There are any number of albums that you can legitimately claim might be the greatest album ever made: White Light / White Heat, Who’s Next, Ramones, Pink Flag, Nevermind, Trout Mask Replica. The list goes on and on, and while many come very close to feeling “right” when I apply the title, I’m not quite sure it fits.
Recently I was introduced to the 12 minute, 7″ masterpiece Tumours, a complete rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album, Rumours, and I have to admit that so far, I cannot deny the possibility that the greatest record ever made was recorded by a band named Schlong.
To make a claim like this is clearly absurd, undoubtedly. And yet, when I bounce around the phrase, “Tumours is the Greatest Record Ever Made,” it does not feel dishonest. And what is not to love about every element of this record? Merely the cover alone is a dissertation’s worth of amazing punk rock imagery. (What woman isn’t looking for a can of Olympia, and the right man who might offer it?) Rumours itself was born the same year as Punk Rock itself, and where bands like Fleetwood Mac & The Eagles were beginning to define the “California Sound” that was dominating Top 40 Radio (and taking all the edge off of rock music), Punk Rock as an idea began to work its way into the underground in every city in the world.
By the early ’90’s, punk rock was already 10+ years old, and was already looking for reinvention at a time when many bands were becoming constrained by what “kind” of punk they were going to be. Pop, Hardcore, Crust, Political, Vegan, Christian and “Traditional” brands were already codified, where bands were being virtually stamped out by cookie cutter molds that seemed to align with a “sound” their label had developed. (How many bands are identifiable by the “Fat Mike” filter that they’re all run through?) In a dadaist move that would make any artist pleased as punch, it was already time for the idea of punk rock to finally infect punk itself.
Schlong was born out of the scene in Santa Rosa, just after Operation Ivy Broke up. Dave, fresh from Op Ivy, joined up with his brother Pat, and their friend Gavin, to start fooling around, making music. They spent the year mostly following to fruition every random musical idea they could come up with. Having never performed a single show in that year, they worked out almost three hours of music – a total of fifty songs – ready to play to anyone who would listen.
They relentlessly worked on material, pursuing covers and original tunes with a sort of fervency that studio hands might find disarming. While the brothers were proficient in and of themselves, and developed the aesthetic that was later made famous by Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, they each credit Gavin as “the musical genius.” His contribution to Schlong was a mixture of Carl Stalling by way of John Zorn, as interpreted through a Captain Beefheart sensibility. Even this description pales in comparison to the actual songs they wrote and played. Yes, they were THAT good.
“We’d come up with ideas just to prove to ourselves that we can do it,” was how Dave described the band. “We strived to fail because we thought that was funny and that entertained us. If somebody really liked something that we did, we would’ve changed it.” Gavin put it another way: “The biggest drive for me is somebody going, ‘That’s really stupid. You shouldn’t do that.’ ”
For both of them, they describe much of the aesthetic ideology of original punk rock in a way that few other artists have ever been able to articulate, before or since. Punk Rock has always been about the subversion of mainstream culture – fashion, music & media – into a sinister, Bizarro-universe version of itself. Rather than write music with the consideration of it as a product, Schlong would pursue the alternative notion that they could parade as a band for a few years and create “failing” pieces of art, merely for the entertainment of themselves. Their inversion of the very elements of what it means to be a working musician – even by the loose standards that had been codified by the American punk scene in those days – is (in my mind) some of the greatest work done by ANY working artists in the last few decades.
Dave again: “We would play musical games. We’d change a beat where it shouldn’t be changed, and see if the other guy would catch on. My brother Pat would play a reggae beat, and all of a sudden I’d just chop something up into a grindcore beat, or a Latin beat, in the middle on an odd time. We started writing songs a minute long. We couldn’t stand playing the same thing for long periods of time. We’d have 60 parts in a two-minute song. If it made us laugh, then do it.”
Fortunately, Schlong was not only another attempt at The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, because from an objective point of view, the are undoubtedly really good. Their most well-know work, Punk Side Story, has already established itself as an essential part of the mid-’90’s cannon of albums, and even that statement is to far undersell what they were as a band. While it is true that their real power lay in their ability to introduce covers, partial covers, stolen hooks, and appropriated ideas as a part of their repertoire, their original songs were even stranger concoctions, taking punk into places that was more akin to détournement in the same way that Negativland was taking tape splicing and sampling into newer and stranger lands.
Their stage shows are fondly remembered by people who saw them, a sort of last-minute punk rock cabaret with narrators, Christmas themes during the holidays, the band sometimes playing as an all Steely Dan covers act called Royal Scam (where they didn’t tell anyone they were a cover band), and on the whole, used lo-brow gimmicks to keep things light and fun on tour. As far as the band was concerned, they were always just entertaining themselves, trying to come up with the wildest ideas, and then executing them with a “Schlong” vision.
Dave describes the exact circumstances that lead to Tumours: “We were listening to the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album a lot on tour. So we covered “Go Your Own Way.” After that it was like, let’s just do the whole album as fast as we possibly can, and put the whole thing on a 7-inch. We tried to make it sound as garagy as we could. Tumors. One take. We recorded it in a couple hours.”
Here’s a link so you can hear some of it yourself (at least, 10 minutes worth… it cuts off the last couple tracks). Listen to the instrumentation. Yes, they are doing extremely succinct versions of Fleetwood Mac songs, true. But listen to the arrangements. Each song takes on a different flavor, forcing these various songs through appropriate punk tropes. “Never Going Back Again,” has a great bluegrass tinge to it, and “Don’t Stop” staples a hardcore verse onto a ska chorus. “Go Your Own Way,” almost sounds like a Crimpshrine record, and “Oh Daddy” is pulled off with crust-core precision in 28 seconds. Again, Dave insists that it was all Gavin. “Gavin would learn things in a matter of seconds.” But the more you listen to Schlong, you begin to realize that as a band, they become more than the sum of their parts. With an endless knowledge of the history of rock and roll, and the attention span of three kids in Santa Rosa who love loud music, this is the only possible outcome.
Where Punk Side Story was their magnum opus, their sort of punk-prog epic pushing the form to the very edges of what it could do, Tumours is their fuck-you-kick-the-amps-over-and-deliver-a-concentrated-blast-of-Ramones-style amazingness. Not only is the length incredibly inviting – the entire thing is over in 12 minutes – but this allows every person still in the closet about Fleetwood Mac a chance to enjoy a rare treat.
Finding Tumours may be tricky. Aside from Punk Side Story, which is easily available on both LP and CD, their entire catalog is in-and-out of print (depending on the year and what part of the country you live in), and I have never seen anything of theirs in a used bin. The copy that I’ve been playing has an even more mysterious origin: my buddy Trevor handed it to me on CD. It turned out to be a data disc containing a single, mono .wav file of the entire record. The only thing to even indicate what it might be was the green sharpie writing on the disc. This just goes to show that, even In the digital age, it is still possible to recreate some of the aesthetic attributes that shitty cassette tapes used to offer an aspiring punk artist.
Give Tumours a chance, and sit on it for a few weeks. I think you might have some trouble deciding if it is or isn’t the greatest album ever made, too. Which is okay. There’s plenty of other records out there that have really worked hard at the title, and they’ve probably earned it. In the world of Schlong, the greatest record ever made would remain unsold in the back of a store, ignored and unlistened to by all, influencing no one, and known only by the ones who made it, as they hold extended middle fingers to all the other records around them.
That is what I hear when I listen to Tumours.
But I’m in a bit of a paradox, in that to announce how much I enjoy it is to invalidate the record itself by the band’s own criteria. Is that the final joke? I’m sure there’s one or two other’s that I’ll never manage to unpack, either, and that’s what makes bands like Schlong so much fun. While it is predictable that the Schlong story ends just after Punk Side Story, I like to imagine a world where their version of music history is the way everyone views the world. What is incredible about this band is not the world they did inhabit, but the game they have created that is being re-imagined by every generation of band to follow in their wake: what would x sound like if I ran it through the punk-rock filter?
And if I’m not mistaken, you’re starting to play that game right now, too. Which is their ultimate triumph.