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30 Years Later: GWAR – Scumdogs of the Universe

I love comedy. Like 60% of my personality is just lifted wholesale from The Naked Gun movies and old Mitch Hedburg standup routines. Crafting good comedy is extremely difficult, especially because the concept of a sense of humor is so nebulous, and nobody’s will match up perfectly with anybody else’s. Finding a way to make millions of people laugh at once is damn near black magic. I also love music. It’s the reason I get drunk on weekday mornings and yell at you readers about whatever metal I’m listening to as often as I do.  Crafting good music is crazy difficult as well, considering how much skill is necessary in both a technical sense and a conceptual one.  It’s one thing to be good at guitar; it’s another thing entirely to write something that elicits a strong emotional response in some way.

However, I hate “comedy music” at an almost 100% clip. To be able to be great at both of these impossibly challenging skills at once is a feat almost unheard of, and it’s for good reason. For me, it’s because the basic models of how both things work are just too different. Comedy is, generally, built on something of a formula that goes “setup => punchline,” and it’s impossible to do with music for the most part. There are a few Tim Minchin songs I dig, I guess, but for the most part, they all fall into the same problem. The first verse is a setup; the chorus is a punchline, and then…??? There’s almost no way to tell the same joke several times over the course of three or four minutes while keeping a coherent musical structure and remaining funny.

Enter the most obscene exception in the history of exceptions, the almighty GWAR.

You’d be amazed how few coherent images of the band from around this time exist

It would be disingenuous to call GWAR a comedy band first and a metal band second because part of the reason they’re so endearing to me is the fact that they do write awesome songs in a vacuum. But it’d also be wrong to say that the shock comedy isn’t by far the biggest part of their identity. These guys burst onto the scene by taking the shock rock theatricality of Alice Cooper and filtering it through Troma movies and Monty Python-style surrealism. If that doesn’t sound like the most entertaining shit ever, then you can get the fuck out of my face. The wild costumes and elaborate stage shows that feature so much blood and semen that it’s not an exaggeration to say that you probably will not leave a gig without being soaked to the bone with unknown fluids are straight up fuckin’ art. The closest thing I ever had to a religious experience was when, between songs, lead singer Oderus Urungus announced that this is the point in the show where he likes to stop and do drugs. His favorite is to inject Jimi Hendrix’s vomit directly into his cock, before spraying me directly in the face with blue and white goop ejected straight from the two-foot-long prosthetic penis he wears as a codpiece. I have a friend who mainly listens to Top 40 pop radio or whatever B96 is pushing, and she wound up at a GWAR show thanks to her husband wanting to go. I texted to ask her how it was, hoping her brain would be broken, and she responded with, “They just decapitated the pope, and now Balsac is deepthroating a baby.”

So yeah, GWAR delivers their art via shocking obscenity and a willingness to gleefully cross (and snort) every line they come across, so it was no surprise that they quickly became a media sensation in the 90s. They were lightning in a bottle, and the fact that they’ve kept such a solid career despite the notable dips in quality at times and the unfortunate heroin overdose of frontman and visionary Dave Brockie (the meat bag behind Oderus) is nothing short of a miracle. They managed to do it because, against all odds, the joke never got old.  They always found new ways to shock and disgust while wearing a cheeky grin and writing songs about throwing babies into volcanoes.

So let’s get to the point, shall we?  Scumdogs of the Universe is their second album, first on Metal Blade (technically, the original release date was in January on Master Records before they signed the contract that would make Metal Blade their home for most of their career, seeing the album rereleased via them a mere few months later in May), and their entrance into the cultural zeitgeist at large. On a purely musical level, it’s a huge departure from their purely punk debut, Hell-o!, dropping a lot of the punk influence and replacing it with huge heaps of metal sleaze.  That’s not to say the punk is entirely gone, though.  Hell, I’d say it’s very easy to tell they used to be a punk band simply by how they craft their singalong melodies, gang vocals, and isolated tracks like “Vlad the Impaler.”  It’s been said that one of the many things that makes them unique is the fact that the punk elements that do shine through are almost wholly disconnected from hardcore punk like Discharge that so many metal bands reach for. Instead, it seems to come from the earlier, less offensive flag-wavers like The Ramones and The Clash.  “Vlad the Impaler” and “Sick of You” are full of these influences.

But really, it’s the newfound injection of heavy metal where they truly found their footing.  Part of me wants to attribute this to the lineup changes that saw 3/5ths of the band replaced between albums, but that’s kind of a hard sell since Brad Roberts (Jizmak da Gusha) and Mike Derks (Balsac, the Jaws of Death) have been with the band ever since this album and they’ve had a few forays back into the pure punk of the old days since then. Regardless of the reason, Scumdogs of the Universe opens with “Salamanizer,” which is still more or less a live staple to this day and kicks the album off on a decidedly heavy note.  It’s one of the fastest songs here, rivaled only by the thrashing madness of “Maggots” and “Horror of Yig,” and yet their absurdist comedy also bursts right out of the gate since the opening lines are an NWA parody. Following that up, we have “Maggots,” which leans more into the crossover thrash territory, featuring an awesome “whoooooa-ohhh” part and a memorable bridge verse about smoking bones and wiping boogers on things that Devin Townsend would lift wholesale on “Far Beyond Metal” years later.  “Sick of You” is next and could barely be classified as metal.  It’s just a purely anthemic hard rock song to my ears. This shouldn’t be taken as a bad thing, though, as this is the closest thing to a smash hit single they ever had. It’s maddeningly catchy, and to this day is still their live closer, usually accompanied by dick-shaped cannons spraying blood all over the audience. Next up is “Slaughterama,” which is barely even a song as much as it is a long-form musical comedy sketch wherein the character of Sleazy P. Martini (the band’s “manager”) murders people who annoy him in a mock game show.

(NOTE: “Sick of You” is the only track with an official music video from Scumdogs of the Universe, but since their over the top theatrics are so integral to their appeal, any subsequent videos in this article will have to be fan-filmed clips from live shows.  Pardon the quality, but it’s not the same if you don’t see the anarchy.)

And that’s just the first four tracks!  From there, it only goes further and further off the rails, with each new song being stranger and more absurd than the last.  That word is what makes their brand of deliberately incendiary irreverence really connect with me; “absurd.”  GWAR commits so fully to making as little sense as possible that they routinely spit out Monty Python-esque genius.  “Sexecutioner” is a great example. It’s weird enough that Scumdogs of the Universe features a song sung entirely by a non-musical character in the GWAR universe, but there’s a moment in the bridge when everything slows down and gets genuinely epic. The titular character is calling out tenets of his philosophy (mainly “everything should be sex all the time”).

In contrast, female vocals (courtesy of Slymenstra Hymen, another non-musical character who was integral to the band’s lore early on and was more or less a full member of the group) repeated his words with a gorgeous, ethereal coo.  The lyrics being delivered in this genuinely fantastic musical moment are “When you are in France / You take off your pants.” GWAR is childish and gross and silly, but they present this bullshit in a way that’s nothing short of endearing, and that’s but one of dozens of examples.  I’m also a huge fan of the moments when Oderus clearly can’t think of any good rhymes, so he spits out nonsense like rhyming “Vlad the Impaler” with “Coulda been a whaler” and running out of evil things for Yig to do so he shouts “He smokes cigs!”

Their career would only get more batshit from here, and it’s honestly kind of a missed opportunity for me to be choosing to do a retrospective on Scumdogs of the Universe instead of almost any other album since their notoriety only grew and led to greater stories and controversies after this point.  Like, come on, their followup to this is a concept album about the time they were arrested on obscenity charges and Brockie was threatened with deportation (the band is based in Virginia, but he’s a native Canadian) and had his legendary prosthetic penis codpiece (named The Cuttlefish of Chthulu) confiscated by police. They even continued their in-universe lore with feature-length films like Skulhedface and Phallus in Wonderland. I suppose it was sort of inevitable that such a band would wind up with a coherent mythology, but it’s still an absolute marvel to see unfold purely for how fucking weird everything is.

I’m running out of things to say here because, even though I think they’re criminally underrated from a musical perspective, GWAR’s music is still the least interesting thing about them.  They live and die on the gimmick and theatrics, and they leaned into it whole hog with Scumdogs of the Universe and never looked back.  Throughout the aughties they morphed into a super tight and intense metal band with a gory stage show, but in the 90s, they were pure fucking anarchy.  Nothing made sense, and that was exactly the point.  Some of the jokes may not have aged particularly well (particularly “King Queen” and “Black and Huge”), but the band’s proclivity for pissing off as many people as possible has been their forte for so long that it doesn’t even matter.  I saw their second gig ever after Brockie’s death at Riot Fest in Chicago.  At one point, Sleazy P. Martini took the stage and told the crowd that he understands there’s been a great tragedy within the band, and we should all hang our heads for a moment.  He then quickly clarified that the tragedy was that he had dropped a baggie of crack cocaine, and he wanted us to look down so we could help him find it, followed by a passionate “OH QUIT CRYING YOU BABIES” after people inevitably groaned.  The band suffered their worst-case scenario when Brockie died, and they handled it by making a total mockery of it.  In character, that’s what they do best.  South Park wishes it gave as few fucks as GWAR always has.

Cameras were trash in 1990 so here’s a more recent shot of Oderus cumming blood on the crowd

Scumdogs of the Universe was released on January 8th, 1990, via Master Records and again on May 31st, 1990, via Metal Blade.

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