For some reason, the lovable Dickies — a Mad magazine-flavored punk self-parody — never endeared themselves to as large an international cult as the Ramones. Perhaps this mob of San Fernando Valley zanies has always been too unserious and knowing of their own idiocy. Yet right after Green Day sold millions by cannibalizing a sound the Dickies had failed at commercially for well over a decade, Southern California’s kings of Saturday-morning punk released what could be the finest album of their motley career.
The Incredible Shrinking Dickies is a burst of late-’70s hyperactive California punk. But while most such bands display surly conviction, giddy good humor dominates here. Seven of the thirteen tracks clock in at under two minutes each, and everything sounds the same, from covers of “Eve of Destruction,” the Monkees’ “She” and Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” to originals like “Mental Ward” and “Rondo (The Midget’s Revenge).”
On Dawn of the Dickies, the title of which, like that of its predecessor, alludes to a junk-movie classic, something wonderful happens: the Dickies get genuinely good. By slowing down the tempo a half step and coming up with strong melodies, guitarist Stan Lee and crew manage to reel off one maniacally catchy gem after another. The pop- culture slant is the same as before (check the delirious “Manny, Moe and Jack” and “Attack of the Mole Men”), and the mood is equally flippant, but this is a record with staying power.
After a prolonged absence, the boys popped back into view with a frisky eight-song mini-album. Half of Stukas Over Disneyland dates from 1980, and includes a delightfully garbled version of Led Zep’s “Communication Breakdown.” The high point of the remaining tracks (cut around 1983) is “Pretty Please Me,” a power-pop pearl. Not a work of demented genius like Dawn of the Dickies, but damn good fun.
More oddities and endities can be found on We Aren’t the World!, 21 doses of live Dickiedom recorded between 1978 and 1985, plus the raw four-song demo from ’77 that, according to Lisa Fancher’s belligerent liner notes, got them signed to A&M. Although the recording quality is as varied as the locales, this is a potent dose for fans of chaotic smartassitude.
In 1988, amid endless touring, an apparently recharged (and realigned) Dickies returned with a five-song EP built around the theme song for the cheesy sci-fi comedy Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Included on this fun (if less than inspired) release is a gimmicky remake of Jet Screamer’s Jetsons rockabilly classic “Eep Opp Ork (Uh, Uh),” one more item in the Dickies’ ever-expanding catalogue of daffy covers. That same year, Restless reissued Stukas with three additional songs, including the long-unavailable “Gigantor.”
As of 1990, the junk culturists’ intermittent existence had yielded only four hysterically uneven studio records. Some of the best tracks from the first two, plus a handful of bonus babies from UK singles, make up Great Dictations, which contains such classics as “Manny, Moe & Jack” and “Rondo (The Midget’s Revenge).” We Aren’t the World is a live compilation spiked with four 1977 demos.
Although hindered by overly fussy production and a worthless, atypically straight rendition of Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity,” Second Coming contains a solid dose of typical nuttiness. A shaggy cover of “Hair” opens the record on an up note which continues through such comic-pop gems as “Cross-Eyed Tammy” and “Dummy Up.” Even “Goin’ Homo,” the normally lighthearted band’s sole detour into wrongheaded crudity, is a lowbrow hoot. Oddly, the album repeats two Killer Klowns tracks (one improved by the addition of guest dialogue from singer Leonard Phillips’ mom). While hardly the promised resurrection, Second Coming is still a perfectly (dis)respectable showing from one of our national treasures.
The Dickies welcomed the ’90s with another live album, and then finally came across with Idjit Savant, proof that the unstable band (basically helium-sucking singer Leonard Graves Phillips and guitarist Stan Lee, plus interchangeable others; original keyboardist Chuck Wagon killed himself in 1981) can still outmaneuver and outplay their snot-nosed offspring/competition. Fully recovered from the production excesses that marred Second Coming, the Dickies continue to break loud-fast-rules with a class clown’s sense of humor. Originals like “I’m Stuck in a Condo (With Marlon Brando)” — a successor of sorts to the second album’s “(I’m Stuck in a Pagoda With) Tricia Toyota” — and “I’m on Crack” give a pretty good indication of the band’s lyrical stance, but it’s the brilliant cover of Pat Smear’s 1987 Cheap Trick tribute, “Golden Boys,” that reiterates what a great straight pop band these guys are. For the first time since Stukas Over Disneyland, the parodic antics that define the Dickies don’t overwhelm the tunes, making Idjit Savant well worth the six-year wait.
The Masque album contains a half-dozen live Dickies tracks recorded in 1978; the album also features the Eyes, Randoms and Black Randy and the Metro Squad.