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Their psychedelic melodies glossed over self-indulgent lyrics might make you think of the Velvet Underground. Their cutesy band-name pun on the king of pop art suggests a group of Brit-fop art-school dropouts. But the Dandy Warhols, an elegantly wasted foursome from Portland, Oregon, transcend the novelty aspect of their name, as they've proven with their surprisingly successful sophomore album Come Down, on Capitol Records.
The band, fronted by singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor, has received much praise since its first release in 1995 on indie label Tim/Kerr, appropriately titled Rule OK.
This debut release was in true vintage glam-pop form, with songs like "(Tony This Song Is Called) Lou Weed" and the single "TV Theme Song," which spawned video play on MTV's 120 Minutes. But the video for the first single off Come Down, "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," is colorful and twisted beyond anything suggested previously by the band.
With this clip, director David LaChapelle puts a vibrant coat of paint on a deadly serious issue. The clip is set up like a demented game show, with choreographed dancing human syringes. Contestants receive glorified prizes representing the consequences of heroin life. A hearse, tombstones and twirling stretchers all populate LaChapelle's avant-garde vision of antiheroin reverse chic. However, guitarist Peter Holmstrom says the single has been widely misinterpreted.
"Number one, 'Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth' is not an antidrug song," he says. "I think people perceive it that way because it is easy to read that message into the song. It is easy to get that out of the song without having to really pay attention to whatever else is going on in the lyrics. It is an antiaddiction song, antistupidity song. If you are going to do heroin, you have to be careful.
"The single is my least favorite song on the album anyway. People have been responding well to our music; everybody seems to love it. Even though people are skeptical of the single, we still win them over; that is all that matters."
The strange content does not stop with the band's best-known song. There may be a few pop-driven songs on the album, and the overall feel might recall the Velvet Underground, but what about "Every Day Should Be a Holiday"? This tune bears an unlikely resemblance to ZZ Top's hit "Legs." Or what about "As Cool As Kim Deal," kind of a postmodern T. Rex pop-rock anthem?
"Courtney wrote the song years ago," Holmstrom says. "We were just fooling around with it one practice, and we picked it up, started playing the tune, and then the lyrics came later. We used Kim Deal because she is pretty much the ultimate rock chick. And it worked better than Kelley Deal.
"We have very obvious Velvet Underground influences. We think T. Rex is great. They are also definitely a big influence on our band. I think we try to get our songs to sound like the bands we modeled the Dandy Warhols after, because we are not that great of musicians. We can play our songs, and play some cover songs, but we are not talented enough to sound just like our influences. So it becomes us just hacking it out."
Capitol Records may have been looking for something new, but with this band, it instead got serious traditional rock 'n' roll, revamped into humorous pop with substance.
"All of our influences are kind of there, but we are not capable of totally pulling it off," Holmstrom says. "We write songs and we say, 'Yeah, this sounds like whoever,' and then we try to title our songs after the band or person who influenced it. Sometimes the title just sticks through and stays on the album. On our first album, 'Lou Weed' is titled because the song sounds like a Velvet Underground song. 'Coffee' is totally a T. Rex song."
After the Dandy Warhols put out Rule OK, they went back into the studio, did a lot of drugs and recorded a follow-up known as The Black Album, after the legendary 1987 Prince album that was pulled before its planned release.
The band members recorded their Black Album without writing any lyrics or music ahead of time. The Black Album never got released, but it led to another, more focused trip to the studio where they created what would become their second album, Come Down.
"It was very experimental," Holmstrom says. "We had song ideas and we wanted to go into the studio and see what would happen if we just kind of tried to create anything that sounded good. We wanted to experiment with sound. And I do not think we were at the right stage in our careers to be trying anything like that. One of these days we will go back and finish it. It is a great recording. It is just not done. There are a couple of songs that could be singles."
The Dandy Warhols came from the lounge-punk culture of the Portland area music scene. Their brand of pop-rock won them attention after only eight months playing together, either because or despite that they had little in common with other Portland bands.