The Boston Phoenix
October 28 - November 4, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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The genuine meanness of Anal Cunt

by Carly Carioli

Anal Cunt The English metal label Earache has already released the new Anal Cunt album, It Only Gets Worse, in the UK (it's due out here in November), though the label's British distributor has refused to carry it, citing such songs titles as "I Became a Counselor So I Could Tell Rape Victims They Asked for It," "You Robbed a Sperm Bank Because You're a Cum-Guzzling Fag," "I Made Your Kid Gets AIDS So You Could Watch It Die," "Hitler Was a Sensitive Man," "Domestic Violence Is Really Really Really Funny," and "Women: Nature's Punching Bag." The ban came even though the label had decided to block out portions of the lyrics -- the band have never published their lyrics before, and in fact they began writing lyrics only halfway into their 12-year career -- and had also forced A.C. to retitle a song originally called "Connor Clapton Committed Suicide Because His Father Sucks." (In retrospect, that title seems much less potentially litigious than "Easy-E Got AIDS from Freddie Mercury," which made the album but had much of its lyrics deleted from the liner notes.)

I have given it a lot of thought and have decided that I am probably a very awful, juvenile, and stupid person, because I find It Only Gets Worse -- along with other Anal Cunt albums like Top 40 Hits, I Like It When You Die, 40 More Reasons To Hate Us, and their lone concession to irony, the deadpan acoustic disc Picnic of Love -- to be immensely funny, often brilliant, and on par with the works of H.L. Mencken and Lenny Bruce. This though I have only rarely been able to listen to any A.C. album straight through and have probably never listened to any of them more than twice. I'll admit the Easy-E thing makes me a little nervous, though it's not A.C.'s best work. "Dictators Are Cool" is much better: "Mussolini got pissed on by his people/Hitler had a Charlie Chaplin moustache/Dick Manitoba grabbed my girlfriend's tits/Mark Mendoza was in Twisted Sister." And if at this point you're wondering which banana republic Dick Manitoba's from, you are hereby advised to get your trousers pressed.

I've long admired the precision-aligned comic timing of Anal Cunt song titles as read in succession on the back of their albums. Each disc's song list is a monologue with a rhythm all its own, and their best song titles are masterfully concise one-liners with concealed barbs. Like "I Sold Your Dog to a Chinese Restaurant," which compounds the cruelty of selling someone's pet with an ethnic slur. The subject matter and the construction of the joke are both borrowed; the finished product's absurdity (slightly off -- isn't it supposed to be cats?) feels familiar, as if it were not simply the drunken spew of some fat, pathetic, heavy-metal asswipe but a satire of the listener's ingrained prejudices. After all, it's not funny unless you already know what they do with our four-legged friends at Chinese restaurants.

The lyrics on It Just Gets Worse navigate a terrain of contempt and mayhem with similar precision, a heavily nuanced work composed entirely of variations on the classic "fuck you" where the jokes revolve around the way things turn out to be both more and less offensive than one initially expects. "Body by Auschwitz" is about a guy who can't lose weight and decides to go to a concentration camp. The operative line in "I Sold Concentration Camp Footage to America's Funniest Home Videos" is a dig at D.W. Griffith: "I didn't win the $10,000/So I sent internment-camp footage/I didn't win again/So I sent Birth of a Nation." "Hitler Was a Sensitive Man" turns out to be a swipe at fans of the Cure, the Smiths, and Depeche Mode. In fact, many of my favorite A.C. songs work as shorthand primitivist rock criticism -- "You Went To See Dishwalla and Everclear (You're Gay)," "311 Sucks," "Everyone in the Underground Music Scene Is Stupid," "Face It, You're a Metal Band," and "Rancid Suck (And So Do the Clash)," to name just a few.

I do not pretend to be the first person to voice these opinions. Just last year, Village Voice critic Ann Marlowe called Anal Cunt "hilarious" and said they "deserve to be famous." She also hinted that there was an ironic duality to Anal Cunt's misanthropy -- "transgressive/`transgressive' " was how she put it, pausing to note how sweet the band's lead singer and only permanent member, Seth Putnam, had seemed in their brief meeting, as if to assure herself that she had made a safe and sound judgment. Just after I interviewed Putnam last week, he and I literally bumped into Mike Watt (in town to play T.T. the Bear's Place), who was quick to proclaim his affection for I Like It When You Die, which he claimed to play often on his Internet radio show. "We have a song," Putnam told him bluntly. "It's called `The Internet Is Gay.' "

The surrealness of the exchange with Watt and Marlowe's quip about irony were still fresh in my mind as we walked down Mass Ave and Putnam, striding boldly down the middle of a crowded sidewalk, purposefully and with malice and totally out of nowhere knocked an unsuspecting middle-aged woman flat on her back. It occurred to me that to the uninitiated bystander, ironic transgression and transgression of the plain ol' random-violence variety both end up tasting like pavement. And it underscored what I find most subversive about A.C., which is the way they inevitably implicate and co-opt any effort on the part of the listener to put up a barrier between oneself and the bass-line brutality of A.C.'s humor. Which is to say, when he knocked that woman down, it was funnier than I felt comfortable with.

Seth Putnam, of the Newton Putnams (the family can trace its roots in the New World back to 1630), is a tall, hefty, unkempt guy with shoulder-length hair and uncomplicated intentions. When I interviewed him last week and we shared a couple of pints of whiskey in an alley behind the Middle East in Cambridge, his intention was to get drunk, and he accomplished this swimmingly. We were joined by Robert Williams -- no relation to the artist whose rape-minded robots graced Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction. Williams's early-'80s Weymouth-based hardcore band Siege became legendary in underground metal circles after their demise. He now leads a revolution-minded psychedelic drone-sludge outfit called Nightstick.

Since Nightstick's third album, Death to Music, has just been released on Relapse, and Williams and Putnam have a history, this was going to be about both of them. But Williams was barely able to get a word in edgewise.

Anal Cunt Now 31, Putnam formed Anal Cunt in March of 1988, though he had played in hardcore bands before that and remembers having the basic idea for A.C. when he was not even in his teens. The idea was, roughly, the end of music -- no titles, no beginnings or endings, no melodies, no beats, no riffs, no continuity from minute to minute or even from second to second, just an impromptu splatter of blurred guitar, bass, drums, and screaming. Anal Cunt's first seven-inch single contained 88 songs. Their third seven-inch had a staggering 5643 songs recorded one on top of the other in a 16-track studio.

"The idea I had for A.C. was to have nothing resembling music at all," Putnam explains. "All the songs were made up on the spot. It's complete crap, as fast as possible, no lyrics, nothing resembling music. Then that got boring. So every now and then we'd have maybe a riff for five seconds and then go into a buncha crap. And we just kept progressing from there and eventually we had real songs."

At the same time, A.C. gained a reputation as one of the most violent bands ever to grace a stage. Putnam has been known to chuck cinderblocks and chairs and weighted mike stands at the audience. Shows degenerated into blacked-out bloodbaths. A guy in Biloxi, Mississippi, got his ear ripped off. And A.C. were banned from rooms as far away as Germany and Japan.

"I became a total drunk," Putnam admits, "and instead of killing myself I decided to hurt other people."

At one point A.C. had a guitar player named Fred who had been an amateur boxer. "So basically 75 percent of the shows weren't resembling music at all," Putnam said. "It was just me and Fred and punching people. I was going out and beating people."

The only ironic thing I could discern about A.C. from talking to Putnam was this: as he was growing up, his favorite bands were the ones who played fastest, loudest, and heaviest (Alice Cooper and the Ramones, then later the F.U.'s and Venom), but by forming A.C., he has wrecked the entire idea of faster and louder. He's turned it into a joke and a gimmick, or at least exposed it as perhaps having been a joke and a gimmick all along. After A.C., there is simply no place left to go. "Well, I figured that by now there'd be some new band that would come and destroy it [what A.C. did]. And no one has."

Much of the attention paid to A.C. involves speculation as to Putnam's intentions, which would seem to speak to the stickiness of questions about how willing we are to separate the art from the artist. When he thinks about it, which is not often, Putnam demands to be taken at face value. Of his feelings toward gays, he says, "I don't hate them, but I enjoy making fun of them" (of course, that's his attitude toward nearly everyone), and by way of explanation points out that some of his all-time favorite bands (the Village People, Judas Priest, and Culture Club) have gay people in them. The songs on Worse that appear to be anti-Semitic are generally not so -- at least, not directly. But Putnam also mentions that he's written a song for another of his bands that he describes as his first "serious" song in years, about "how Jews are hogging the Holocaust." His songs about women read like hyperbolic parodies of misogyny rather than the genuine article, though he has no problem hitting women or anyone else and was almost arrested in England this year for urinating on a lady in public. On the other hand, he's happily married to a woman who he says shares his views.

Reluctant to call himself an artist or even a musician, and unwilling to entertain the notion that his songs mean anything other than what they purport to say -- which is to deny their humor, except as incidental -- Putnam makes for a uniformly lousy anti-hero. Or a great one, depending on how you look at it. He refuses to let you off the hook: if you think A.C. are funny, he wants you to know that he's not smirking with satisfaction from behind a curtain of irony. He's down in front bludgeoning someone for the fun of it.

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