Weezerology Part One: Into the Blue

Weezer. Alternative rock band from Los Angeles, California, specialising (mostly) in melodic power-pop, usually with a romantic lyrical bent. Formed in 1992, with a lineup that has consisted of Rivers Cuomo (vocals and guitar, 1992-present), Patrick Wilson (drums, 1992-present), Matt Sharp (bass and vocals, 1992-1998), Brian Bell (guitar and vocals, 1993-present), Jason Cropper (guitar and vocals, 1992-1993), Mikey Welsh (bass and vocals, 1998-2001) and Scott Shriner (bass and vocals, 2001-present). Primary name associated with the phrase “geek rock”, and the most direct influence on the late ’90s/early 2000s US popular emo-core movement (Jimmy Eat World, The Get Up Kids, Saves the Day etc.).

They’ve been basically my favourite band since I started listening to them with a vengeance in mid-2000, but I haven’t really written much about them (a couple of track-by-track reviews aside) since I abandoned my surprisingly-popular fansite, WeezerfansUK, about eight or nine years ago. That’s changing with this blog project, in which I’m listening to every one of their songs, in chronological order, and writing about them on an era-by-era basis. If you want a full tracklist and an explanation of the self-imposed rules, check out the introductory post – but if you’re ready to get on with the project, then read on.

(And feel free to do a listen of the albums – or a re-listen, if you’re a fan – yourself, and join in with your comments, if you fancy it. I’ve tried to make this as accessible as possible both to long-time fans, and to those who don’t know much about the band but might find it an interesting read, so here and there you’ll find embedded Youtube songs so you can hear some of the things I’m talking about.)

1. The Kitchen Tapes & Early Demos

1. Thief, You’ve Taken All That Was Me. 2. Let’s Sew Our Pants Together. 3. Paperface. 4. Lullaby for Wayne.
Recorded August 1992 – September 1993 by Cuomo/Cropper/Sharp/Wilson/Bell.

Throughout 1992 and 1993, the newly-formed Weezer – Rivers Cuomo, Matt Sharp, Jason Cropper and Pat Wilson – recorded three distinct sets of demos at Rivers and Matt’s home in Santa Monica, LA. The middle-most of these, known as The Kitchen Tapes (by virtue of having been recorded… er, in the kitchen), was the most well-known – and unlike the one that followed it (which saw the band honing a handful of their preferred tracks), it featured a few tracks that wouldn’t be carried forwards. A number of Blue Album songs were also included on this tape, but in the interests of doing this thing properly, I’ll skip over them and discuss them when we get to the album itself.

Nevertheless, the three songs we’re left with – “Thief, You’ve Taken All That Was Me”, “Let’s Sew Our Pants Together” and “Paperface”, are of strong historical interest. Although not brought forwards onto the album, they’re still quite reflective of where Weezer’s sound lay in their early days. There’s a strong ear for melody (especially on “Let’s Sew Our Pants Together”), while the yearning tone that would characterise Rivers’ early lyrics is most discernable on “Thief…”, which to me is the standout of the three songs:

Perhaps the “actual” Weezer song it’s most similar to is “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here”, which was also among the earliest tracks demoed. This similarity, in fact, could explain why it was left out of the album sessions proper. Meanwhile, the last of the three, “Paperface”, is something of a fan favourite – but it’s also the least “Weezerish” of the lot, instead betraying Rivers’ earlier interest in heavier rock. It’s a fun, fast-paced number, but it’s easy to see why it didn’t warrant inclusion as the band honed in on their distinct style. It’s also interesting to note, on all three tracks, the different vocal approach that Rivers takes – it’s more whispery in the main, but with a harsher edge, than he’d later employ on the generally more harmonious album proper.

In late summer 1993, Weezer went into the studio to record what would become The Blue Album. The earliest sessions included a handful of additional tracks that were dropped after the first demo stage; some were picked up at later dates, so we’ll discuss these at the relevant time, but one song – “Lullaby for Wayne” – was never attempted again. Although slower than “Paperface”, it’s got a similarly heavy edge – which may also explain why it didn’t make the album – and is also somewhat more serious in lyrical subject matter (although, perhaps deliberately, the question of whether it’s actually about a particular real-life school shooting has always been left vague).

2. Weezer (aka The Blue Album)

1. My Name Is Jonas. 2. No-One Else. 3. The World Has Turned And Left Me Here. 4. Buddy Holly. 5. Undone: The Sweater Song. 6. Surf Wax America. 7. Say It Ain’t So. 8. In The Garage. 9. Holiday. 10. Only In Dreams.
Recorded August-September 1993 by Cuomo/Sharp/Wilson/Bell. Produced by Ric Ocasek. Released May 1994.

There are a handful of songs for which I know exactly where I was the first time I heard them. “Buddy Holly” is one of them (sitting in a parked car in Formby with Simon Mayo’s Radio 1 show on, if you’re wondering). This perfectly-constructed, immortally-catchy nugget of a pop song has remained permanently in my head ever since – and although it would take me a few years to get around to actually listening to any more Weezer (on the rare occasions I bought or was gifted albums at that age, they were usually Blur records), hearing the song for the first time was a hugely significant moment in my personal musical taste. And eighteen years later, I’m still not tired of it.

“Buddy Holly” serves as a strong microcosm for the rest of the album as a whole: carefully wrought, hugely slick, and surprisingly confident for a band at this stage of their career. It meshes the sunny power-pop that Rivers was capable of writing so effortlessly (and which producer Ric Ocasek could make sound so finely polished) with his younger self’s harder-rock sensibilities – so there are memorable guitar crunches and outstanding solos all over the shop. Nothing ever feels accidental, however – even all the feedback noise seems very carefully placed for maximum effect.

Does this apparent lack of spontaneity harm The Blue Album, however? Is everything a little too carefully polished – to an almost cynical extent? It’s an accusation you could almost certainly level at later Weezer at times (and I will, trust me), but at this stage… I don’t think so. It’s merely a band very quickly, and very confidently, finding a distinctive sound at which they’re extremely good. It’s especially impressive that they managed this despite changing lineup partway through the sessions – with Jason Cropper leaving for family reasons, and being replaced by Brian Bell, formerly the bassist in a band called Carnival Art.1

The lyrical tone of the album is as consistent as the musicality. A recurring theme is of Rivers as an awkward, lonely outsider, looking in on things – most notably, of course, on “In the Garage” (lyrics about Dungeons & Dragons and the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde and Nightcrawler turning the band on to a generation of similarly alienated nerds), but also the gentle yearning of  “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” and the altogether more pronounced yearning of “Say It Ain’t So”. The latter prefigures Pinkerton somewhat, in that it involves Rivers writing directly about his own personal life: specifically, his fear that alcohol was to break up the marriage of his mother and step-father (the “Stephen” of the song’s lyrics) as it had with his father (who did indeed “find Jesus”, becoming a bishop in Germany years after having initially lost contact with Rivers).

Blue, then, is a remarkably assured record: album tracks that for many other bands would be little more than forgettable filler, like “Surf Wax America”, “The World Has Turned…” and “Holiday”, are rock-solid pop songs in their own right, and you feel that almost any of the ten cuts here (with the possible exception of “No-One Else” and its chugging, awkwardly-ironic lyrics) could have stood out as a single. Yet for all this polished consistency, it does contain a couple of flashes of idiosyncrasy.

“Undone: The Sweater Song” manages to use the polished production, and a ridiculously catchy chorus, to mask the fact that it’s actually a completely batshit insane track. Each of the two actual “verses” (themselves only consisting of barely-sensical two-word lines) is preceded by an instrumental segment, over which a snippet of conversation2 is played. And the lyrics are, ostensibly, about the gradual unravelling of a woollen sweater. All things considered, the Spike Jonze-directed video – in which the band mime badly to the song in slow motion against a blue backdrop before being joined by a random assortment of running dogs – is somewhat apt for the tone of the thing.

Both “Buddy Holly” and “Undone” were singles – and in an era in which people still sat in front of music TV and watched the videos that were chosen and put before them, they consequently became extremely familiar even while not being huge chart hits (although “Buddy Holly”, of course, attracted huge waves of attention thanks to its marvellous Happy Days themed video being featured on the Windows 95 CD as an early demonstration of PCs’ multimedia capabilities). Potentially less familiar (at least to those of you who don’t avidly follow the band) is the album’s closing track, and the second of the two more unconventional moments, “Only In Dreams”.

“Only In Dreams” is distinctive for two main reasons: firstly, Matt Sharp’s hugely memorable bass line (which drones consistently for almost the entire track, before kicking into a higher-paced version of the same melody later on), and secondly, the track’s length. Early demos of the track clocked in around five minutes, and faded to a quiet conclusion at that point. It was still a great-sounding song, with that terrific chorus, but it never quite kicked into the truly epic beast it would become. The album version – aside from being a much-cleaned-up production – pans out in much the same way for those fist five minutes, but the original end point is now the cue for a quite monumental crescendo, in which the now-quietened instruments increase in tempo and volume. This results in a spectacular climax just short of seven minutes, where on a single beat everything comes crashing back in. It’s a spine-tingling moment, and even after having heard the song hundreds of times – even after seeing the band do it live, with an explosion of confetti and lighting at the climactic second that still ranks as one of the most purely joyous moments I’ve ever experienced – I get goosebumps every single time.

So, yes. The Blue Album. It’s quite a good debut.

3. Blue Album B-Sides

1. Mykel and Carli. 2. Susanne. 3. Jamie. 4. My Evaline
Recorded April 1993-June 1994 by Cuomo/Cropper/Sharp/Wilson/Bell.

Ah, for a time when Weezer actually recorded distinct individual songs as the B-sides for their singles. With the exception of “My Evaline” – a daft and fun little barbershop cover – the three Blue era B-sides are outstanding tracks. Though none of them were recorded during the album sessions, all could quite happily fit on the record – and at least two could have stood out as genuine hit singles of their own.

In fact, “Jamie” was originally intended as a single. Recorded in Spring 1993, when Cropper had yet to be replaced by Bell, it was planned as a debut 7″ release – but for reasons unknown, these plans were shelved, and the track didn’t see light until July 1994, two months after the release of the album, when it was featured on a Geffen Records compilation called DGC Rarities 1. It got a wider release here in the UK, however, as the B-side to “Buddy Holly” – which is where I first heard it. It’s a gorgeous song, written as an affectionate tribute to Jamie Young, the band’s first attorney.3

It’s interesting to note, actually, that – again with the exception of “My Evaline” – all the Blue b-sides were written in tribute to friends of the band. “Mykel and Carli”, however, would ultimately have an altogether more poignant context associated with it. Originally written in early 1993 as a song called “Please Pick Up The Phone”, it was later rewritten and demoed as “To Mykel and Carli (From a High School Friend)”, and finally just as “Mykel and Carli”, in honour of Weezer’s two biggest fans. Mykel and Carli Allan were sisters who had followed the band from their earliest days, and ended up responding to fan letters (such as sending out Blue Album lyric sheets) in those pre-Internet days, before setting up the official Weezer fan club itself. The song was trialled during the Blue Album sessions, but the band didn’t hit on a version they were happy with until the 1994 “b-sides session” produced the track that was released as a flip on “Undone”.

Tragically, in 1997, Mykel and Carli were killed – along with their younger sister Trista – in a car crash on the way from a Weezer show in Colorado. Naturally, the song – originally just a touching gift from Rivers to his friends – has taken on a much more mythical status since then, most powerfully demonstrated by this incredibly moving solo performance by Rivers at a later benefit show for the sisters’ family.

I’ve left for last what is undoubtedly my favourite of the early B-sides – and, in fact, one of my favourite Weezer songs of all. It’s also the song that’s pretty much responsible for my getting into the band in the first place – since, although I bought and loved “Buddy Holly” back in 1994, I’d never actually listened to the album until the summer of 2000, when I picked it up at a reduced price (in a record shop in the Dutch town of Delft) on the offchance it might have “Susanne” on it. It didn’t – but naturally I loved it anyway, and the rest is history.

Why did I want to hear “Susanne” again so badly? Because I’d heard it over the closing credits of Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, and it was absolutely bloody fantastic. One of the band’s customarily brilliant forays into a 6/8 time signature, and another tribute to a helpful friend (this time a particularly dedicated A&R rep at Geffen) it’s outstandingly, ridiculously melodic (with harmonies drawn from Rivers’ love of the Beach Boys), and life-affirmingly joyous. There are actually two versions – the original was used as one of the “Undone” b-sides, but the song was remixed (and beefed-up/improved considerably) for use in Mallrats. Here it be:

Listening back to the first couple of years of Weezer’s output in order is an undeniably pleasant experience. The band had a clearly defined sound and style, were bursting with creativity – if sounding a little samey on a track-to-track basis – and just about everything they played burst forth with unfettered joy. They were confident in their own musicality, and yet endearingly awkward and unassuming figures at the same time. In short, they were a band it was very, very easy to fall in love with. And a band you could never imagine falling out of love with.

Oh, how little we knew.

Weezerology continues with Part Two, The Butterfly Effect

1Although Cropper had played on early tracks of the Blue Album recording sessions, the official line is that he does not appear on the album. His guitar playing remains on the earlier-recorded b-side “Jamie”, however; and by virtue of having composed the intro section he has a co-writing credit on “My Name Is Jonas”.

2Originally intended to be a scrambled compilation of movie and similar quotes, akin to The Avalanches’ “Frontier Psychiatrist”, but replaced when getting various rights became an issue with a recording from a party the band attended. Both snippets feature long-time webmaster, roadie and all-round “fifth Weezer” Karl Koch: in the first, he’s talking to Matt Sharp, and in the second, Mykel Allan. The original intended samples can be heard on a demo of the song that’s floating around online.

3The first such tribute to her, but not the last: Matt Sharp wrote the song “Mrs Young” for his side project band The Rentals, and originally demoed it with Rivers guesting on shared vocals. Ultimately, the original lyrics were scrapped and the song was reworked into “Please Let That Be You”, for the 1995 album “Return of the Rentals”.

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