About a year ago, someone tagged me on [social media] on one of those posts where you list 10 albums that influenced your life. Here is the second album on my list.
Doug and the Slugs was the first band that I discovered and followed all on my own, in late elementary/early junior high. This was their first full-length LP.
I realise that there may be the odd person reading this who hasn’t heard of Doug and the Slugs, and that person might be wondering what the band sounded like. I won’t spend too long talking about what musical genre Doug and the Slugs fit into, and the broader significance of that. The bottom line is that either you like ska-inflected noir-surf doo-wop clever bastard pop, or you don’t. THIS POINT CAN’T BE DEBATED ANY FURTHER.
At the risk of sounding like one of those classic Doug and the Slugs hipsters, I really do prefer their early stuff. I liked everything on “Cognac and Balogna” the first time I heard it, and it has stood up each time I have rediscovered it over the following decades. Much as I liked this band and some of their later stuff, nothing they did after “Cognac and Balogna” worked quite as well for me.
I don’t remember exactly how I got into Doug and the Slugs, but I’m pretty sure I heard their first hit “Too Bad” on the radio, liked the band name, and bought the 45 single.
The B side on that 45 is a song called “The Move,” which was never released on any of the Slugs’ albums. I liked that song much more than “Too Bad” and played it a lot. I think I got “Cognac and Balogna” for my birthday, probably because everyone in my family was getting tired of me incessantly playing “The Move.” That plan worked—I played this album incessantly instead.
Over time, I’ve realised that the songwriting and song selection on this album influenced how I think about music and musical projects. There’s a lot of variety in both musical style and lyrical tone. ( Even for as broad a genre as ska-inflected noir-surf doo-wop clever bastard pop). This goes a lot deeper than “Let’s go for a [genre trope] thing on this tune.” The lyrics are far, far better than they need to be for a band that sounds this fun. I know this is a shocking idea now, but some of the lyric writing on this album is actually not autobiographical (!), some of it is written from different perspectives and as different characters.
Despite these pop-music crimes, the hooks just keep on a-coming. “Too Bad” was the biggest hit from this album, and while it’s fun as heck, it’s not the most fun song on the album. And it’s far from the most interesting.
The playing and arrangements are just impeccable. Everything is there to push the song itself out front, and it’s easy to miss how cool some of the playing is.
The drums (John “Wally” Watson) on this album have always stood out for me. This was the first time I noticed a drummer reacting to and accenting what was going on in a song—like say, a “lead” guitarist would have at the time—and still holding things down. This idea that you can do the “job” part of playing your instrument and add something else to the arrangement has stayed in my head, for better or worse, ever since.
The Slugs’ two guitar players (Rick Baker and John Burton), played different styles that complemented each other perfectly for this band. The excellent, excellent Simon Kendall played piano and organ—and he is one of those keyboardists who makes you wonder why keyboardists play anything BUT piano and organ (OK, fine—all keyboardists make me wonder that).
My bay splaying aspirations began shortly after I got this album. From then on, I looked at everything a bay splayer did in terms of “would I want to play that?” and ”how do I play that?” The Slugs’ bassist (Steve Bosley) is the last player who made me want to play bass and whose playing I have never dissected, just so I could enjoy it the same way I used to.
All the players stay consistent in their roles, play smart parts that develop over the course of the song, and make it all work together. Nobody phones in a part, nobody is a tone or space hog. There’s no unneeded “Look at me!” and a lot of “Listen to this song.”
As a result, this album sounds like it just happened the only way it could have, and that is really hard to do. It’s hard to write clever songs without sounding like you are trying to be clever. It’s hard for a drummer to play this much and not sound like he’s over-playing. It’s hard to write a cool single-note guitar part, or just the right tinkly piano, or only hit the one up-stroke the song actually needs every two bars and play that part cleanly and evenly all the way through and put it right where it does the most good in the mix, even though most people might not even notice it’s there.
And man, it’s a LOT harder to play the guitar parts on “Chinatown Calculation” than it sounds.
That kinda sums this whole album up. It’s perfectly happy to be more than it appears.
It’s even more remarkable that this was a self-produced first album.
But what was most influential for me about this album (and “The Move”) is that they sound like the Vancouver I wanted to be from. I moved from Vancouver in the middle of elementary school, and ended up in Edmonton a year or so later. That was a bumpy ride socially, that didn’t get much smoother for a while, and I didn’t really have the same sense of a home town that I thought most people had.
I got this album 4-5 years later, which felt like a lifetime, at an age when feelings like loneliness and alienation start to last more than an hour at a time. This album helped build a Vancouver in my head that I could go hang around in while I listened to it.
That Vancouver is a place where you step out onto a restaurant patio on the North Shore just as the sun comes out after a rainy afternoon, sip wine and talk with your friends while you look at downtown in the sunset, knowing that you’ll be heading over there tonight and something exciting will happen, and you’ll end up walking home back over the bridge alone in the rain with a black eye, laughing.
That’s my home town. It never existed anywhere but in my head and these songs, but I can go back there whenever I want.