Welcome to the Monkey House: A Retrospective of The Dandy Warhols
Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as your read along.
- The Dandy Warhols' TV Theme Song
- The Coffee and Tea Wrecks
- Boys Better
- I Love You
- Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth
- Every Day Should Be A Holiday
- Get Off
- Bohemian Like You
- I Am Over It
- The Last High
- I Am Sound
- Everyone Is Totally Insane
- Smoke It
- Talk Radio
- Now You'll Love Me
- Sad Vacation
- The Autumn Carnival
- Semper Fidelis
- Catcher in the Rye
- You Are Killing Me
The 1990s were the last heyday of music stores as compact discs allowed stores to stock more product than ever before. The portability and sound quality of CDs (compared to cassettes) from home to personal player to car spurred a renewed frenzy in music buying, and music sales reaped their greatest sales volumes ever. In Toronto, new stores and chains popped up as traditional retailers like A&As, Music World, Sunrise Records, and Sam the Record Man were challenged by the likes of Britain’s HMV and American music chain, Tower Records.
In Toronto, Tower opened a flagship store at the southeast end of the Eaton Centre with an entrance right at Queen and Yonge. This location also introduced our city to the ‘listening station,’ which were CDs posted around the store in players with headphones, allowing you to hear CDs before buying them. It was a variation on the old-school listening booths in record stores and took advantage of the ease of playing CDs to spur sales. It was this exact way that I stumbled across a CD by a band I’d never heard of, and illogically it was the draw of the super-simple, all white cover that caught my attention and its title, which played on the band’s intriguing name, Dandy’s Rule OK. I listened to a bit of a few songs and didn’t hesitate to buy it. It’s one of the very rare occasions I walked into a store and bought an album of an act I didn’t know, and it started my enduring fandom with The Dandy Warhols, who are one of the best modern rock bands of the past twenty years.
The Dandy Warhols’ TV Theme Song; Ride; The Coffee and Tea Wrecks \ Dandy’s Rule OK (1995)
The Dandy’s were formed in Portland, Oregon in 1994 by singer-guitarist (and principal songwriter) Courtney Taylor-Taylor and guitarist Peter Holmström. They soon recruited drummer Eric Hedford and Zia McCabe on keyboards. The band grew a following in Portland with their music and performances, which at times included the band stripping their clothes. After signing to an Indie label, they released their first album just the following year, the same one I fatefully discovered in Tower Records. And thank heavens for that, because the album did not get much attention.
Which is too bad, because it’s really good. Just as the shoegaze movement was dying off and Brit Pop was taking over, this album seemed to fuse them, layering trippy melodies, echoey vocals, and a wall of guitar into a modern sound that also borrowed from the psychedelic era. The album revealed the band’s irreverent side, filled with humour, and a penchant for self-reference, such as the song, “The Dandy Warhols’ TV Theme Song,” which sounds like it could be exactly that and nicely introduces the listener to the album’s vibe. “Ride” and “Best Friend” get you into the shoegazer mood (“Ride” sounds like a song from the band of the same name, which I imagine was purposeful) before the band laid a lovely, psychedelic mid-tempo song on you with, “Not Your Bottle.” There’s a song called “Lou Weed” that is sung in a pretty good likeness to Lou Reed, and the album finishes with an epic 3-parter called “It’s A Fast-Driving Rave-Up with The Dandy Warhols Sixteen Minutes” which is indeed sixteen minutes long. There is also “The Coffee and Tea Wrecks,” an impeccable psychedelic-pop song with a luscious melody and infectious guitar riff that sinks you deeper into the album’s vibe. And that vibe was undoubtedly to get stoned, to chill, and to groove on the meandering and fuzzy goodness of Dandy’s Rule OK.
Boys Better; I Love You; Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth; Every Day Should Be A Holiday \ …The Dandy Warhols Come Down (1997)
The second album was boosted by the band having signed to Capitol Records, who also not surprisingly squeezed some of the excess and indulgence out of the band’s sound and pushed their catchy melodies to the fore. Is that what the album’s title refers to? The band is not as high as the first one? Regardless, the result was a phenomenal album of hook-filled, fuzz-laden, psychedelic-electro-pop. There were still a couple long songs, such as the slow-build opener, “Be-In,” and the closer, “The Creep Out,” but otherwise the album was a solid collection of powerful pop songs. The second track, “Boys Better,” quickly showed the band’s new power-pop mode, gliding through verses into strong choruses, as the keyboards now rode shotgun to the guitars for a powerful groove. “I Love You” a few songs later showed the hypnotic, repetitive approach of the Shoegazers wasn’t dead yet.
The highlight of the album was the first two singles, paired in the middle. “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth” broke out with a repeating groove on a propulsive beat, laying the foundation for a Beach Boys-like harmony between Courtney and Zia. It was catchy as hell and made you sit up and think maybe this band was heading for something major. That feeling was solidified by next track and lead single, “Every Day Should Be A Holiday.” This is one of my favourite songs and a consummate example of my favourite electro-rock sound. Again employing harmonies over a solid melody, a danceable beat, the always irresistible (to me at least) driving, even-tempo pace, some psychedelic guitar, and lots of intriguing sound effects kept it interesting and made it a pop masterpiece.
It would be “Junkie” that would catch the band its first attention, getting to #13 in the UK and #31 on the US Alternative chart. The album reached #16 in the UK album chart and go Gold, but in the US the Dandys couldn’t break into the charts. But the foundation was set, and people had an eye on this band.
Godless; Nietzsche; Get Off; Bohemian Like You \ Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (2000)
The band changed drummers in 1998, with Brent DeBoer replacing Hedford. The third album continued the band’s trend of tightening up their sound, easing off the fuzz and allowing a purer pop sound to shine through the lessened shoegaze guitar layers. Opening with a subtle groove on “Godless,” the album plays through with greater sonic variation and gives the listener more to grab onto, as each song provides a different listen. It lacks the pure pop joy of songs like “Junkie” and “Holiday,” but does offer some moments of elation, such as on the first single, “Get Off,” a strumming ride through a Britpop sound with some country music effects.
This album would be the band’s breakthrough thanks to the second single, “Bohemian Like You.” Spurred by an appearance in the US in a Vodaphone commercial and inclusion in the TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the song reached #5 in the UK, #5 in Italy, and #28 on the US Alternative chart. The album cracked the top 200 in the US and reached #16 in the UK, not quite as high as the previous album’s #16 peak. It would go Gold in the UK and Australia. The band would also catch the attention of David Bowie, being asked to perform at the Meltdown Festival on his invitation as well as open for him on tour.
I Am Over It; The Last High; Heavenly; I Am Sound \ Welcome to the Monkey House (2003)
The lead single on the next album was “We Used to Be Friends,” which reached #18 in the UK but failed to chart in the US (it was also the theme song to the TV show, Veronica Mars). I’m not including it on this playlist because it’s about the seventh best song on the album. Same goes for “Plan A,” the third single and maybe the fifth best song (as long as we’re rating things). What was certain was this was their best album. There’s not a bad song on the album and breaking it up for this playlist is a bit of a crime. It should also be noted the album's cover is a nod to the legendary album, Velvet Underground and Nico, which of course was designed by Andy Warhol, and thus a nod by the band to its namesake (the zipper is also a nod to the Stones' album, Sticky Fingers).
The album has more disco elements, bringing a dance element in to replace the now abandoned psychedelia of their first albums. Pop songs like “Plan A” are smartly written, revealing a new level of composition from the band. “Wonderful You” is an electronic dance song, with nary a guitar to be heard. The back half of the album, starting with “I Am Over It,” is just a pleasure to listen to. This stretch of songs includes the loveliest song in their discography, “The Last High.” It’s a sublime pop song, with 80s style keyboards (perhaps because Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran produced the album?), lovely strumming guitar accents, and an impeccable melody that begs you to just close your eyes and ride along. “Heavenly” and “I Am Sound” also carry along the electro-rock sound with more infectious melodies and rhythms. It’s an impressive trio of songs to place deep in an album, and while “The Last High” was released as the second single, it failed to drive larger attention to the band. The album reached #20 in the UK, #118 in the US, and #5 in Australia. It appeared that The Dandy Warhols would be unlikely to break it big, given their four great albums hadn’t found a broad audience for their sound, which was now as refined and developed as it would ever be.
Everyone Is Totally Insane; Smoke It \ Odditorium or Warlords of Mars (2005)
Perhaps it was with the realization that they weren’t going to be a chart-topping sensation that resulted in The Dandy Warhols’ hot streak of brilliant music coming to an end with the fifth album, named after the industrial art space that Courtney Taylor-Taylor had purchased for the band to rehearse in and had been dubbed, Odditorium. The album was decent, relied on their established trippy, electro-rock sound, but lacked any standout tracks or moments that drew you back the way their three prior albums had done so well.
The album isn’t bad, not at all, it’s a good listen start to end and songs like “Everyone Is Totally Insane” provide examples they were still offering solid, groovy songs. It just wasn’t on a level of their prior work, such as “Smoke It,” aa fun rock n’ roller and the lead single on the album, but a song that lacked the infectious grooves of their other singles. The album closes with its most interesting song, “A Loan Tonight,” an electro-psychedelic song almost twelve minutes long that blends their early sound with their later sound. It’s a track that sounds like it belongs in the 1980s or early ‘90s. Odditorium and its singles didn’t chart highly and the band’s place in the music scene ebbed away, never to return other than as an enduring, respected band with a core audience.
It's unlikely the band worried too much about this, because if there’s one thing that shines through with The Dandy Warhols it is their true sense of independence and integrity to their vision and style. They’ve never fit cleanly into a single genre or sound and need to be compared to multiple bands to be placed in the musical firmament. In the modern music world, it’s also not necessary to have charting songs to be a thriving act, it’s now about filling the halls for the shows, and the Dandys have always managed OK in that category.
Talk Radio; Now You’ll Love Me \ Earth to the Dandy Warhols (2008)
There were a few singles in the three years before the next album was released. “Horny as A Dandy” was a mash-up of “Bohemian Like You” and the 1998 song, “Horny ’98” by Mousse T., duo Hot ‘n’ Juicy, and Inaya Day. It would be the last song with Dandy’s music to reach the charts, reaching #17 in the UK. The band also released the songs “Have a Kick Ass Summer (Me and My Friends)” and “Good Luck Chuck,” which was featured in the film of the same name.
The Dandy’s formed their own label, Beat the World Records, in 2007 and shortly after parted ways with Capitol, returning the band to the indie status that they’d never spiritually broken with. The next three albums would be released on their label. The first of those, Earth to the Dandy Warhols, was their weakest, continuing a lull for the band. Lacking much in the way of new sounds or direction, the band capably moves through their sound with a collection of decent, but not outstanding songs. The two songs that do stand up to be noticed are “Talk Radio” and “Now You’ll Love Me.” The first has this slightly chaotic element, with the parts not quite fitting together, to make for an interesting listen and perhaps represent the discord that is talk radio. The second is a catchy, edgy pop song that brings forth the best of their sound, though the song just doesn’t quite hit the mark as well as their early work.
Sad Vacation; The Autumn Carnival; Slide \ This Machine (2012)
In 2009 the band issued a version of Welcome to the Monkey House, this time remixed by Russell Elevado and titled, The Dandy Warhols Are Sound. I haven’t given this much of a listen, but it sounds like there are some interesting takes on the original tunes (some of the YouTube playlist uses these versions as the originals can’t be found on that service). The band issued a straight-up cover of The Beatles’ song, “Blackbird,” in that same year, and I also caught the band in concert for the first time, seeing them at The Phoenix Concert Theatre. Their blasé demeanour came through and perhaps it wasn’t the best time to see them, as the show lacked energy and, while played well, didn’t leave a lasting impression. I think I need to see them again sometime to see if that was a one-off or whether there’s better to be gotten from them. Their greatest crime, for me at least, was that while Zia had to run off stage for a pee, Courtney decided to stick to the setlist and rather than play a filler or just wait for Zia to return, instead performed a stripped down, solo-acoustic version of “Every Day Should Be a Holiday.” While it was cool to hear that version, I felt completely robbed of the full effect of my favourite song by them.
By the time their next album came out (their seventh or eighth depending on whether you count the remixed album), the band had largely faded from view commercially. So it was a shame they issued their best album in twelve years with This Machine.
The album is as good a listen as the trio that established them, though now included smarter, well-polished songs and more clever musicianship. It’s the Dandy’s 2.0. This was evident from the first song (and first single), “Sad Vacation.” “The Autumn Carnival” may be the coolest sounding song they’ve produced. It’s a brilliant, modern indie-rock song (and co-written and performed on by David J from Bauhaus and Love and Rockets). “Enjoy Yourself” sounds like something Iggy Pop would have done in the 1980s, while “Alternative Power to the People” channels the ‘90s and the likes of Butthole Surfers. And speaking of the ‘80s, there’s a great take on The Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off” as a bonus track. The album finishes with “Slide,” which also harkens back to the shoegazer-pop sounds of the ‘90s and proved the band could still draw on that sound and make it fresh.
Semper Fidelis; Catcher in the Rye; STYGGO; You Are Killing Me \ Distortland (2016)
I’m listening to this album for the first time as I write this, and I have to say I like it. The Dandy Warhols are still going strong and now I’m definitely regretting not seeing them last time through town. It’s a return to their electronic sound and a very modern album, appearing to eschew the retro sounds that marked This Machine. It’s also their first in a while to not be released on their own label, instead issued on indie, Dine Alone. They’re still not getting any love from the charts, but there’s lots of great music here for fans new and old to sink their teeth into.
“Semper Fidelis” is an intriguing, stark, electro-dance tune, with a hint of industrial and a nifty, creepy and fleeting vocal track. It’s the type of song that needs a few listens to fully appreciate. “Pope Reverend Jim” is an electro-pop tune that captures the band’s fun spirit. “Catcher in the Rye” captures the subtle and lovely spirit of their best albums, while STYGGO rides a funky, disco beat and a New Order-ish guitar lick. It’s actually a re-working of a song that backed a pre-album single, “Chauncey P. vs. All the Girls in London,” that was called “Some Things You Got to Get Over,” and thus the album versions title as an acronym. The A-side also re-appears on the album as “All the Girls In London.” Another single from the album was “You Are Killing Me,” a straight-ahead pop-rock song in the band’s traditional style.
The Dandy Warhols are a unique and compelling rock act in an era in which there have been few. Following the arc of many bands, they came out strong and developed their sound through three landmark and outstanding albums. They have evolved and experimented with their sound though have never strayed far from the foundation of the psychedelia-electro-rock sound. With a penchant for great melodies, the in-the-mix vocal style of Courtney, and the insouciance of their personality flavouring the music, they have provided a respectable and admirable legacy of music. From that first moment in Tower Records in 1995 to today, listening to their most recent album, they’ve kept me enthralled and loyal to their sound and remain one of the leading acts of their generation, even if their sales success hasn’t mirrored the quality of their music. The Dandy Warhols came down, but remain undaunted.