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No Surf Vinyl Essentials


The Lowdown:

Camper Van Beethoven

Victor Krummenacher (bass), Greg Lisher (guitar), David Lowery (guitar/vocals), Chris Pedersen (drums), Jonathan Segel (guitar/piano/keyboard/mandolin/cittern/strings)

Based In:
San Francisco, CA



Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

Release Date:
May 24, 1988

Virgin Records

Additional Releases:
Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985), II & III (1986), Camper Van Beethoven (1986), Key Lime Pie (1989), Tusk (2002), New Roman Times (2004)

Rock, alternative rock, folk rock

Camper Van Beethoven, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart album cover

Rating: 9 out of 10



September 1, 2011


Camper Van Beethoven: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Camper Van Beethoven in their latest incarnation. (l-r) David Lowery, Greg Lisher, Jonathan Segel, Frank Funaro, Victor Krummenacher.

With several recent No Surf Reviews focusing on new work from Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman, it seemed appropriate to focus this month’s No Surf Vinyl Essential on the greatest album ever named after a guerilla warrior, Camper Van Beethoven’s 1986 masterpiece Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. The two have nothing in common aside from that tenuous connection, but the album—long forgotten if ever known by most music fans—is a great collection worthy of exploration by anyone who wants to hear something truly unique.

Camper Van Beethoven is one of history’s most eclectic popular bands, mixing rock with influences from folk, ska, punk, Eastern and Middle Eastern traditions, psychedelia, bluegrass and country to form something both unique and ever changing. Even though the band’s first incarnation lasted barely five years and five albums before their breakup, each work is so distinct that at times it would be hard to recognize them as the products of the same group. Not only did their music help form the burgeoning alternative rock genre in the 1980’s, but it helped influence the infant Americana and indie rock movements, as well. The band disbanded in 1990—with frontman David Lowery going on to found pioneer Cracker—but reunited in 1999, releasing two subsequent albums.

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart was the group’s major label debut and probably their most accessible album, due in no small part to producer Dennis Herring. The band had previously produced their own works (one of their influences on indie rock), but as the group moved past their garage rock roots, Herring culled much of the their more experimental tendencies and distilled their work into a highly tuned, but still eclectic, collection. With the derision of 80’s fashion at a deserved all-time high and truckloads of music that hasn’t stood the test of time, this album remains a timeless work and one of the best albums of the decade.

The band always had a knack for rock send-ups in their album design. They named their second album II & III, which ostensibly was a reference to the fact that it was the product of two separate recording sessions with slightly different line-ups, but also stands as a pretty good way to one up Led Zeppelin. After reuniting, they produced an album called Tusk, parodying the famous Fleetwood Mac cover by replacing the dog with a jackalope. It even included an insane, reverb-heavy cover of “Sara.” Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart was no different, featuring a halftone image of Bob Dylan staring off into the distance, perhaps—in some sort of flat world alternate universe—at the cap-sporting Turkish musicians depicted on the back. The bulk of the rough-stock front cover, however, is filled with small rectangles featuring the band name and the title of one of the album’s tracks, with an image meant to be iconic of the song. The edges are perforated around each—like oversized old-school lick-‘em-and-stick-‘em postage stamps—suggesting that they are meant to be torn out and used for some mysterious purpose, perhaps an occult reading or trading for a 1985 Topps Corey Snider rookie card. Oddly, “She Divines Water” is represented twice in order to fill out the 3 by 5 matrix completely. This cover was modified for the CD reissue, removing the Dylan picture and leaving only no-longer-perforated song symbols.

This picture goes along with the Middle Eastern theme of "Eye of Fatima," but more importantly it proves one thing: even a band that never made the cover of Rolling Stone can afford Photoshop.

Dropping the needle on side one, the listener is met with the opening notes of “Eye of Fatima, Pt. 1.” With a driving bass line and howling guitar, this song is a particularly pleasing rocker with typically puzzling lyrics. It is also one of the band’s best-known works and probably their best song.

It focuses on a Western U.S. motel room drug binge, but is full of Middle Eastern imagery and tinged with Arabian sounds. For instance, the title comes from the fact that the song’s anti-hero has an Eye of Fatima on the wall of his room. Also known as a hamsa, it is an ancient symbol of protection featuring an eye across the open palm of a hand. In Islamic tradition it is named after the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, but it is also used in the region’s Christian and Jewish communities under different names. A form of the design itself dates back to the ancient Egyptians.

After describing this decoration and the other contents of the room (two bottles of tequila, three cats, a broom, an 18-year-old black-clad “angel” and fifteen bindles of cocaine (tied up in a sack)), the song really gets weird:

And this here's a government experiment and we're driving like hell
To give some cowboys some acid and to stay in motels.
We're going to eat up some wide-open spaces like it was a cruise on the Nile.
Take the hands off the clock; we're going to be here a while.

The third verse is both a lyrical and musical acid trip, with the narrator declaring:

And I am the Eye of Fatima on the wall of the motel room
And cowboys on acid are like Egyptian cartoons
And no one ever conquered Wyoming from the left or from the right
But you can stay in motel rooms and stay up all night.

After this, the song transitions into “Eye of Fatima, Pt. 2.” There’s no doubt that this instrumental is a metaphorical extension of the acid metaphor. It takes the musical themes of the first movement and expands upon them, toning down the bass-driven rock vibe and adding a dancing mandolin and sliding guitar. Near the end an electric guitar bursts in with some absolutely blazing licks before the whole thing slows down into a fading memory.

“O Death” is a spiritual turned on its head. Camper Van Beethoven takes the traditional (perhaps best known to modern listeners from the Ralph Stanley version on the O, Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack) and gets creative. It’s sung at a befitting funerary pace—much of it in a deep guttural tone—but as the song moves along the many instruments that come in form a fast background beat. The song is a plea to the mythical Grim Reaper, but it is told from his perspective:

My name is Death and I excel.
I can open the gates to heaven or hell.
Cast aside the flesh of thee.
Cast aside and set you free.

When it comes to the chorus, it is almost as if he is mocking the pleas of he so often hears:

O, Death,
O, Death,
Can’t you spare me over till another year?

As the song progresses, the music becomes more and more dissonant, with trumpet, trombone, and fiddle all fighting overtop one another, painting a picture of the end as a less-than-peaceful transition. Of all the versions I’ve heard of this song, this remains my favorite, and is a great example of how to break the mold of traditional music and keep it interesting.

“She Divines Water” is—uncharacteristically for this band—a song that would fit into the catalogue of many 80’s pop rock groups, perhaps the Talking Heads or Tears for Fears. Certainly one of the more traditional rock songs on the band’s catalogue (at least until the ending), many consider it to be the best track in the collection. The song starts out with a fairly mundane strummed guitar, which is soon joined by strings and David Lowery’s vocals, and then by the other instruments, including drums, bass and electric guitar. With lyrics that float across the music more than with it, it is a surreal composition, even more so when the lyrics themselves are taken into account:

How can I believe that everything in this world is going to be fine?
And how can I believe that everything in this world has its place and time?

'Cause when I lay down to sleep, I have the same dream
Of a world-famous actress in a pink limousine.
And she flies through the sky in that pink Cadillac
While the boys of the press, we drink vodka in back.

And she tells us our fortune by crumbling leaves.
And she teaches us card tricks. The jack makes us weak.
She divines water by dancing a jig for the boys of the press.
She will whistle a pitch.

A chorus of purposefully melodramatic voices joins in to highlight the last two lines before the whole thing collapses into an “Inception”-like dream implosion, with crashing drums, mismatched musical phrases and snippets of vocals played both forward and in reverse. After a sudden stop, the beautiful mandolin line returns, taking the song to its conclusion with a lick reminiscent of The Band’s “Last Waltz.” It’s as if the Camper boys wanted to make sure everyone knew they couldn’t ever produce a perfectly normal(ish) composition and they just had to leave their mark before they left the scene.

With a minor key picked guitar in the forefront and a driving rock drumbeat, “Devil Song” is nothing more or less than Eastern-influenced garage rock, one crazy combination. Just under two minutes in length, the playful music makes the subject seem to be more like Loki—or perhaps a disgruntled 80’s punk rocker—than Lucifer himself.

Making it absolutely unique in this oddly themed collection, “One of These Days” is—at least to all appearances—a love song. Ok, it’s not an explicit “Baby, I can’t live without you” kinda song, but the slightly cryptic story seems to be about a guy telling his girl that he’ll wait for her to realize he’s the one for her:

One of these days
When you figure, figure it all out,
Well, be sure to let me know.
Well I'll be waiting right here.
Come and whisper in my ear what it is I wanna know.

Also uniquely, the music is sweat. Reggae influenced, all the instruments work together rather than at cross purposes, and the light bass part keeps everything in line. Only at the end is there a little bit of Eastern European minor key weirdness in the strings, but overall it’s a pleasant little composition.

A fast-paced rocker bordering on a blues dance jam, “Turquoise Jewelry” features a great call and response between the vocal part and the blazing horn section. Although the horns may be predominant here, the power drumbeat, electric guitar and quick bass beat all combine to produce a lively and entertaining romp. The lyrics are virtually nonsensical—more two-line zingers than a coherent story—but some of them are truly entertaining, for instance:

Come down from your tree house condominium
And start driving around that station wagon with the wood on the side.

Take off that jumpsuit; you look like Grace Slick,
Stayin' up all night & drinkin' that 7-11 coffee.

All together, it’s a great little song that you don’t have to think too much about.

Starting off the album’s second side, “Waka” is a blazing fast instrumental, half Gypsy fiddle dance, half Led Zeppelin metal jam. Starting off with the former, the delicate twists and turns of the music are soon overpowered by a cymbal-crashing, bass thundering smashfest. It then returns to a more sedate segment before kicking it into overdrive again. This process is repeated several times, with the two differing segments morphing more and more into each other until finally they are completely fused, the string part seeming like it could fit right in on IV. I’m not usually one for instrumentals, but this one is just brilliant.

The album’s only real sleeper, “Change Your Mind” is a slow number relying mostly on a mournful, muffled trumpet for its sound, backed by a fiddle, mandolin and drums. It’s a sad sack song, with the singer proclaiming to his girl:

Change your mind.
You can change your mind.
I'll be glad to let ya,
Even if you walk away.

With the horn crying behind him it’s pretty hard to believe in his sincerity, though. But ok, every album’s gotta have a little filler, and on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, this is it.

“My Path Belated” is another one that has little in the way of a coherent meaning, but it delivers its insanity in a spurt of quick poppiness. The main focus seems to be centered on a man whose mother is getting remarried to an epic bore with a unibrow who imports soft drinks for a living. This is all rather plain—if strange in and of itself—but there are several lines that don’t seem to fit, such as:

"I could have married others,” says
The actress in a pornographic film.

This line seems a complete non sequeter, as does the chorus:

And as the full moon comes
And the dogs have all run off to die in peace
And as the scent grows strong
I hope we make it to the bay by 8 a.m.

Your guess is as good as mine, but even if it makes little sense, this song is more than entertaining enough to get by.

“Never Go Back,” however, is a really great little song. Ok, it doesn’t make much sense, either, especially the first verse, but there are some songs that transcend questions like, “What the flying fuck is this guy talking about ‘Mafia shows’ for, and who the hell is ‘the rat’?” The main gist of it is to avoid looking to the past and keep moving forward.

If you see me sitting around
Thinking the same old thoughts over and over again
Or going back to old ways I've long ago abandoned,
Please, tell me<
Never go back.

That’s simple enough, right? Musically, the song is marked by a great slide guitar part that almost sounds more like a deep slide whistle, playful keyboards, and terrific harmonies on the chorus.

“The Fool” is a gothic opera kind of instrumental, complete with a howl in the background. Its main components are a synthesizer rhythm, a piano with a single-key climbing part, and a guitar that howls wistfully, along with sporadic appearances of the horn section. Every so often, they all join together for a powerful triplet progression. Again, this one is pretty much filler, but it’s pretty cool for what it is.

The penultimate song, “Tania,” is the track from whence the album derives its name, although the words “our beloved revolutionary sweetheart” never directly appear in the lyrics. The song is a surreal love paean for Haydée Tamara Bunke Bilder, the Argentinean-born daughter of German communists turned Cuban Revolutionary spy turned guerrilla fighter. Best known by the nom de guerre Tania, she was killed while fighting with Che Guevara’s revolutionary movement in Bolivia in 1967. The narrator of the song doesn’t know her, but seems to be enthralled with her celebrity rather than her politics, recalling the news accounts of brief but eventful life. He seems to want nothing more than to live vicariously through her. Even he seems to realize that his fantasy is ridiculous. Lamenting her death and the boredom of his own life he sings:

Oh, my lovely revolutionary sweetheart,
I can see your newsprint face turn yellow in the gutter.
It makes me sad.
How I long for the days when you came
To liberate us from boredom,
From driving around from the hours
Between five to seven in the evening.
My lovely Tania,
We carry your gun deep within our hearts
For no better reason than our lives have no meaning
And we want to be on television.

Musically, the song is characterized by a dancing fiddle that winds its way around the lyrics while the guitar mostly plays the part of counterpoint. This meme is strengthened after the lyrics are completed, when the violin gets into a back-and-forth with Jonathan Segel on the cittern, a medieval European metal-stringed instrument (at least that’s my guess… the liner notes don’t describe the individual songs’ instrumentation and it doesn’t sound like a mandolin). This gives the whole thing an even stronger Eastern European flavor, perhaps appropriate given the namesake’s German heritage.

To close out the album, Camper Van Beethoven produced a little bit of metatextual brilliance. “Life is Grand” is a song that speaks directly to the group’s audience and comments on the band’s own reputation as a strange bunch with something of a surreal macabre streak.  Musically, it is light during Lowery’s vocals, marked most by a keyboard keeping rhythm and an electric guitar occasionally plucking out a few notes. Between verses, the song bursts to life, however, the drums kicking up and the guitar steadily rising and falling in a fast progression. The song consists of just two verses, with the first repeated again at the end:

These guys may play crazy, nonsensical songs, but they sure don't LOOK happy.

And life is grand.
And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor
With those of you who have appointed yourselves
To expect us to say something darker.

And love is real.
And though I realize this is not a deep observation
To those of you who find it necessary
To conceal love or obscure it, as is the fashion.

It stands as almost a mission statement for the band and the album. Camper Van Beethoven is what it is. It will never be what you want it to be. It will be what we want it to be. And we’re gonna have fun making music. For a rock band, that’s some pretty damn deep self-awareness.

In the end, it’s not the individual songs that make this album noteworthy. There certainly are highlight tracks—“Eye of Fatima,” “O Death,” “She Divines Water,” “Tania” and even “Life Is Grand” among them—but it’s the collection as a whole that really stands out. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart marks the zenith of Camper Van Beethoven’s music, possibly the only time this revolutionary band created an entire album that was truly accessible and truly enjoyable the whole way through. It combines all of their best traits, ingenuity, quirky lyrics, a sarcastic streak, great musicianship and the ability to blend a broad range of musical styles into something truly enthralling. It really is an album without peer, which is why it really is a Vinyl Essential.


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