Listening to a Camper Van Beethoven CD is like opening a time capsule to an era where the alternative music scene was more of a nascent beast than what it is now, where bands like REM, The Replacements and Husker Du reigned supreme. The Zappa-influenced Camper Van Beethoven fell somewhere inbetween, merging ska, folk, psychedelia, punk and country music into an off-beat blend of styles which probably made more sense stoned. Couple this with some off the wall lyrics and you had one of the most endearing and musically warped bands of the eighties.
Formed in Santa Cruz, California in 1983, Camper Van Beethoven rose to prominence with the college radio hit “Take the Skinheads Bowling” which quickly became their signature tune, later recorded by Teenage Fanclub and used as the title track for Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. Singer David Lowery was the absurd lyrical genius, but amongst the satire and surrealist images, were songs?littered with political and social commentary. Combined with their trademark lead violin sound, they confounded fans and critics alike, releasing several albums during the eighties, before signing to Virgin Records where they scored a minor mainstream hit with their cover of Status Quo’s psych-rock “Pictures of Matchstick Men”.
Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty is their long overdue greatest hits collection, retracing the bands early years with tracks like “The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon” (this image is recreated for the album sleeve) and the Eastern European ska sound of “Skinhead Stomp” both taken from their quirky 1985 debut Telephone Free Landslide Victory, right up to the more commercial sounding final album Key Lime Pie released in 1989. Included as an extra enticement for fans, more out of necessity rather than design, are five tracks re-recorded for this release due to Virgin Records refusing to sell the band back the original tapes. Undaunted, the band went back into the studio and cut almost identical versions out of spite.
The rest of the songs on offer show Camper Van Beethoven in full flight. The snotty skate punk of “Opi Rides Again/Club Med Sucks” (“Club Med sucks!/authority sucks!/I hate golf!/I don’t wanna play lacrosse!”). Countrified gems like “Everything Seems To Be Up in The Air” and “Sad Lovers Waltz”. The American dream gone sour of “When I Win the Lottery”. The aptly titled “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt”, the swirling psychedelia of “Circles” and the near pop perfection of “Eye of Fatima”. Never had one band gone out of their way to sound like a dozen but with David Lowery’s Californian drawl riding up the middle, Camper Van Beethoven were the perfect jack of all trades band.
Newcomers informed only by “Take the Skinheads Bowling” are probably going to be baffled and back away, but given their eclectic nature there are bound to be many “what the fuck?” moments amongst the 18 tracks. But for the ignorant and the mildly curious, Popular Songs is both a worthwhile introduction and an essential spotlight on such a revered but largely unknown band. “Let’s get high while the radio’s on” sings Lowery on “Good Guys and Bad Guys”. Well yeah, but you could just put on this CD and kick back. The job’s already done.