It was the late winter of 1996 when all the members of Mrs. Lutz’s fifth grade class seemed to have the same song stuck in their collective unconscious. The students had absorbed the song in a manner so effective that Mrs. Lutz could only dream of any of her lessons having a fraction of the impact. The song was rammed into the brains of these ten and eleven year-old children by a 3 minute and eleven second commercial called a music video. It was in constant rotation on MTV. The song was “Peaches” and the band was a strange Seattle-based group called The Presidents of the United States of America.
“Peaches” was the kind of quirky little novelty that still regularly popped up on the radio when the charts were still dominated by post-grunge alternative. By fifth grade, I already had an appreciation for spiritually similar hits by The Flaming Lips and They Might Be Giants. I knew very quickly that I wanted this album and I begged my parents to purchase it for me from the Columbia House Catalog that provided many of my first CDs. To my dismay, there was one thing standing in the way: a black and white parental advisory sticker that warned of explicit content. My parents’ decision had been swayed by the efforts of Tipper Gore and the PMRC #ThanksClinton.
The explicit content came in the form of three exclamatory f-bombs near the end of the opening track “Kitty”. It felt so unfair. Many of my friends had received the album from Columbia House just because their parents were not as diligent about sending in the “No, I do not want you to automatically send me this album and then bill me for it afterwards whether I wanted it or not” card as my mother was. This album was certified Triple Platinum for goodness sakes! Everyone had it!
By the summer of 1996, I was able to purchase it myself from an aloof 16 year-old at The Wall in Echelon Mall. I quickly fell in love with the child-like songs about tiny insects and animals which populated a huge portion of the disc. I also loved the surprising groove the band was able to coax out of their (at first glance) standard three-piece alternative set-up. The reason their music sounds so unique is the exclusive use of modified guitars referred to as the basitar and the guitbass. The instruments consist of a combination of guitar and bass strings allowing the musicians to play the parts of both instruments at once.
I had a particular fondness for the quirky song “Body” which described the existential feeling you get when discovering the dead body of an animal. I would bring my Sony boom box outside and blast that song while Evan and I drew weird comic books on the front porch. The songs inhabited the strange world I liked to imagine myself in and were perfect for a child’s natural whimsy. In fact, lead singer Chris Ballew has released some of my favorite music for very young children under the name Caspar Babypants.
The Presidents of the United States of America are one of my earliest favorite bands (outside of my parents’ influence). Their music is very special to me and I am always delighted to discover that it still sounds great. Their fun-focused songs and quirky lyrics had a huge influence on the music I still gravitate towards today. While their mainstream appeal may have been short-lived (their second album was certified gold and they decided to go on hiatus shortly thereafter) they will always hold a special place in my record collection.