Didjits- The Curse of Detroit Metal?
photo by Shake It Loose Graphics
by Ryan SetteeSometimes your best friends are the ones that you once hated. It's almost like a rite of passage to be enemies first, before you finally understand someone who's misunderstood. You go out to the monkey-bars or the bike racks for a scrap after school, get a few bruises, then knock back a few cold ones (Pepsi's, 'y' know, this is school that we're talking about), and laugh about what fools you were. Chances are you've met some of your best friends this way.
This is sort of my view on Champaign, Illinois' Didjits. My introduction to the them was back in about 1993, when I was amidst my "grunge" worship, and discovering the underground of cool music. I had saw a video by the 'Jits on "City Limits," which was a long lost show on MuchMusic that was reputed for playing some really far out, weird music. Anyway, I saw the Didjits' "Captain Ahab" video, and saw this wiseguy with round John Lennon type shades on who was speaking lyrics over a decidedly sleazy rock 'n' roll riff.
In the background were a couple of metal looking dudes backing this guy up, and it was either the frontman who looked out of place, or his bandmates. Here was this guy in the Didjits, strutting around like he owned the place, in a [i]suit[/i] yet. Who wears a suit in a band? Where's the leather jacket, plaid shirt, ripped jeans, or Chuck Taylor styled patented indie rock shoes? "Who the hell does this guy think he is?" I thought of him, and I didn't think much of it, at least not for a while.
My next experience with the Didjits wasn't for about a year later, when their video for "Judge Hot Fudge" had appeared on an episode of Beavis and Butthead. "Hehe... hehe... huuuuuh... this sucks", they had said in their conversation. I almost agreed. Apparently, this Didjits guy was his own biggest fan, and again, I didn't think much of him. The same year in 1994, the Offspring had released their indie breakthrough album, Smash, and it featured a cover of the Didjits' "Killboy Powerhead," apparently making Rick rich in the process (Brett Gurewitz of Epitaph records, who released Smash, was rumoured to be none too pleased about having to pay out royalties for it). The liner notes of Smash thanked the Didjits, while the band stated "even though we don't know them." The tributes had started.
About a year later in 1995, one of my favorite bands of the time, The Supersuckers, had released an album, Sacrilicious, with some new guy on guitar, Rick Sims. This "Rick" guy had replaced my beloved Ron Heathman in the band, but I still had no idea that this guy was the wiseacre from the Didjits. Worse yet, I thought that Sacrilicious wasn't as good as the 'Suckers' previous album, La Mano Cornuda (a few months later, I ended up loving the album though). I found out a little while later that Rick was the guy from the Didjits, and I still didn't really seem to care very much.
Fast forward to 1998, when I had a change of heart for some reason, and started to realize that maybe I had misunderstood Rick and the Didjits. Unfortunately, this realization was about 4 years after the Didjits broke up, so I can never claim to have been a fan "way back when" and I would have been too young to get into gigs anyways. Well, I was starting my total out and out rock 'n' roll phase, and somehow I knew that the Didjits were trying to revive rock n' roll all along, when no one else gave a damn. And if the Supersuckers had Rick in their band, he's [i]gotta[/i] be pretty good I thought (as it turns out, the Supersuckers were even influenced by the Didjits). No matter what I thought of the guy throughout all the previous years I still gave him some sort of weird ass-backward respect for totally doing his own thing.
So I bought a few Didjits albums on the recommendation of a local music store clerk. I picked up the Hornet Pinata, Full Nelson Reilly, and Hey Judester/ Fizzjob releases, and I threw on Hornet Pinata, and listened to the song "Captain Ahab," just to see if it was as sleazy as I remembered it. Yep, it was, and the album was on fire! It reminded me alot of the Supersuckers' or Hellacopters' best work, and it was [i]before[/i] either of those bands had recorded their greatest albums. Here were these records, from 1986 to 1991, that were completely out of their time. I mean, the musical climate of that time in the underground was Mudhoney, Green River, the Pixies, Jesus Lizard, Nine Inch Nails, and an upcoming Nirvana (who wanted nothing to do with rock stardom). Yet Rick and the Didjits blatantly wanted to be rock stars, when being a rock star in the underground simply wasn't cool.
The unwritten code of the underground basically goes like this: what's underground, [i]stays[/i] underground. There's not supposed to be any "posing", "showmanship" or "one-upsmanship"- it's basically the punk ethos. But the Didjits seemed to embody all these facets, and gave the finger to anyone who could or couldn't give a shit. Rick was an ego that couldn't be contained, not within his own world, his own Wingtip shoes, nor on any stage of any magnitude.
To fully realize how unusually relevant that the Didjits were in their un-relevance, one also has to consider the mainstream music of the time. While the mainstream has sucked 95 percent of the time and will inevitably also suck in the future, the big names of the time were horrible: Milli Vanilli, Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, and Paula Abdul (pre American Idol has-been comeback) were dominating the airwaves- I remember it all too well. The rock bands of the time were Guns n' Roses, Slaughter and Motley Crue, and the Didjits had nothing in common with them.
Or did they? The Didjits were often accused of sexism and hedonism in their lyrics, something that many hair metal bands of the time were accused of. Yet, the Didjits had tapped into something more primal, intense, vicious, and vintage sounding, only they had given the old sound a much needed update. The 'Jits had beaten the hair metallers at their own game, getting down to the punk rock that many a hairspray band claimed to love... and they weren't hair metal. They'd also beaten the punks at their own game by being too rock n' roll, yet were too punk for the rock 'n' rollers. And above it all, the 'Jits were just too damn metal for everyone.
Then when I had enough musical knowledge to do the math, I realized that the Didjits were trying to resurrect the old classic Detroit Motown metal sound, namely of the Stooges, MC5, and Ted Nugent. As a matter of fact, the best description that I have of Rick, is that he's a bizarre combination of Devo, Ted Nugent, James Williamson, Elvis and Wayne Kramer. It wasn't until years later that I actually realized that the song "Call Me Animal" was an MC5 cover.
Admittedly, Rick's voice is an acquired taste, and it often is the contention for many people's gripes with the Didjits' sound. "It sounds like Geddy Lee", one person told me. "It sounds like he's on helium", another person had said to me. Personally, I don't mind his vocals, I mean, they're not revolutionary, but they have a sort of youthful, wiseassed sound to 'em, and when you're singing about pussy, cars and killing, what do you expect?
Another thing that's really overlooked is Rick's way with a word and rhyme scheme. Always hilarious, sometimes mysogynist, and sometimes downright bizarre, lyrics like "there's no reason to wake up/I put on my wig and my make up/ I strut my tight ass across the street/ A man in a dress I feel so sweet" (from "Lou Reed") are defiantly fucked up, and are pure genius. Or lines like "mama had a skull baby/ and it screeeaaaamed all night long/ you'd scream too, if all's 'ya had was a SKULL!" (from "Mama Had A Skullbaby") are hilarious. The examples are endless--just pick up a lyric sheet from a Didjits album and sing along.
The bottom line is that Rick Sims and the Didjits were going out on a limb, and Rick's bravado, ego, showmanship, fashion sense, and sheer rock 'n' roll power was being matched by few bands (save for bands like the Devil Dogs and Nomads, etc.) at that time, during the mid to late '80's and early '90's. Their influence is all over the rock 'n' roll explosion that we've seen in recent years (i.e. Datsuns, D4, Hellacopters, Nashville Pussy, Turbonegro) and they always, always knew how to end a song with a bang. While they didn't come into their own sound until about 1990 and 1991, the fact remains that while the Didjits never were and still aren't as popular as they should be, Rick was playing to imaginary stadiums and arenas in his own mind, and that's gotta count for something.
And I very well might not have really gave a damn about the true, cutting edge of rock 'n' roll if it weren't for the Didjits. As per usual, the truly great, ahead of their time bands never usually get their due until they're long gone. It must be the curse of the Detroit sound.
Reviews in order of release dates:
Fizzjob, released in 1986 by Bam Bam records (later re-released with "Hey Judester" in 1989).
I've never really been a huge fan of Fizzjob. It's got a pretty good, above average punk thing going on, but to the Didjits newbie, I wouldn't start my collection with this. It does have a cool '50's punk sound, as evidenced by songs like "Jerry Lee" and "Elvis' Corvette" though. The sound on the album is what you'd expect for a punk record in 1986, but the snare bugs me a bit, 'cause it has too much low end to it. And the guitar sound isn't developed as much as later Didjits albums, as the guitars were mostly single tracked, and lose some of the velocity, especially when the guitar solos play with no rhythm guitar track behind 'em. "Hafta Be Cool Ta Rule" is a classic track, as is "Wingtips" and "Jerry Lee," and there's some funny moments provided by songs like "Fix Some Food Bitch" (or like in "Beast Le Brutale", when Rick rhymes "Beast le vitalis... shut up Telly Savalis"), but for the most part, it's pretty average stuff.
Hey Judester, released by Touch and Go Records, 1988/1989.
This is not what I'd say to be the Didjits' best work, but it's still very good. It shows improved riffing and writing from Hey Judester, and it defines the Didjits' earlier sound a little more. Tracks like "Max Wedge," "Stingray," "Mama Had A Skullbaby" and "Stumpo Knee Grinder" showcase a sharper sense of r n' r that the 'Jits would later take to perfection on albums like Hornet Pinata. Rick's obsession with 50's rock n' roll continues on the cover of Little Richard's "Lucille," and the album has better production than Fizzjob, partly due to a double tracked guitar sound. A solid and witty album.
Hornet Pinata, released by Touch and Go Records in 1990.
This is what every fucking rock n' roll album should sound like: fast, abrasive, and about cars, drinking, satan, and women. There is not a bad moment on this album, and if there even might be one, it would be "Evel Knievel." But right from the get-go, from "Killboy Powerhead", on through to "Gold Eldorado," to the album closer (a cover of Hendrix's "Foxey Lady"), it brims with a confidence, arrogance, and smokin' riffage that has been seen on few albums before or after it. The more aggressive cover of the MC5's "Call Me Animal" might even be better than the original version. The mix is awesome on this album-- the guitar tones, drum sounds, and bass are all mixed to sound like one sleek killing machine. My only complaint with an otherwise flawless record is that the mastering job sucks (put any album on after it, and you'll find that the album's volume is horribly low).
Full Nelson Reilly, released by Touch and Go Records, 1991.
This album is sludgier and generally a bit slower than what I consider to be their best album, Hornet Pinata. Starting the album off with a parody of Hendrix's version of the "Star Spangled Banner" (replete with a faux stadium crowd applause), they have a lot of their classic songs on this one, from "Who's Ready To Get High" to "Eat The Roach" to "Lou Reed" as well as a cool cover of Devo's "Mr. DNA." Recorded by Steve Albini under the pseudonym "Reggie Stiggs," it's unmistakably Stevie behind the boards on this one. The drums sound louder than god, the vocals are buried, and there's that bizarrely metallic guitar sound to it. Therein lies both the album's strengths and weaknesses--the bulletproof mix makes the Didjits sound heavier and tougher, at the expense of some of the clarity that their earlier albums had. No matter, it's still great, and there's a direct nod to the Stooges' "Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell", in the outro riff to "Promise Not To Kill Anybody." Again, the album suffers from poor mastering, and it takes some of the vitality and attitude out of the record's energy.
Little Miss Carriage, released by Touch and Go Records, 1992.
Even by an EP's standards, this is not very essential stuff in the Didjits' back catalogue. It starts out with the bitchin' "Dirt County Road" (with a hilarious faux Brit accent from Rick in the middle of the song), and "Jimmy" is a pretty good rawk song, as is the cover of Montrose's "Rock The Nation." But the material and production remind me of what the Didjits would have released in between the Fizzjob and Hey Judester albums, because the surprisingly thin sound from Steve "Reggie Stiggs" Albini really takes the life out of an album that already seems to have no real point to it. It might have the "rhyme", but it doesn't really have "the reason".
Que Sirhan, Sirhan, released by Touch and Go Records, 1993.
This is a great album and a very good recovery after the surprisingly weak Little Miss Carriage EP, but it sounds like a slightly inferior version of Hornet Pinata. It's undeniably Didjits though, and tracks like "Agent 99," "Judge Hot Fudge" and "Barely Legal" rock like you know the Didjits only know how to. "Fire In The Hole" might be the most "metal" song that the 'Jits ever did, and that's saying a lot, seeing as the Didjits were often criticized for being "too metal." I have to say that "Sick Of My Fix" might be the shittiest, most pointless song that they've done, up there with "Beast Le Brutale," and one of my main beefs with this slab o' beefy rock is that some of the guitars sound like they were recorded with a two dollar mic (the cover of the Plasmatics' "Monkey Suit" being a particular offender, as the good sounding guitar track starts out the song, then the cheap sounding guitar track kicks in a few seconds later). Everything aside, this is still a great album in terms of punk rock 'n' roll, and they finally got a proper mastering job for one of their albums in this one. R.I.P. Didjits.
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