Who knows when the trash aesthetic got too strong in rock and roll, stood up like Heap from Mad magazine and started walking all over careers? What drove addled youths to worship the concept of trash? Believing the antediluvian religious right’s interpretation of the Book of Garage Rock? Listening to ’70s metal too stoned? Worshiping the Replacements’ When the Shit Hits the Fans? However it came about, the principle of loose, even consciously incompetent playing—a faith that rebel spirit will get you through times of no craft—eventually went from canard (from rock haters) to rhetorical weapon (for punks) to revealed truth (for grunge gofers and lo-fi lowlifes). Although trash terrorism may be finished, in its day it was a prime henchman of indie cred, the archenemy of rock from within. Nobody rolled out a redder carpet for trash than Sub Pop, and no band incarnates the original concept more than Mudhoney did.
Superficially, Mudhoney’s two-CD career retrospective, March to Fuzz, and Southern Cal stoner-rock primordials Fu Manchu’s seventh album, King of the Road, are kindred chunks of hardrock slabbage. Both could use singers with dollops more soul and range. Motley nodules of Blue Cheer, Sabbath, and Alice the Coop abound and every vintage punk band with hipbones sharp enough to shave with gets its due in the sound (for matching curious covers, Mudhoney do Roxy Music and Fu Manchu do Devo). But where March to Fuzz is a tombstone for trash worship, King of the Road is a landmark in an admittedly dwarfish style. Mudhoney caked into silence after their seventh album; Fu Manchu, at the same spot in their catalog, have finally mastered their subjects: cars, interstates, gas pedals, vans, white-line fever, Chevys, half-life on the road, trucks, and fat fuzztone riffs. And hey, better a concept album about vehicle fixation than stoner rock’s other pervasive obsessions: porny girls in bikinis, pinheads’ trips through inner as well as outer space, and getting royally wasted instead of going to work in the mall.
Mudhoney have a developed view, as well. Guitarist Steve Turner nails down their toss-off trash philosophy in his March to Fuzz notes: “Our long-range goals were none. Short term was to play a few shows and put out a single or two. I honestly thought it would last maybe six months.” But if you stick with that for seven albums, it becomes trash worship. There’s no flowering of technique between top early Mudhoney like “Touch Me I’m Sick” and later good jabs like “Into Your Shtik” because “getting better”—refining a sense of drama, building momentum, finishing off rough ideas and the rest—just isn’t rock and roll in these parts. Early rockers expected that their work would be cast aside as junk because the old hierarchy of art, all-powerful, decreed it would be. The big lie that squats like a banana slug all over March to Fuzz is that songs intended by their creators to be junk are somehow not eminently worthy of being cast aside. Settling for throwaway rock seems timid, even exploitative: At first, I thought including a second CD of covers and rarities was a consumer rip-off, but it’s clear that Mudhoney diehards are immune to issues of durability and quality merchandise. Those who bother with the first disc at all will automatically want the second.
The cliché showdown between trash-punk spontaneity and crafted rock songs favors the first side only when the second is assumed to be a slide toward the flossy sophistication of show tunes. But any construction of rock craftsmanship that excludes, say, the Mekons and Sebadoh is working from a blurred blueprint. The issue is not playing right notes or wrong notes—it’s playing the right wrong notes. And sensing when you are. Up against Scott Hill’s anydude fable spinner in Fu Manchu, Mark Arm’s performance as a loudmouthed misogynist brat gives Mudhoney a personality tag. But the riff clarity and manic timing on Fu Manchu’s “Weird Beard,” “Hotdoggin’,” and “Boogie Van” make you care more than Mudhoney’s “Suck You Dry” or “Hate the Police”—even if the latter grapple with more significant subjects.
Fu Manchu miss the LSD phosphorescence of former guitarist Eddie Glass (though his new outfit, Nebula, has given in to baggy jams instead of crackling songs), and their strained first couple albums without him suggested that In Search Of (1996) might’ve stood as their best showing. But it’s just fun doodles compared to the new set. The jetmobile of them all, the title track, was concocted during recording, and is an early nomination for the “Louie Louie” of the 21st century. A speed-demon tribute in the manner of Gene Vincent’s “Race with the Devil,” it’s really about how drummer Brant Bjork wins a whup-ass award for pile-driving right through a maze of double-guitar solos until you’re howling “King of the Road sez you move too slow” along with Hill. Then you play it again to make sure it really clicks that hard.
Mudhoney never managed a gear as high as King of the Road. They never got close to exploitation experts like Dave Allan and the Arrows or Motörhead, either. They know that. I just wonder if they know it could have been helped.