Every month, we look back at the music from 1995 to explore why these albums are still relevant to us 25 years later. This month brings us AFI’s Answer That and Stay Fashionable, The Presidents of the United States of America’s The Presidents of the United States of America, 311’s Blue Album, Ani DiFranco’s Not A Pretty Girl, and Foo Fighters’ Foo Fighters.
AFI – Answer That and Stay Fashionable
By Alan Ritch
What is punk rock? Answer That and Stay Fashionable. AFI’s debut was released on July 4, 1995. It remains an exciting album that you don’t have to be a teenager to enjoy.
The title originates from an episode of The Comic Strip (a British, Spinal Tap-type series) called “Bad News Tour.” The cover was an ode to the Quentin Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs. These guys weren’t just four-chord wonders, they were also film nerds!
This wasn’t my introduction to AFI. That honor goes to Black Sails in the Sunset. I owe a debt of gratitude to a punk friend (mohawk and all) who played that album relentlessly at parties. For him to like music, it had to be fast. AFI certainly had the speed, but I was shocked at how strong the lyrics and melodies were. Soon after, I discovered the similar-sounding, The Art of Drowning, and I was hooked. Other friends, who typically preferred alternative rock, also dug those records. Once I started exploring AFI’s punk roots, I was pleasantly surprised. The songs were simpler, but not bad by any stretch.
As much as I love punk rock, it can become repetitive. Many records sound terribly dated. Some of that has to do with cheesy, adolescent lyrics. Davey Havok certainly wrote his share for this album. Though truth be told, these lines from “Cereal Wars” still make me chuckle: “Give me sugar not nuts and twigs! Do I look like a f**kin’ squirrel to you?”
A song like “I Wanna Get a Mohawk (But Mom Won’t Let Me Get One)” means nothing to my old ass now, but I’m sure it does to plenty of kids. Hearing it today makes me yearn for easier times when my biggest problem was not being allowed to stay out late. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the aggressiveness of “Open Your Eyes” still makes me want to thrash around in a pit (my back be damned!), and the anarchy-fueled lyrics of “Half-Empty Bottle” fit well in our current frustrated climate:
I’ve got the cure when passive protest just won’t do
Just flick my Bic as I hold it to the fuse
Smash it up! Break it down!
Bring it down, down to the ground!
Tear it up! Burn it down!
Burn it down, down to the ground!
Production can make or break any album. Luckily, this was produced by Tim Armstrong (singer for some band called Rancid). That little group also released a record in 1995 called …And Out Come the Wolves. I’m not saying AFI’s first album is equal to that juggernaut, but it sounds rad when you blast it in your backyard after numerous cans of cheap beer. Or so I’ve heard.
Another Rancid trademark is Matt Freeman’s catchy, skillful basslines. You can hear him loud and clear over two guitarists hammering out crunchy riffs and solos. What’s impressive about AFI’s debut is that Geoff Kresge’s bass parts stand out similarly, alongside Markus Stopholese’s in-your-face axe attack. Kresge plays killer stuff on songs like “Yürf Rendenmein” and “Your Name Here.” Most punk songs make me want to pick up a guitar. These make me want to slap da bass. He’s in sync with the drummer, Adam Carson, every step of the way. Tempo wise, they could give Metallica a run for their money. In fact, I’ve always thought “The Checkered Demon” owed a lot to “Motorbreath” from Kill ‘Em All.
AFI has taken a stab at many styles throughout their 25-year musical journey: punk, hardcore, industrial, emo, horror, goth, etc. Like all great bands, they’ve evolved while staying true to themselves. In the early days, the influence of bands like The Misfits and 7 Seconds was undeniable. Most songs on Answer That and Stay Fashionable are under two minutes long or close to it. They couldn’t replicate it today if they wanted to (and I doubt they do). Their debut will always be an amusing snapshot of a time when punk music could still sound original.
This isn’t Dark Side of the Moon or even London Calling. But it’s fun, urgent, honest music that will lift your spirits and enhance any party (even an adult one) within seconds. As far as loud music with guitars goes, what more could you ask for? Answer that and . . . well, you get it.
The Presidents of the United States of America- The Presidents of the United States of America
By John Bernardy
This self-titled debut album comes with classic tracks “Kitty,” “Lump,” and “Peaches” so it’s a bona fide must-have, whether you brush it off as a gimmicky album of jokes, or—like I do—think it’s one of the of the best 1995 had to offer.
I figured the Presidents’ unique sound was due to putting their comedic side on display—even in their band name—but it’s more than that. They put care into every level of their songs to cultivate their unique sound. They even took the time to creatively string their two standard guitars; One has only two bass strings, and the other has only three guitar strings—a suggestion of Morphine’s Mark Sandman that they took to heart. When I learned that, it explained everything that I couldn’t articulate about how the band sounds so different from the other radio bands. It’s not their jokes. This band is stealth talented.
Though sometimes it is about the jokes. Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered singer/bassist Chris Ballew is known these days as children’s music superstar Casper Babypants. It didn’t initially compute, but listening to some of these songs, it tracks. The songs here are much more irreverent Ballew’s current gig, sometimes include swears—I’m looking at you, “Kitty”—and cover more adult themes, but then there’s “Dune Buggy.” That song is sour as can be with its instrumentation but the lyrics about a kid playing with a toy car—complete with rubber band motor and a spider stuck in the driver’s seat—in a backyard sandbox. It could easily be played on Sirius Kids Place Live.
While “Lump” is a classic ‘90s single, it’s about an anthropomorphic character, as are a number of tracks on this album. I’d say it’s a major theme, even including the animals playing instruments on the album cover. Songs use this imagery to thread the needle between the innocent and mature all over this album. “Boll Weevil” is about a likely-depressed bug shaped person who sits around the house and needs to get outside. “Candy” is a love song about a girl who’s described like a gingerbread girl.
Then there’s “Body,” a song about finding a salamander in the back yard, but contains a somewhat sexy vibe with the music about the wonder of “can’t get your body out of my mind.” This album plays with its lyrics and instrumentation so you don’t ever quite know how you’re supposed to feel about the material. It’s subversive, and has fun with it.
This album also brings the fun sometimes unabashedly. “We Are Not Going To Make It” riffs on Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Possibly they won’t make it because the Presidents’ song is too grammatically accurate for contractions. “Back Porch” is all about an old guy who’s hanging out on his porch until his friends join him with their instruments to jam. “Naked and Famous” is all about the silliness behind fame, but then it rocks out at the end, ensuring that’s their fate.
This is a band unapologetically, and smartly, having fun with the human condition while riding the line between innocence and irreverence. And as a result, this is an album that wants it both ways, and gets it both ways.