My Stupid Revenge
The Mr T Experience — Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You was released in August, 1997, twenty-two years ago.
Let’s take the usual throat-clearing about feeling old as read. Twenty-two years is a long time, and it doesn’t feel like it was only yesterday, not by a long shot. But records are, or can be, time capsules, and this one, in the dumb little world of my dumb little timeline and dumb little life, certainly is. You pop the cap off and are presented with my 1997 pretty much exactly as it was, if not (certainly not) exactly how it was intended to be. I can still get sucked in, almost in spite of myself. Those were exciting, unlikely, and frustrating times. I wrote some pretty good songs during them and for this record, and the fact that they manage to feel alive at all, that they still “work” all these years later, even to me, is rather astounding, not something to take for granted. Maybe there was a time when I might have done so, or affected an attitude of doing so, but I don’t now. The songs carry it, and God bless and long live the songs, that’s what really matters.
So, yeah, pretty good overall, and simply stellar for a guy of such modest talents and abilities. Not everybody can say that about stuff written two decades ago.
As will surprise none of the few people who happen to read this, I’m sure, this record remains one of the two most popular MTX albums, and I see why. If it’s the thing I’m remembered for in the end I won’t be too sorry.
But I didn’t always see that popularity in the most positive light. At the time, it felt to me like a tremendous artistic failure. We’d done our “pop punk” album the previous year. I wanted to move on to something else. If its predecessor, Love Is Dead, distilled… well, whatever it was we were doing to its purest, most concentrated, most minimalist, least-nonsense form, Revenge was meant to break out a bit, to elaborate and deepen the program, not just around the edges but “constitutionally” you might say. I wanted to present the Love Is Dead audience, our biggest yet, with something completely different. And by that I mean, not Love Is Dead II.
You can sort of tell from the songs, too, if you look at them divorced from the context they wound up in. I’d only recently, after a long, painful, often rather embarrassingly public learning curve, managed to harness and drive my “songwriting horses” and I was ready to up the stakes all the way up — I mean, really, really drive them, right off a cliff if feasible. Punk rock was 20-ish years old, the Love Is Dead iteration of “pop punk” was something like the current Zeitgeist-y fad, but compositionally, my head was all the way back in the 1930s. I was trying to be The Lyricist, Tin Pan Alley-style, sureally backed by a rock and roll band, kinda like Elvis Costello I suppose but without the sloppy rhymes and mixed metaphors. (And the good singing voice, too, obviously, but never mind about that — I decided long ago not to.) Each song’s central conceit and conceptual and lyrical development was going to chart its production setting. I envisioned an album in which every song was different enough from each other, sonically and arrangementally as well as compositionally, to the degree that every track would be a surprise as it came up, while linked with conceptual and sonic echoes among them. I didn’t want anybody to be able to say “oh, here’s yet another pop punk album, and a pretty good one, good job boys, put it in the pile.” (Though, again, now that I’m older and wiser I realize that that — “a pretty good one” — is hard enough to achieve, when it comes to anything.)
Delusions of grandeur. Necessary to the creation of anything substantial, in my experience. Without such delusions, the product tends to be pedestrian, and much more modest than intended — or indeed there’s no product at all, because why expend so much blood, sweat, and tears on something less than grand?
But of course, with the delusions comes the inevitable crashing-back-down-to-earth aftermath, where the gap between ambition and talent, dream and execution, becomes painfully apparent. Usually in records, this is when you hear the test pressing, when it’s too late to do much about it; and you listen to it obsessively thousands of times trying to convince yourself that it’s okay despite everything, that at least some sparks of the unmet ideal manage to survive and glow amid all the compromises and misfires, and that, in the end, no one knew what you were going for anyway and won’t be able to fault you on failing to pass an unarticulated test. With any luck, it won’t be too embarrassing, and you can put a brave face on it and barrel through. I meant to do it that way, you’ll tell the guy from the local paper. Just a plain old humble Pop Punk Record, nothing too fancy going on. Actually, you know, I didn’t really think about it. Just showed up in the studio and dashed it off, ha ha.
(This is pretty much all records, too, and all kinds of art… from anyone, not just me. I think it’s a pretty good axiom that if you’re completely satisfied with something you’ve created, you haven’t set your sights high enough.)
As I’ve indicated, I think the strength of the songs carry it, and would carry it almost come what may. The essence of the album, as a “composition”, that I’d meant to elaborate so carefully and grandly but didn’t get to, still shows through, and, daring to blow my own horn just a bit here, it is anything but generic or pedestrian. But, obviously, I didn’t get my grand pop masterpiece, each song different enough from each other to make the audience say “huh?” with every track. (That’s ridiculously ambitious, by the way, maybe impossible in any context, but certainly in the low-budget world in which we live — try it sometime.)
What we got instead was, Love Is Dead II.
Which, I can see now, is fine. It’s what happened, and the fact that it happened that way has its own sort of logic and, for want of a better term, fitting-ness. If you have to dig in, down through the over-compressed wall of sound, to the bare-bone layer to excavate the songs, with their non-obvious chord voicings, delicately sketched internal rhymes, and conceptual echoes among them, so be it — that’s its own sort of artistic effect, in a way, just as the over-compression is a “sound” as well as a misguided attempt to be louder than everything else, a sound that people like for its own sake. The rest of the world may hear “generic” and go no further and like it just fine. Most will prefer it. The song archaeologists like us can rejoice in our esoteric knowledge and give each other knowing glances. That’s kind of cool actually.
And of course, as I always freely acknowledge, the Dr Frank version of Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You, the one in my head, would have been far less loved, far less commercial, and considerably more embarrassing perhaps, than the “compromised” version that manifested in the real world. It’s all for the best, I’m sure. I take nothing for granted these days. The people who love it love it fervently, for which I am unequivocally grateful and humbly appreciative. I don’t necessarily know best, I know that now. And, really, a record that people still enjoy and get something out of for its own sake, twenty-two years later — that’s quite remarkable and nothing to sneeze at.
That said: all my plans for world domination were premature. What went wrong?
A lot of it was naivety on my part. I’d thought we could record pretty much the way we always had, Love Is Dead’s basic-tracks-R-Us approach having been an anomaly of sorts; and that once we got the drums down I could settle in with Kevin Army to elaborate everything to how I wanted it, as we’d done so many times in the past, but better. Believe it or not, Milk Milk Lemonade, with its orchestrally-conceived “guitar hero” arrangements, was one of the thematic-sonic touch-stones I’d had in mind, even going so far as to think of Revenge as a sort of MML sequel… something you can tell from the track originally intended as the grand finale, “I Was Losing You All Along,” which quotes from the MML finale “See It Now”.
Well… that didn’t happen!
It was the biggest budget we’d ever had to work with, by far, but we spent almost all of it on the basic tracks. Leaving “my bits” to the end as usual was a pretty big mistake, from my point of view, anyway. I waited patiently for the drums to get done and was absolutely shocked when my “turn” came to realize I had only a few days to work with for all guitars and vox. It left only a very brief window even for the lead vocals, which were rushed and crammed in. A rather important element to leave as an afterthought.
There was to be no hint of MML guitar here, to say the least. On several of the songs we had to resort to using scratch guitar tracks, recorded as place-holders to be replaced with real ones, in the final mix. cf. the guitar solo on “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful” — never intended for public consumption, and I cringe about it to this day.
In fact, the gap between hearing this final mix and wanting to go back and fix everything was very quick indeed, almost instant. The album is, basically, unfinished. As I said above, I’m glad people like it the way it is, and I get why they do, and I’m not sure I don’t agree. But at the time I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, and I’ve only just recently gotten over it.
Aside from budget and time, though, there were many forces joining to nudge the fledgling Revenge Is Sweet into the form it took in the end. We were following up a — for us — unprecedented success, and producer, band, and label all wanted to stick with a sure thing. They were quite right, commercially speaking. It was never articulated, per se, but I could feel a whole lot more skepticism about my nutty ideas “in the room,” a disinclination to indulge the production ideas that, the songs having been written, were for me pretty much the whole point. I thought I could just be patient, wait for my turn, and do them anyway, and I was in for a rude awakening. That’s part of the naivety I referred to above. The world, if it wanted anything from us at all, wanted Love Is Dead II, and Love Is Dead II was what the world was going to have. It’s what was going to happen, whatever I might have thought.
But the bigger part of the naivety was just my belief that we could build a radically different-sounding record on the foundation of the usual just-get-in-a-room-and-strum-to-the-customary-drum-beat basic tracks. What I’m saying is, what I’d wanted to do wouldn’t have worked anyway, and in that sense it’s a good thing it didn’t happen, because it wouldn’t have been good. You need to build new things from the ground up. That’s something I learned from the experience, and the PTSD.
So I took a sledgehammer to the Love Is Dead machine so it couldn’t possibly be repaired. It’s not that I didn’t like it. It was a great machine. I loved it, in fact. But, I just couldn’t face the prospect of doing Love Is Dead III. Which is what would have happened.
Of course, everyone hated the new machine. Such is life. One gets the machines one deserves, I suppose. But that’s a tale for another time.
A final word, since I’m so consumed with tapes and re-issues these days. There’s a strong argument for re-mixing this album because the final mix is so heavily compressed. It was a prime casualty of the “loudness wars” of the 90s. It’s worst on the CD, but it turns out the mix on the tape itself is pretty squashed as well. All of that “missing” production stuff aside, the narrowed dynamic range means you hear a lot less detail of what does happen to be on there.
I realize it’s a “sound” that people like. It’s characteristic of the record, for good or ill, and it’s one of the things that many of the people who love it love about it. While I get that, I find the relentless loudness for sixteen songs in a row quite wearying. And I miss the detail.
However, fortunately for those who dig over-compression, or who just like the album as is, five of the seven multi-track reels for this album are missing, ruling out a re-mix. If we really want to delve into the out-take mix reels (at least some of which are extant) we could maybe find some less compressed mixes, but practically speaking, we’re stuck with it as is pretty much.
This kills my soul as only missing tapes can and I’m sure I’ll go to my grave mad about it. But, for good or ill, we won’t be able to change things all that much when the time comes to re-issue, which some people may find comforting.
The good news is, though, that there is enough to work with on that master tape nevertheless. That was part of the reason for doing the Mtx forever compilation, to see what we’ve got and what can be done with it, as well as to preserve what we’ve got, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how much more detail I can discern in the re-mastered songs we did do. This bodes well for a re-issue, if we get there, so I’m cautiously optimistic about that. To me, they sound just slightly more human, which I like.
So, twenty years on. All I can really say is: wow, and thanks for listening.