It took me a while to get into music.
When I was growing up in the 90s, my mom listened to rock. Van Halen - strictly the Sammy Hagar years - was the band that she listened to the most. But she also jammed music that was broadcast by local new rock stations. My dad was almost exclusively about classic rock. (He received a few Tracy Chapman albums at some point, but she was an outlier in his taste in music.)
Mainstream rock, current or classic, didn’t do much for me as a child. A lot of it sounded the same and didn’t have lyrics that I could relate to. I remember being in elementary school and having to write about my favorite song for a class assignment. I didn’t have one, so I made up something about Sammy Hagar’s “Little White Lie” because that was the first song that popped into my head.
I was an avid gamer who preferred music in video games to what was played on radio. Up until 1999/2000, all of the games that I played had original soundtracks - music that was composed specifically for them. But I never liked anything enough to frequently listen to it outside of the games that I played.
Everything changed around the time I entered high school. In 2000, I got a copy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for the Dreamcast. It featured a licensed soundtrack full of loud, aggressive music that was different from the mainstream stuff that I previously experienced. One band that was featured in this soundtrack had an undeniable impact on my interest in music.
Thanks in part to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and the heavily censored version of “Police Truck” that was featured in it, my first #1 favorite band was Dead Kennedys. They were the first band that I collected a full discography for, and I even bothered to collect unofficial live recordings of their performances.
Dead Kennedys were completely different from any recording artist that I heard up to that point. They were loud, they played fast, and sang about real-world (often political) issues. And they cursed in their songs! Sure, punk rock is full of politics and profanity, but I didn’t know that at the time and Dead Kennedys served as my introduction to that part of the musical world.
I think that a little bit of their shine has come off, as their lyrics can be quite dated by today’s standards. “MTV Get Off the Air” became out-of-date when MTV started airing stuff like The Real World in 1992. Their politically-focused lyricism also suffers a bit because the world has changed so much since the 1980s.
But these days, I have a different appreciation for Dead Kennedys’s music. Many of the lyrics, dated as some are, are as sharp as they day they were penned. And Dead Kennedys were quite talented musically. I’d consider vocalist Jello Biafra to be one of the greatest voices in punk rock - his relentless vibrato and attitude come across clearly throughout their discography. And the band played incredibly fast - especially after drummer D.H. Peligro joined - while still managing to keep it together and not sound like a complete mess.
If you want to get into Dead Kennedys, try listening to Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death. It’s simultaneously a singles collection, a b-sides collection, and a rarities collection. That sounds like a weird mix, but I consider it a great starting point.
I think that the early 2000s were an excellent time to get into non-mainstream music. File sharing aside, the Internet provided plenty of resources to learn about new music. No longer were you constrained to local AM/FM radio, magazines, and your circle of friends. You could read reviews, chat about music on web forums and chat rooms (usually on IRC for me), and even hear (legal) snippets of songs that you were interested in. You could also order music without having to fill-out a mail-order form or go anywhere. The Internet was essential to my growth as a music fan, because I’d otherwise be stuck with what I had growing up in a small town in Northwest Florida.
Another factor, for me, was skateboarding videos. Most people who didn’t know me ‘back in the day’ may be surprised to learn that I was once a skateboarder. I rode around on a Zero-branded Chomp on This skateboard (featuring Pac-Man without permission from Namco), watched skateboarding videos, and wished that I could do what I saw in those videos. My favorite skate videos would typically feature really good music.
I forgot where it happened, but I discovered metal at some point. Maybe it was Planet Tony Hawk or a skateboarding video, but it might have been a result of me liking Guilty Gear X’s soundtrack and wondering what was similar. And three metal groups became early favorites of mine - Iron Maiden, Slayer, and System of a Down.
What can I say about Iron Maiden that hasn’t been said already? They’re a legendary heavy metal band from England, and if you like metal, you’ve probably heard of them.
Iron Maiden appealed to High School Dustin because they rocked hard. Their first two albums, Iron Maiden and Killers, had Paul Di’Anno handling vocal duties, and he lent the band a punk rock edge that I liked. The albums with Bruce Dickinson were, of course, fantastic as well. He lent a seriousness and weight to Maiden’s sound, and it’s difficult to imagine what the band would sound like without him.
The first album that I ever purchased was probably the soundtrack for the first Pokémon movie. It came with a mail-in offer for a trading card that I had to have.
But one of the first albums that I bought and actually listened to was Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast. From the incredible album art to the contents within, it was an almost complete package. (High School Dustin would always skip “Total Eclipse”.)
If you want to get into Iron Maiden, I’d suggest listening to a greatest hits compilation. And by “greatest hits compilation”, I mean “their first seven studio albums” (Iron Maiden to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son).
You know who else loved Iron Maiden in their formative days? SLAYER!!!!! They started off as an Iron Maiden and Judas Priest tribute band and became that one band where the guy goes
at the start of that song and it’s all fast and loud and noisy.
Slayer was a primal sort of band that appealed to me because vocalist Tom Araya shouted about death, destruction, and vampires (didn’t think I’d forget “At Dawn They Sleep” off of Hell Awaits, did you?) and it was cool.
Even though they’re considered one of the “big four of thrash metal”, it took me a long time to get into other thrash metal bands so I guess that I thought of Slayer as more of a hardcore punk band. They were fast, unpolished, and sang about gross, controversial subjects.
The albums that I jammed when I was younger were Hell Awaits, Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, Decade of Aggression (Live), Undisputed Attitude, and the Soundtrack to the Apocalypse box set. I felt that I had enough Slayer and did not desire their other albums.
Later in my life, I actually sat down and listened to their earlier releases: Show No Mercy and Haunting the Chapel. They’re…okay… I guess? Or maybe I’m too lame to enjoy Slayer now?
Listen to Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood at a loud volume to understand SLAYER!!!!!
System of a Down
Even though I got into music via non-mainstream acts, I still loved System of a Down. Back in the early 2000s, they received regular airplay on local radio stations. But, as far as I was concerned, they were vastly different from other popular rock acts at the time. First off, they didn’t rap so they weren’t nu-metal. And they sounded heavy enough for me to consider them proper metal. I won’t pretend that I understood what Serj Tankian was singing about most of the time, but the fact that he was an excellent vocalist with vibrato to match Jello Biafra’s helped put SOAD on High School Dustin’s good bands list.
I mentioned earlier that Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast was one of the first albums that I bought. I bought three other albums at the same time - System of a Down, Toxicity, and the (then new) Steal This Album!. Even today, Steal This Album! is a mind-blowing release to me because it’s an official release made to look like a fan-printed CD-R with a hand-written track listing on the back. Back in the day, System of a Down had a number of tracks that were leaked or otherwise not part of an official release. And one could buy bootleg CDs on eBay with these tracks. In response, the band released Steal This Album! which featured completed version of many of these often-bootlegged tracks.
If you want to know what System of a Down were all about, I recommend listening to Toxicity (their breakout hit) and System of a Down (every bit as good, but the world wasn’t quite ready for them in 1998).
The Internet led my taste in music to interesting destinations. By the time I was ready to graduate high school (2005), I knew a little bit about a lot of different musical acts. And something that started appealing to me was humor in music.
I’ll admit that I once had an edgy sense of humor. I was a teen, it was the early 2000s, and I was entertained by the dumb and disgusting. And it doesn’t get much idiotic, gross, and cartoonishly vile in music than GWAR was, at least back then. They were space aliens who played punkish metal and proudly sing about performing horrible acts while pretending to murder fans and celebrities on-stage. Lots of fake blood and other substances were a staple of their live shows. Why, yes, they were brought up on obscenity charges at least once.
GWAR was purposeful stupid at times, but the music itself was quite good. Except for almost all of Carnival of Chaos and most of We Kill Everything, of course. Sure, GWAR sounded a little basic compared to Iron Maiden’s twin guitar harmonies, they were slower than Slayer, and played more straight-forward metal than System of a Down, but they still rocked with plenty of excellent riffs and unexpected genre shifts (such as the jazzy “Don’t Need A Man”).
I stopped being into GWAR prior to frontman Dave Brockie’s death in 2014. The gross-out, dumb-on-purpose nature of it lost much of its appeal for me as I grew older. Having said that, I still think that “The Road Behind” (off of America Must Be Destroyed) is one of the greatest power ballads of all time, partially because it is one of the silliest.
These days, I think that the perfect introduction to GWAR is their cover of Kansas’s “Carry On Wayward Son”. And if you like that, they’ve released 14 studio albums. My favorite was always America Must Be Destroyed with Ragnarök being a close second.
Somehow, somewhere, I found out about Wesley Willis. Perhaps it was because Jello Biafra (ex-Dead Kennedys) is a fan of his? I forget the story, but I won’t forget the ride that Wesley Willis’s music has taken me on.
I’ll admit that I was initially interested in Wesley Willis for the humor, obscenity, and atypical/”outsider” nature of his music. He would sing songs about beating up superheroes, being eaten by vultures, having his house eaten by termites, and such. The music for his solo work was provided by backing tracks that came default on various keyboards. Almost every song on an album could sound very similar as a result.
Wesley Willis was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, and often sang about his struggles with the condition. Some of his music can be heavy at times, and his albums can bounce between light-hearted and crushingly sincere. Take Rush Hour, the first of his albums that I heard, for example. It has “I Whipped Batman’s Ass” but also includes bummer songs like “Outburst” and “Chronic Schizophrenia”.
Wesley Willis is no longer with us - he died in 2003 - but his music lives on. And holy cow, he was quite a prolific musician with at least 42 solo albums (some credited to Wesley Willis And The Dragnews) spanning a 9-year career.
If you want to get started with Wesley Willis, I recommend the three Greatest Hits releases from Alternative Tentacles (maybe start with Volume 3). If the ‘keyboard playalong’ aspect of his music is a deal-breaker, check out The Wesley Willis Fiasco’s Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride. Same lyricism with a more traditional rock sound.
I graduated high school in 2005. Around this time, I bought an album that would change my perception of music forever. More on that in the next installment of this ‘Favorite Bands’ series.