Right Place at the Wrong Time: Why The Dandy Warhols are Criminally Underrated.
Like many others who were too young to catch the Dandy Warhols in their late 90’s/early 00’s heyday, my first real introduction to their music was Ondi Timoner's seminal documentary, 'Dig!'. The conclusion everyone seems to draw from this (fantastic) documentary – including The Dandy Warhols themselves – is that back in the 90’s they were hipster poseurs leeching off the genuine artistic talent of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. I'm not convinced that their actual musical output bears that out.
In rock music, perception is everything. I think The Dandy Warhols have actually done themselves a massive disservice by acquiescing to this narrative - I can't think of many bands who put out four good-to-great albums in the same time period (mid 90’s to early 00’s) - Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, Blur, sure, but few others. I'd put The Dandy Warhols, if not on the absolute top shelf with those bands, definitely not far behind.
Part of the reason that The Dandy Warhols have tarnished a bit in comparison with their peers is that since their commercial and artistic peak (Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia) they have gone down the Weezer route of releasing a string of less impressive albums, which serves the function of making their older albums sound better by comparison but also strips away any mystique or momentum they had built up. The other major criticism of the Dandys back in the 90’s, that they were opportunistic bandwagoners following whatever trend happened to be popular at the time, doesn’t really hold up under closer scrutiny. In reality, they were always in the right place at the wrong time. In the mid-90’s, the heyday of grunge, they were a 60's revivalist shoegazing psych band. In the late 90’s, the heyday of boy bands and electronica, they were a garage rock band. In the early 00’s, the heyday of garage rock, they were a synth pop glam band. If they had gone through those exact same changes ten years later and in a different order – garage rock (early 00’s) to synth pop (mid-late 00’s) to shoegazing psych (late 00’s onwards), I reckon they would have been a lot bigger.
If we forget about all this contextual stuff and look at The Dandy Warhols from a musical perspective (ignoring everything after Welcome To The Monkey House, which has generally been pretty forgettable), they emerge as one of the better bands of the 90’s, able to turn on a dime from sarcastic piss-takers to cooler-than-thou shoegazers to open-hearted balladeers in the space of a couple of songs
Dandys Rule OK
It’s hard to think of a better summation of The Dandy Warhols than the peppy, self-aware intro song to their debut album, The Dandy Warhols’ T.V. Theme Song. Overall this album is a bit inconsistent, with some songs going for far too long and others being a bit annoying (I’m looking at you, Lou Weed), but the highlights are high and the lowlights aren’t enough to drag it down into mediocrity.
Key track: Genius – a devastating, hopefully sincere slice of self-loathing.
The Dandy Warhols Come Down
Say what you want about the Dandys, they know how to start an album. After the psychedelic warm-up of Be-In (enough with the awful puns, guys), Boys Better kicks off the album proper in style. The highlights come thick and fast on this one - Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth is a hooky treat, the first in a succession of sarcastic hit singles skewering hipsterdom; Every Day Should Be A Holiday sounds like The Stone Roses without the messianic overtones; the hazy Good Morning perfectly sums up the phrase ‘comedown’. There is still some filler (especially towards the end - Pete International Airport is particularly egregious), but overall this is a solid, fun album with enough to suggest that The Dandy Warhols are a band with enough substance to back up their image.
Key Track: Boys Better
Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia
This is the album where everything clicked for the Dandys. Every song but one is good, and there is a flow and structure that the previous releases were missing. The opening salvo of Godless, Mohammed, and Nietzsche exudes a confidence that just wasn’t there on the previous albums. There are hits (Get Off, Bohemian Like You), great ballads (Sleep, The Gospel), kickass, fuzzy rockers (Horse Pills, Solid), and one immensely irritating faux-country pastiche (Country Leaver – urgh). If you don’t like this album, you are unlikely to like the band, so this is definitely the place to start.
Key Track: Bohemian Like You – although everyone knows that one, so maybe Nietzsche or Horse Pills.
Welcome To The Monkey House
So out of nowhere The Dandy Warhols turned into a synth-pop band. I actually really enjoy this album, although it’s clearly not as consistent as their previous two releases. The highlights are very high indeed, but the lowlights are lower than anything since their debut. We Used To Be Friends, The Last High, and Plan A are all excellent songs, and the production on the album is very polished overall, making for an easy listen. The Dandys’ tradition of including at least one incredibly obnoxious song per album continues with Scientist, but you have to give them points for trying. They’re never annoying in the same way twice. Unfortunately it was downhill from here, although there are still some good songs scattered over their more recent albums.
Key Track: The Last High – a perfect pop song with great production. I’m sure everyone has heard We Used To Be Friends at some point, but it’s still a cracker.
So there we have it. These four albums make for a Greatest Hit’s worth of singles and one excellent album (Thirteen Tales). What more could you want from an alternative rock band in the 90’s? One thing to note: by focusing on The Dandy Warhols as underrated compared to the Brian Jonestown Massacre, don’t think for a second that I'm knocking the BJM; they're a very good band with some absolutely classic songs (seriously, how good is Anemone!). I'm just saying that the narrative of the Dandy Warhols as a second rate knockoff of the BJM doesn't hold up if you actually listen to their albums. Unfortunately, by trying too hard and then not trying hard enough, and by repeatedly being in the right place at the wrong time, the Dandys have managed to shoot themselves in the foot with regards to their short-term legacy. Hopefully, as the years go by and the story slowly fades away, the Dandy Warhols will be remembers as pioneers who pre-empted the garage rock revival of the early 00’s (The Strokes, The White Stripes etc.), the starry-eyed MDMA electro bands of the late 00’s (Animal Collective, MGMT), and the current psych-rock obsession, rather than as mediocre also-rans; the Salieri to Anton Newcombe’s Mozart.