# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Flipper - Flipper

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 24 / 6 / 2009

Flipper - Flipper


Jeff Thiessen examines the career of early 80's San Francisco punks Flipper, who have just had four of their albums re-released in a reissue programme

At some point during the eighties, probably the latter half, the whole DIY ethos that had dominated the American punk scene started to get a bit diluted. This isn’t to say the initial movement didn’t have its heart in the right place, most of the groups that started the whole thing attacked the night ferociously, without fear of failure or contemplation of the simultaneously profound/liberating effect they were having on all those crazy, confused kids who were still reeling from that disgusting mess bozos like Van Halen and Motley Crue so proudly viewed as a worthy contribution to contemporary music. The slop was everywhere, and the problem was, it was a plague interpreted as a transcendental means to extending the party. Naturally a weed or two had to spring from the clutter. A totally inane heap that wasn’t even a slight step above Peter Frampton, it was just more obtuse and better at knocking doors down. Lucky for us nobody really paid attention to the odd growth that sprouted, and slowly but surely a cure for the itch that just could not be scratched had finally arrived. I sincerely believe in many years from now, the eighties will not be defined by the hair bands that ended up selling all the records, because the second all those moronic head-bangers cut their hair, sold their Camaros, and unapologetically leapt into mind-numbing suburbia, those big, cumbersome bands with those fancy guitar solos and songs about doing high school teachers, became an intricate part of the boxes packed away in their two-car garages, no more, no less. On the other side of the spectrum are the kids who didn’t really randomly feel like jumping, smoking in bathrooms, and really didn’t give a shit about the policy of truth. The soundtrack to their lives: The Minutemen, Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Replacements etc. The Replacements are easily my favourite out of the bunch, but all of these acts represented a certain sector of the mystified, those kids who roamed the streets with cynicism in their voice and mistrust in their hearts, not because it was a convenient retreat into handy escapism, but honestly, it was due mostly to the fact it was the only way the world made sense to them. Everyone who wasn’t basically like these kids, were REALLY not like these kids, and it seems crude to examine the decade with a sort of vicious divisiveness that slabbed a really big wedge between the two factions, but would you want to put a Poison fan in a room with a Black Flag follower, complete with a bottle of whiskey and Lenin literature? I know who I’d want to win in such a situation, but that’s entirely beside the point; in situations like this there are no winners, we can only examine the final product as a worthy advancement or steps in the wrong direction. Based on what happened after the eighties civil war between the two groups, I stand by my assertion that overall immediacy with brains did triumph over all the Telegram Sam’s. There is no evidence to be had in the record sales, but the impact of record sales can only be gauged based on the impact they had on the people buying those records. Frankly, I don’t give a flying fuck if Motley Crue sold fifty million albums in the eighties, in time they will be forgotten, and probably severely laughed at, for all the inane shit they not only committed to record, but for their relentlessly dim-witted belief they were entitled to every single second of success that flew their way. Other than a couple of drunk kids maybe losing their virginity in a Trans-Am to the tender backdrop of ‘Home, Sweet, Home’, the big music of the eighties will eventually be delegated to a blip, their relevance dying with every boomer buying the farm. With that said, do any of you reading this really find it so difficult to believe that in twenty, fifty, seventy-five years people will still be buying ‘Red Medicine’? I sure don’t, because there is no shelf-life to music created from the heart and mind, even if what comes out is ugly, perhaps especially if what comes out is sort of horrid because most of us are the same way, whether we can admit it or not. Very soon, bands like the Crue will go the way of the Dodo bird, not because idiocy will be in short supply, but instead because they’re always adamant when it comes to choosing music that was created specifically for us to not think NOW. As long as stupidity is getting updated to remain relevant, the Black Eyed Peas of the world will always replace the Scorpions of yesterday’s world; consider it Darwinism at its worst. I’m hoping the reissues of four Flipper albums will serve as tangible proof of the sorts of things I have been saying here. Two of their studio albums (‘Generic’, and ‘Gone Fishin’), one compilation disc (‘Sex Bomb Baby!’), as well as their live one, ‘Public Flipper Limited’, which documented shows between 1980-85, have just been reissued Flipper never really achieved the meagre level of success during this decade as any of the punk bands I mentioned generally acquired. Not to say the Minutemen could sell out stadiums, but at their peak they at least made enough to eat consistently, buy booze guilt-free, and have enough left over for any van repairs that would undoubtedly arise from constant road travel. Getting back to what I said in the first paragraph, I mentioned the whole DIY scene got a bit watered-down, basically because once the parasites saw this type of music could be somewhat profitable, people who could play, would play shitty in the name of demographics, and those who couldn’t play at all or didn’t care to try and learn, still formed bands because they thought it would get them laid. Flipper occupied a grey area between these two. They could play. In fact ‘Gone Fishin’ is tighter than ‘Funhouse’ in a couple of spots, and you know that’s saying something. Having said that, they weren’t quite as musically talented as a group like the Clash, and I’m thinking it’s this no-man’s land they occupied that didn’t allow them to infiltrate the semi-mainstream punk movement sweeping through the nation. Black Flag was for the pissed off, Minutemen were for the aloof intellectuals on the outskirts of society, the Replacements were for the guys and gals who loved to rock, but also didn’t really see the cheesiness of making a mix-tape for some other kid in school who didn’t even know they existed. Flipper emerged out of San Francisco, California, and, along with the Dead Kennedys and Faith No More, seemed intent to make aggressive, pioneering music that contained none of the aimless, flower pushign mentality which polluted so much of the city’s musical output from the late sixties to mid seventies. Often when I think of Flipper in terms of their relevance within the scene they occupied, I’m really strongly reminded of Television, which was considered a punk band by definition, and had some pretty huge names within the group, but also weren’t afraid to have angular guitar solos, or eight minute jam tunes. Flipper emerged into a scene that really didn’t have a lot of patience for their sound, which contained many of the core elements shared by other punk rock bands around this time, but also had no qualms with putting in alto-sax tracks that would go on for nearly ten minutes, or fearlessly extolling the intrinsic worth of life itself, and without any incensed asterisks beside such proclamations either. It was these qualities that gave Flipper a totally fresh and unique sound, but also prompted some punks in the community to famously declare Flipper as “music to fail at having sex to”, or labelling them “limp-dick core”. Whatever. Rarely is the nobility of a great musical movement matched by equal or greater fortitude on the half of those actually listening/buying the records involved in such a revolution, and all too often dissonance takes precedent over inspired, symbiotic production that ideally should be a by-product of such an implausibly remarkable upheaval. Flipper fit in well enough to be lumped into the American Punk Rock Scene, but had enough different about them to be ridiculed from all angles within the scene. This is their paradox, and my goal here is not to try and vindicate their efforts. Instead it’s worth seeing if this contradiction was a worthwhile one, or variance for the sake of eccentricity in the face of a really harsh and unforgiving scene, which would be admirable in itself I guess, but wouldn’t hold a ton of water in terms of long-term impact. Kurt Cobain may have loved them, while Black Flag wannabes labelled them pussies....I’m gonna try and inhabit the space between the two factions. Hopefully neutrality is the starting point here, but not the final consensus. Flipper didn’t really represent any of these definitive units, and I’m not implying they had nothing to say. In a lot of ways, their lyrics are what they’ll probably be remembered most for, but unfortunately even the most noble of musical movements are generally still ones full of niches and flag-planting, and Flipper either didn’t understand that, or didn’t care. Today I’m going to examine all four of these reissues, not as a favour or rose-colored pity, but it’s simply what they deserve. I’m not going to try and figure out why they never made enough money to think of a better band name, because, truth be told, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to stir up the answer in fairly swift order, but I really don’t want to know. Their music stands alone, far removed from the success they did/didn’t achieve, and that’s how it will be looked at today. ‘Generic’ (1981) There are three absolutely key tracks on ‘Generic’ that must be heard and understood to not only comprehend the band’s working aesthetic, but also recognize the fact that in Flipper’s world a manifesto and a mantra are one and the same, and in that regard, they released some of the most impassioned, timeless music of their generation. The first track I’m referring to is the opening cut on the record, entitled ‘Ever’. Sonically, this is a barrelling demolition complete with an entirely danceable rhythm and dissonant shards of guitar that sound like Robert Quine on ether. When you hear the handclaps that provide the shuffling backdrop, you’ll immediately be reminded of Bowie’s ‘Andy Warhol’, the best track on his ‘Hunky Dory’ album, and my money is you won’t waste much time before savagely cutting a rug, no matter how awkward the circumstances. I just hope I’m there when you run out of breath and start to listen to what vocalist Bruce Loose is actually saying while you were busy shaking your tailfeather. Sample lyric from ‘Ever’: “Ever seen a couple kissing and been sickened by it? Ever looked at a flower and hated it?” Ever wish the human race never existed? And then realised, you’re one too? Well have you? Ever? I have. So what?” Remember the Sex Pistols track ‘Belsen was a Gas’ found on their fantastic ‘Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle’ album? At the very end of the song, after Rotten implores the crowd to kill their parents, and then themselves, with the final lyrics simply a revolting “Kill!” hymn, I always wondered what the hell the crowd was cheering on as the track faded out. There are people that justify such grotesque behaviour and those sort of philosophies makes me want to jump out of a six-story window then even talk about it, but the point is that there’s a difference between active encouragement of guttural, unpleasant emotions that are rooted in the realities of every day life, and a blind enthusiasm towards the most savage elements that exist in this world, albeit usually far removed from anything we will ever encounter or be a part of. Flipper understands not everything has worked out for them, and as a result they will think and say things that the shiny, happy people will never really understand, or have the balls to articulate. This is evident on the above lyrics in ‘Ever’, and even more apparent, on the next key track on ‘Generic’, ‘Life’. ‘Life’ is a bit more anthemic then ‘Ever’, certainly less grinding, and a call-to-arms for a new generation that just can’t figure out when the light at the end of the tunnel will make its first appearance, or if at all. To be quite honest, Flipper doesn’t really care about vague proclamations of doom and gloom that a lot of punk fans loved to latch onto, and they’re not letting them off the hook either. Preceding Ferris Bueller’s famous quote, as well as Screeching Weasel’s admirable, but fairly blatant rip-off track ‘Acknowledge’, Flipper go the hippy-route, without all the lame spiritual mediations on life and death, streamlining all the worthwhile, practical stuff while leaving behind all the LSD soaked universal proclamations. Sample lyric: “I too have sung death's praise But I'm not going to sing that song anymore Yes, I've figured out what living is all about It's life! Life! Life is the only thing worth living for Yes life! Life! Life is the only thing worth... Life! Life! (I know it has its ups and downs)” It’s entirely possible I’m looking too much into ‘Life’, based on the fact I have never heard a personal belief of mine be so clearly and brilliantly articulated in a full album, much less a single song, but considering the scene Flipper was intricately involved in, when Black Flag was screaming about macho-solidarity in the guise of smashing bullies heads in with a baseball bat, and Paul Westerberg was wittily crooning about loveliness, answering machines, and ballads about androgynous misadventures, this song transcended plainly extolling the virtues of pure existence. Considering the circumstances that surrounded it, this was clearly, by choice or not, a track that bled valour through unabashed simplicity. If you can find any other song that makes any problem, no matter how big or small, feel like a gift simply for being in a position to experience such struggles, then please feel free to email me them, although I do suspect my inbox will remain empty in that regard. The third track that must be looked upon, before moving on to ‘Gone Fishin’, is ‘Sex Bomb’. Despite the sonic experimentation on this closing track, Flipper will never be mistaken for the Mothers of Invention. Strictly on its own merits,’ Sex Bomb ‘is not one of Flipper’s finest moments. It’s become one of the most covered songs in the punk community I can recall in recent memory, and if you’ve made it this far in the piece reading about Flipper, I think it’s safe to assume you have heard it, but it doesn’t hold up quite as well on its own as you might think. I didn’t really realize that, until I listened to the compilation disc ‘Sex Bomb Baby!’ for this piece and Sex Bomb was the first track. Really, this is the musical equivalent of miscegenation; truly every second of ‘Sex Bomb’ seems to be coming from conflicting places. It’s a bit on the long side (ok, really on the long side), and the miasma of aural soul-purging doesn’t really ever clear up long enough to let us see what they’re trying to do or say here. But as I listen to ‘Generic’, and hear ‘Sex Bomb’ within the context of that entire amazing album, I start to see that inside that framework, it not only works, it really fucking works. ‘Sex Bomb’ isn’t about trying to end off the record with something meaningful or heart-rending, it’s just letting the maggots clean the wounds. I’m all for the blood-letting found in tracks like ‘Ever’ or ‘Nothing’, but ‘Sex Bomb’ is only crudely illusory for those who would rather talk about life, then live it. It is catharsis, but it’s just lethargy through a colonial hangover. We all go through those mind-numbing mornings after a night of boozing that leave us with nothing left to say or offer, but Flipper flips the script on us, and busts into a free-form, saxo jam that leaves us embarrassed, and a bit fretful that most of us lack the ability to pursue happiness when we feel like a bunch of rusted pipes. As ‘Life’ (and Ferris) proved, life is the ultimate gift. Why let a couple measly anti-emotions get in the way of embracing it? Sex Bomb is the hair of the dog that bit you, if you’re lucky. ‘Gone Fishin’ (1984) The helter-skelter fractured rapture of’ Generic’ is put on the back-burner, and in its place on ‘Gone Fishin’, is a lot more focused and muscular effort. That isn’t a radical enough departure to alienate large numbers of Flipper fans who got into them through ‘Generic’, but there is no denying there is a learning curve here. I really like this album, but there are too many ambulance-chasing moments, too many ominous references to impending life-regressions that may or may not be a practical part of Flipper’s new world. I can’t say one way or the other, but I can say there isn’t a whole lot of evidence to support the theory their slight but consistent paranoia is anything but misguided delirium that is probably just a product of a ticking time-bomb, reminding them their time to succeed in this harsh business is nearly up, but perhaps it’s unfair of me to crave ‘Generic Part II’. Can you blame me though? That album helped me quit smoking for christ sake’s, as I’m sure it’s gut-wrenching minimalism helped a lot of people redefine ‘life’s problems’.‘Generic’ was addicting, as it served to be a white hot ray of light that cut through a lot of overwrought, cynical bullshit that didn’t hold any water. ‘Gone Fishin’ isn’t a stark contrast to their debut, but it’s a much more jagged, fanatical effort, both in sound and words. It didn’t help that it started out so poorly with ‘The Light, The Sound’. There’s really no other way to put this: the opening track is completely derivative of Joy Division, and proves to be a laboured, imitative effort that can’t hold a candle to any of the B-Sides found on ‘Heart and Soul’. Yuck. The first four cuts on the record never really gain any sort of footing, as it lurches from the Warsaw thievery on the opener, to some sort of hyper-kinetic saxophone freakout in ‘First the Heart’, in which secondary vocalist Will Shatter asks the listener,“Aren’t you listening/Do you hear me?”, seemingly trying to convince himself we’re intensely hanging on all his missteps, when in reality I was just starting to lose a fair degree of interest by this point. The third track ‘In Life My Friends’ again sounded very suspiciously like those sad boys from Manchester, and while it’s a very effective track that evokes some truly mind-eviscerating images, it just lacked a lot of the individuality that made ‘Generic’ so great.‘Survivors of the Plague' brings back the skidding guitar sound from the debut, but it’s a bit dispiriting to hear Shatter bark. “All your dreams/all your hopes/are pushed out to sea”. Okay, maybe you’re right Will, but you’re not one of those assholes with a penchant for solutions, not just the problems, are you? If I wanted to listen to nihilistic moaning hiding behind a wall of sound, I’d listen to yhe Fall. The last half of the album is leaps and bounds superior to the first half. It’s not that the first four songs are inherently bad, but they just seemed to be shying away from the forefront, and that’s really not what Flipper is about. The press release I’m reading compares the last half of the album to the ‘controversial side-two of Black Flag’s ‘My War’ album’. I think that’s sort of an unfair and also unwarranted comparison. The last half of ‘My War’ is self-righteous, teeth-gnashing, indulgent chugging at its absolute worst, somewhere along the way Henry Rollins began to think we wanted to read his diary, when really Black Flag’s true fans were submissives in the purest sense of the word; they just liked having a muscle-bound figurehead spewing bile as their unofficial party leader, the value of having a role model willing to beat the shit out of opposing people and viewpoints must not be underestimated when it came to the wave of angst that was washing over much of the punk scene in the early eighties. Side two of ‘My War’ was an internal struggle, totally disproportionate for Rollins (he has very little to struggle with internally, if anything), and even more so for their fans. Their war was over, and now they were left with Black Flag’s music, not a warzone, and the white flag couldn’t have came at a worse time for the group. I will concede the last half of ‘Gone Fishin’ does slow the pace, but not to a grinding halt like ‘My War’. There are many highlights, but my personal two favourites are ‘You Nought Me’, and ‘One by One’. The former is a savagely funny song with a pulse-pounding groove, definitely in the vein of the best material found on Generic, especially when Loose screams “I have nothing, nothing to do!” See, the real brilliance in Flipper is exploring the profound through the most relatable, and direct routes possible. ‘You Nought Me’ has some sputtering piano sprinkled throughout the last half of the track, and by the time it’s done the message is mesmerizing, palpable: not all of us have things to do all the time, but we all should have things we believe in doing, and as long as we don’t let that thought escape us, eventually thinking will transform into doing. Even if it doesn’t, convictions can take us a long way. Then there’s ‘One by One’, and this track terrifies me. Like ‘Sex Bomb,’ its function is strictly to appropriately close off the album. If the closer of ‘Generic’ drained every inch of fun and joy from the proceedings and guiltlessly jammed it into an arrhythmic staccato, the final song on ‘Gone Fishin’ is a storm that doesn’t even try and capture the most powerful moments found before it, instead I start to understand throughout that this mostly is about a mood that swallows up the music. What’s the mood you ask, none of us can really be certain, and I’m starting to see that’s how Flipper wanted it. ‘Generic’ was great, but I think as they saw it, it was too easy to dissect, too forthright/easy to quote, and might have been a bit worried it was this outright simplicity that might have made them ripe for parody as the years went on. Personally, I am obsessed with music that wallows in the shallow end while giving us just enough to think about to reach our own conclusions about the music and eventually (ideally), our life in general, but I can appreciate the fact many bands who flirt with this concept have a paralyzing fear that this sort of hootenanny approach might delegate them to the same purgatory that many other perfectly decent and virtuous acts before them now flounder in (Old 97’s, fIREHOSE, etc). Nice guys do finish last a lot of the time, but not because they laugh too often, instead because the complexities of the modern world are not parallel with their intrinsically pleasant outlook. The world loves swallowing up those who smile when it rains, especially those who try and figure out why nobody else is outside. So they gave us ‘Gone Fishin’, a perplexing effort on nearly every level. There seems to be a real anachronistic element permeating throughout the whole thing, and coming to a head on the wonderfully vexing ‘One by One’. I’ll admit I was more than a little frustrated by it when I first heard it, and it’s still a bit obnoxious to me today, especially when I have heard ‘Generic’ recently. But I’m starting to understand it on the wavelength Flipper intended, I think. Maybe Flipper oversimplified things on ‘Generic’, and when nothing (or not enough) got resolved, there are more question marks then fist-pumping. Some of the tracks on ‘Gone Fishin’ are affected terrors (‘One by One’, ‘Sacrifice’), others fiery declarations of deserved complacency (‘Survivors of the Plague’), some of them are rose marches to the end of the world and back (‘You Nought Me’, ‘In Life My Friends’), and some of it just chases its own tail (any of the songs not mentioned in this sentence). But after an offering like Generic, perhaps ‘Gone Fishin’ is the only possible next step, the almost embarrassing sincerity of their debut eliminated any chance of a potential fork in the road musical decision for their follow-up. It’s flawed, needlessly punishing at times, but nearly always striking, just like all my favourite people. It’s easy to like the guys in Flipper....they’re not afraid to show us at their absolute best, and worst, then not caring when we hold them to elevated standards they have no chance of sustaining. ‘Gone Fishin’ may be nothing more than a branch of cold flame, but at least they taught me nothing can be something, and that was just from the opening track. ‘Public Flipper Limited’ (1986) and ‘Sex Bomb Baby!’ (1982) Public Flipper Limited ranks somewhere between ‘Kiss Alive II’ and ‘Metallic K.O’. There are moments of unrestrained bombast that rival the most exciting moments on the former, but the actual sound is grubby and unpolished to the point that the listener can almost smell the aroma of stale beer and blown chunks that no doubt polluted every venue Flipper inhabited. It’s an incredibly interesting clash of a live album, to veer between the extended ‘Sex Bomb’ twitch that no doubt absolutely crushed even the most seasoned punk at the CBGB where it was recorded, and the thirty second head-on collision of ‘Brain Wash’, one of the fieriest live tracks I have ever heard committed to album. I haven’t seen Flipper live, but this album sounds exactly how I would want them to be live, and since that’s coming from someone who generally despises live albums, my words really should not be taken with a grain of salt. If nothing else, make sure to check out ‘Southern California’, a hilarious anti-ode that groups in the elderly with those dickhead cops who beat up Rodney King. If Flipper must be seen to be believed, then ‘Public Flipper Limited’ proves that hearing can be believing too, basically due to the fact every single nuance and observation I have heard from their studio recordings, is inexorably captured here, the good, bad, and ugly, which is essentially their brilliance. We never really know which is which when it comes to Flipper. ‘Sex Bomb Baby!’ is bar none, one of the best compilations I have heard, and if you’re the adventurous type, I would actually recommend picking this up before ‘Generic’, assuming you are new to Flipper. It definitely focuses on their early material, with no songs included that were recorded past 1982, but that must be viewed as a good thing, since their music past that point degenerated into a fairly predictable, slow-burn grind that provided a whole lot of pointless grating, and challenged no one. What sets ‘Sex Bomb Baby!’ apart from other compilations, is Flipper’s willingness to roll the dice with live tracks, oddities, and truly bizarre covers. The good news is the gamble paid off huge, and the result is an amazingly eclectic collection that will prove to be more rewarding than some of their best studio offerings, at least to those who appreciate groups at their most unflinchingly raw and genuine. I find myself playing ‘Sex Bomb Baby!’ more than ‘Generic’ these days, simply because no matter how often I listen to it, the element of surprise always seems to catch me, and anybody else in the room, totally off-guard. The sheer craziness of ‘Sex Bomb Baby!’, and the subsequent success of all these completely ridiculous experiments quite nearly puts the record in genius, carte blanche territory, if it wasn’t for the fact this album is simply much too fun to be put into such a category. If you know me at all, you will know I generally have little-to-know interest in compilation records, but this is one case where the music is invigorating and vital to a point where it actually transcends being simply a retrospective collection of songs, and stands on its own as a living, breathing organism that exists because of past work, but also proves to give us something that their older music couldn’t: a hardened and cool world. For my money, to know ‘Sex Bomb Baby!’, is to love it, and I consider it the absolute highlight of their entire discography. So there you have it, all the reissues in a nutshell. At times it was frustrating listening to Flipper’s music as I wrote this piece, as it pretty much careened wildly between absolute brilliance to irredeemable shit, and the annoying part was, upon repeated listening, sometimes those two extremes switched spots, and I was basically starting at square one again. But that’s sort of the point with Flipper, isn’t it? We never really know what is on their agenda, never know if what we’re hearing is supposed to be ironic, detached, sincere, sardonic, heartfelt, confrontational, submissive, drunken, philosophical.....and it’s this constant voyage into the unknown, that most likely contributed to their lack of commercial success that so many of their contemporaries were able to enjoy during that decade. Perhaps what we must conclude is it’s not necessary to separate the band from their baffling musical representations, and I suppose the only true way to potentially begin to understand Flipper, is play them as loud as you possibly can, and hope that grey area gets abolished in the name of crazy rhythms. Just because we can’t ever expect to comprehend the madness of the group, doesn’t mean our stereo has to suffer the same paradox. Put on ‘Sex Bomb,’ and let the maxed-out dials take you home.

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Flipper - Flipper

Flipper - Flipper

Flipper - Flipper

Flipper - Flipper

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