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Stairway to Hell
Partying with Andrew W.K.

We see a dark and dingy bathroom — could be your high-school locker room, could be Wembley Stadium — and a pair of filthy high-top sneakers, of the type worn exclusively by heavy-metal heshers who still go around headbanging their greasy mops and flashing the rock horns as if Nirvana had never happened. There is a young man in the sneakers. He ties his high-tops tight (no wearing them fashionably loose, not in this life), yanks the laces, and punches them like a boxer headed into the ring.

And then he’s off, in ratty too-tight jeans and a sweat-stained T-shirt, a slightly puffy kid who hasn’t shaved but can’t yet grow a beard, out onto a darkened stage, and the first thing you see is that if this is a fight, Andrew W.K. (for that is the young man’s name, inasmuch as it is a name) has already lost. There’s an enormous banner hanging behind him on the stage — a close-up of Andrew’s face with an awful drape of half-clotted blood spilling from his nose, as if he’d been pounded into a 13-round pulp. There is a nasty vertical gash on his forehead, as if someone had attempted to separate his left brain from his right. The fight is over, and the result is not in his favor. The room is empty. But he’s still standing. And it’s time to rock.

Trying to describe what comes next is like trying to read license plates on the freeway. A gang of robots announces, "When it’s time to party, we will party hard," and then there’s this ludicrous bubblegum speedmetal anthem over a galumphing house beat, a lead-guitar line that’s halfway between Iron Maiden and Party of Five emo-rock, and a shaggy mongoloid cretin leading the robots (I like to imagine they’re the ones from the censored Appetite for Destruction cover) in a Slade-style glam-thug soccer-hooligan shout: "LET’S get a party started/LET’S get a party started/When it’s time to party we will always PARTY HARD." On stage, there’s Andrew pounding the keys, headbanging like a motherfucker, and three guitarists — one of ’em in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. "Party Hard" is over in three minutes, but the world has changed.

Andrew W.K.’s major-label debut is called I Get Wet (Island/DefJam), an inauspicious title for the best heavy-metal parking-lot album of the past 15 years and the most raucous party platform since the Beastie Boys’ License To Ill. I Get Shitfaced would’ve been slightly more accurate; had it not been taken, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius would not have been out of line. Or maybe Stairway to Hell, after critic Chuck Eddy’s crypto-revisionist encyclopædia of that name, which offers the only definition of metal broad enough and un-ironic enough to include what Andrew has given us. It’s an album that defies description: uglier than Bubba Sparxxx, cheesier than Kix, dumber than Zodiac Mindwarp. There’s Misfits-on-Broadway deathpunk ("Ready To Die"); a Dokken-clad Abba-esque bubble-techno rave-up ("I Love NYC," penned prior to September 11); "November Rain" piano balladry and Journey-style arena-rock pomp ("Girls Own Love"); Mutt-Lange-era Def-Leppard-outfitted-in-Miami-Sound-Machine gear ("Got To Do It"); Meatloaf-worthy dashboard confession filtered through Hampton the Hampster and the Wildhearts ("Take It Off"); a blatant Purple Rain quote dressed up in Ministry lockstep thrash ("Party ’til You Puke"); and the symphonic rigor and mechanical certitude of Eurometal as applied to ’80s neon kiddie-synthpop ("Fun Night"), a trick that winds up sounding more like Phil Spector than you’d expect.

It will be said of Andrew — has in fact already been said — that he is a joke, a gimmick, and worse. All I can say is that Andrew is a composite of every metal kid I ever knew: over-friendly and under-liked, shy, meticulous in everything but personal hygiene, industrious, self-assured in everything but love, lonely, deadly serious, intensely loyal, easily embarrassed, hysterically funny, emotionally scarred by years of dating Catholic girls who wouldn’t sleep with him but seemed to sleep with everyone else, a romantic who would sooner write a song about a pretty girl than talk to her, hopelessly optimistic, a believer in himself, a sit-com searching for an audience, a profound drunk, an autodidact intellectual, a keeper of flames, a true believer.

I Get Wet was released last year in the UK to rapturous reviews and the kind of publicity frenzy that only the British can mount these days. Prior to the disc’s release, Andrew had toured Europe opening for the Foo Fighters — he’s since plundered the Florida death-metal scene for a band, but back then he was performing karaoke-style to his own CD on a boombox — which led to a BBC-endorsed rumor that he was Dave Grohl in disguise. The truth is even stranger.

A TINY NOISE LABEL CALLED BULB, operated over the years from locations as far-fetched as Japan, Germany, New England, and now Michigan, issued Andrew W.K.’s debut EP, Girls Own Juice, in 2000. These five songs were by far the best music the label had ever released — which isn’t saying much, since the vast majority of Bulb’s output is low-budget no-wave skronk and electronic babble. Most Bulb product functions best as a satire of the very notion of product — a fair number of the groups on the roster are pseudonyms for Bulb honcho Pete Larson (Mr. Velocity Hopkins, Danse Asshole, 25 Suaves, Prehensile Monkeytailed Skink). Larson once said that he’d never spent more than 15 minutes designing an album cover, and after seeing a few of them, you might wonder what he did with himself those last dozen minutes. The label’s logo is a parody of Sun Records’, with the sun replaced by a scribbled drawing of a lightbulb — an incredibly crude image that provokes multiple associations, not the least of them the thought that Bulb is a better idea about a record label than it is the actual thing.

In the early days of Bulb, the catalogue descriptions only occasionally deigned to comment on the albums, and when they did, any resemblance between copy and product was purely coincidental. This is still pretty much the case. (The group Temple of Bon Matin are said to sound "like Arthur Doyle having sex with the L.A. Guns in a vat of green beans.") The label’s highest-profile clients are probably Japanese garage-punks the King Brothers and the vaudevillean percussion-noise tinkerer Mr. Quintron ("A breathtaking exercise in Mongolian tapdancing!"). The only Bulb album that even remotely anticipated Andrew W.K. is one recorded in the mid ’90s by a group called the Pterodactyls ("The Hardest Rocking Band in Rock!"). Imagine the early Royal Trux trying — and failing, flailing, ecstatically and painfully — to play Helloween and Manowar and you’ve got their best song, "Jean Jacket Kids." Reborn captured the primal conceit of the neo-no-wave æsthetic as practiced by Bulb and its Midwest competitor Skin Graft (see faux Satanists the Flying Lutenbachers), the idea that no-wave spasm is the new power metal and that home-made drum machines are the soundtrack for a new dance party. More to the point, it fetishized a kind of archetypal metal fandom, a cultural heroism practiced by the unreconstructed suburban degenerates whose tastes remain uncorrupted by hype or hipness. Metal kids — jean-jacket kids, the ones who aren’t even cool enough for leather — like what they like.

Reborn, like most of Bulb’s records, was a great idea without any practical application — a performance-art piece. Except that for at least one member, it might have been something more. As it happened, the Pterodactyls, whose line-up included Pete Larson, were one of a half-dozen or more no-wave fiascos that featured the young Andrew Wilkes-Krier. There’s a photo of him on the back cover, where he looks far too young for his immaculately studded punk gear, a pair of drumsticks tucked into a satin waistband. (In interviews, Andrew has taken to referring in the third person to Steev Mike, an alias he used in the Pterodactyls and also credited as executive producer of I Get Wet.) Well-known in the minuscule Michigan noise scene that gave rise to Bulb, the future Andrew W.K. was a part of such fly-by-night unknowns as AAB, Kangoo, Isis and Werewolves, Galen, and Beast People. He’d recorded under his own name on Plant the Flower Seeds (Westside Audio Laboratories), a cassette compilation of sound-collage works by children under the age of 13. And after the Pterodactyls he released a pair of cassettes, Room To Breath [sic] and You Are What You Eat, on Michigan’s Hanson Records.

But on Girls Own Juice — the title track was adapted for I Get Wet under the less-suggestive title "Girls Own Love" — the 21-year-old Andrew W.K. appeared with a fully formed, completely realized vision of densely layered stadium-filling anthems for jean-jacket kids. The songs on Girls Own Juice — as on I Get Wet, Andrew played all the instruments — are swooning, immaculately produced piano ballads and multi-tracked guitar symphonies, not just prototypes for I Get Wet but every bit its equal. For all its impressive craft, though, Girls Own Juice seemed more esoteric than Borbetomagus. What small audience existed for ’80s stadium rock could not have been expected to find it — it was on Bulb, for chrissake. And so Girls Own Juice was like a blind beacon, a message in a bottle. Andrew even put his home phone number on the inside sleeve, in big block letters, with the admonition (a plea, really) "CALL ME!"

So in my book, I Get Wet is next to miraculous: a one-in-a-million shot, a strange and perfect album by some weird genius from the middle of nowhere that is suddenly everywhere. "Party Hard" is in promos for the MTV drug-flick Wasted. The opening "It’s Time To Party" is in a commercial for the Internet travel agency Toyota is sponsoring his tour. "Party Hard" is getting added to radio. His face is reported to adorn the largest billboard anyone’s ever seen in Tokyo. The album isn’t even out yet, and I’m not done raving but I’m out of room, so I’m gonna run outside and shake the first person I see and keep shaking and tell ’em what Andrew inevitably says at the end of his interviews, one last plea to reach the unconverted: "This is not a fucking game. This is the sound of being alive." You’ve gotta hear it.

Issue Date: March 21 - 28, 2002
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