There’s a scene in the Royal Tennenbaums where Owen Wilson’s character is hurt and bewildered by a reviewer pointedly saying he was not a genius. It’s a mystery to him why someone would specifically have to specifically rule out the possibility of his genius.
Well, sometimes you have to.
Case in point: Anton Newcombe. He’s not a genius but he acts like one.
Despite looking like the very model of a visionary rock star, his lack of genius and his delusional self-regard are his defining traits.
Throughout Dig, Anton Newcombe is portrayed as a self-destructive villain/force of rock ‘n’ roll nature. His villainy is mitigated by two factors: the strong likelihood that he suffers from mental illness and his supposed artistic gifts. Throughout the movie, his peers say he’s an insufferable, abusive monster but that his talent makes it worth putting up with.
But the Newcombe’s music is at best mediocre. He writes a lot of songs, but the secret to his prolific songwriting seems obvious: all of his songs sound the same.
All of his songs are three-chord or less drone-rockers with riffs lifted from the Stones or the Kinks as ornamentation. And it’s flawed at the core. It’s music for people on heroin performed by people on speed. He never bothers to sit still and write a song, he just agitates to find an excuse to use the sitar in the corner of the studio.
And, music aside, his wordplay and references are just the worst. Start with the band’s name. He’s trying to mix pop and terror in a quip, the same way Marilyn Manson did when he picked his name. And serially uninspired hack Manson looks like a genius in comparison. It’s memorable, alliterative and short. Brian Jonestown Massacre is long, forced and without purpose: the band sounds sort of like Brian Jones-era Stones so what’s the point? (Had I been on hand when the band was forming I would have strongly argued for simply “Jonestown.”)
Same thing goes for all their album titles. Their Satanic Majesties’ Other Request, Bring it All Back Home Again, And This is Our Music are all callbacks to better albums. But for what purpose? Her Satanic Majesties Request is a weird record title to begin with. Nothing is really gained by adding the word “other.” And that’s the most ambitious repurposing of the lot.
To be fair, there’s a reasonably good idea at the core of the band: mixing late 60s classic rock with late 80s/early 90s shoe-gazer droning. Not a bad idea! Primal Scream took similar ingredients, added electronica, and made Screamadelica, an album that sounds dated now because everybody’s ripped it off since then.
Jonestown’s drone-rock execution leaves a lot to be desired, though. There’s nary a hook to be found in BJM’s catalogue. After listening to them for three hours the only thing that stuck in my mind was the faux hippy invitation at the start of Satanic Majesties, which I only remembered because it was so half-assed and perplexing (is it supposed to be funny or sincere or what?). Despite Newcombe’s gift for dynamics (his greatest strength) the hypnotic idea of drone rock is only attained in fits and starts.
With three guitar players and a full time tambourine player, the band has a serious overstaffing problem. The tambourine man seems like a cool enough guy in the movie, a go-along, get-along goofy hipster type. He looks like a cross between Mick Jagger and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ Z-man (he’s packed on some pounds since and wears a knit hat on stage, so he’s presumably bald) but his value as a stage prop comes with the terrible price of having tambourine in every single song. And not to be a dick about it, but you really don’t need three guys to strum an open e chord.
Anyway, on their most recent albums they discovered electronica about ten year too late and it sounds OK. Their best song is probably the edit of “Straight Up And Down” that plays over the opening credits of Boardwalk Empire. They cut out the vocals, which have the exact same melody as “Get Off My Cloud,” and the result sounds like the Velvet Underground cirica Loaded with Between the Buttons era Keith Richards soloing over it. The tambourine is still distracting, though.
So, in the end, say what you will about the Dandy Warhols, at least they wrote some shit you can hum.