In music, as is the case in chemistry, the most important element is the one that ultimately provides the catalyst which sets everything else in motion. In chemistry, for example, the right combination of sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter can still remain perfectly inert but, when a spark gets added to that mix, the results are explosive; the aforementioned chemical compound is most commonly known as gunpowder. Needless to say, chemistry can be dangerous but, under the right circumstance, it can be the thing which ultimately changes the world. The catch is that everything has to line up just right. In the case of grunge, punk rock already had a foothold in pop culture thanks to bands like The Stooges, The Ramones, MC5, the Sex Pistols and Black Flag, but they hadn’t produced anything so infectious that it could infiltrate the pop music diaspora yet. It was in 1982 that Flipper released their debut album, Generic, which proved to be the catalyst that punk needed in order to make grunge.
Where punk rock and hardcore were fast-moving entities and regularly hit listeners like a runaway truck, Generic was more methodically paced – it was given to just dragging listeners along and assaulting them rather than simply functioning like an aural hit and run. It could easily be contended that Album – Generic Flipper is more mean-spirited than that.
… And from the moment “(I Saw You) Shine” slinks out to open the A-side of Generic Flipper, listeners will quickly realize just how true all of the discussion above is. From note one – which happens to come from a rather scurvy, pale and thin bass, mind you – listeners will feel the little hairs on the backs of their necks begin to stand at attention because the production value attached, the tone and the tempo of the sound is just so disquieting, coming as it does from a punk record. The sound of that bass is so flat, it’s near two-dimensional and almost papery – but there’s a grime holding onto the edges of it which implies violence.
The going gets even darker when Steve DePace’s drums (which sound like they were recorded in an empty concert hall) and Ted Falconi’s guitar (which just sort of screams in stasis as it moves back and forth between two chords but doesn’t actually go anywhere) enter the frame, but the nihilistic spell is sealed irreversibly when Bruce Loose climbs onto the mic and delivers an anti-melodic (‘anti-melodic’ at least – if not flat-out monotone) vocal performance which is undeniably insurgent (there’s no easy way to appropriately qualify the sensations that lines like “I’ve got to strip the flesh from my bones/ I’ve got to hammer the walls with my hands” inspire when one hears them).
Even now, over thirty-six years since Generic was first released and ten since it was reissued, there is simply no easy way to articulate how bleakly and bizarrely “(I Saw You) Shine” comes across; and that it takes eight and a half minutes to play through feels like an act of sensory deprivation. By the end of the song, listeners may find that they’re unable to see the world in any way but Flipper’s – it will have completely perverted them.
After “Shine” finally does wrap, some listeners may feel compelled to run to a mirror and see if the song has actually caused dark circles to form around their eyes and their skin to get a little paler (it will feel like it has). Of course, they’ll discover that, no, there has been no reprieve when they return. They’ll discover that “Life Is Cheap” proves that Flipper is capable of speeding up their tempos and getting a little manic in their delivery which is (obviously) a but different from “Shine,” but then singer Bruce Loose and bassist Will Shatter trade positions (Shatter on vocals, Loose on bass) and prove that the band is capable of far more than that with which they started.
The tighter focus on guitar over bass really augments the song’s structure and injects some genuine power to the proceedings before Shatter lives up to his nom-de-rock with “Ever” and closes the side darkly with the mic in his hand.
To this day, thirty-six years after its original release, the sort of sophomoric manifesto which is the lyric sheet for “Ever” still rings as anthemic – and not just because Will Shatter’s vocal performance smacks of the sort of potency which comes from genuine belief.
Of course, the kiss-off line, “Ever do nothing and gain nothing from it/ Ever feel stupid and then know you really are,” is the one that critics have always gravitated toward (bands pissing on their audience is like Spanish Fly), but that does more thought provoking and even profound questions like “Ever take control of a dream and play all the parts and set all the scenes” (which is delivered here with a sense of audible dissatisfaction and disappointment which far surpasses belief – particularly given the tender age of the band members) nowhere near the amount of justice they deserve.
Unfortunately, in the case of “Ever,” Flipper really fell prey to critics’ supposition that all the punks in the California scene of the Eighties were fools; deeper listening clearly proves that there is indeed more to “Ever” (and, by extension, both Generic Flipper as well as the band as a whole) than one may catch as a listener attempts to work past the obvious and attention-grabbing things in the mix.
Needless to say, after the initial shock of the album’s A-side has had the chance to fade a bit (it always takes more than one play through to attain that position), it suddenly becomes easier to dig into the B-side and realize that there is more to like about it than just the juvenile crash-and-bang of Flipper’s songwriting approach.
After a couple of plays, for example, it gets really easy to pick up on the frustration and resignation that bands like The Melvins and Nirvana would later refine into platinum threads after discovering the raw material in “The Way Of The World” (see lines like “There are eyes that cannot see and fingers that never touch” for an idea of the isolation and alienation that Flipper developed and upon which the giants of the alt-rock community would hook), as well as the high-stupid lyricism of “Life” (it’s impossible not to smirk dumbly when one hears the words, “Life is the only thing worth living for” – I dare you to tell me otherwise) and “Nothing/Living for The Depression.”
These are, in their own way sophomoric and nearly throwaway trifles on the surface, but they quickly become new reasons to live, in their own way, as one listens to them, because there is a truth about each which is undeniable. In their own way, Flipper presented listeners with some lyrics which were a little profound and, because time would eventually show that the band was-a key ingredient to alt-rock’s development, strains and threads or them would begin to run through a tremendous number of songs which would ultimately prove to be incredibly influential upon even more rock sub-genres and, looking at that tapestry now, one realizes just how far it reaches and how tight the music’s grip is.
Of course, looking at it now, extolling all the merits of Generic Flipper thirty-six years after the fact can’t help but be a bit of a bitter pill because of how everything would play out for the band later. After just one more album together (1984’s Gone Fishin’), Will Shatter would end up dying in 1987 from a drug overdose and, while the band was promoted and talked about dearly thereafter, their 1993-issued major label debut (which actually saw Rick Rubin draw an ‘Executive Producer’ credit) amounted to nothing (and understandably so – it really wasn’t very good) and saw the band dive back to deeper waters forevermore.
Since then, lots of musicians have kept the band’s memory alive by helping out along the way (Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic joined the band in 2006 and played on Flipper’s most recent studio recording, 2009’s Love, and then Jesus Lizard singer David Yow joined the band as lead singer in 2015 when Bruce Loose retired – citing poor health as his reasoning) and, while Rubin owns all the rights to the band’s music, all vinyl reissues (including Album – Generic Flipper) have been allowed to come out on vinyl as part of a legal settlement with Rubin.
It doesn’t sound like the greatest end to the story of Generic Flipper or to this review but, really, it could be so much worse; really, Generic Flipper‘s influence on alt-rock is undeniable and, even though the band never hit a similar stride again, this album lives on and continues to exert influence on new music which continually helps new listeners discover it, by extension. Lots of other bands wish they could say they had an album like that.
(Subterranean, 1982; Water Records, 2008; 4 Men With Beards, 2009)