Camper Van Beethoven Return To Madison, Tongue Still Planted In Cheek

Camper Van Beethoven

Much of the popular music in the 1980s was overblown and gimmicky, laden with a slick sound and shimmering pants. But between the big hair and stadium-filling production was a whole generation of musicians tearing away the glossy layers to get at something real. Camper Van Beethoven, with tongues planted firmly in cheeks, were one such act. Like a hobo stew of musical genres, they set out to make music that would kick against the “status quo.”

Camper Van Beethoven was formed out of the ashes of the California punk and hardcore movements of the early 80s, taking with it the ethos without so much of the sound. The band was heavily influential on the early DIY mentality and went on to record a host of college-rock staples. At a time when even progressive college radio relied heavily on guitar-laden punk and alternative, Camper Van Beethoven, with their eclectic instrumental variety and ska-inflected folk, were truly a breath of fresh air.

The band released three albums in rapid-fire succession between 1985 and 1986, each of them garnering praise in the indie press. Their first album, the self-released Telephone Free Landslide Victory begat the single and trademark song, “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” It’s a jangly track, with humorous, fog-headed lyrics and a laid-back California vibe. In many ways it’s a perfect encapsulation of what was to come. The band’s subsequent albums, II & III and Camper Van Beethoven only upped the game, incorporating Eastern European rhythms and making a respectable splash on the charts.

But it could only last for so long. In the late eighties, the band signed with Virgin Records and saw the departure of a few key members. The band’s sound shifted accordingly, veering away from the eclecticism of earlier releases. After scoring a genuine chart hit with a cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” the band collapsed, dispersing its members like seeds from a maple tree. A majority of the band continued together in indie-prog outfit Monks of Doom, while fill-in guitarist David Immergluck turned to Counting Crows. However, the essence of the band was most preserved in the music of singer and primary songwriter, David Lowery, who went on to form indie stalwarts Cracker.

The hiatus lasted less than a decade, with the group reconvening in 1999 to issue a collection of rarities. They’ve been touring ever since, writing and releasing new material along the way. In 2002, and in typical off-kilter fashion, the group released a track-for-track version of Fleetwood Mac’s album Tusk. Two years later saw the release of New Roman Times, the band’s first original album since 1989’s Key Lime Pie. It garnered mixed reviews, but fed an undying need for all those Camper fans that had gone fifteen years without a fix.

For a hearty few, the 1980s were a time when a cassette recorder was as good a studio as any, and a broken-down mini van was the preferred method of traipsing the country on tour. Camper Van Beethoven bucked convention and did it their way. Today’s indie music scene would certainly not be the same without their trailblazing sense of musical abandon.

–Ross Martin

See Camper Van Beethoven live in Madison on Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at the High Noon Saloon.  Tickets here

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4 Responses

  1. WOW

  2. Nice job, Ross!

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