Rock Trainwrecks

 Posted by
Nov 152007

I am fascinated by movies that are huge, ambitious, and completely unwatchable. But that’s not the same as enjoying seeing these movies, mind you. Most of the time, I prefer to wait for detailed descriptions show up on Wikipedia, or, better yet, Nathan Rabin’s awesome My Year of Flops column on The AV Club.

It looks like this week, the epitome of the big-budget, overwritten trainwreck genre is released. I refer, of course, to Southland Tales, writer-director Richard Kelly’s reportedly incomprehensible, multi-character follow-up to his overrated-but-interesting Donnie Darko. This is one bloody, firey mess that I know I will have to see at some point in my life. But will I actually pay money for the experience? God, no.

My question for everyone today is: What is the rock equivalent of these kinds of films? Some candidates: This year, Of Montreal released Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? a bizarre cut-and-paste electro-pop album filled with jittery melodies, meaningless song titles, and embarrassingly personal lyrics. I love it. Also, there are those first few post-Big Star solo albums from Alex Chilton, Bach’s Bottom and Like Flies on Sherbert. But those albums are shambling and deliberately underdone, not overdone. How about one of my favorite albums, Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk? Or perhaps Sandinista by The Clash? What do you think?


  52 Responses to “Rock Trainwrecks”

  1. Mr. Moderator

    Sandinista and XTC’s The Big Express are the first two that come to mind. The latter is a real mess of forced-together parts that still manages to move me more times than not.

  2. But isn’t the question about albums that are ambitious and messy and therefore no good, rather than ones that work in some ways despite overall awkwardness? That’s what I understood Oats to be getting at.

    A number of mid and later period Jethro Tull albums strike me this way, like Thick As a Brick, if I’m remembering rightly. Ambitious, complex, and totally awful.

  3. The point isn’t that they’re “no good.” It’s a bit like the old saw about something that goes past bad and back into good. Also, it’s slightly different for albums rather than films. There might be a salvageable song or two from a bad album that’s worth hearing in and of itself. Whereas, as good as I thought Mark Wahlberg was in I Heart Huckabee’s, everything else about the film was just completely unwatchable and I don’t intend to isolate and just watch his scenes.

  4. That said, Thick as a Brick sounds like an excellent candidate.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    I think I see what both of you are saying…and now I’m more confused than ever:) I’ll tell you one that’s so bad as a result of its overreach it’s actually nearly great (sincerely): The Four Seasons’ Genuine Imitation Life, or whatever the full title is. Do you know this album, Oats? HVB? You guys might appreciate it.

  6. saturnismine

    hmmm…big BIG trainwrecks….

    like “heaven’s gate”, huh?

    what about those “use your illusion” albums by GnR? maybe they don’t go “back into good” as you suggest.

    even though it never came out, isn’t “smile” the beginning of this?

  7. dbuskirk

    I’m a little off-target here, but you’re all familiar with the “Garth Brooks IS Chris Gaines” project, no?


  8. what about those “use your illusion” albums by GnR?

    At the time, those albums were huge; I don’t remember them being slagged off by too many people. In time, however, they’re reputation has decreased considerably, although that may be due to the fact that Appetite‘s canon status has increased so much lately.
    On the other hand, the videos from this albums are camp classics.

    even though it never came out, isn’t “smile” the beginning of this?

    I think so, yes.

  9. I’m a little off-target here, but you’re all familiar with the “Garth Brooks IS Chris Gaines” project, no?

    BINGO! Another one I thought of, Oasis’ Be Here Now, which didn’t kill their career, but actually did end Britpop.
    That second Killers album, Sam’s Town was supposed to be the biggest rock album ever, but it got savaged by critics and sold pretty tepidly. But the songs I heard from that were more boring than overambitious.

  10. If a film is “completely unwatchable,” how under any circumstances can it be called good? Please explain. So what you mean is something other than “completely unwatchable” since you’re now suggesting that something about it makes it good: that is, makes it watchable.

    Similarly, an album that is “completely unlistenable” cannot be good.

    But I’ll stop splitting hairs now.

    What about most Yes or ELP albums?

  11. hrrundivbakshi

    “Music From ‘The Elder'” by KISS.

    Surely there are Dylan and Lou Reed examples out the wazoo.

  12. “Completely unwatchable” is a bit of hyperbole I like to utilize to describe bad films. A bad or even terrible film can have one or two good qualities about it. That’s all.

    What do some of the RTH cinestes, such as Dbuskirk and Dr. John, think of this film genre I’ve half-invented? Dbusirk, this would be an opportune time to perhaps mention a certain laser-disc you own for a little-known Kurt Vonnegut adaptation.

    Mwall, I’m going to hazard a guess that you’re not a fan of prog-rock.

  13. isn’t METAL MACHINE MUSIC completely unlistenable and really good?

    Southland Tales looks perfect to me!

    I can’t wait!

  14. dbuskirk

    SOUTHLAND TALES is pretty terrible by the way, if at least energetically so. Endless narration from Justin Timberlake, giving ponderous backstory and explaining where scenes are going just as they start. Maybe fans of Alex Cox’s WALKER will enjoy it. People started leaving a half hour in, and peeled off steadily thoughout.

    And who is “Oats” anyway, and how does he know about my SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND laserdisc (starring Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn and Pat Morita)?

    -d(laserdisc is my middle name)b

  15. alexmagic

    The second Kula Shaker album. Yes, they made a second one. No, you don’t even need to listen to it, you just need to know it’s called Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts. But perhaps you might want to see the cover. Which has a Ren Faire astronaut coming up an escalator. An escalator in the middle of the woods, which is crazy, man, because there are no escalators in the woods! So the title and cover tell you all you need to know about what the album sounds like, and it sounds exactly like the title reads and the cover looks. Overblown, goofy, sitar-y music from someone who must have listened to Harrison’s “Art of Dying” a few thousand times. It’s terrible. I love it.

    Tull probably fits exactly into this category for me…music where someone had a good idea and a lot of lunkheaded ideas and nobody knew where to stop, and I’m no longer sure if I just like it in some confused ironic sense or if they’ve slowly brainwashed me into actually enjoying it.

    There’s also Muse, who come off as pre-Kid A Radiohead for those with severe learning disabilities and are very much of the rock trainwreck genre. It’s a bunch of guys who make songs with gigantic guitar parts, soaring-but-mopey lead vocals about the apocalypse and all that jazz. Essentially, this is music ideally suited to 60 second trailers for movies featuring dudes swordfighting on the moon and stopping tank shells with their minds, only Muse feels the need to put out full songs and even full albums. Not only that, they put out songs with anti-war lyrics and other Big Deep Ideas that have nothing to do with the ideal subjects of telekinetic mind bullets and space ninjas they should be writing about. Tremendous.

  16. I’ll nominate Smashing Pumpkins’ “Machina / The Machines Of God”, which was intended to be Billy Corgan’s big comeback after the failure of ‘Adore’.

    List of sins:

    – 75 minute long concept album with the songs ‘telling a story’

    – said story explained through the band dressing up as another band called either ‘The Machines Of God’ or ‘Glass and the Ghost Children’, (i honestly can’t remember which), throughout the promotion / touring, (didn’t happen)

    – online flash animation ‘multimedia’ serial presented in weekly ‘episodes’ (site went up, project was put ‘on hold’)

    – story segments and vague painted ‘plates’ in the cd booklet, (pretentiously labelled in art show fashion), that you were supposed to be able to draw enough of a storyline from that they expected you to be able to win a competition by guessing it correctly

    – weird god-bothering aspect to a lot of the lyrics

    – intended to be part one of a two record set, until desperately low sales made Virgin Records refuse, band released Machina II, and three EPS online, adding an extra *twenty-five* songs to the muddle

    So, a 40-song unloved wankfest, a bunch of intended side projects that fizzled, and the eventual destruction of the band during the process. Is there really anything else that can even compete?

  17. hrrundivbakshi

    Alexmagic says:

    Essentially, this is music ideally suited to 60 second trailers for movies featuring dudes swordfighting on the moon and stopping tank shells with their minds…

    I say:


  18. 2000 Man

    Both of my kids say Muse is awesome. They like Mars Volta a lot, too.

    Does Neil Young’s Trans make the cut? I bet David Geffen says it does.

    I’ll bring up my favorite band, too. Their Satanic Majesties Request. I disagree; I think it’s a pretty good album. Not great, but not a trainwreck. A few wheels come off the track, that’s all.

    While Smashing Pumpkins certainly fell on their faces, were a lot of people really looking forward to that? I never understood the attraction to them.

  19. Mr. Moderator

    I do think a movie (or album) can be “bad” yet still be fascinating and offer something for future generations to pick over and do better. For movies I cite Peter Greenaway’s Shakespeare film, with a bunch of nude people and a 300-year-old (and nude) John Gielgud wandering around reciting whichever Shakespeare play I’m forgetting in totally garbled phase shifter voice while a young, curly-headed boy (also nude) takes an endless piss off a swing. dbuskirk probably is generous enough to find this a masterpiece. Although I hated the film and felt guilty for dragging my wife and chickenfrank along to see it (I’d loved other Greenaway films) I sensed that that turd was light years ahead of contemporary movie making in ways that will benefit film students in the 2030s.

    Is this the kind of album you’re talking about, Oats?

  20. isn’t METAL MACHINE MUSIC completely unlistenable and really good?


  21. Mwall, I’m going to hazard a guess that you’re not a fan of prog-rock.

    Well, I’m not a pure anti-fan of it; I like King Crimson, Procol Harum, Roxy Music and some others well enough.

  22. alexmagic

    I wouldn’t include Satanic Majesties Request in something like this. I genuinely like at least 2000 Man, 2000 Light Years From Home, She’s A Rainbow and Citadel, and probably a few more. It wasn’t the best idea for what the Stones should have been doing, as far as playing to their strengths, but I’m still glad they made it.

    I’m intrigued by the Smashing Pumpkins Machina thing, from homefrontradio’s excellent description. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’d want to listen to it, of course. However, if nobody ever won the competition, I would consider listening to it to try to win, seven or eight years after the album came out, to give everyone some closure. Unless winning involved hanging out with Corgan or listening to that James Iha record.

  23. I totally forgot about Machina and how it was going to reignite Smashing Pumpkins’ career and rock ‘n’ roll in general. And I how no idea about the ridiculous online quizzes and shit. Sounds just like Southland Tales as a matter of fact. Good one, homefrontradio.

    Trans is another good one, 2000 Man. Concept albums in general are a prime candidate for Trainwreck status. Perhaps this explains my weird fixation on Roger Waters solo albums.

    As for Lou Reed, I’d guess Berlin is his Rock Trainwreck. Interested to hear what Berlin defenders such as Mr. Moderator think.

    What do Berlin, Music From The Elder and that second Kula Shaker album have in common? Produced by BOB EZRIN!

    Most Rock Trainwrecks are undertaken by bands with some sort of successful profile. Rare is the Rock Trainwreck that is also a band’s first and only album. However, another Townsman and I are familiar with just such an album. The details are below.

  24. Mr. Moderator

    I don’t know why Berlin gets such a bad rap – I mean, I know (YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!), but I think it’s a much better album than, say, the one with “Walk on the Wild Side”, which is the real phony cry-for-help album past the hit song and “Satellite of Love”. (I’m sure there are a few other songs I like on that album, but my liking for other songs on that album is reed thin.) So anyhow, I object to Berlin being considered a trainwreck album. It’s a solid album with a handful of emotional tunes that work great with all that Bob Ezerin bombast. I’d much rather listen to it – AND DO – than any album by that friggin’ Scott Walker guy. SHOW OF HANDS: How likes those Scott Walker albums and, yet, thinks Berlin is a trainwreck?

  25. I like BERLIN fine. If anything, my complaint about it is that I came to it late, with the result that I’d heard so much hype about what a traumatic, visceral album it is that when I finally heard it, I was kinda like, “What, you mean that’s it?”

    Here’s one for ya: ever hear CONSEQUENCES by Godley and Creme? *There* is a trainwreck, mate.

  26. I totally forgot about Machina and how it was going to reignite Smashing Pumpkins’ career and rock ‘n’ roll in general.

    So had the critics, judging by the hype leading up to the release of ‘Zeitgeist’, which didn’t even reignite a full reunion.

    Anyway, I was curious, so did some research into the online thing. Turns out three of the intended episodes leaked online in 2003, long after both Machina albums were dead and buried, as well as that whole Zwan deal.

    It was more sophisticated than flash, looking a lot like ‘Aeon Flux’, and set in one of those pre-millenial cyberpunk futures, and you’d probably think it ruled if you were fourteen. (Which is exactly what I expect ‘Southland Tales’ to be, come to think of it).

    I think this *is* the kind of film that brought up the whole topic in the first place. (And I especially love the fact that the music used is ‘electronica’-style remixes of the album tracks that make them even more boring, overprocessed and tuneless than they already were).

    Don’t believe me? Here’s part one:

  27. Styx – Kilroy Was Here

  28. Oh, and how could I forget David Bowie’s Outside. Not only a ballyhooed reunion with Brian Eno, it was the first of a projected three albums about a detective investigating an “art crime” or some such nonsense. Of course, the subsequent two parts never materialized. I think I may still have this one in a box in my basement. It may actually be “unlistenable” — I’ve yet to get all the way through it.

  29. You know, maybe the title of this post should just be “Concept Albums.”

    I mean, remember Psychoderelict?

  30. Damn, Oats! I should have nominated that one myself. The plan was to release an album a year leading up to the millenium, so there would have been *five* albums. Anyone who’s tried to slog through all the spoken segues and tuneless, (sorry), ‘thrilly experimental’ music on 1. Outside, can understand my horror.

    He described it as a “non-linear gothic drama hyper cycle” about an art detective in 1999 investigating ‘art murders’, (rolls eyes), so i imagine it’s set in the exact same cyberpunk future that ‘Machina’ is.

    Hey, remember 2002, the 30th Anniversary of Ziggy Stardust, where Bowie spoke of plans to release a musical stage version of the album, an online website that explored Ziggy’s background, as well as a film with someone else playing Ziggy, none of which eventuated?

  31. trolleyvox

    I’d much rather listen to it – AND DO – than any album by that friggin’ Scott Walker guy. SHOW OF HANDS: How likes those Scott Walker albums and, yet, thinks Berlin is a trainwreck?

    Yes, someone please explain the appeal of Scott Walker. Is it similar to the appeal of Leonard Cohen, another artist I just can’t stomach?

  32. BigSteve

    No, Cohen’s art is primarily literary. More than anyone I can think of, his music is primarily a vehicle for the words. Scott Walker’s music is …. something else, and I don’t get it either. Cohen I dig though.

  33. BigSteve

    Lou Reed’s trainwreck would be The Raven, and Dylan’s would probably be Self Portrait (a kind of on purpose trainwreck).

    Does anyone doubt that Chinese Democracy is a trainwreck-in-waiting?

  34. No, SELF PORTRAIT is, like METAL MACHINE MUSIC, a Fuck You Album. That’d different from a Trainwreck.

    Dylan’s Trainwreck is probably KNOCKED OUT LOADED.

  35. Yes, someone please explain the appeal of Scott Walker. Is it similar to the appeal of Leonard Cohen, another artist I just can’t stomach?

    Fuck, am I really the one on here who likes Scott Walker? To be completely honest, I came to him only in the last 4-5 years via the Boy Child compilation, which collects songs from his 1st 4 solo albums, all of which were recorded and released between 1967 and 1970 and all of which he penned himself (during this period, he also released a bunch of songs on these albums that were written by Jacques Brel and later, a compilation of his Brel-penned songs from the 1st 3 solo albums came about as a result of that).

    So anyway, I liked this collection as mainly background music for rainy, dreary days and the like (and still do), but I didn’t really get into him until I got last year’s The Drift. It’s radically different from his late ’60s output in that instead of being heavily orchestrated, it’s very sparse. It’s also one of the most avant-garde records I’ve ever heard, especially for a guy in his early 60s. It’s hard to explain what I like about it other than that it feels raw, real and in your face without thrasing away or pounding you with noise. Either you get it or you don’t. I can’t imagine there being too much middle ground, as his voice is still as dark and brooding as ever.

    My appreciation for The Drift led me to appreciate Boy Child much more, despite their huge stylistic differences.

    I also really enjoy the recently released instrumental soundtrack to And Who Shall Go to the Ball…, a commissioned dance piece.

    I know a lot of this sounds pretentious as hell and to a certain extent, it is (hell, he even used a hunk of meat as percussion on one track off The Drift), but it works (at least for me).

    Oh and count me as a fan of Berlin. We saw Lou play it from start to finish last year in Brooklyn and it was fabulous.

    Regardless, I don’t see why it has to be one or the other.

  36. Count me as another Scott Walker fan. I put him in the same category as Robert Wyatt: eccentric Brit who has a cool voice, writes songs with funky chord progressions (his fourth record), has great taste in cover songs (his first three records), and is really hard to get people to listen to who haven’t already been turned on to what he does.

  37. Third on Scott Walker. Especially on the ’60s records, it’s important to be able to enjoy the whole Jacques Brel thing, which I do. Honestly, I see that as being more potentially difficult to get behind than stuff like TILT or THE DRIFT for the average rock dude!

    Pince nez: dude’s actually American.

  38. In a weird way, I’m not sure Dylan has any Trainwrecks, at least as I’ve defined them. He has lots of bad, bad albums — don’t get me wrong. But it seems all his bad albums are works of laziness, whereas the hallmark of a Trainwreck is a surfeit of ambition. I dunno, maybe Empire Burlesque, due to its overproduction.

    Despite the very obvious line connecting Scott Walker to Jarvis Cocker, I’ve yet to investigate the former with any real dedication. Someday.

  39. Trainwreck movie: The Trip. Absolutely brilliant concept (screenplay was written by Jack Nicholson) about someone who takes acid for the first time and then engages in self-examination, seeing himself for what he really is: a hack director of TV ads.

    The problem is trying to visually represent what is in the script. The special effects are, well, pretty cheesy. And the film becomes a parody of its own design, ending up as an attempt to make a quick buck by exploiting the sixties drug culture.

  40. The Trip! Oh man, I saw that when I was 14 and still remember some lines.

    Bruce Dern: “Do you want to go into the living room?”
    Peter Fonda: “YEAH! The living room!”

    In the same scene, Fonda picks up an orange and talks about its power surging through his body.

  41. But that’s why KNOCKED OUT LOADED is his Trainwreck: it has a 10+ minute song co-written with Sam Shepard that was supposed to be the best thing he’d written since “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Which…it’s not. So, Trainwreck.

  42. Mr. Moderator

    Thanks for your feedback on those Scott Walker albums. Kpdexter burned me some of that stuff and it was interesting, but not something I go back to very often. However, my question was who likes that stuff YET thinks Berlin is a trainwreck? I was curious to know whether Walker gets a break because he’s totally underground and disturbed in more subtle ways than Lou “Growing Up in Public” Reed. Not a big deal…

    The Trip is a great, stinking hippie movie!

  43. BigSteve

    I think Brownsville Girl is pretty great, but that’s me — I love the Down in the Groove album too.

    Prince’s The Rainbow Children is pretty wrecked.

    Skip Spence’s Oar is borderline trainwreck.

  44. I was curious to know whether Walker gets a break because he’s totally underground and disturbed in more subtle ways than Lou “Growing Up in Public” Reed. Not a big deal…

    ‘Berlin’ was actually a Top 10 album in England, as were Scott Walker’s first four records. Seriously. Hmmm. They also gave us Morrissey and The Cure. Do you think it’s their weather?

    My secret vice is the first David Bowie album. No, not ‘Space Oddity’, the 1967 one that never gets remastered and rereleased, even though ‘Never Let Me Down’ is deemed worthy of that honour. The polite Chamber Orchestra backing makes the songs of incest, cannibalism, murder and cross-dressing seem even more bizarre.

  45. hrrundivbakshi

    Hey, BigSteve — whatchoo talkin’ ’bout? I really like “Rainbow Children,” even *with* the stupid basso profundo Jehovah narrator. Seriously!

    He who shall remain nameless for fear of legal attack is one of those artists who should’ve had a massive tranwreck, or two, or three, by now, but — other than his laughably awful movies “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Graffitti Bridge” — he’s just too darn good. Sez me.

    I may actually watch “Graffitti Bridge” tonight — I’m a proud DVD owner. Hell, I saw it in the theater the day it came out. With one other person!

  46. hrrundivbakshi

    Sorry, Mod, for flouting the rules and risking legal entanglement, but I just had to share:


  47. I may actually watch “Graffitti Bridge” tonight — I’m a proud DVD owner. Hell, I saw it in the theater the day it came out. With one other person!

    I bought it on video, during the success of the ‘Diamonds And Pearls’ album, and even then it only cost me 50 cents – still the cheapest movie I’ve ever purchased.

  48. hvb,

    As a proud card carrying member of the purple boat society, even I am embarrassed by Grafitti Bridge.

    The album would be tremendous if you cut Tevin, Mavis, The Time and George Clinton off of it.

    I mean, c’mon, men of our caliber understand the true greatness of tunes like Elephants and Flowers.

    But the movie? Terrible.

    on the posive side, The Time album that resulted from this, Pandemonium, is actually pretty decent.

  49. Mr Mod,

    coincidentally enough, I believe I digitized Berlin in the same batch of albums I did for you when I sent you the Walker stuff.

    I really like Berlin and Walker, though, but I gotta admit, the trainwreck factor is part of the appeal of Berlin. It’s ambitious, I guess, it’s hard to listen to, it’s dark, it’s pretentious, what’s not to love?

    Walker is a tough nut to crack. I’ve yet to make it through last years The Drift in one siting. Much like Prince’s Lovesexy before it, it’s all one hour long track.

    wait, I think that n=might just be the promo…

    He’s interesting to me because he’s from about a half hour from here, Hamilton, Ohio.


  50. hrrundivbakshi

    Hey, Kay-Pee, I’m on the Graffiti Bridge team, too — at least the album. But, you’re right, Tevin’s got to go, Mavis is wasted, and even the Time tracks are pretty lame. But that Clinton number, “We Can Funk,” is a good one, bro!

    And you’re right about “Pandemonium”; I always loved that LP.

    Boy, now that I think about it, there are some seriously strong purple traxx on “GB”: “Joy In Repetition,” “Thieves In the Temple,” “Can’t Stop This Feelin’ I Got,” “Tick, Tick, Bang,” and “Elephants and Flowers.” If Mod were a fan, he’d probably be crowing about this album needing to be whittled down to one of The Greatest EPs Ever Made.

    For those who never experienced the thang:

  51. hvb,

    I think we both know that there are better versions of We Can Funk floating around out there. There’s a version on the Crucial lp that slays the released version.


  52. BigSteve

    Speaking of Berlin, I just read over at Aquarium Drunkard that Street Hassle, which just a few months ago I bought in a high-priced Japanese edition because then it was the only way to replace it, is once again available, but digital-only. Same with the first self-titled album. I can’t find them anywhere else but Itunes yet, but my two favorite Lou albums are out there again, as they were meant to be heard, for those who’ve wanted to check them out.

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