Album Retrospective: Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big and Buzzy by The Refreshments

 

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The world as we know it has lost its mind. One of the major political parties in this country is toying with the idea of nominating Donald Trump for President. Not of a real estate company, of the United States. Joe Biden is actually the current Vice President of the United States. Macklemore exists as a thing.

As one watches the nonstop cavalcade of idiocy parade past on one’s Facebook feed (inbetween postings of the hoax Facebook Terms of Service and pictures of people taking pictures of the blood moon), one can’t help but think back – way back to the summer of 1992 – when an unknown band from Phoenix, Arizona captured the national attention for about five minutes with an impossibly catchy song and a hook that expressed a great truth that was relevant then and even more so now.

Everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people.

What happened to The Refreshments? Where are they now, now that the world needs their wisdom and great timeless truths more than ever? The world is fuller, the people are stupider, and The Refreshments – or at least their remnants, have gone back to Arizona to watch it all burn.

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When the world – or at least, some very small portion of it – was first introduced to Roger Clyne, he was sitting in the desert, a palm straw cowboy hat perched jauntily on his head, on the shoot of the music video for his band’s first semi-hit song, Banditos. At the time, Clyne was the front man for the Arizona-based quartet The Refreshments, who were busy riding a buzz-worthy performance at the  South by Southwest Festival to moderate novelty fame as an early 90s pop-rock Southwestern act. Clyne’s face at the time was almost impossibly boyish, framed by a chestnut mop that always looked a little too freshly shampooed for the Southwestern cowboy persona he was clearly attempting to cultivate.

The Refreshments are best remembered for having two mid-range hits, Banditos (the frenetic homage to Western movie bandits) and Down Together, another roiling escape-to-Mexico ballad that sounded suspiciously identical to Banditos. Soon after these two hits ran their short course, The Refreshments released a follow up album which failed to find any airtime at all without similar mid-level hit vehicles, and the band collapsed under their own internal pressures and disbanded.

Before their collapse, however, The Refreshments left behind a truly noteworthy album which has sadly been unjustifiably discarded by the annals of music history as just another vehicle for a marginally talented two-hit wonder band who saw fit to foist an entire album on the world when a single would have done just fine. Perhaps the band contributed to this by titling the album Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big and Buzzy, which is not exactly the title of a work of art that expects to be taken seriously.

In fact, everything about Fizzy gives the impression that it is the product of a group of post-adolescent man-boys who would be more at home in a comic book store or watching MTV’s Jackass than contemplating the vicissitudes of life over a stiff drink in a bar. The album’s cover art features a cartoonishly drawn bimbo (barely) wearing a leather vest, chaps, and (improbably) aviator’s goggles, while sporting a glass of champagne in one hand and a bomb with a lit fuse in the other. Banditos, the album’s first hit featured Clyne screaming gleefully about fooling a border guard with a fake ID that proclaimed him to be Jean Luc Picard of the United Federation of Planets. And then, most of all, there was Clyne himself, who always had the appearance of a kid who was deliberately trying to provoke someone into sending him to detention.

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Clyne himself is still around, relentlessly playing live shows in and around Arizona with his new band, Roger Clyne and The Peacemakers. He still sports the shoulder-length wavy brown rock star hair, but now more often than not it’s straggly and a bit matted. He’s building a small empire of Southwestern products which have become famous in the Southwest.  His once impossibly-boyish face is now only regularly-boyish – and frequently adorned by a hard scrubble that partially hides the encroachments of a live lived hard and fast. He still has the perpetual smirk of a boy who’s waiting for the teacher to find the whoopee cushion he’s hidden in her seat, but his eyes tell the story of a man who has been some places and seen some s**t. I’m told he occasionally emerges to sing the national anthem at Arizona Diamondbacks games, of all things.

Yet if you look past the surface, Fizzy is more reflective of Clyne as he appears now, than it was as he appeared then. Sure, the album had plenty of the musical equivalent of fart jokes, but it also had a surprising depth of both character and content – and a haunting quality throughout that would stun anyone whose only exposure to The Refreshments was Banditos and Down Together. Although Clyne was only 25 at the time of its release, Fizzy was already the work of a surprisingly mature artist, albeit one who was trying his hardest to hide his maturity behind a patina of frat boy fun. This combination of maturity and frolick led to the creation of a surprising gem of an album, that is worthy of our further study.

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Blue Collar Suicide

Assembling an album thoughtfully is a lost art, in today’s digital age. You can’t blame the artists; consumers don’t consume albums by sitting down to listen to them in order anymore. Almost never do they bother even purchasing the entire album – the Internet has served to make an album’s non-hit songs less relevant than they ever were. As a consequence, modern rock albums almost never flow together as a unified work, in the way that Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band did, for instance.

Fizzy is obviously no Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, but we won’t judge it overly harshly for failing to live up to the standards of what might be the greatest rock album of all time. Still, Fizzy deserves credit as a piece of art that seriously contemplated how a listener might approach the album, if he sat down to listen to it all at once, and how the listener should be introduced to The Refreshments as a band.

The Refreshments were primarily driven by Clyne’s vocals and poppy power chords, along with Brian David Blush’s jarringly jaunty blues guitar riffs. But Fizzy’s opening number allowed Paul Naffah’s drums to drive, for perhaps the only time on the album. The aggressive pounding of toms on Blue Collar Suicide sets the tone for the rest of the album – sadness, overlaid with fun.

Clyne’s vision for his music has always been to somehow convey the blasted yet beautiful Arizona desert landscape to the listener through his music. Blue Collar Suicide, while not having any overtly Southwestern references, still manages to convey the desperation of desert living, which is only survived by the unique breed of person who is capable of seeing human suffering through the lens of sometimes maniacal hilarity.

It’s probably not unintentional, either, that the band’s first track makes ostensible reference to the blue collar. Listening to The Refreshments, you get the unmistakable sense that you’ve heard this band somewhere a billion times before, and after a fashion you have. The Refreshments are the prototypical party band, leaning heavily on a charismatic front man and an above-average guitarist to replicate a sound heard over countless red solo cups during the course of the last three decades.

But dismissing The Refreshments as another South(west)ern rock frat band who happened to have a couple of unusually catchy songs is unfair and inaccurate. Somewhere during the middle of Blue Collar Suicide, you realize that everything every other party band has done over time, The Refreshments do a little better. The lyrics are a little deeper, the melody a little catchier, the endlessly varying guitar riffs are a little more seamlessly integrated with the rest of the song.

The Refreshments are not just another party band, you realize; they are the apotheosis of all party bands. This sound is what every guy who rounded up three of his friends and started practicing in his garage hoped – but failed – to achieve. And so while the sound is vaguely familiar, it is also clearly a cut above. We are at this party, and we are part of it. And while our lives might be disappointing and our spouses might be stealing the very life from our soul, the music says that for now, we can drink this cheap beer from this plastic cup, and we can dance, and we will declare to the universe that it does not have us beaten.

I can’t sleep cause she snores like a chain saw

And I can’t eat cause she can’t cook

I can’t write cause she’s got all my inspiration

And she can’t count all the pills I took

All the pills I took

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European Swallow

Psychologists say that the human memory works in a number of predictable ways. For instance, if you rattle off a list of, say, twelve numbers, and ask the person to repeat them back to you, they will probably not be able to do it. However, almost without fail, they will be able to give you the first and last number in the sequence. Based on the strength of a person’s memory, they will also be able to recall some of the numbers in the middle, but the second item on the list will be the least likely number of all to be recalled.

Musicians have long understood principle, even down to my dear junior high music teacher Mrs. Strang, who was unafraid to tell her assembled junior high concert-makers, even at our tender age, that “we stash our weakest number as the second song in our concert, and hope that people forget it.”

So it is with the weakest song on Fizzy, helpfully stowed between raucous numbers where it might be forgotten. But while the heavy handed use of the wah pedal makes the song’s guitar work a rare miss on this album, and while Clyne’s monotone rant about the hooker without a heart of gold is auditorily jarring, the chorus still finds a melodic high point that drives home a universal truth:

I’d do anything for you

Anything that you want me to

It’s just gonna take a little more money

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Down Together

The music industry is a cruel mistress, at times. Many is the artist who has been doomed by the record company’s short-sighted selection of recorded singles. Listening to the entire album of Fizzy, it is clear that The Refreshments were capable of painting with surprising depth and variety; why, then, was Down Together selected as the album’s second single? The simplest and most obvious answer is that it sounded the most like Banditos.

This had the benefit, for the record company, of capitalizing off the surprising success of Banditos by feeding a ready audience with something that sounded more or less the same, but gave them new words to sing along to. Perhaps this was penny wise, but pound foolish. Perhaps this ended up pigeonholing The Refreshments as a pop band without substance in the minds of the public, even if it helped to sell a few more copies of Fizzy in the process. One only wonders what might have been if another, richer song were chosen as a follow up to Banditos.

Of course, one shouldn’t feel bad for The Refreshments, who never had goals of being The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. At the height of their fame, Paul Naffah quipped in an interview that their main goals as a band included “having a single stay at No. 14 just like Devo’s “Whip It,” producing a line of Hostess products and paying rent until death,” not to mention getting on the Price is Right and meeting Bob Barker. And so even if the release of Down Together as a second single stifled the future commercial success of the band, it seems as though the band’s members wouldn’t have it any other way.

None of that is to say that Down Together is a bad song. In its own way it’s a better song than Banditos – and the last line shows a flair for lyrical genius that may be the best on the whole album. Clyne is maybe at his lyrical best in throughout this song, in fact, even when utterly rejecting rhyming conventions (“I could sing a song way out of tune/and not care a bit about it”). But consumers of popular music are notoriously bad at making subtle distinctions. If one song sounds mostly the same as another, it will be classed with the other.

So it is, so it always will be.

We can find a speck of dust and scribble down our life stories

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Mekong

If Fizzy can accurately be described as a patina of silliness overlaying sadness, then Mekong is the focal point of the album’s sadness (while Banditos is the focal point of its silliness). Mekong is one of those rare tracks that uses dissonance to brilliance – the lyrics, on a surface level are about drinking the day away in a bar, and the easy camaraderie formed by the bonds of ethyl alcohol.

However, the underlying instrumentation is simultaneously beautiful and mournful, leaving the casual listener to ponder the song’s meaning. Mekong should be fun to sing along to; instead, it’s emotionally difficult and borderline unpleasant to do so.

Clyne has explained that Mekong is a rice whiskey that is a favorite of blue collar workers in Thailand. He encountered this drink when he and a friend named Michael O’Hare once spent a summer in Thailand teaching the natives how to play guitar:

The story, according to Clyne, goes like this: With their guitars on their backs, a few weeks of summer yawning out in front of them, and just $300 between them, Mike and Roger made their way to Thailand to “experience the culture.” They promptly blew through their money, but found they could make pocket change by teaching guitar lessons. And that is how they survived for the next several weeks. Of the things they uncovered during that spiritually – and otherwise – awakening sojourn was a unique rice whiskey which, says Clyne, could take the white right off your teeth. The drink was called mekong.

Later, Mike was to die “slow and hard” of cystic fibrosis, and Clyne always claimed that his late friend was looking over his shoulder when he wrote this song. Clyne still performs this song with the Peacemakers and at each rendition is said to dedicate this song to O’Hare without really explaining why. The current Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers website still has “Here’s to life” emblazoned on the masthead.

Interspersed with his grief and the tribute to his fallen friend, Clyne struggles in this song with themes that are familiar throughout the album – his perception of himself as a liar and a scoundrel, the simultaneous emptiness and joy of life, and the sad distrust of humanity that colors all of Clyne’s writing.

Barkeep, another Mekong, please

Yes, of course you can keep the change

A new glass here

for this new friend of mine

Forgive me, I forgot your name

Flip a coin

What shall we talk about

Heads I tell the truth

and tails I lie

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Don’t Wanna Know/Girly/Banditos

If Mekong is a sad instrumental song with happy lyrics, then Don’t Wanna Know is the opposite: a depressing song that is driven by Blush’s guitar work – which is his subtlest and most uplifting on the album. Throughout Fizzy, Blush almost gives the impression that he is playing a neverending blues solo that is only connected in the loosest sense to the rest of the music on offer. His genius – and it is genius, make no mistake – is that he makes it seem as though it happens to fit the rest of the track perfectly completely by accident, almost as though the rest of the band is following aimlessly in his wake rather than the other way around.

Never does this synchronicity reach greater heights than on this track about the frustrations of material advancement in life. Many bands who have come before have trod this particular lyrical ground, but few have done so with the utter lack of pretension that’s afforded a band like The Refreshments, who truly never cared whether they became famous or not. The Refreshments are basically the opposite of Good Charlotte moaning on about the lifestyles of the rich and famous; when Clyne sings that in another year’s time he’ll probably be sitting in the same sad bars drinking the same sad beers, you can almost hear him sitting on a dusty barstool in a deserted bar writing the song on a napkin stained with a ring of condensation.

More, you can hear that he genuinely does not mind the prospect.

I wonder where I’ll be in a year

Probably be sittin right here

But if you know the answer

Don’t tell me anyone

I don’t wanna know

 

Following the heavy handed sadness of Mekong and the subtle touches of Don’t Wanna Know, the band (or whoever was responsible for arranging the album) clearly attempted to overcompensate for the heavy tones that came before with two songs that almost seem that they would have been more at home in a carnival fair, Girly and Banditos. Girly is an interesting song to work out to; about it not much more need to be said. It has the clear feel of one of those songs that is written when someone discovers a catchy riff and decides to shoehorn an entire plastic song around it. There’s nothing per se wrong with this approach; a lot of great music has been made that way (including, to hear Keith Richards tell it, almost the entirety of the Rolling Stones’ catalogue). Girly is not great music, but it isn’t offensive music either.

Banditos almost has to be an interesting phenomenon for The Refreshments. For a band whose life goals include always making the rent, the band certainly can’t begrudge the success of the one song everyone associates with their act. In retrospect, once the song was discovered, it was almost impossible for radio stations not to fixate on it – how could the line “We’ll give your ID card to the border guard / now your alias says you’re Captain Jean Luc Picard of the United Federation of Planets / ‘Cause he won’t speak English, anyway,” underlaid by Blush’s understated and insanely catchy riff, be ignored? How could “Everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people” not become an anthem, at least for a minute?

The ethereal perfection of Banditos is one of those phenomena that can swallow a band that actually has quite a lot to say. Remember that around the same time The Refreshments burst onto the scene, Radiohead was perversely struggling to shake the label of being “the band that sang that song Creep” while capitalizing on the runaway success of a nearly perfect song.

Radiohead’s answer to the problem was to stubbornly refuse to even acknowledge the song that generated their success – refusing to play it at concerts or on television appearances, to the great consternation of fans who had come specifically to see Creep performed. Whether or not this tactic played a role in the long-term success of Radiohead is a subject of considerable debate, but within a sample size of two, Radiohead got filthy rich and no one remembers who The Refreshments were.

If asked, The Refreshments would likely retort that Radiohead are pretentious douchebags, and you’d never catch Devo refusing to play “Whip It.” Besides, the rent has to be paid.

Well, it’s just you and me baby

No one else we can trust

We’ll say nothin’ to no one

 

No how or we’ll bust

Never crack a smile or flinch or cry

For nobody

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Mexico/Interstate/Suckerpunch/Carefree

After the manic energy of Banditos is spent, Fizzy abandons all pretense of being a happy or upbeat album. It’s easy to dismiss this portion of the album for lacking the energy of the first three songs, or the emotional intensity of Mekong or Don’t Wanna Know, but Clyne in his own way makes the aimless wandering of this section of the album occasionally beautiful. Interstate  captures perfectly the aimless wanderlust that occasionally grips us all, but most often artists. Suckerpunch is a perfectly serviceable ode to the relationship gone bad that didn’t have to.

The casual listener might conclude somewhere during the middle of Suckerpunch that the album had run out of steam and give up. In so doing, they would miss the best track this excellent album has to offer.

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Nada

I am going, for the second time in the same retrospective, to compare this album undeservedly to Sgt. Peppers. The hidden gem of Sgt. Peppers isn’t any of the classic anthemic hits like Sixty-Four, it’s A Day in the Life. Just when you think the album is over and done, here comes this song, tacked on like an afterthought. On first listen, it’s a little too sedated and a little too long. But the more you forget to turn off the album after the Sgt. Peppers Reprise and give it a listen, the more you understand that the best truly has been saved for last. This isn’t a coda, it’s the artistic point the whole album before you was trying to make – like the much maligned last 5 minutes of the film No Country for Old Men, if you don’t understand the destination, you haven’t truly understood the journey.

Nada is a pitch perfect anthem for everyone who has walked a difficult journey alone in life – particularly when that solitude is self-imposed by guilt. Probably, none of us spend such time walking alone through the desert after our truck has run out of gas, but Clyne’s metaphor captures the feeling of the nihilism that gnaws constantly at the edge of our soul perfectly – and the determination to keep on stalking in defiance of it. We may not know why and may not have any reason for doing so other than to keep downing our tequila and lime, but the great equalizer of mankind is that we keep going, regardless.

Nada is the encapsulation of the spirit of the entire Fizzy album – it is sorrowful and bordering on nihilism, but it is defiant and insistent on meaning and survival in the end.

There ain’t no moral to this story at all

Anything I tell you very well could be a lie

Been away from the living, I don’t need to be forgiven

I’m just waiting for that cold black sun-cracked soul of mine

to come alive

At the end of it all, Clyne and The Refreshments served up a surprisingly mature and reflective offering for a band who is known, if at all, for one of the silliest songs to ever grace the top-40 charts in Banditos. The perfect silliness of that song, however, served as the vehicle for an album of fantastic artistry and depth, for the few who were willing to appreciate it – which is why, all these many years later, Clyne and the Peacemakers find loyal crowds willing to listen every time they want to put on a show.

Here’s to life.

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