Letters from Somnolescent July 1, 2023

First Draft: …The Dandy Warhols Come Down

by mariteaux

The Black Album and ...The Dandy Warhols Come Down

Rarely do albums come out right on the first shot. Labels reject them, bands disown them, and they get added onto after release. Here on First Draft, we take a look at albums that got cut down or remade and see what difference the changes made.

This first review concerns the first attempt at the second Dandy Warhols album, 1997’s …The Dandy Warhols Come Down, as given to us by the band seven years later.

Welcome to the inaugural First Draft, an essay series about the albums that didn’t work on the first go, or albums that got redone somewhere down the line. Through demos, rejected releases, and alternate mixes, I think you can gleam a whole third dimension from an album, a listening experience that puts the real thing in an entirely new light. I love talking about this kinda stuff; hopefully, you enjoy reading about it too.

(If you’re getting a sense you’ve been here before, that’s because this first First Draft actually had its own First Draft moment and I pulled it down! I wound up liking the album a lot more than when I first wrote it, and so I pulled it pending a much fairer rewrite. Some extra outtakes from the sessions that I speculated on in the original text also came out in the interim between me pulling the post and this new version as well, so it was even more outdated. Anyway…)

Love to Be Dandy

After that we had every major label A + R person and their mom following us around. If you know us, you know that we can be excessive and big moochers, so naturally we rode this pony for everything it was worth; free meals, plane rides, hotel rooms, and much, much more.

So there’s this band from Portland. They’re all massive hipsters, and they’re known for their hipster music. “Bohemian Like You”, “We Used to Be Friends”, “You Were the Last High”, and absolutely the best song title of the 90s after “Detachable Penis”, “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”. They like their fuzzy guitars and folk tunes and glammy glitz, you might’ve stared at Zia if you’re a straight guy, and they’re keen on reminding you—they rule, okay. They call themselves the Dandy Warhols.

The Dandy Warhols
Zia, Courtney, Brent, Pete.

The nature of the Dandy is to try and look like they’re not trying at all. “We never felt like we needed to make anyone think that we were cool,” goes their singer, Courtney Taylor-Taylor (doubled surname very much on purpose). “Who would be cooler than us? Who could possibly be cooler than us? Nobody! We didn’t give a fuck. Everybody wanted to hang out with us like the Cure, Joe Strummer, Bowie. We did completely whatever the fuck we were, and that was such a wonderful thing to be.”

Like everything else in the music industry, the image threatens to overshadow the music. Snarky, nose thumbed, making albums they would describe as “the last classic rock album” and songs they’d describe as “one of the greatest pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life”. They’re not arrogant (okay, they’re a little arrogant), just overly honest music nerds with a really precise vision. Aside from elbow rubbing, the Dandys have covered a pretty damn wide selection of tunes, honoring everyone from Neil Young to Blondie to Gordon Lightfoot (hold the Lightfoot thought).

They’ve never sold out, and it’s earned them a loyal following that sticks around through experiments in table music and 30-second songs, each just as blatantly self-indulgent as that time they recorded a sixteen minute “Sister Ray” homage as an album closer. They can criticize themselves; this just also happens to be a band that used big buttfucking label bucks to build a recording studio and cool person hangout in Oregon called the Odditorium, produced a big middle finger to that label in album form, and then named the album after the studio.

A Black Album to Go With the White Album

Such self-indulgence put them at odds with their former label Capitol a time or two. The common story about their first attempt for Capitol Records, The Black Album, is that the label rejected it for lack of songs. The Dandys themselves put this line in their album presser—and admitted in an interview in 2021 (listen to it if you have the time, I’ll be referring to it a lot) they only said it because they thought it was funny. While Capitol sure thought they weren’t going down the right path, it was the band themselves that decided to start over.

To hear the band tell it, The Black Album was the victim of overindulgence. Courtney described it as a product of drugs the band had lost all perspective with. “We were constantly experimenting with narcotics and sleep deprivation and probably malnutrition,” he told Vice in 2019. “It was like the Pied Piper led us to an island where we ran amok and ate candy all the time.” In the 2021 interview, Courtney and guitarist Pete Holmstrom described the infamous Willamette Valley Flood of 1996, which flooded Portland up to two blocks down from the studio–and they didn’t know until a bartender told them.

Dandy Warhols during a 1997 photo shoot
(Click for source link)

It doesn’t help that Courtney and original drummer Eric Hedford were not getting along famously at the time. Differing work ethics were cited then, but it seems like royalties were a more major issue, causing Eric’s eventual departure. Hedford would stay on for Come Down, but by 2000, iconic fathead Brent DeBoer had filled the drum stool. Eric still subs in occasionally (most notably when the Dandys performed on KEXP in 2016), mostly DJing and teaching these days according to his website.

After a pivotal tour with Love and Rockets, they came back to discover that The Black Album was pretty much unworkable and started over. Tony Lash, who produced 1995’s Dandys Rule OK (a majorly overlooked debut if all my time at 15 spent listening to it is any indication), returned to produce Come Down, and aside from three songs that got reworked to varying degrees, the new album didn’t resemble the old album much at all.

Dandy Warhols shooting the video for "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth"
Also, some videos happened. (Click for source link)

What became of The Black Album for seven years on is a bit hazy. According to the excellent though sadly infrequently updated Slabtown, bootlegs of the sessions got out on cheap cassettes, but they didn’t go very far, first around Portland and then casually across the DandysRule and DandysRule2 mailing lists. I emailed the Slabtown guy (who has a copy of the bootleg) for more information and he had the following to say:

It started circulating in small circles pretty soon after recording and rejection by Capital Records. I know someone who was close to the band at the time, and they had a cassette copy of it before …Come Down even came out. So, early 1997 or so? At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal, so nobody was really caring about circulating it, so it didn’t really get shared all that often. People just didn’t care at the time.

It first started circulating as a tape, and then digital. I have no doubt that some people circulated it on CD in between but I don’t know if I ever saw or have an actual CD version of it. For the circulation, it was not ever the type of thing that people would buy or that a bootleg company would put out, with fancy artwork and/or production value at all. It was simply self-made recordings on blank tapes (and probably CD’s). I do not know the path of the circulation, sorry. The one person I knew who had the original, early copy, I cannot see them being the leaker. But really, DW was a pretty informal band at the time, so copies were surely just circulating in the Portland music scene.

I got my copy in about 1999-2000. But, in classic tape-trading fashion of the time, not much was really known about it. Such as what the songs were even named. In fact, while I’m sure I have the exact date someplace in my sites news, it wasn’t even until a few years later that I came across a listing of what the band was calling them at the time of the recording and I circulated the “real” names. I’m not saying that as any bragging that I got the info first, or anything. Just an example of how it had been circulating for a fair number of years without anyone knowing the track listing. Sort of Similar to “And Then I Dreamt Of Yes” circulating as both “Downtown” and “House Of Yes” for a few years before they got around to actually releasing it on “Earth To…” Though that naming story does have a couple other uninteresting wrinkles.

Apparently, the band retained the rights to the recordings, because in 2004, they self-released a double CD set through their own Beat the World Records, one disc The Black Album and one disc covers and outtakes with fittingly smirking names like “One Ultra Lame White Boy” and “Kinky (Thanks for the Show)”. This set went out of print before long, but The Black Album, now an unofficial Dandys album in its own right, was issued on vinyl for the first time in 2021 and got a reprint in 2022.

Yours truly has been after a copy since becoming a fan of the Dandys and especially of Come Down in the mid-2010s, and after getting what might be the best price I’ll see on the double disc any time soon (plus a lot of waiting on a slightly unresponsive Discogs seller), I got my wish.

The second disc and insert of Come On Feel the Dandy Warhols

That said, I really would not recommend paying the rock hard boner pill collector’s market prices for this album unless you really want the B-sides disc (and I did). The entire album is available for streaming and purchase for $10 on Bandcamp, save for the Lightfoot cover at the end, and that now is available as part of a separate EP featuring two additional Black Album outtakes.

The Final Product: Revisiting Come Down

The Dandy Warhols Come Down

I’ve been relistening to Come Down a bit in preparation for this retrospective, and I’m really happy it still kicks ass. I find this to be an album that manages to make really ugly things sound very pretty. For every glitzy hit single like “Junkie” or “Every Day Should Be a Holiday”, there’s a matching guitar drone in “Green” or in “Be-In”, which might be the best opener the Dandys have ever recorded. It’s soaring, upbeat, makes real good use of its seven minutes, and the lyrics (“In my room/Alone in my room/And I’ll be in for a while”) resonated hard with me as a lonely teenager, uh, alone in his room.

The Dandy Warhols really do a lot with a little, keeping the songs simple and catchy so you can get lost in the weird sounds. It’s easy to focus on the drone, but it’s always balanced by a catchy lead or a great vocal melody to keep your ear anchored from the first listen. Their riffs are hypnotically, monotonously simple; “Hard On for Jesus” is three chords, and “Orange” doesn’t surpass two, but damn, it’s those leads that make Come Down feel so shimmery and poppy.

I admit I have to be in the right mood for the drone. The album closes with two very repetitive instrumentals, “Pete International Airport” and “The Creep Out”, neither of which do much but sound pretty for their runtimes. Sometimes I turn the album off before these even start up, sometimes I sit through a few minutes of each before skipping, and sometimes, the mood is just right (or I’m playing a game) to get me to listen to them in full. It’s one of those classic, indulgent Dandy leftfield sequencing moves, closing the album with 15 minutes of drone, that only they could understand, justify, or make you accept.

This one might take a few listens to sink in if you try it; there’s a lot of subtler songs like the snowy, hazy “I Love You” or the broken down “Whipping Tree”, but stick with it, because it’s a gem that sticks out among the rest of the 90s sludge. And hey, if it’s still not your thing, at least you can jam to “Cool as Kim Deal” with the rest of us. Sing along now, ba ba-ba bum…

The First Draft: Examining The Black Album

Dandy Warhols' The Black Album

The Black Album is awesome. It’s actually not far off from Dandys Rule OK in its approach and raggedness, which I think was the point. Come Down was a way to broaden the band’s reach, cleaning up what makes them such an interesting and likable band with a couple strong singles, whereas this is gauzy, woozy, and you can occasionally hear the band tugging on Capitol’s balls with glee–an album very purely for the base.

On the Dandys comparison, “Arpeggio Adaggio” (which means “slow arpeggio”, if you forgive the extra letter) sounds like a continuation of “Not Your Bottle”, a little meditative traipse through slow, shimmery, vibrating rhythm guitars, wah pedal leads, and gentle harmonies, but with a lot more layers to the percussion. A couple songs are like a meatier take on that rolling, piledriving, “the vocals are an instrument” sound of “TV Theme Song” as well, notably “White Gold”, and “Crack Cocaine Rager” has the same kinda uptempo snottiness as, say, “Grunge Betty”. The albums match very nicely; if you like their debut, you’ll love this, and vice versa.

It’s not just a simple retread, though. For one thing, The Black Album doesn’t homage any bands like Dandys did Ride, Lou Reed, and all them, and while that album had plenty of negative space, there were never the outright ambient tracks that kinda fill up The Black Album and split it in two as a result. I didn’t think much of “Shiny Leather Boots” until I really started listening to it and noticed the improvised, rambling vocal that gives the drone something to hang off of. I can very much imagine a sleep-deprived, high as balls Courtney mumbling something about being tough as nails into a mic in the control room and them tossing it in there for funsies.

Courtney referred to a desire to make truly ugly sounds in that Black Album interview from earlier, and sometimes, I think that gets cool results as I’ve been saying, and other times results in anything from muted mixes to genuine catastrophe. I always switch out the proper Black Album version of “Head” with the one from the B-sides disc of the package, which is a remix of the song with additional guitars, more forward vocals, a far wider stereo field, and most importantly, a real drum track! It adds some serious dynamics to the song, and takes a thin, muted, okay song and makes it one of my favorites.

Three songs were brought along to Come Down“Good Morning”, “Boys Better” (here just “Boys”), and “Minnesoter”. “Good Morning”, more like good God. This is the highlight of The Black Album as far as I’m concerned. Structurally, it’s not far from the Come Down version. Sonically, it’s a little more lo-fi. Vocally? It’s gorgeous. I will never understand why the Dandys went with that weak little vocal fry take on Come Down, given the song had a really pretty vocal melody that soars over top the drone like basically nothing else on the album.

“Minnesoter”, on the other hand, is another fine example of that intentional ugliness, and it’s the worst song on the entire record. The trumpet is obnoxiously loud, slightly out-of-tune, there’s talkback mics and sharp cracks of feedback in the mix, and the vocals sound like trying not to wake your parents up. Yet, between it and the Come Down version, the lyrics are strangely what improved the most. A single line change (“When she moves, I really wanna jerk off” became “In a mood, she’d rather if I jerked off”) makes the song far more interesting, an ode to a frustrating relationship instead of one just about empty lust. (“Boys” is somewhere between the two, a good song in demo quality, though nothing truly unlistenable.)

The CD art for The Dandy Warhols' Black Album

Slabtown mentions that three songs are missing from the official issue of The Black Album but do appear on the bootlegs, “Alien”, “Traci Lords”, and “You Get Hi”. In a bizarre moment of synchronicity, after the first version of this Final Draft went live (on February 13, 2023, for posterity), the Dandys themselves released two of those songs as part of the The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald EP. (I had my suspicions the untitled track was “Traci Lords”, and the Slabtown email tentatively confirmed that.) How exciting! Someone in their camp found my post, probably not.

I figured these songs were fuck-off experiments that wouldn’t be missed, a rare example of the Dandys self-editing, given the 2021 interview that calls “Alien” a jam and the Slabtown email that hilariously describes “You Get Hi” as “[maybe] the worst song they ever recorded” (“It really is them, as far as I remember, singing nothing but “You get high” for a few minutes in an almost squeaky voice, to some background music”). Indeed, “Alien” is pretty impenetrable, a brick of a mix with improvised “vocals” from a friend of the band. “Traci Lords”, on the other hand, is cool as shit. The backwards guitars, lagging beat, and shoegazey, loping vocals that you simply cannot understand sound absolutely kickass. Slot it in between “Head” and “White Gold” for best results.

Comparing the Drafts

When I wrote this First Draft initially, I think I was forcing it. I was trying to compare these albums as if they really were two sides of the same coin, with one “better” than the other, but they’re different beasts. As I said in the last section, The Black Album feels like a straight-ahead sequel to Dandys Rule OK, with the band trying to make it noisier, weirder, nastier, and more narcotic than that record. That wound up not working for them, and Come Down was, well, a literal come down–I’m sure no less fueled by drugs, but a little bit clearer-headed and with a couple more really catchy songs in tow. It was what the doctor ordered at the time.

The Black Album, meanwhile, is a much more murky record. The mixes are admittedly antagonistic to the listener at times, and the vocals are either buried or covered in effects. “Twist” probably has the clearest vocal track on the entire record–and the lyrics (“If you see my rooster/Ask him to stay/If you see my sister/Drive her away”) still aren’t much you can understand. It’s a very electric and electronic album, heavy and droning, with very little organic about it–virtually none of the Dandys folk influence appears on this thing. Virtually.

I’ve mentioned the presence of a Gordon Lightfoot cover on this album in passing a few times. “The Wreck” is probably best described as a nine-minute drone rock interpolation of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, more-or-less lyrically complete, but with the music completely redone with not an acoustic guitar in sight. Instead, the band lets weird, oscillating synths, cracking drums, and a scorched-throat vocal flow throughout like icy lake water. If you listen to it like the ghostly echo of the original tune ringing out of the wreck itself, it totally works.

The CD art for The Dandy Warhols Come Down

I think The Black Album stands nicely alongside Come Down–it’s a missing link between it and their first album, and it’s a fun, dirty, lo-fi detour in their discography made for a much smaller audience that appreciates fun, dirty, and lo-fi. After a few listens, I went from not getting it to going to it, putting it on and immersing myself in it while I played games or read forum threads. I’m not surprised the Dandys have been reissuing it and putting it out there more lately–in fact, I’m quite glad. More people should hear it.

Thanks for reading the first edition of First Draft! I’m glad to have this one rewritten with all the extra context of the outtakes and the perspective of several months of loving the hell out of this record–seriously, if you like lo-fi, you like a good drone, do give this one a shot, you’ll like it.

Stay tuned for the next installment of First Draft, when we discuss a Los Angeles-based rock duo and their attempts to pull an album out of an eight-track, a drum machine, and a bag of heroin.

About mariteaux

Somnolescent's webmaster with way too much to write about and a stack of CDs he'll never finish.

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