It doesn’t seem like it yet in my part of the world, but summer is almost here, and that means that I will once again be starting a summer movie retrospective. This year I’ve decided to look back at the summer of 30 years ago in a series I’m calling 1992 – WEIRD SUMMER. ‘Cause it was kind of a weird summer, you know? The overall selection of films was unusual, and a bunch of the movies – even the big blockbuster sequels – were not exactly aimed at the normal people with the normal tastes. I’ll try to review most of the major movies of interest, and when applicable I plan to zero in on the theme of weirdness (both intentional and unintentional), the artists who managed to push weirdness into major movies, and how people reacted to it at the time.
I was a teenager in ’92. Most of the summers back then I still associate with a certain movie or movies that loomed large in my mind. ’88 was the summer of DIE HARD and (honestly) WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. ’89 was BATMAN, of course (plus DO THE RIGHT THING). ’90 was DICK TRACY, DARKMAN, DIE HARD 2, and GREMLINS 2. For me ’91 was mostly about T2 and BOYZ N THE HOOD. (I was excited about ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, but it didn’t stick with me long. And I didn’t see POINT BREAK until later.) Skipping forward, ’93 belonged to JURASSIC PARK. ’94 was SPEED. ’95 was DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, WATERWORLD, DESPERADO, UNDER SIEGE 2, and BABE. etcetera.
But ’92? The movies I saw at the time were an unruly mix of indies, a foreign film or two, and unusual Hollywood offerings. The big blockbuster, collectable-cups-available-at-McDonalds type movie I was most hyped for, and most satisfied with, is one I sometimes forget was even a summer movie because it’s gothic as all get out and takes place at Christmas. The other most interesting event movie was even gloomier, interpreted as aggressively nihilistic, definitely flawed, compromised by the studio, hated by audiences, and disowned by the director to this day. It still got a Pepsi ad.
(update: just now realized that must be Jeremy Davies, right?)
Even if Weird Summer was an off summer it was significant to my development. I sincerely think it played a major role in shaping my ideas about popular art. We will be exploring the pros and cons of artists who work in a popular medium but go against what is expected in their genre, or what is considered commercial, or “what the fans want.”
At least one of these movies could be said to be a story comparing and contrasting different types of weirdos. Many of my heroes were weirdos – or you could say individualists, non-conformists, people voted “most unique” in their yearbooks. Some of my weirdo heroes have since been disgraced, their alleged acts reinforcing the stereotype that people who stand out are not to be trusted. But I still ride for the concept of weirdos in general. I think people who do their own thing make life beautiful. I try to be one of them.
In this series there will be some pretty odd movies, for good and bad, and some more standard ones for palate cleansing. I’ll be looking at calendars and trying to remember what else was going on at the time. As always, I don’t really know if the series will take me where I expect it to. There will surely be some nostalgia. There could be revision of long held views – who knows? There are some movies I’ll be seeing for the first time, and some I’ve been meaning to review for years. There’s a Bruce movie I haven’t seen since at least the VHS days. Maybe the theater.
I think we’ll have a fun time with this. I’ll be starting with a few of the movies released in April that set the stage for and continued playing into the summer, and then we’ll dive in.
“People, how ya doin? It’s a new day dawnin”
Now, in relation to both yesterday’s review and the launching of this series, I would like to have a MUSICAL INTERLUDE. Yeah, I know it’s self-indulgent to wax nostalgic about music I listened to when I was a teen, but I think there’s a parallel between what I see in these movies and what was going on in music. So let’s talk a little bit about the Beastie Boys’ third album, Check Your Head, which was released on April 21, 1992. Apparently it wasn’t gigantic by pop music standards (by the metric of Billboard album charts it’s the group’s sixth most successful album) but to me and my friends it was seismic, one of the few things in pop culture that almost everyone I knew was over the moon about.
For many, it was a comeback for a group that had been huge in ’86, but soon written off as a novelty. Not for me. They had not left my attention. I bought their second album Paul’s Boutique (on the green cassette tape) the day it came out, loved it on first listen, still do thousands of listens later. It’s still my favorite of their albums. But Check Your Head was in some ways more important.
I don’t know about other places, but where I grew up, young people often categorized each other by the music they listened to. I guess there wasn’t really a name for the normal people who listened to the top 40 stations (some of them were “preppies” I guess?), but there were “rockers” (called heshers in some places) who listened to heavy metal, there were punks who listened to punk bands, a few goths who listened to whatever goths listen to, and (because rap had not yet taken over popular music) they called the kids who listened to rap “gangsters.” I remember some guy asked my brother if he was disappointed I was a gangster. It was dumb.
Then in the early ‘90s, certain music started being called “alternative,” and people who listened to “alternative music” or dressed a certain way or had a certain type of hair were “alternative” people. In August of ’91 a new “alternative rock” station, 107.7 The End, started in Seattle. They lucked out because three huge albums by Seattle bands (Nevermind by Nirvana, Ten by Pearl Jam and Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden) came out within a month and a half of their start. And the first Lollapalooza tour hit Washington State five days after their first broadcast. (I went mainly to see Ice-T and came home a Fishbone fan.) The next summer – August 8, 1992, specifically – The End kicked off their own annual outdoor music festival called Endfest. The first one (which I also attended) featured The Charlatans UK, L7, Mudhoney, Sarah McLachlan, The Posies, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Sonic Youth and, as the headliners, Beastie Boys.
A year earlier it might’ve seemed weird for them to be in that lineup, but Check Your Head had obliterated traditional genre boundaries. Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique were both radical spins on rap albums, and Check Your Head is too, but they didn’t approach it with any consideration for what section it should go into. They were still rapping, using breakbeats, samples and scratches, but they weren’t observing any boundaries. They picked up the guitar, bass and drums they had played when they were younger, in punk and hardcore bands. They added conga players. They built a studio called G-Son so they wouldn’t worry about recording sessions, just take their time hanging out, listening to records, jamming, coming up with ideas. Mark Nishita, a carpenter who fixed a gate for them and later built them a half pipe and basketball hoop, became their organ player, a huge addition.
We take it for granted now, but the album still has a one-of-a-kind sound and mix of styles. It opens with dusty loops on “Jimmy James” but goes right into the live instrument funk jam “Funky Boss.” “Pass the Mic” smothers old school hip hop lyrics in layers of distortion and guitar squeals. And if we didn’t already think of these guys as rappers how would we classify “Gratitude”? Ad Rock yell-rapping over MCA’s fuzzed out bass groove and rockin guitar breakdowns until it explodes into Money Mark’s organ solo. I don’t know how to classify it. It’s just “Gratitude”!
That’s only the first four tracks out of twenty, and it keeps swerving around like that – hazy funk jams (“Lighten Up,” “Pow,” “Groove Holmes,” “In 3’s”), a messy hardcore song borrowing lyrics from Sly Stone (“Time For Livin’”), an interlude of Biz Markie singing Ted Nugent karaoke (because it made them laugh), dialogue snippets from WILD STYLE, Chico and the Man, and some crazy-sounding fan who left a message on the answering machine MCA set up on the “Ask For Janis” phone number from the last album. “Something’s Got To Give” reminds me of a couple different modes of early Funkadelic without coming across as pastiche. According to the excellent Beastie Boys Book, that one was built around a sample from the middle of a long jam session, while “So What’cha Want” kind of went the reverse route – Ad Rock put together a song with samples that they then decided to replay on their instruments.
(I remember the video for “So What’cha Want” playing constantly on MTV, both at home and on the TVs that were in the school cafeteria thanks to a deal with Channel One. In the same year as Guns ’n’ Roses’ indulgent “November Rain” video here were Ad Rock, Mike D and MCA just bouncing in front of some trees with a some slo-mo and a messy chroma-key effect. Wearing t-shirts, flannel and knit caps they looked like us now.)
And while everybody else was (according to Mike D) “rappin like it’s a commercial,” the Beastie Boys were going wild experimenting with recording techniques – playing drums through a long cardboard tube, distorting vocals by using crappy mics from a home karaoke machine, using a kill switch to cut up guitar tracks like a terminator scratch.
In 2017 Mike D told Flood Magazine that the commercial failure of Paul’s Boutique made the experimentation of Check Your Head possible. “Nobody at the record company wanted to have anything to do with us. So it gave us this total freedom and this vacuum in which we could create Check Your Head. If it were an anticipated record, they would’ve wanted to hear what [was] going on. But nobody was fucking paying attention, so we could do what we wanted.”
And what they chose to do I think elevated them from one of my favorite groups to one of the ideals of what I think artists can aspire to. Check Your Head era Beasties Boys were completely doing their own thing. As with the samples on Paul’s Boutique, their genre-mixing music here shows a broad (but impeccable) range of tastes, and an ability to channel influences into something new. They honor the hip hop and funk that came before them by not just mimicking it. They are cool but absolutely unpretentious, their boasts tongue-in-cheek, yet contradictorily accurate. They have an infectious sense of dumb humor and prankishness that enhances, rather than cancels out, moments of sincerity.
If I’m not mistaken, there are no references to “girlies” or similar, as on the previous albums; the record documents them in the midst of growing as people. As MCA says at the beginning of “Stand Together”:
I don’t see things quite the same as I used to
As I live my life, I’ve got just me to be true to
In the middle of recording the album he took many spontaneous trips around the world, mostly for snowboarding. (Think of his line in “So What’cha Want”: “I’m tired of driving, it’s due time that I walkabout.”) During a trek in the Himalayas he met some Tibetans in exile and became fascinated with their non-violent philosophy, setting him on a path to becoming Buddhist and organizing the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. So the album ends on “Namasté,” where he reads “some thoughts that he’d written down” over music. Six years after “Fight For Your Right To Party” he’s talking about “dark is not the opposite of light, it’s the absence of light,” and you can’t mock him, because it’s so clearly not a front. It’s the real guy, the real journey, expressed honestly through this art that would already be good without that openness, because it’s so outwardly fun and different and cool.
That’s one of my favorite things – art that can be strange and new and personal and still be entertaining enough to be widely popular and bring joy to people all around the world. I like some alienating stuff on the fringes too, and not everything needs to be for everybody, but you might as well share some of the good shit with the masses. It’s healthy for the world. The world needs some of the good shit.
I think pretty much all of this can apply to movies, and in the coming weeks maybe we’ll see how much it applies to the movies released in the summer of 1992.
May 12th, 2022 at 11:24 am
Super excited for this year’s summer series! And it starts off with Vern writing about one of my all-time favorite albums? Yes, please and thank you!
Just a few days ago, I ordered a 30th anniversary 4-or-5 LP vinyl version of Check Your Head (plus remixes, B-sides, etc). It’s not coming until June and I’m practically counting the days.