Weezer's debut: 20 thoughts on 20 years

Weezer.jpg

Image Credit: Peter Orth

Weezer’s self-titled debut album came out 20 years ago today. I wrote about this watershed anniversary in the pages of this week’s issue, but here are a lot more thoughts I had while paying homage to one of the best rock debuts in the history of the medium.

1. It’s stunning to think that Weezer came out less than a month after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It was obviously recorded well before that incident, but it retrospectively represents a vividly clear line of demarcation between the old grunge and the new grunge. It was as if Hole’s Live Through This was the last alt album that was allowed to be about heavy pathos; from Weezer on, people were going to have fun with this modern rock thing. It played out in the charts: By the time the summer was over, Green Day’s snot-nosed caterwauling breakout single “Basket Case” was a dominant Alternative number one.

2. That’s not to say Weezer is an entirely whimsical affair. It often gets remembered as a wacky outing because of “Buddy Holly” and that lyric about taking a surfboard to work, but at least half of Weezer’s debut is crushingly sad. The sentiment of “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” is exactly the type of itchy adolescent angst Cobain was tapping into, and frontman Rivers Cuomo just happened to croon more sweetly.

3. Weezer is always way harder than I remember it. Though the production—courtesy of Cars mastermind Ric Ocasek—is aerodynamically slick, there’s a ton of crunch and feedback winding its way through the songs. The bridge on “Buddy Holly” is proper metal.

4. The first single from Weezer’s debut was “Undone – The Sweater Song,” but the bulk of the rock audience found Weezer via “Buddy Holly” (and specifically through its Spike Jonze-directed, Happy Days-loving heavy rotation video). “Buddy Holly” is an awesome song, with chunky guitars, a perfect melody, and a lyric sheet that is equal parts astute and absurd. As a seventh grader, I didn’t really understand the meta-narrative going on underneath the song, and I really didn’t understand who Mary Tyler Moore was, but I did love that a dude who looked like Cuomo could open up his hit rock song with the line, “What’s with these homies dissing my girl? Why do they gotta front?”

5. Of course, the iconic video for “Buddy Holly” elevated Weezer from promising alt-rockers to mainstream monsters, and it helped Spike Jonze make a name for himself as well. Jonze had been making waves in the music video world already, scoring positive marks for his clips for Sonic Youth’s “100%” and the Breeders’ “Cannonball.” At the beginning of ’94, the Beastie Boys tapped him to craft their legendary clip for “Sabotage,” which effectively made him the biggest name in videos. But “Buddy Holly” was his true star-making moment, as it not only allowed him to flex his technical muscles (the blending of the new footage with the Happy Days clips, now an easy afterthought available to anybody with iMovie, was jaw-dropping at the time), but also galvanized his position as a member of the cool kids’ club. Jonze could have easily been borrowing the Beasties caché with “Sabotage,” but with “Buddy Holly,” Weezer were still a (relatively) clean slate.

6. The chart life of Weezer is a prime example of how exceptionally different the music business operated back in 1994. Though it was reviewed relatively well and had a bit of momentum behind it in the form of the radio airplay for “Undone – The Sweater Song,” Weezer didn’t crack the Billboard 200 until the end of August, when it broke in at number 170. It’s climb was slow and steady, eventually spending 76 total weeks on that chart and peaking at number 16 in the wake of “Buddy Holly.”

7. For a little bit of context, the number one album in the country the week that Weezer debuted was Tim McGraw’s Not a Moment Too Soon, followed closely behind by Reba McIntyre’s Read My Mind. (Summer of ’94 was pretty huge for country, wasn’t it?) The only modern rock band in the top 10 at that time was Counting Crows, whose “Mr. Jones” was a gigantic steamroller of a smash hit and was propelling August and Everything After to multi-platinum status.

8. As I mentioned in my retrospective piece, I think Weezer is one of the greatest rock debuts in history, primarily because the band arrived fully formed, and though they’ve produced a lot of great music since their debut, nothing has ever expressed what Weezer is all about better than Weezer. Plenty of other great rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Nirvana, have all produced excellent work out of the gate. But none of those albums really express who those bands actually are; they all evolved into who they were on subsequent releases. Weezer didn’t need to do that. The rest of the albums you could consider for best all-time rock debuts are as follows: Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, the Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, Pearl Jam’s Ten, the Strokes’ Is This It, and ironically the Cars’ self-titled debut. Throw Boston’s first album in that mix if you’re feeling sassy, but that’s pretty much it.

9. If I’m really being honest with myself, that argument essentially boils down to two albums: Weezer and Appetite for Destruction. The thing that sets both of those apart from the rest of the pack is that they both have crazy-amazing first tracks: Appetite kicks off with “Welcome to the Jungle,” and Weezer launches with “My Name Is Jonas.” It’s hard to argue against “Welcome to the Jungle” (it’s as definitive a call to arms as there has ever been; if you want to call that the best guitar-based song of all time, I’m not sure what I’d counter that argument with), but don’t sleep on “My Name Is Jonas,” which starts with a weird little acoustic line and then lets the guitars crush everything to pieces. “My name is Jonas/ I’m carrying the wheel” is really just a better-read version of “Welcome to the jungle/ We’ve got fun and games.”

10. Cuomo would probably be slightly flattered at being compared to Axl Rose (or at least the 1986 version of Axl), as he’s a metalhead at heart, a fact he wore very clearly on his sleeve on the tracks on Weezer. Though there are metal licks all over the album, the song that gets remembered the most as the great genuflection to headbanging is “In the Garage,” mostly because Cuomo sings about the Kiss posters on his wall. Thanks to its references to the X-Men and Dungeons & Dragons, “In the Garage” fast became the nerd anthem on my school bus to Timothy Edwards Middle School, and the song acted like a secret code word among the stuck-up alt-rock kids who wanted to keep ourselves separate from the “posers.” Everybody knew “Buddy Holly,” but if you knew “In the Garage,” it meant you could hang. Man, middle school is just the worst, isn’t it?

11. Looking back, “Undone – The Sweater Song” was a crazy choice for a first single. The chorus is undeniable, but that weird spoken word scene that makes up the bulk of the first verse is a pretty bizarre thing even considering how adventurous modern rock radio was at the time. It’s a great song, but in retrospect it’s crazy to think somebody thought it would be better to lead with that than “Buddy Holly.”

12. The third single from Weezer was the thudding “Say It Ain’t So,” probably the album’s most savage track. It borrows Kiss’ signature “monster plod” but also features some of the album’s most accomplished guitar work. The video was directed by Sophie Muller, and I always remember it as being a single shot without any cuts, but that is not true at all. It’s “Undone – The Sweater Song,” also shot by Jonze, that exists as one continuous unbroken shot.

13. There were a handful of songs recorded for Weezer that didn’t make the cut, and the band could have swapped them with anything that made the album and it would still be a classic. The best of them is “Susanne,” a song that Cuomo wrote for a woman who worked for their label in A&R. Her name was actually Susanne, and she did in fact once lend Cuomo her jacket. “Susanne” was a b-side of the “Undone – The Sweater Song” single, but is probably best remembered as the song that plays over the credits of Kevin Smith’s second film Mallrats, and it’s one of the many highlights of the Mallrats soundtrack.

13. Another song left on the cutting room floor was “Mykel and Carli,” a tribute to a pair of sisters who were giant Weezer fans and friends of the band. They were the founding members of the band’s official fan club, and they were in charge of stuffing envelopes full of lyrics that fans had requested by mail (the original liner notes of Weezer did not include the lyrics to the songs). The sweet tune morphed into a sad tribute a few years later when the sisters passed away in a car accident on their way home from a Weezer show.

14. A few years back, the band released a deluxe reissue of Weezer that included a second disc of b-sides, live tracks, and demos from the era. The most remarkable tracks on that reissue are the three tunes that come from the Kitchen Tape, which were rough demos cut in the summer of 1992. (They were dubbed the Kitchen Tape because everything was recorded in the garage in the band’s rented house save for Pat Wilson’s drums, which got a better sound in the kitchen.) The thing that really stands out about these demos is the quality of Cuomo’s voice. You can hear him growing into his signature croon, but when he gets shouty (especially on the extremely early version of “Undone – The Sweater Song”), he sounds a lot like Kurt Cobain. That’s no accident, as Cobain was one of Cuomo’s musical heroes.

15. I remember seeing the cover of Weezer before I saw any of the band’s videos, and I immediately thought, “That guy on the right is obviously the frontman.” I was wrong; the guy all the way on the right is guitarist Brian Bell, and I’m pretty sure I thought that because he’s the only one of the quartet who looks like a rock star. Also, I thought his bowling shirt was pretty cool.

16. For a long time, I would stop listening to Weezer after “Holiday.” I had no attention span, and I could not deal with the minute of introductory build-up before “Only In Dreams” really got started. But now it’s probably my favorite song on the album. One of the longest songs in the Weezer catalog, “Only In Dream” does take a little while to get started, though that bass line that kicks everything off is pretty tasty. It’s got a quintessential Cuomo lyric (“You can’t resist her/ She’s in the air between molecules of oxygen and carbon dioxide”), and the chorus is anthemic as anything on the album. When I finally got around to seeing Weezer live in concert in the summer of 2002 (in support of Maladroit), “Only In Dreams” was my favorite part of the show. (Well, second-favorite, as opening band Dashboard Confessional—remember that guy?—played “Hands Down,” which caused me to lose my mind in a way that embarrasses me today.)

17. Once the long cycle for Weezer was complete, the band got to work on their second album, 1996′s Pinkerton. The narrative surrounding that album is pretty remarkable: It was rejected initially, then embraced when it looked like the band was breaking up (it ended up being a hiatus that lasted until 2001), then became a cultishly-adored masterpiece, then was considered slightly overrated. It’s a pretty strong record, as good as Weezer but with songs that come from an entirely different place. I still love the lead single “El Scorcho” and think the album-closing “Butterfly” is among the prettiest thing Cuomo has ever written. But in a head-to-head challenge, I’ll still take their debut.

18. During the early years, “Surf Wax America” was the band’s go-to show closer, and the live version that appears on the deluxe reissue of Weezer shows why: They totally rip into the riff, and handle the a cappella harmonies with aplomb. Listen to that version for the dude who screams “Smoke dope!” during the quiet moments like a total tool.

19. Weezer has gone platinum three times in this country, making it Weezer’s biggest selling album, though not by much—2005′s Make Believe has also done three million units thanks to the single “Beverly Hills,” which is the band’s most successful single when it comes to the Billboard Hot 100. It peaked at number 10, with “Buddy Holly” representing its second-highest-ever position on that chart (it landed at number 18).

20. Let’s watch the “Buddy Holly” video again, because it’s pure joy.

 

 

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