. And I don’t know what the deal is with the caricatured voice on “This Old Dog,” but the deal appears to suck. Outside that low point.... mileage may vary. I have enough love for the ‘80s cowboy junkies (the look, not the band) traditions that the album extends that I find its ahistorical, waterbug dabbling in American modes a plus (if not an absolute virtue). But that warrants further explanation. Viagra Boys get a lot of comparisons to Nick Cave’s pre-Bad Seeds outfit, The Birthday Party. The comparison makes sense in that both bands indulge manic, spasmodic impulses and both play(ed) an Ameriphile post-punk tempered by the kind of Southern Gothic deathride fixation that only non-Americans (with the question of “authenticity” not even on the table) have enough arched eyebrow distance to pull off without getting a few arched eyebrows right back. While the critic at Pitchfork (reasonably) sees Viagra Boys blues pantomime as racialized and (vaguely) problematic, I hear Murphy’s drawl as totally divorced from, well, anything real. It’s less blues based than “Tracy Pew in a cowboy hat and chaps” tribute; a countrified yearning for old country records but no actual country. Viagra Boys don’t sound like they’re referencing the blues, they sound like they’re referencing ‘80s bands that referenced the blues; ie. all the ex-Bad Seeds side-projects in Berlin. (Which I guess is technically the south, in relation to Sweden.) That being said, I’m certainly not the sheriff and judge of Accent Town. Others may hear something I’m missing. But nothing on Welfare Jazz strikes me as any more offensive than the Rolling Stones discography. And even the song that could most easily be taken as either country tribute or pisstake, the John Prine cabaret duet with Amy from Amyl & The Sniffers, comes off as only half as fake as Mick Jagger’s singing on Some Girls.

The world is lousy with post-punk bands. Most are fine and most are more tasteful, less embarrassing than Viagra Boys. Literally all of them have better band names. But the fact remains that I, gun to my head, can not listen to an entire Idles or Shame or Fontaines DC song. I mean, I can. But don’t ask me to describe it afterwards. I’ve come around on Viagra Boys. Not just in comparison to the stultifying reasonableness of their peers, but not not in comparison either. End of the day, I do dig Welfare Jazz’s queasy charms; the way the songs slink and shudder, occasionally sweet and usually sweaty, always game to die behind or under the wheel. Good taste can only get you so far. The muck just begs to be rolled around in. Eventually you need to be willing to take your shirt off.

Really, much of how one takes Viagra Boys is dependent on how one feels about Nick Cave. Old, pre sainthood Nick Cave. If one considers Cave’s use of Tupelo as a prop to further the apocalyptic movements within Cave’s own psychodrama as not that big a deal, then Viagra Boys’ irreverence towards God and country and the music that made all three possible shouldn’t be a problem either. And if, like me, you have an uneasy affinity for the scumbag narrators of early August Darnell, find the duets of Lydia Lunch and JG Thirlwell amongst the heights of human creation, or at least own more than one Gallon Drunk album… then Welfare Jazz is probably already in your sticky-from-questionable-sources paws. If you instead feel like all Swedes and Australians should leave the blues alone and stick to their homegrown traditions of cuckoo clocks and knifey spooney, then that’s a fair position as well. Welfare Jazz is there for the judging. Is it cool? Certainly! Is it ok to like it? Consult a priest. Art, as ever, remains a real pickle.

Thanks for reading!

PS. I recently profiled noted Viagra Boys enjoyers, Sleaford Mods, for Washington Post. Why does none of the above apply to them? Got me! I just always loved them. What are you, the embarrassing police?

Subscribe now