Remembering, and Learning From, The Frogs’ Dennis Flemion

07/11/2012 2:40 PM |

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Over the weekend Dennis Flemion, one of two brothers who founded the Milwaukee rock band The Frogs, was killed during a boating trip with friends. He was 57. His passing may mark the sad, sudden end of one of the weirdest, funniest, most inexplicable groups in the annals of indie rock. It wasn’t often that a small-press, Homestead Records release would cause Pat Robertson to brand its makers as “agents of Satan” on The 700 Club. The Frogs were also famous, to the degree that they were even famous, for their support from big-name alt bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Beck. Associates have been quick to express their public grief over the loss. Here’s a touching one from Matador Records’ Gerald Cosloy. “There are few ‘what the fuck was that?’ moments in music that quite compare to someone’s reaction the first time you play them The Frogs.”

Dennis is seen in the above clip from 1995, on the left, dresssed like a vaudeville clown (or Beetlejuice?) and rocking the eff out of “I Don’t Care If U Disrespect Me” on a shitty drum kit. (It’s the song Beck sampled on “Where It’s At.”). I think he tells some guy in the audience to “go back to the Sugarcubes” after calling him a cunt? It looks like an awesome show.

Frogs’ songs typically featured great, if mocking, British folk/psych melodies. The evident bigness in them was undercut by minimal recording tactics and lyrics including hilariously over-the-top gay sex scenarios or purposely outrageous riffs on race. Often, their albums sounded like the spontaneous work of people who were amazingly, naturally funny. Tom Scharpling began last night’s The Best Show on WFMU, with a well-curated sampler of The Frogs’ music including album tracks and rare live recordings. It’s as succinct an introduction to the band as you’re likely to find, and the most gentle, given it was clean enough to play on the radio. In the brief eulogy for the band that follows, Scharpling neatly describes their appeal. As performers, they were never afraid to will their late-night, gut-busting private jokes to the world with no significant filter or second thought to future embarrassment.

And songs like the classic album opener above seem impossible to replicate. Just the idea that anyone made them at the end of the 80s is wild, in spite of the ascendent alternative culture of the time. But their dissimilarity to much of the music that’s made today is especially stark. There is no way to clean 1989’s It’s Only Right and Natural up, or make it a better version of what it is. It wouldn’t have been helped by Ableton noodling, or by accompanying sampled loops. Its imperfection is amazing. It’s the second-to-second urgency that comes from not knowing if a performer can keep something going, or if they are just about to totally fuck it up. That specific sensation feels absent from a lot of the things we hear today. It’s nowhere in the vague heartbreak mantras of a Girls’ record, or the uber-layered tangle of a Julia Holter or Grimes song. It seldom creeps into the formalist kinks in the work of St. Vincent/Grizzly Bear/Dirty Projectors types. Even the lo-fi bands seem somewhat sucked out of time, and not super concerned with preserving a weird moment in the present tense.

Technological advances are likely a factor. In our recent interview, The Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth commented on the ease and impulse to tinker, revise, and correct even home recordings. “I think when people are making purely digital music you can do that. So people will take everything out and tune everything and correct things. It actually feels weird not to do that when you’ve got those things at your disposal.” It’s not quite accurate to say that the Internet-located underground of today produces songs that just sound too perfect. But they seldom seem totally spontaneous. And nothing I’ve heard lately sounds like the product of two very funny (probably stoned) guys with no reason to censor themselves in the slightest, or even worry about obsessively futzing with their songs’ semi-mysterious haze.

A few more clips:

The Frogs – “I Only Play for Money” (live, with Billy Corgan)

Flemion was a member of The Smashing Pumpkins in 1996 and 1997 after the overdose of their keyboardist, Jonathan Melvion. A joyously pre-bitter Billy Corgan plays with them above on their still-relevant rock n’ roll satire, “We Only Play For Money.”

Andy Richter geeks out about The Frogs on TV

In this clip, Andy Richter uses not-so-precious early Late Night with Conan O’Brien air time to describe the debauched Frogs show he’d just attended, while Conan looks mock hurt that he wasn’t told about the drunk Swedish women in attendance. (His mock hurt has gotten better over the years.) What Richter was describing sounds an awful lot like this…

The Frogs – “Lord Grunge” (live, with Sebastian Bach on MTVs Oddville)

I’m not going to pretend to any Oddville, MTV nostalgia, but It still boggles the mind that this is what MTV once looked like. Dispatches from an alternate universe. Hey Kenan and Kel!

The Frogs – “These Are the Finest Queen Boys (I’ve Ever Seen)” (live at ATP, 2011)

The Frogs still played occasionally, as with the above clip from an Animal Collective-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival from last year. It’s sort of unreal to hear a crowd sing along word for word with a song that explicitly clarifies at one point that it’s using “snoot-snout” as a synonym for your asshole. While that vintage material remains by far their most beloved, they had continued recording to present and released two new albums to iTunes just last week.

R.I.P. Dennis.