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Flipper - Generic / Gone Fishin’ / Sex Bomb Baby! / Public Flipper Limited

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Artist: Flipper

Album: Generic / Gone Fishin’ / Sex Bomb Baby! / Public Flipper Limited

Label: Water

Review date: Jan. 9, 2009


Flipper - "Sex Bomb" (Generic)


“He’s playing it all wrong. The drums are too slow, the bass is too fast, the chords are wrong, they’re making the ending too long...”

- Darby Crash, ad-libbing at the end of the Germs’ “Forming”

Crash’s invective, one could say, was the coincidental blueprint for what San Francisco’s Flipper would unleash years later upon a punk rock scene that was becoming increasingly conservative in its aesthetic. Now, in what could be called the greatest social service by a record label in the year of our lord 2008, the humanitarian lot at Water Records releases four highly influential but heretofore criminally underavailable albums.

Over the material presented here, Flipper didn’t stray too far from its signature sound – which to some might resemble a prolonged car wreck. But rarely on record has a band sounded so on the verge of collapse, yet so perfectly aligned with the perpetrators’ collective vision. In lesser hands, Flipper’s - shall we say - recklessness would prove a fatal liability. And in a different time the formula may not have been as effective: much ado has been made of Flipper’s rejection of the then in-vogue breakneck speed of punk rock, a move that would alienate Black Flag’s fanbase when they put the brakes on years later.

Throughout their debut, Generic, it seems that Flipper kept that same overarching philosophy among its individual compositions. Most are based on a solitary, lethargic bass riff played ad nauseam, sometimes dragging behind the beat. Verses and choruses are only distinguishable via the lyrics, as in “Way of the World,” and “(I Saw You) Shine,” a mesmerizing, 8-minute exercise in downer stasis. Ted Falconi’s guitar mangling is worth special mention. Occasional, fractured blues licks bob above the morass of feedback and trash-compactor grind he wrests out of his instrument. Alternately, riffs dissolve into mirages of themselves as the Steve DePace/Will Shatter/Bruce Lose axis churns away. One might call Falconi a textural player, assuming that texture is that of a bed of broken glass. The fuzzed-out basslines by the late, great Shatter often carry what melody exists – but they also throb like a party-ball hangover. DePace’s drumming, limited on Generic to a bulldozer crawl, only rarely approaches a hobbled lope.

Flipper’s boldest move was to sequence their debut such that “Ever” was the lead-off track. Anyone likely to get past the first minute or so of sickeningly out-of-tune guitar riffing would also likely stay on board for the remaining 39. “Life Is Cheap” is anchored by an incessant four-note bassline while Falconi’s guitar meltdown and Lose’s called-out delivery of his own bleak lyrics – rendered via a harmonizer to sound like a munchkin – spar over top.

For the most part, Gone Fishin’ doesn’t tamper with the good thing Flipper had going. Though it forsakes a bit of the early lumbering for some rhythmic changeups – namely, the vague funky-drummerisms that drive “First the Heart.” In light of this cut and Generic’s “Sex Bomb,” which makes heavy (over)use of the electronic ‘whoops’ produced by the analog Synare, one wonders if the boys didn’t harbor aspirations of becoming the Gap Band. Some of Gone Fishin’s tracks are augmented with the least appropriate (and hence, most perfect) instrumentation. Clavinet incongruously shimmers over the closing bars of “The Light, The Sound,” a clumsy piano tinkles along to “You Nought Me,” and the droning, two-chord vamp of “One By One” gets some extra propulsion by DePace on congas. Imperfect world as it is, there are no hit singles here. But if there’s a standout cut on Gone Fishin’, it would be the timeless, anti-war themed “Sacrifice.” Though Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins (who covered the song on their Lysol record) recalls in his liner notes that Shatter borrowed the lyrics from a World War I poem, they are as relevant in our current post-Bush worldwide warzone as they were then. “Can’t you hear the war cry / It’s time to enlist / the people speak as one / the cattle, the crowd,” intones Shatter, taking aim at notions of “patriotism” in a way that would have gotten the Dixie Chicks barred from entering any red state.

Sex Bomb Baby, previously re-released by the Rollins-Rubin joint venture Infinite Zero, culls compilation tracks, alternate studio and live recordings, and singles. “Ha Ha Ha,” like “Ever,” could stand as another quintessential Flipper track: Two verses, two riffs set to a splishy faux-disco beat – the absurdity of modern suburban living condensed into 2 minutes, 15 seconds. The live version of “Ever” presented here is attenuated by a recording of a show-ending audience fight – egged on by the band themselves. It only hints at the chaos that made Flipper the live legends they were, as touted by Henry Rollins’ liner notes and as evidenced later by the endurance test that is the live Public Flipper Limited. “Get Away,” might be Sex Bomb Baby’s slickest production, but it offers a sobering look at a scene populated with the types of characters first introduced by Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” or any odd Velvet Underground song. “Love Canal” is a seasick trudge documenting the horror of living at America’s most toxic and infamous Superfund site, with Shatter’s vocals – normally equal parts urgency and snot – effected with disorienting tape-speed manipulation. “Falling” and the retread of “The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” capture the band at its loosest and most deranged, as both songs sound like on-the-spot improvisations. Conversely, the hardcore-lampooning “Brainwash” is the band at its fastest and most unlistenable, thanks to an annoying voiceover.

The haymaker lands with Public Flipper Limited: Live 1980-1985, a two-CD collection of live cuts. Recording quality varies, but you’ll get the point. There was certainly something elegant about the way in which Flipper allowed their songs to disintegrate onstage. The band stretches “Shine” until it tears at the seams and spills over into a near-dub experience. The nearly 9-minute “If I Can’t Be Drunk...” plays like the Bizarro-world counterpart to the Grateful Dead’s jam-rock indulgence. The notion of good-time rock and roll crumples under the weight of a horrifying, meandering cry for help. Career wiseass Gregg Turkington, who recorded one of the tracks here, was no doubt influenced by the unchecked nihilism of Flipper’s stage banter (the Bacharach-biting chant of “What the world needs now, are explosives and guns...” at the end of the thunderous “The Game’s Got a Price”), and their audience-baiting (“There’s No Place as Bad as Southern California” – recorded in L.A., in an apparently very much polluted state of mind).

Water’s restoration of the original cover art – absent from prior re-releases – is a welcome touch on this set. For those with a steady X-acto knife hand, the cover for Gone Fishin’ may be cut and folded into a mini diorama of the band, their instruments, and their graffiti-covered tour van. And the fold-out “road disaster” board game cover of Public Flipper Limited should be required as part of any first-timer band’s tour preparation. As that van graffiti reads: “Flipper suffers for their music – now it’s your turn.” It’s about time!

By Adam MacGregor

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