a nation of misfits: flipper, just get the vinyl

July 14, 2010
56 Picks
Like The Big Boys before them, Flipper’s legacy has unfortunately been hijacked by their biggest fans. It’s impossible to talk about Flipper without talking about Nirvana, a fact exacerbated by the fact that Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic spent three years in the late 2000’s as a member of Flipper. Kurt Cobain famously wore his Flipper t-shirt in the album art for In Utero, and made frequent references to the band in interviews.

A Nation of Misfits: Flipper, just get the vinyl
Words Nathan Leigh
During their original reign of terror from 1979 until original vocalist Will Shatter’s death in 1987, the band made an indelible impact on the emerging sound of rock. Releasing two full length studio records, a handful of EPs, and some epic live recordings mostly on Subterranean records, the band recorded music that was heavy, aggressive, and slow, with a punk’s love of provocation and nihilistic humor. Their music sounded as if someone had left a hardcore 45 playing at 33rpm. Baking in the hot sun. The non-genre grunge owes as much to Flipper’s bass riff heavy noise as it does to the marketing guru who decided to find a term to market the early 90’s crop of alternative bands that weren’t quite punk but weren’t quite metal.

Although the band continued after Shatter’s death, they were never the same as in their bratty early years. Gradually morphing from a disjointed ambling wall of noise into a regular rock band without upgrading their skill or songwriting, Flipper has spent much of the past 20 years trying oddly to follow in its own footsteps.

Their 1993 Rick Rubin produced cash-in album American Grafishy seemed to stem from the following logic:

1. all these kids are getting rich stealing our sound
2. we like heroin
3. heroin costs money
4. let’s make an album that sounds like these kids who are trying to sound like us
5. and make money!

And their evil plot would have worked too, if it weren’t for the fact that Grafishy is kind of a shitty album (further proof for my longstanding argument that Rick Rubin has the anti-Midas touch (a more literal interpretation of the Midas story would actually give Rick a real Midas touch: everything he touches turns into a gold-plated lifeless shell of it’s former self)). It’s kind of shitty, even by Flipper’s admittedly lax standards.

Flipper turned the expectations of the hardcore scene on it’s head. Their music is designed to test the patience of their audience. For starters, their songs are slow. And long. It’s rare that a Flipper song runs shorter than four minutes, while their classic Sex Bomb clocks in around 10 minutes in some versions. But their music is not some prog-hardcore fusion. There are no elaborate solos. No tempo changes or rhythmic shifts. There are just verses and choruses. Sometimes, there are just verses.

The heart of every Flipper song is its bass line. In their “classic era” they featured two bassist / lead singers (Will Shatter and Bruce Loose) who would switch off on bass and vocal duty song to song. As with most bands where the front person is a bassist (Morphine, Primus, and previous featured band The Beatnigs), the bass riffs are the dominant (and often only) melody of their songs. Guitarist Ted Falconi drenches their songs in walls of feedback and noise with little to no connection to the song the rest of the band is trying to play. While Steve DePace keeps the tempos moving along as slowly and heavily as possible.

It’s tempting to draw comparisons to the similarly audience-patience-testing music of Shellac. Both share a love of repetition and droning heavy guitar parts (as well as a pronounced aversion to melody), but there’s a playful exuberance to Flipper’s cantakery that’s absent in even Shellac’s funniest moments. Shellac’s New Number Order is silly and strange, but it’s no In Life My Friends. Flipper at their best treat their music as one big joke at the audience’s expense. Marrying the sound and aggression of hardcore with free jazz, noise music, and spoken word, Flipper aspire to piss off their fellow punks who like their songs short, fast, and to the point.

Their unique take on punk tends to split listeners down the middle. Loved and hated in equal measure, it’s impossible to feel neutral about the band. At least in their early years. After the death of Will Shatter of a heroin overdose in 1987, the band has had a revolving door of bass players. As Bruce Loose told SF Weekly, Flipper is “like Spinal Tap, except the bass player keeps dying.” The band soldiered on after Shatter’s death releasing the mediocre American Grafishy with new bassist John Dougherty (Loose by this point had dropped the strings entirely and was now exclusively the singer).
Without the dueling vocalist dynamic, Flipper’s music lost much of the anarchic energy that defined their earlier recordings. Although some tracks stand out (Flipper Twist and Exist or Else are both wonderfully rambling), the relentless experimentation was mostly gone.

In 2006 the band regrouped with longtime fan Krist Novoselic on bass, and soon recorded the twin albums Love and the live album Fight. The ensuing mess of sound finds the band trying to pretend that American Grafishy ever happened. The songs are longer and dronier again, and Bruce no longer sounds like he’s straining to make sense. While it’s an admirable imitation of their early years, it still lacks the love of experimentation and weird for weirdness’ sake of Gone Fishin’. American Grafishy is what happens when a band like Flipper tries to write pop songs. Love is what happens when they try to forget.

Following Novoselic’s recent departure from the band, Flipper has added former Frightwig bassist Rachel Thoele to the line-up. According to my entirely accurate statistical analysis, she will be replaced in 2014 by that weird new guy in Metallica, who in turn will be replaced in 2019 by a robot just in time for the band’s 40th anniversary tour. The ensuing album will mostly feature recordings of the original members taking a nap in the studio while their instruments feedback around them. It will be hailed as a return to form, although Pitchfork will deride their decision to allow the Basstron 3000 to sing lead on a remake of their classic track Ha Ha Ha as a “bold, but misguided decision.”

Vinyl, Digital, or Torrent: Does it matter?
There’s no depth to the recordings. There’s no “full album experience.” Other than 2009’s Love none of them sound particularly good, although I do have a few Flipper 7 inches which are some of my prized possessions. But the original vinyl press for the 1986 live record Public Flipper Limited (a jab at Public Image Limited for stealing the artwork from Flipper’s 1982 Generic for PiL’s 1986 Album) is worth tracking down if only for it’s included Flipper board game. Seriously.