Better than Jerry Lewis

Certain General Live at Don Hill’s, NYC – April 10, 2002

I was bone ignorant about Certain General when I went to see this show, assuming they’d be a fresh-faced gang of newcomers who would not know life’s darker corners or its propensity for horrid gaping disappointment. Wrong! Certain General turned out to be unbelievably smart and cool. Too bad for the majority of New Yorkers who missed the show. The crowd at Don Hill’s was on the small side, but we were riveted by the band’s thudding, minimalist rhythms and boxy atonal melodies carved out by endlessly inventive guitarist Phil Gammage and bassist Parker Dulany. The songs were set up with martial regularity and force by drummer Marcy Saddy. But Dulany’s vocals, and his presence as a frontman, were what really made the set work.

Parker Dulany of Certain GeneralSome bands are worth watching just for their frontpersons. Certain General are one of those bands. Parker Dulany (that name!) embodies subtle but powerful charisma with his pouchy, sad eyes and slender scarecrow elegance. He sang in a haunted, atonal (again) voice that recalled David Byrne at times, David Bowie at others, and I swear a kind of depressive rockabilly affect was in there too, though someone I met at the show disagreed vehemently with that idea. It’s true that the band never sounded like rockabilly, for one guitar lick or drumbeat. The songs have the fast, zig-zag feel of early 80s post-punk, and for good reason – it turns out Certain General began in 1980, in the East Village, and achieved wide success, especially in France. This was a sort of reunion show for them, in honor of a new 2-cd deluxe set that they’re releasing called An Introduction to War.

It was a flashback feel, the whole night. Certain General sang songs that criticized military action, but in a flat-affect, ironic style that reminded me of how much social criticism sprang out of the vicious ironies of the Sex Pistols. “I have a gun, I want to shoot my gun,” one Certain General song goes, over and over (I’m paraphrasing, I think those were the lyrics) and it’s reminiscent of Talking Heads songs like Don’t Worry About the Government (the one with the line “Some civil servants are just like my loved ones”). Compare that to the personal, smaller-canvas furies of a band like Nirvana. But back to the music: the songs had great beats and what sounded like interesting lyrics – as usual the vocal mix was a bit muddy for my taste. The band seemed pretty arty and non-delivering of easy rock pleasures like nice harmony or emotional surges of feeling for the first few songs, but as the show went on they began to play slightly longer songs that resulted in Dulany occasionally throwing his head back, eyes closed, losing himself in vocal intensities, and that was truly great. Within the American tradition of intelligent, storky, white-boy frontmen, his body language is the loosest and he seems to have the most soul. The French don’t always choose the most worthy American icons to elevate, but they seem to be on to something with Certain General.

20 thoughts on “Better than Jerry Lewis”

  1. Great to see that there are acts out there who started in the 80s and haven’t become shit. Can you list other bands/artists from the 80s (or before)who are still good?

  2. I can’t remember ever listening to these guys. But the few non Real Media clips I could find on the net sound cool as hell. I wish I could find more soundclips in Quicktime.Anyway, this has definately turned me on to another CD purchase!

  3. I was just going to say U2. Let the ass-kicking begin.What about the Posies, or the the Jayhawks? But I guess those don’t really count, b/c they were mid-to-late 80s, and they’re mostly broken up now, anyways. But jeez, there’s just no one else I can think of…

  4. I was thinking U2 based on their last album, but they’ve released a lot of crap and I would still say that they are shit who happened to release a decent album recently. And it’s not that good. The five or six (or however many) singles are all good songs, but the rest is mediocre filler (in my not so humble opinion).When did Superchunk start? I bet there’s all kinds of great indie bands that I don’t know about. Or maybe not.

  5. Superchunk barely makes the 80s, but they’re really a 90s band…I don’t think they count.What about Modern Lovers/Jonathon Richman?Bono sucks!

  6. Modern Lovers count. But didn’t really even release an album,only a demo and some live tracks before they split up. I’m trying to think of a band that really hit it in the 80s and has continued to jam since.

  7. The Fall is still pretty good. But they don’t have a US deal, so it can be hard to find their stuff. They were supposed to play at the Empty Bottle next week. I got my tickets early and the bastards canceled the show. Ornery Brits. Buncha bollocks, if you ask me.Billy Childish isn’t nearly as good as he used to be but I wouldn’t say he sucks these days. Same goes for Elvis Costello–Brutal Youth was a really good album. I guess 1994 isn’t exactly recent, though . . .And Mudhoney–their most recent album, Tomorrow Hit Today, was one of their best.

  8. A more apropos comparison would be with The Cramps, considering that both came from the same, spooky NYC milieu. The Cramps, of course, were formed in 1976 while Certain General dates from 1981. Both bands have made music sporadically over the past twelve years. I actually like a lot of The Cramps new stuff, although my favorite album was Psychedelic Jungle (1981). That’s my bit. Oh, and let me ask whether any has checked out The Damned’s latest – Grave Disorder – it actually ranks among their best!

  9. Is the new Echo & the Bunnymen stuff any good? I haven’t heard it. People told me that the Detroit show (back in December, I think) was pretty fun.

  10. thank you for the nice comments. sights like this are wonderful. another early 80’s cousin worth checking out still, though they chose to use a current star/rhythm section instead of their wonderful own, is the go-betweens from australia. the fleshtones are still kicking ass. friends tav falco and panther burns, steve wynn and new order still are relevant.(if you ask me)

  11. The new albums are quite good, it’s not necessarily what I’m into listening to at the moment, but I’ve always appreciated the band’s talent.

  12. I’m shocked and outraged that no one has mentioned XTC yet. I liked the Apple Venus albums better than their more popular stuff from the late 70’s and 80’s.They Might Be Giants, Flaming Lips and Lucinda Williams are still solid are 15+ years each too. Damn, I think just revealed my geek-rock tendencies. Oh well, I stand by them all.

  13. I’m also mortified by the mangled prose of that last post. Remove the second “are” from the second sentence and it pretty much makes sense

  14. Flaming Lips and Lucinda (though I think Essence fell short) are indeed still good. If you really think hard you can find a bunch of group who started in the 80s and are still good. But you really have to think hard.

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