“Don’t you kids try this solo at home—that man is a trained professional,” Joe Genaro, a.k.a. Joe Jack Talcum deadpans several tracks into the Dead Milkmen’s 1990 classic Metaphysical Graffiti.
Like most jokes, this one has a kernel of truth to it. With four albums under their belt, the Milkmen were trained professionals, at least insofar as a scrappy, satirical punk band can be described with words such as “trained” or “professional.” As the ’80s stumbled to a close, the Dead Milkmen had toured tirelessly (sometimes in a converted ambulance), recorded four albums, and landed several college radio hits, including the surfer-spoofing “Bitchin’ Camaro” and the disarmingly sweet “Punk Rock Girl.” The quartet had amassed a cult following for their subversive humor and twisted tunes about drinking bleach, smoking banana peels, and lampooning right-wingers.
But by the time they began recording their fifth album in 1989, the Milkmen were uninterested in repeating their greatest hits. “I guess we were being contrarian to an extent,” says Joe Jack Talcum. “We weren't trying to follow up with another song similar to ‘Punk Rock Girl.’”
What emerged instead was Metaphysical Graffiti, the Dead Milkmen’s most eclectic album, a smorgasbord of styles spanning from children’s nursery rhyme (“Beige Sunshine”) to buoyant power-pop (“In Praise of Sha Na Na”) to Clash-esque ska (“Little Man in my Head”) and the gleefully sacrilegious “Methodist Coloring Book.” Other highlights include the dark yet sneakily catchy “If You Love Somebody, Set Them on Fire” (eat your heart out, Sting) and the radio diss track “The Big Sleazy.” In an interview shortly before his death, bassist Dave Blood cited Metaphysical Graffiti as “the strangest and maybe the most interesting DM recording.”
Now, in time for the record’s 30th (well, OK, 32nd—thanks, Covid delays) anniversary, Philadelphia-based independent label The Giving Groove is proud to present the first remastered reissue of Metaphysical Graffiti.
The surviving Milkmen have fond memories of recording Metaphysical Graffiti, which came at a transitional moment in the band’s career: their last album before signing with a major label and the last of three albums recorded in Austin with producer Brian Beattie. “For a while, we considered Austin our second home,” says drummer Dean Sabatino, a.k.a. Dean Clean. “Because we had been on tour, we were pretty tight in terms of knowing how the songs went. We were free to experiment a bit. And Brian likes to experiment with songs.”
Experimentation is key to Metaphysical Graffiti’s charm. When fans popped the CD in their stereo, many were confused to hear a children’s chorus. “I had to take it out and look at it, like, is this the right one?” recalls the band’s current bassist, Dan “Dandrew” Stevens. (Some rare trivia: One of the kids singing on “Beige Sunshine,” Graham Williams, grew up to be a concert promoter—the same promoter who convinced the Milkmen to reunite for Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2008.) Equally audacious are “Do the Brown Nose,” a loungey stand-out in which Rodney Anonymous harnesses the energy of an actual live-in-the-studio audience, and “Anderson, Walkman, Buttholes and How!,” a twisted collaboration with Gibby Haynes, who laid down his part in one take.
Metaphysical Graffiti exemplifies the band’s sardonic humor and propensity for mocking sacred cows. Note the Led Zeppelin-skewering title and artwork, which was inspired by the band passing around Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods on the tour bus. Or revel in the barbed social commentary of “Methodist Coloring Book,” which satirizes the Christian fundamentalist worldview and finds the Milkmen at their most subversive.
When Enigma asked the band to make a music video for that tune, MTV balked at a shot of a model church being blown up. “MTV said they would under no circumstances play it,” Joe recalls. “Somebody had the idea to just take that scene and play it in reverse. And then, lo and behold, it was OK with the censors and MTV, and everybody was happy.”
Upon release, Metaphysical Graffiti charted at No. 164 on the Billboard 200, and while it didn’t sell as well as 1988’s Beelzebubba, it soon became a cult favorite among the band’s fans—including a 12-year-old aspiring musician named Dan “Dandrew” Stevens. “It resonated with me the most because it seemed so diverse,” says Dandrew. “It almost felt like a mixtape kind of thing… The reason I look back on the influence that album had is that it bridged a lot of gaps for me in getting into other kinds of music.”
When Dandrew began playing guitar, he listened to Dead Milkmen albums and tried to figure out the guitar parts. Then he started figuring out bass parts on the guitar. He fantasized about running into the band when he was in Philadelphia.
“I would have these moments where I would be like, ‘Man, I really wish I was in this band. But I don't want anybody out of the band,’” Dandrew recalls. He began writing them letters, and struck up a pen pal friendship with Joe Jack Talcum. In 2004, following the untimely death of Dave Blood, Dandrew became the Milkmen’s new bass player—first for a series of benefit shows, and then on a permanent basis, including on the band’s reunion albums.
The Giving Groove operates under a unique revenue model in which it pays artists 50 percent of all after-tax profit and donates the remaining 50 percent to a music-related charity of the artist’s choice. The Milkmen have chosen to direct that revenue to Rock to the Future, a 501(c)3 organization that equips Philadelphia youth with life skills to support current and lifelong well-being through free, student-driven music programs.
FLAC/ALAC & MP3 available. Digital Only.