Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nation of Ulysses Proposal

So, just to show that I'm not one to sling shit without expecting anything in return, I've c/p'd the bulk of my 33 1/3 proposal for The Nation of Ulysses' Plays Pretty for Baby (leaving out unnecessary personal information). I definitely went in a much more "traditional proposal" route than I probably should have, but given that Plays Pretty for Baby is more quietly influential than a no-brainer, I wanted to make sure they understood where I was coming from and why the record deserved to be written about.

I'm still waiting for feedback from series editor David Barker, but in the meantime I'd love to hear what some people who read it have to say about it, constructive or otherwise. Also, check out some scans of the band's hysterically funny and ridiculous "organ of propoganda," Ulysses Speaks!

EDIT: Guy mus be clairvoyant. David Barker's response:
Hi Nick
Good to hear from you - thanks for getting in touch.
I enjoyed reading your proposal: it was well written, nicely organised, and made a compelling argument for the importance of the album. I thought it lacked a couple of things, though. First, I thought you could have spent longer outlining how you'd structure the book, how you'd break it down over the course of 30,000 words. Second - and this is much more nebulous and subjective - it didn't quite have a *spark* that most of the best proposals had. Really hard to describe that, and it may be that it just didn't hit me from quite the right angle. It was a very competitive process, this time around, as I'm sure you can tell!
Anyhow, I hope that's at least vaguely helpful, and doesn't seem too harsh.
Very best wishes,
Very helpful and not at all harsh, David. Thanks.


The Nation of Ulysses can probably do a better job of explaining why their 1992 record, Plays Pretty for Baby, deserves to be a part of the 33 1/3 series better than I ever could. The opener, “N-Sub Ulysses,” begins with crowd noise, an obvious nod to the NoU’s predilection for canned “live” records of the 1950s and 1960s (A motif that would carry on through to The Make *Up). A speaker then intones ominously, introducing the band as though he were introducing the members of a secret society, “To you, the bold and foolish lambs . . .” Suddenly, the band launches into a lurching garage punk drone, equal parts The Gun Club, Black Flag, Ornette Coleman, and the Guess Who. Over all of this, lead singer Ian Svenonius steps up to the microphone and belts out perhaps the most virulent act of musical and generational patricide ever committed to tape.

I’m not talking ‘bout a Beatles song, written a hundred years before I was born…

It’s a brush off far more sinister and violent than the Who’s (failed) promise to “Die before I get old” and more convincing than the Sex Pistol’s cry of “No Future!” It’s a lot funnier too. The Nation of Ulysses arrived seemingly fully formed on their 1991 debut Thirteen Point Plan to Destroy America, hitching MC5 inspired garage rock to an abstract idea of soul, youth rebellion, political insurrection, fashion, and insomnia. By Plays Pretty for Baby, their sound and mission were almost bursting at the seams, overloaded with ideas, critiques, cryptic jokes, and righteousness.

True, the Nation of Ulysses was never as popular as their contemporaries in Fugazi. Nor were they as long lasting. Shortly after the release of Plays Pretty for Baby, guitarist Steve Kroner left the band, and shortly thereafter the band disbanded, with the bulk of the group (Svenonius, drummer James Canty, and bassist Steve Gamboa) regrouping first as Cupid Car Club and then as the longer lasting and equally influential Make *Up. Tim Green moved to San Francisco and formed metal revivalists The Fucking Champs.

So how is it that a record released by a relatively unknown punk band that broke up right after its release deserves to be written about? For one, Plays Pretty for Baby has gone on to influence dozens of punk, hardcore and post-hardcore bands. Swedish punk rockers Refused essentially lifted the NoU’s feverish agenda entirely, leaving in the fiery political attacks and the stylish Soviet propaganda inspired liner notes but leaving out the NoU’s well-developed sense of humor and subversive play that held the whole thing together. Other bands took the group’s fashionable presentation as inspiration, leading many bands to adopt matching suits/uniforms, a trend that would see its moment in the spotlight when bands like The White Stripes and The Hives broke through to the mainstream. The fact that these bands play propulsive and sometimes noisy garage rock is no accident either.

What ultimately makes Plays Pretty for Baby an interesting and worthwhile record though is the profusion of ideas that run through it. It works on so many different levels that one can never grow tired of listening. On one level, the record is a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the early 1990s indie scene. The often hysterically funny youth revolt jive talk in both their lyrics and liner notes can be seen as a poke in the eye of hardcore and punk’s (especially the D.C. punk scene) often overly sanctimonious peachiness. On another level the record is a fiery protest record, with both barrels aimed at a politically bankrupt society. The song “The Kingdom of Heaven Must Be Taken By Storm” isn’t so much a metaphor for rebellion so much as a blue print. Yet on another level the record is a Situationist critique on political radicalism itself, turning their efforts at subversion into a cryptic spectacle of abandon. As their liner notes point out:
Political Objectives/Target Audiences: Wreck society through direct action by destroying its institutions and the men who serve it, and by relying on the people's forces to spread the doctrines of "P-Power" and "Ragnarok." To consolidate the New Nation, while never forgetting the need for constant purging, as the nation shall resemble a self-cleaning oven.
On the one hand, the band was dead serious. On the other they’re laughing all the way to their graves.

Additionally, The Nation of Ulysses articulated the idea of a rock band as something more than just a band while simultaneously lampooning the idea. The Clash presented their band as a romantic group of outsider ruffians and early Scritti Politti dabbled with the concept of band as collective, but the NoU took these ideas to their logical conclusion by declaring themselves a sovereign political entity and even going so far as to announce their succession from the United States of America. As Svenonius noted in an early interview, “The Nation of Ulysses is basically about a shout of secession. We don't want to be involved with the United States and the structure that exists. We've introduced a whole new form of currency that takes its form in garbage.” This sense of band as a nation, diametrically opposed to the United States, in many ways provided a tangible spiritual connection to the black culture they celebrated, from Parliament/Funkadelic to the Black Panthers as well as a tongue in cheek critique of rock bands as rebellious figures. What could be more rebellious (or more ridiculous) than a sovereign nation that supports Latin American guerrilla movements such as the Shining Path and declared American youth to be an oppressed class?

Finally, the music kicks ass. Plays Pretty for Baby takes inspiration from the 1980s hardcore of Black Flag and Flipper, the jagged garage rock of the Monks, and the caustic post-punk of the Birthday Party and the Fall. Injected into this heady brew is a jolt of soul, doo-wop, and free jazz. The band sounds as though they could come apart at any moment and yet songs like “The Hickey Underworld” and “A Comment on Ritual” reveals a band capable of some serious dynamics. Their co-option of jazz, not just as a genre but as a culture as well, makes Plays Pretty for Baby especially unique. Finally, there’s Ian Svenonius, whose absolutely unreal vocals veer from a sneer to a caustic shriek, sounding like an unholy marriage of Prince and Iggy Pop.

My approach for this book would be journalistic, similar in style to Chris Ott’s book on Unknown Pleasures and Michael Fornier’s work on Double Nickels on the Dime. For a band that created an often confusing and contradictory legend for itself, I think it would be enlightening and entertaining to read about the formation and early years of the NoU. How did their surroundings in Washington, D.C. influence them? What musical, political, social, and philosophical influences went into the pot of ideas that produced such a quixotic and exciting platform? I’d also like to focus on the album itself. How did the band approach following up Thirteen Point Program to Destroy America, itself a highly regarded album that did much to raise the band’s profile (Sassy anyone)? Sonically, Plays Pretty for Baby sounds much heavier and noisier and the rhythms are much looser than Thirteen Point Program, much more indebted to free jazz. The lyrics are more abstract, as are the liner notes. It removes the strict hardcore vibe that often permeated the songs on the first record, creating a more ominous and foreboding atmosphere. Was this an attempt to purposely alienate fans that liked the more traditional fair found on the first record? Or was it a natural progression, honing in closer to the true sound of Ulysses.
I hope to interview members of the band, specifically Ian Svenonius and James Canty, for this project. I also hope to interview other figures from this era as well, such as Dischord Records owner Ian Mackaye and other prominent figures in the D.C. scene from this era. I would hope that they would be able to provide me with insight into the band and the record and will aid in my attempt to tell the story of Plays Pretty for Baby. Additionally, I intend to utilize other sources, such as Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ Dance of Days and fanzine back issues (including the NoU’s own Ulysses Speaks!) to place the band in the specific context of Washington, D.C. in 1992 and the American indie scene.

It is my belief that this is a record a lot punk and indie fans, as well as casual readers, will want to read about. It is a record whose whirling dervish intensity and stylistic approach has been imitated many times over by bands like Refused, The (International) Noise Conspiracy, The Hives, Swing Kids, Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower, and a litany of other garage, hardcore, post-hardcore, emo, and agit-punk bands. The legend of Ulysses continues online on message boards and in comments left under live footage of the band on YouTube. As the band themselves purported, “Schoolyards now more than ever chime with the chant: "Ulysses, Ulysses, little flower, beloved by all the youth.”

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