What were you doing at age nine? Smacking a baseball off of a wobbly rubber tee? Rubbing fudge all over your face? Figuring out how to play the notes D-A-D in succession on the violin? The kids in Old Skull weren't. In 1989, they were holed up in a Madison, Wisconsin recording studio, feverishly slapping and molesting their instruments while J.P. Toulon screamed about such wide-ranging topics as skateboarding, hot dogs, homelessness and the AIDS virus. While you were just starting to get long division, Old Skull had already realized that Ronald Reagan sucks and "love is hell".|
Old Skull's debut, Get Outta School, is a simultaneously torturous and hilarious listening experience. It is near impossible to swallow in one sitting, but it is similarly difficult to hear some of these songs and not chuckle and even marvel at the hard-to-pinpoint near-brilliance of the execution. Just try not to marvel!
Cynical conspiracy theorists have shot out the claim that Vern Toulon, the father of two of the band members, is responsible for the lyrics and much of the music heard within. Until I hear this from one of the Old Skulls himself, though, I refuse to believe it. After all, the liner notes clearly state, "All songs written by Old Skull." They no doubt received some help, though. Actually, it's almost surprising that boys as old as nine made this music, which is, for the most part, an incoherent racket. Five-year-olds could make this stuff. When one hears the talentless instrumentation on this album, the knee-jerk reaction is, "Well, what do you expect from nine year-olds?" Huh? They knew they were creating a full-length album for a relatively large record label. Is it so much to ask that they learn a chord or two? There've got to be young drummers who can at least keep some sort of beat, and know more than "cymbals go crash and drums go boom."
But now it sounds like I'm dissing the record. Not at all! To me, this album functions as a spot-on and biting parody of punk and hardcore, even more so than Chipmunk Punk, that dubiously titled record that had Alvin and the gang dressed like punks on the sleeve but, oddly, featured Billy Joel and Knack covers. Punk's lack of musical sophistication, a drawback as often as it was an asset, is taken to its glorious extreme on Get Outta School. The brothers Toulon and drummer Jesse Collins-Davies, in the tradition of Ornette Coleman, create a sort of "free punk", which is absolutely unconcerned with petty matters of melody, chord structure or rhythm. Whether they did it out of necessity or actually meant it as parody is unimportant, really. Punks who would dismiss this sound as noise pollution end up resembling those people who dismissed "traditional" punk upon its birth.
By far the most entertaining aspect of Old Skull is their lyrics. Over the course of fifteen tracks, J.P. Toulon reveals himself as a fun-loving skater with a dangerous streak and a wide-ranging curiosity about the world around him. Afraid of no topic, Toulon spends the majority of "AIDS" asking questions such as, "What is AIDS?" and "Will I get them?" His questions go unanswered, and at the end of the song he still has to admit, with unabashed honesty, "I don't know much about AIDS." If all political punk were as frank as this, far more songs would end with the line; "I don't know much about..."
"Jesus Died on the Cross" is a priceless and multi-textured song that empathizes with that "poor man" who had his head (?) nailed to the cross on that "raw day". "That would hurt now, wouldn't it, huh?" asks Toulon, pointedly, over feedback-laden squeals from his guitar. He also laughs throughout the song.
While "Ogre", with its creative use of sound clips and feedback, is the album's most ambitious song, "Kill a Dead Eagle" is its most appealing overall. The music is actually not entirely miserable on this cut; kudos are probably due to Vern Toulon and engineer Steve Marker (later of Garbage) for the haunting wall-of-sound effect heard here. Combined with keyboardist Jamie Toulon's synth-y bleeps and the drumming, which for the first time flirts with a steady beat, it all blends into a coherent and eerie soundscape, over which J.P. tells the listener how to kill a dead eagle: "Just kill it."
Get Outta School is a lot stupider and more dissonant than other punk records, but it's taken to such an extreme that it becomes smart satire, if you care to look at it that way. Three nine-year-olds probably did not conceive it as such, but it hardly matters. All of punk rock's more embarrassing qualities are here, blown up, magnified and critiqued with aplomb. Unless it's just three suburban poseur brats who are so clueless they're funny. Either way, it's a hoot.
-- Justin Stewart