It was a different world, 2001. Music existed online, sure. You could buy CDs from websites. You might get a 10-second preview of some of the tracks. But music stores were still thriving. I know. I was working in one. It was my second shot at music-retail and it was my longest stint – working for about five years in a few different stores all tied to the one chain. At one point they had about 36 stores. Then they had 24. Then they had a dozen. Then a couple of cling-ons for last drinks at the bar…
All that seemed to happen so quickly.
But anyway, that’s a digression.
I was writing about music – a tiny bit. I was buying and reading any music mags I could get my hands on (desperate to write for many of them too) and I was reading what I could online – there wasn’t a lot back then, but you’d find some stuff. Hilariously I remember actually being commissioned to write a piece about the difference between buying CDs online or in an actual store; where to go, how to do it, etc.
And so I was discovering music in my usual ways, conversations, reading, and just hunting down anything and everything in stores – including being paid to work in a shop, which meant every day was the proverbial kid in a candy store. Staff discount. A log book to take CDs home and listen to – “research”.
Every day meant you’d find a new favourite album – as you were tidying the shelves or looking for things to recommend to a customer you’d find an old classic or stumble onto something brand new that had just been shelved.
That’s how I found Oysterhead.
Quite by accident.
Which is always my favourite way to discover music.
Oysterhead was a supergroup. Such taglines are a worry. Always.
Oysterhead was Les Claypool (of Primus). And it was Trey Anastasio (of Phish). And it was Stewart Copeland (of The Police). My understanding is the very definition of a supergroup is a line-up where every member is already famous from the work they have done elsewhere in another group (or groups) of note. Hence Oysterhead being a supergroup. When supergroups started first getting talked about it was Cream and Blind Faith – because Clapton and Ginger and the others (variously Steve Winwood, Ric Grech and Jack Bruce) had been in other bands of note ahead of those groups. Right?
So. I saw this Oysterhead cover and was intrigued – I turned the cover over because it was a band I hadn’t heard of before and saw the names. Now I’m never the biggest Primus fan but I do like something about them. And sometimes it’s Les Claypool. More often it was their drummers actually but Claypool’s approach to the liberation of bass was something that felt unavoidable and theoretically interesting in the 1990s. I’m no Phish fan at all but I knew enough to know that Trey was rated; appearing in the guitar mags I would read. And The Police? Well, yes. And also Copeland is my favourite member and one of my favourite drummers.
Oysterhead was going to be my new favourite band. I was sure of that.
Then I heard the album. And it really was hard to care about. But it also wasn’t flat out terrible.
It couldn’t be. It had Stewart Copeland conceptualising behind the kit. His angled attack on a ride cymbal, the way he rode on the bell, the beat-down he gave a hi-hat, that was going to be enough for me to, erm, get my fill Right? Well, not really.
But I kept at it. Every so often I’d give Oysterhead a listen and The Grand Pecking Order became one of the better Primus albums in my collection. That’s how I heard it. That’s how it rested. Trey shares the singing with Les – which is arguably a relief. His guitar playing is fine. Sometimes really great, and often quite interesting. But Primus had interesting players too. The disappointment to me is that as good as Copeland always is he’s somewhat buried here. His playing is sublime, sure – but I’m the sort that would probably listen to him fart in the wind…and hope I was standing in the right direction to catch it full in the face.
But again, Primus had brilliant drummers – especially for my money Tim “Herb” Alexander (I guess you’d call him the main guy, he came and went and then returned again) and also Bryan “Brain” Mantia who was working with the band right up until they called it a day the first time around and the Oysterhead project popped out as a place for Claypool to salvage some leftovers.
It was a case of three very different musical personalities trying to make that a thing; trying to make the impossible squeeze interesting. A friend told me way back that he read a thing about Primus that said all three were great players and needed to do each other and the world a favour and join three separate bands. Oysterhead was that realisation in reverse – three very separate bands taking their main source of creative energy and offering that figure up to appear in a supergroup. It seemed more interesting as an idea than it was in realisation.
I remember The Great Pecking Order and still remember to listen to it every year a couple of times (but never more than three) but I can’t see its 20th Anniversary meaning anything to anyone really.
No one embarrassed themselves with this recording. But it just didn’t fully fire. It didn’t need to happen. Just like I didn’t need to write this. That in the end can’t be the reason something doesn’t happen. We’re allowed to do it. They were allowed to make this album. I was allowed to write about it 20 years after it was released. (Actually I reviewed it – fairly enthusiastically – at the time). And you’re allowed to finally give it a chance now or to celebrate its 20th anniversary because you’ve always loved it. Of course you are.
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