Twenty Years Later: The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Triumphant 1996

by: Michael Shields

Across the Margin takes one final musical look back on 1996, remembering Brian Jonestown Massacre’s unforgettable year….

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Editor’s Note: It is now 2017, and thus our Twenty Years Later series commemorating 1996 should ideally be concluded at this point. But, we want to throw one more in the mix, as what Brian Jonestown Massacre accomplished that fateful year is too brilliant to not to celebrate before we move on. And so, one more for the road…

Twenty years ago The Brian Jonestown Massacre had an absolutely epic year. In fact, epic is too light a word to describe the prodigiousness of output that they were responsible for in 1996. In that year alone, the Brian Jonestown Massacre released a series of albums that displayed, in awe-inspiring clarity, the talents of a band that was as misunderstood as it was all-too-often underappreciated. Those albums, Take it From the Man!, Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request, and Thank God For Mental Illness, in aggregate, amount to an unfathomable and uncommon discharge of brilliance. But while rare, it is not entirely unheard of for a band or an artist to release multiple, accomplished albums in one year’s time as Brian Jonestown did back in 1996.

Prolific bursts of artistic output such as Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 1996 tend to be found emanating from only the most gifted of artists. From 1963 to 1965 the Beatles were in an extraordinary groove, releasing two albums each year, giving way to the unleashing of the 1967 classic, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, followed five months later by their climatic achievement in weird, the Magical Mystery Tour movie soundtrack. Around that same time, Bob Dylan was having a moment of his own, releasing in 1964 his third and fourth LPs, The Times They Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan, respectively, followed just the next year by his first two “electric” albums, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.

Led Zeppelin emerged out the gate strong, following their debut album, Led Zeppelin, with Led Zeppelin II just eight months later. In 1977, David Bowie didn’t just release two brilliant albums, Low and Heroes, but he also spent a portion of that year co-writing and producing Iggy Pop’s first two solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life. That’s a total of four classic albums Bowie was involved in between January and October of 1977. And in 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival released three renowned LPs: Bayou Country, Green River, and Willy and the Poor Boys. Three releases matches the amount of albums Brian Jonestown Massacre released in their triumphant 1996, but Brian Jonestown Massacre outdid Creedence Clearwater Revival in two ways. For one, all three of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 1996 albums are over an hour long, while the Credence Clearwater Revival’s LP’s didn’t break forty minutes. Also, while Credence released its first album of 1969 in January, the Brian Jonestown Massacre didn’t release its first album of that year until May and then released the third in October (the second dropped in June), which means that in just five months, the Brian Jonestown Massacre released three albums consisting of forty-tracks tracks and over three and a half hours of music. And the genesis of this rare accomplishment began on May 28th, 1996 with the release of the pulse-pounding Take It From The Man!.

The opening track on Take It From the Man!, The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s third album up to that point, is exemplary of the psychedelic soundscapes at this highpoint of their career. One of the finer tracks on the album, “Vacuum Boots” is a folk-infused garage rock banger that is gritty, catchy as hell, and hinting of all that is to follow. Anton Newcombe, the band’s impetuous lead singer, in recalling Take It From The Man!’s inception, states in the album’s liner notes:

“I, Anton A. Newcombe, do solemnly swear that the ghost of Brian Jones came to me in the studio and asked me to make this record. P.S. He also asked that I kick the shit out of old Mick and Keith for ripping off his band, girl and money, having him murdered, being glad he’s dead, and for not being very nice people.”

The mention of Mick and Keith from The Rolling Stones is poignant in that the soundscapes found throughout Take It From the Man! were firmly rooted in the British rock music of the ‘60s, particularly the Stones, and Anton was making it clear he was gunning for them1. In many ways Anton succeeded, as unforgettable tracks, doused with attitude and holding within them the ability to mesmerize, are littered throughout the album, such as the fiery “Who?,” the thick and surprisingly moving “David Bowie I Love You (Since I was Six),” the three-ring circus that is the title track “Take It From The Man!,” and the epic finale, a revisiting of “Straight up and Down” from earlier in the album – a pulse-pounding classic which later became the theme music to Boardwalk Empire.

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With Take It From The Man!, The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 1996 was just getting started. What followed in mid-June was equally as impressive, when Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request dropped. What is remarkable about this follow-up album is that it was actually being recorded at the exact same time as Take It From The Man!. This is not to say that Anton and the gang were recording a massive bounty of songs and just divvying them up unto two different albums. No, what was happening was that two studios were employed for the craftings of each album, and the musicians were traveling back and forth to work on each. As Anton puts it:

“I was doing them simultaneously. I would go and stay at this one studio and then take the train out to the other one so instead of being homeless I was going between these two studios and crashing on the couches and doing two, 18 song records at the same time.”

Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request, much like its predecessor, includes some of the finest and most affecting songs of The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s career, such as “Jesus,” “Miss June ‘75,” “Anemone,” and “Cause I Lover.” It is inarguably the most psychedelic offering of the three albums they released in 1996, where a horde of instruments2 were appropriated to craft the album’s lush, intoxicating sound. It was also a prime example of the raucous spirit of a band in the midst of an unfathomable peak, and the perfect lead up to the crown jewel of the three, Thank God For Mental Illness.

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Thank God For Mental Illness was released on October 25th of 1996, and is a brilliant piece of art from front to back. Unlike the two albums that lead up to this masterpiece, there is not one song on the album that can be dismissed. From the “Spanish Bee” opener, where you can almost hear a Conor Oberst-esque cracking in Anton Newcombe’s stained passionate voice, to the epic closing track, “Sound Of Confusion” (which is in fact multiple tracks in one, including the phenomenal “Fuck You for Fucking Me”), Thank God For Mental Illness never lets you off the hook. All the while the album takes you on a meandering journey, one that is patient, building, earthy, and filled with thirteen psychedelic country-blues songs that are each awe-inspiring in their melodic catharsis.

As legend has it3, Thank God For Mental Illness was recorded in just one single day (July 11th, 1996) at the band’s home studio in San Francisco (christened “Our House”). On top of this, the cost of producing Thank God For Mental Illness was a measly $17.36, which Anton handled himself. Regardless of the authenticity of this claim, what came of that day is as debaucherously unique and captivating of an album that I have come upon. An album that is undoubtedly the crowning achievement of the band’s career, encompassing some of their finest songwriting, and touting a brand of melodic madness that only the Brian Jonestown Massacre are capable of.

It isn’t often in today’s musical landscape that we come upon the sort of astonishing outpouring of music that we witnessed from the Brian Jonestown Massacre in 1996. More recently, the prolific southern-California garage rocker Ty Segall has been turning out records, immersing himself in side projects and creating exciting music at a simply unfathomable pace, while Jack White, Dan Bejar of The New Pornagraphers, and Mike Patton are all tireless and reeling out the goods at a steady clip. But what stands out to me with Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 1996’s album run is the excellence of each release. Within these three albums exists a bevy of music that to this day sounds absolutely timeless. From concise alt-country and bluesy jaunts to experimental, lengthy musical excursions rife with bold changes and musical interludes and segues, Take It From The Man!, Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request, and Thank God For Mental Illness had it all. These three albums exhibited an astonishing achievement in song output, marking 1996 as a moment in time Brian Jonestown Massacre fans will not soon forget.

  1. It is pertinent to note here that the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s named their band after the founder and former guitarist of The Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, in tandem with the infamous mass cult suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. []
  2. According to the liner notes the following instruments can all be heard on the album: acoustic guitar, sitar, clavs, mellotron, tambora, echoplex-feedback-generator, electric guitar, dumbek, tablas, flute, farfisa, recorder, tape loops, drums, acoustic bass, shinni, chanter, didgeridoo, vox jaguar, French horn, viola, tuba, SMS serge, 12-string electric guitar, harmonium, tambourines, cabasa, conga, jimbe, accordion, celeste, glockenspiel, bells, fish, piano, hammond, cello, wolf horn, maracas, weird-fucking-Chinese-shit, tyco drum, vibes, woodwinds and other top secret crap.” []
  3. I must admit, the story that follows is incredibly hard to believe due to the brilliance of the album []

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