One Thursday evening in early 1987, I sat down in front of my television to watch Top of the Pops, which at the time was the most popular showcase of popular music on British TV. Come to think of it, it was almost the only showcase of popular music on TV at the time – this was before most people had access to satellite or cable television, which could pump 24-hour-a-day channels devoted to various genres of music into their living rooms. In fact, most of the music shown on Top of the Pops was bland, middle-of-the-road, non-threatening, cheesy or plain terrible and I tended to sit through the programme in a semi-doze. But, as I said, it was almost my only opportunity each week to see musicians performing songs that were currently high in the charts.
Anyway, I was suddenly jolted awake this evening when an obnoxious American voice yelled, “Yeah!” and then, “Kick it!” This was followed by a chugging and wonderfully-stupid heavy-metal riff and a funny Three-Stooges-like video in which a trio of young hooligans invaded, disrupted and eventually destroyed a boring, preppy house party being held in New York, whilst continually shouting the refrain: “You gotta fight… for your right… to paaa-aaarty!”
Top of the Pops received complaints from concerned parents about the video and, typically timid, promised never to show it again. However, the damage had already been done. Fight for your Right to Party – for that was the song – was seared into my brain forever. The Beastie Boys – Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), Mike D (Michael Diamond) and MCA (Adam Yauch) – had arrived.
Alas, it now looks like the Beastie Boys have departed, for yesterday it was announced that Adam Yauch has passed away from cancer of the salivary gland, a condition he’d been suffering from since 2009. This came only a month after they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland – to date, only the third rap act to have been given this honour.
Despite the impression of the 1980s you might get now, from watching populist and nostalgic TV documentaries about the decade, or from listening to nostalgic collections harvested from the decade’s singles charts, there was actually a lot going on during the 1980s musically. It wasn’t just about unspeakable New Romantic bands in eyeliner and shiny suits pratting around to neutered sub-funk guitar licks, dinky-sounding synthesisers and even dinkier-sounding drum machines. A couple of years in, the 1980s had produced not only rap music, but house music, goth music, several new and more lethal brands of heavy metal and a slew of great indie bands. Meanwhile, interesting things were starting to stir in northern cities in both Britain and America – Manchester in the former case, Seattle in the latter. However, not being the musical anorak that I am now, I wasn’t aware of this diversity. Getting my information from the mainstream newspaper press in Britain, and from Top of the Pops, I assumed that all that was happening music-wise were Duran bloody Duran and Spandau bloody Ballet.
Therefore, hearing Fight for your Right to Party and the Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed to Ill, on which it was the seventh track, was something of an awakening for me. It made me realise that music was getting exciting again.
A loud, fast, brash and bratty confection of metal riffs (largely sampled from Led Zeppelin) and some pretty-obnoxious raps, Licensed to Ill quickly became the soundtrack to a million beer-fuelled fraternity parties in the USA and a million similarly drunken student parties in Europe. It didn’t in any way suggest, however, that its three authors would be more than one-hit wonders. Consequently, when its 1989 follow-up Paul’s Boutique failed to achieve anything like the same sales, music critics were happy to write them off.
In fact, Paul’s Boutique was a savagely underrated album, full of funky sounds that suggested the trio were willing both to experiment beyond the adolescent parameters of their first album and to do some serious growing up. 1992’s Check Your Head brought another new development – the Beastie Boys had learned to play their own instruments! – but it was the 1994 album Ill Communication that marked their comeback in the popularity stakes. In fact, by now equally capable of serving up fuzzy, trippy guitar-instrumental tracks, short, shout-along thrash-metal standards and indescribable but fascinating items infused with samples from old blaxploitation-movie soundtracks, the Beastie Boys had become one of the coolest and most unpredictable musical acts on the planet.
Also by now, Yauch had converted to Buddhism and was shoehorning Buddhist themes into the Beastie Boys’ lyrics and Buddhist sounds into their music. Some critics sneered at this, but the Buddhist dimension added to the bands’ ever-increasing palette of colours.
Later albums Hello Nasty (1998), To the Five Boroughs (2004) and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011) all had their moments, but in retrospect it’s clear that Ill Communication was their high-water mark. In 1999 the band also found time to put together a hits-and-oddities anthology The Sounds of Science, which is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it includes. For one thing, the absence of Fight for your Right to Party shows how keen Yauch, Diamond and Horovitz were to write their frat-brat origins out of their band’s history.
I got to see the Beastie Boys live only once, in 1995, but I’d rate their show as one of my top five gigs ever. Ironically, I almost didn’t attend the concert. They were performing at the Jasmac Plaza in the Japanese city of Sapporo, in whose Hokkai-Gakuen University I was working at the time as a lecturer. Unfortunately, the show was due to begin at 7.00 PM – concerts in Japan tended to start when the tickets said they would – and the same evening I had to give a late lecture until 7.20 PM. Plus I calculated that by the time I got from the university campus, which was in a district south of the city centre, to the Jasmac Plaza, which was downtown, the Beastie Boys would already be an hour into their gig. So it didn’t seem worth it.
However, a few weeks before the concert, something odd happened. It was announced that work had been completed on a new Sapporo subway line, which had a station called Gakuen-Mae directly below the campus where I was working. I also discovered that the next station along the new line, Hosui-Suskino, had an exit that was only a block from the Jasmac Plaza. And a subway train left for Hosui-Susukino from Gakuen-Mae every evening at 7.30. I figured that if I caught the 7.30 train, and moved very fast, I could be at the concert hall in the Jasmac Plaza ten minutes later – hopefully not halfway through the Beastie Boys’ set, if they indeed started performing at 7.00. Fate seemed to be telling me to buy a ticket, so I did.
That evening, I finished my lecture on the stroke of 7.20 and, once I was out of sight of the departing students, ran like hell for the subway station. It seemed to have half-a-dozen escalators, descending deeper and deeper into the earth, and I charged down all of them. The train was already at the platform and I ran and jumped through its about-to-close carriage doors like a fugitive being pursued by the police in an American urban crime thriller. I sprang out of the train at Hosui-Susukino, ran up more escalators, ran along a city block into the Jasmac Plaza and up several stairs to its fourth floor, where the concert hall was. I heard live rap music blasting out of speakers above me.
I ran into the hall, gasping for breath and leaking sweat down my university-lecturer’s shirt, suit and tie. And I realised that the Beastie Boys weren’t on stage at all. What I was hearing was a support act. The trio themselves didn’t appear until forty minutes later.
But what the heck? As I said above, it was a superb gig.
Thanks to Yauch’s passing, this video on Youtube will no doubt be viewed a zillion times this weekend. It’s for Sabotage, their big hit off Ill Communication, and probably the song that will do for their memory what Smoke on the Water did for Deep Purple or Stairway to Heaven did for Led Zeppelin. (As if already aware of this, on the night I saw them in Sapporo, the Beastie Boys worked the Smoke on the Water riff into their performance of Sabotage. But I always thought Sabotage was vastly more entertaining than that clumping Deep Purple dirge.)
And just in case you’ve forgotten it, here’s the video accompanying the song that awoke me from my Tops of the Pops-induced stupor in 1987. Yeah! Kick it!