The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

Sports Fans and music fanatics might not be obvious bed fellows; you only need watch the most generic of high-school movies to note that the jocks don’t usually play guitars, and the goth kid listening to The Cure isn’t often the captain of the water polo team. However if Paul Gascoigne can take Fog On The Tyne to number two in the UK singles chart, Dion Dublin can invent a percussion instrument and Manny Pacquiao can release a single called the Pac-Man Punch, why shouldn’t some of our musicians dabble in writing about sports?

There’s actually more good example than you might imagine, Mark Kozelek has written almost as many songs about boxing as he has about people he knows dying; Belle & Sebastian sang about baseball hall-of-famer Mike Piazza on Piazza, New York Catcher and even Hugh Laurie penned an ode to his favourite tennis player in the imaginatively titled “I’m in Love with Steffi Graff” (sample lyric: “and when she hits that topspin second serve, I think I know the meaning of love”)

The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon teamed up with Tom Walsh to write not one, but two concept albums about cricket, under the name The Duckworth Lewis Method. They included tracks on meeting Javed Miandad, the joys of listening to Test Match Special on the radio and the thrillingly, explosive, “renegade” Shahid “Boom Boom” Afridi. Best of all was Jiggery Pokery which mused on the so called ball of the century, focusing on the batsman Mike Gatting and his penchant for cheese rolls, who thanks to “robbery,muggery, Aussie skullduggery” was “out for a buggering duck” and departed the field made to look “like an accident prone buffoon” and declaring “I hate Shane Warne!”

Landfill Indie band The Others penned a song for the Queens Park Rangers legend Stan Bowles; Camper Van Beethoven wanted to Take The Skin Heads Bowling, while Sultans Of Ping FC’s Give Him A Ball (And A Yard Of Grass) was full of enough Brian Cloughisms to make every football fan raise a smile. In recent years Lonely Tourist wrote probably the greatest track about a journeyman football in recently years, The Ballad Of Paul Tierney, tracks the career of the former Manchester United youngster and his subsequent decline, including lines as good as “the gaffer wants a word with you, we’re sending you on loan to Crewe” it’s definitely worth looking up.

Sports and music, unlikely bed fellows who sometimes get along swimmingly – well who’d have thought it?

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS – BEAT THE CHAMP
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Beat The Champ is a concept album about professional wrestling in the 1980’s – but don’t just stop reading here and assume it’s not for you!

John Darnielle has been making music under the name The Mountain Goats since 1991; whilst his recording styles, collaborators and lyrical themes have been as varied and ambitious as almost any songwriter around, what has always been at heart of almost all of his work is his ability to relate to the characters in his songs. From the “Alpha Couple” on the verge of divorce who were the lead characters in 2002’s Tallahassee, to the group of Washington State outcasts who were the focus of Transcendental Youth. In the context of his back catalogue, a concept album about professional wrestling in the 1980’s becomes almost the logical next career move, were it not for the fact that a concept album about professional wrestling in the 1980’s sounds so much like career suicide!

What makes this album such an oddly wonderful success, is that for all it’s flamboyant, pre-scripted, blood-spilling nonsense, what makes wrestling a success is the characters, and it’s clear The Mountain Goats know that. Wrestling is full of the same flawed geniuses, good guys with dark secrets and bad guys with a back story that draw audiences to any theatrical performance, only these guys are 300lbs giants fighting people quarter of their size who are wearing little more than a tiny pair of shorts and a lucha libre mask! Wrestling is the history of art, literature and cinema distilled into the middle ground of boxing and ballet: it’s also grown men shouting at each other about who’s bigger, tougher and more likely to smash the other guys head in with a steel chair. It’s ludicrous, but it’s entertainment, and it’s a snap shot of the society that produces it.

The best tracks on this album play on the sort of human emotions that all music targets. Unmasked is about a wrestler removing his mask, but more so it’s about laying yourself out for the world to see, it sounds like a Death Cab For Cutie acoustic number and is just as heartfelt and honest. The Ballad Of Bull Ramos is about ageing,and refusing to grow old gracefully, the title character noting “keep my hair nice and long because I can” but as a shard of broken glass on the shop floor puts his career in doubt he’s left recalling how “the doctor recognises as the operating theatre goes dim, “aren’t you that old wrestler with the bull whip? Yes I am him.”

The obvious weakness of a concept album so specific as this, is that you risk alienating and baffling half of your audience, and certainly a background in the basics of professional wrestling terminology will help you understand phrases like a “sunset flip” as mentioned in the closing track Hair Match, and the “snivelling local babyface with angle he can’t sell” on the angry, rampaging Werewolf. Though ultimately you don’t need to know exactly what he’s talking about to appreciate the quality of the songwriting. Take Heel Turn 2, sure it helps to know that a heel turn involves a good guy flipping over and becoming a bad guy, but you’ll still be able to relate to lines like “get stomped like a snake, lie down. In the dirt, cling to my convictions even when I get hurt, be an upstanding well loved man about town” or be blown away by the surprisingly beautiful piano outro, a rare moment of tranquility in the chaos of the squared circle.

Lots of the tracks are just simply fun, the smack talking, hyper punk blast that is Choked Out, or the jaunty trumpets that make Foreign Object probably the best song about hitting someone with a blunt object that’s ever been written, sample line “sink my teeth into your scalp, take a nice big bite. Save nothing for the cameras, play the angles all night, one of these days my legs will both snap like twigs, if you can’t beat ’em make ’em bleed like pigs.”

The track that best combines the albums unquestionable sense of fun, nostaglia and real emotion is the sublime The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero. It finds us back in John’s bedroom in the late 1980’s, as he tells us of his hero, the “defender of the down trodden” Chavo Guerrero. (for the wrestling fans that’s Chavo Guerrero Sr. not his son Chavo Guerrero Jr. who as John points out in the song “went nationwide” including a famous with battle with his uncle, Eddy Guerrero). Whilst for the most part it’s straight hero-worship, “look up it’s my last hope, Chavo Guerrero coming off the top rope” elsewhere it reveals as much about the songwriter as it does the man it was written about, we find John “craving justice in my life” and recalling how “you let me down, Chavo never once did, you called him names to try to get under my skin, now your ashes are scattered on the wind” recalling his seemingly unpleasant step-father. It carries of that rare trick of being biographical, comical and emotional all at once, and it’s just a fine piece of songwriting.

Beat The Champ might not be a crucial release in the back catalogue of The Mountain Goats, and certainly for many it might seem a rather odd side step. However, look beyond the subject matter and you’ll see that at it’s heart this an album about growing up, and the sensitivity and thought with which they deal with the subject matter ensure it’s far from a novelty album! Ladies and gentleman the heavyweight champions of the concept album THE MOUNTAIN GOATS!

Beat The Champ is out now on Merge Records.

3 thoughts on “The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

  1. Thanks.really enjoyed reading this witty and well informed post. I’ll be visiting again! Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (featuring boxing, baseball and soccer as well as tons of music!)

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