Francisco Bay Guardian
Bring home the baking
Would you like a slice of Pop-O-Pies with that cuppa Joe?
By Will York
So go the words to "Pop-O-Rap," possibly the only song anyone's ever written to brag about how they only play one song. The "hit" was a cover of the Grateful Dead warhorse, "Truckin'," the band was the Pop-O-Pies, and before you get any funny ideas, no, they were not a joke band.
Still hot off the presses, Pop-O-Pies' Pop-O-Anthology 1984-1993 (www.pop-o-pie.com) is a classic time capsule of San Francisco punk rock history. The disc brings together the hard-to-find Joe's Second Record (Subterranean, 1984), Joe's Third Record (Subterranean, 1986), and a later, long-out-of-print single, "In Frisco"/"Squarehead" (Amarillo, 1993). Their first record, 1983's The White EP, was originally released through Columbia subsidiary 415 and its material had to be left off the comp due to publishing issues.
Pop-O-Anthology's 18 songs cover a surprising range for a band who, true to their word, played nothing but "Truckin' " during their first two years of live shows. There are catchy, Sex Pistols-style punk rock songs, spoken word diatribes and early experiments with rap, a squalling cover of "I Am the Walrus," and a couple of droning, proto-noise rock workouts spilling over with lead guitar that sounds like it was played by Black Flag shredder Greg Ginn if he'd stayed in one key at a time.
Out of time
Pop-O-Anthology is, among other things, a very of-its-time document, which accounts for the time-capsule quality. The rap songs sound like Kurtis Blow, and they even bleep out a curse word in one particularly quaint moment. Meanwhile, the lyrics address a specific time and place in history, taking on arrogant scenesters, cokeheads, New York City, the music industry, and dumb hardcore bands. Indeed, a lot of it is punk rock about punk rock, but rather than coming off as insider-type snobbery, band leader Joe Pop-O-Pie's sarcastic, observational lyrics resonate with a truthfulness and sense of humor anybody can relate to.
On the other hand, while Pop-O-Pie knew how to skewer punk pretensions as well as anyone, he only did it because he cared. Before becoming a punk convert in the late '70s, Pop-O-Pie, who prefers not to use his real name, was a classical composition major and a follower of the ultra-intellectual serial music of Anton Webern, and his punk rock conversion story is worthy of the Minutemen - "Punk rock changed our lives" and all that.
"I was really stressed out during that time," the Tenderloin resident recounted the day before Halloween at a coffee shop south of Market. A Pop-O-Pies clock hangs from the wall. "I had a lot of ulcers, and I had a bad back ... and I swear, I heard this music, and it was like this whole world opened up to me. I thought it was magical because it healed all these stress-related diseases I had. I thought, 'There's something to this, so I gotta get into it.' "
In light of Pop-O-Pie's classical background, it's remarkable that his band's music was so rough-edged. Throughout Pop-O-Anthology, vocals fall flat, guitars feed back, false starts are left on the tape, and the whole approach seems guided by a one-take aesthetic that flies in the face of stereotypical music-schooled anal-retentiveness. But it's part of the all-inclusive ethos of the Pop-O-Pies, whose lineup completely changed (apart from Pop-O-Pie himself) for each recording. "I never wanted to alienate anybody by being too concerned with virtuosity or getting too complicated," explained Pop-O-Pie, who'll be unveiling a new version of the band this spring for their first live shows in more than a decade.
Playing the same song for two years was certainly one way of keeping things uncomplicated. The idea of covering "Truckin' " originally came to Pop-O-Pie in 1979, when he was still in college in New Jersey. "The big bands back then who were still considered kind of underground were Devo and the Talking Heads and the Ramones," he said. "And so I said, 'What if you got those three elements together and they were to write the Grateful Dead's "Truckin' " instead of the Grateful Dead - what would it sound like?' "
The answer came when he recorded a demo version of "Truckin' " after moving to San Francisco in the early '80s. As the story goes, that demo wound up becoming the most requested song on KUSF 90.3 FM in late 1981. So for their live shows, he reasoned, why not give the people what they want and just play the hit? That's exactly what they did, although they didn't just play it once and then call it a night - they'd play the song and then play it again. And again. For an entire 40-minute set.
"You'd think that might be boring," Pop-O-Pie admitted. But it wasn't, because it was different every time." They'd start off playing their original version, which sounded roughly like the one on Joe's Second Record. "And then we began to do an improvisational thing where we'd kinda take it out there, so by the end it would sound like John Cage was sitting in with the Pop-O-Pies - like the Residents doing '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,' " referring to the masked band's brilliant deconstruction of the Rolling Stones hit.
At first, audiences were confused and irritated, but as he explained, "It became like this cult thing that you just had to come see in San Francisco, like the Coit Tower."
"Flipper was kind of the big band here at the time, and it was a similar sense of humor," added Bill Gould, former Faith No More bassist and a member of the Pop-O-Pies circa Joe's Second Record. "But when we went to L.A. or Texas, people would freak out. They'd get pissed off."
Another song that used to piss off unsuspecting audiences was a Pop-O-Pies original called "Fascists Eat Donuts," which appeared on The White EP. That song consisted of a single chord played over and over, while Pop-O-Pie repeated the lines "Make those donuts with extra grease / This batch is for the chief of police."
"That was actually one of the highlights of my life," Gould said about performing the song live and watching unsuspecting audiences go from nervous laughter to mild annoyance and then to full-fledged anger and, finally, passive acceptance. "There was this one [show] we did in Texas, like in Dallas at this warehouse, where we just played 'Fascists Eat Donuts' for so long that I was actually starting to hallucinate. I was starting to hear new melodies and new songs, because it was just this drone that was going on relentlessly."
In a bit of trivia that's usually omitted from the rock history books, Pop-O-Pie was actually the first vocalist for Faith No More in their early days as a "shitty local band that nobody cared about," as Gould put it, or "the greatest band to come out of Frisco since the Pop-O-Pies," as the singer himself once boasted. In 1983, Gould and Pop-O-Pie shared a house with FNM keyboardist Roddy Bottum on Shotwell Street in the Mission District. Another early FNM vocalist also lived there: Courtney Love. "What a house," Pop-O-Pie said with a laugh.
"Those guys used to use my name to get gigs," Pop-O-Pie added. Now, he's returned the favor by pasting Faith No More's name on the Pop-O-Anthology cover in prominent bold print - right above equally bold pronouncements of the band's personnel connections to Mr. Bungle and the Dead Kennedys. It's beautifully tacky, and whether it's crass self-promotion, intentional self-parody, or a little bit of both is anyone's guess - which fits the Pop-O-aesthetic perfectly.
"There's a certain
sense of humor where it's hard to find where it's real and when it's a
joke," Gould said, putting the Pop-O-Pies' audience-confounding antics
in context. "But it's a certain kind of mentality that San
Francisco produced that was really good.... Flipper, Pop-O-Pies, Zip Code
Rapists ... even the Dead Kennedys had that a little. It was
very interactive. It's like a theatrical kind of blurring the lines
between reality and art, in a way."