& The Fall of the Mopsqueezer!
Flop were one of the greatest things to ever emerge from Seattle, not just in the early 90s, but ever. They did not become legends, like Jimi Hendrix or Sir Mix-A-Lot, or Nirvana, Soundgarden, or Pearl Jam. They did not even become cult gods, like Mudhoney. Instead, they achieved a modicum of recognition and then flamed out.
They formed in 1990, when Rusty Willoughby (guitars/vocals/songwriter), Bill Campbell (guitar), and Paul Schurr (bass) lived with a few other friends in a big house in the U-District of Seattle, so named for its proximity to the University of Washington. The U was once Seattle’s most interesting neighbourhood, home to the city’s first farmer’s market, brew pub, and other landmarks are there. It was also once cheap, and along with students, it attracted a whole whack of artists and musicians (some of whom were also UW students), from Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan to Mudhoney, TAD, Posies (who were originally from Bellingham), Soundgarden, and about a billion others. The U is now massively gentrified and, well, kind of unpleasant, I have to say. Anyway. Willoughby, Campbell and Schurr and their housemates threw big parties and this guy, Nate Thompson was around a lot. He was a drummer. In fact, he had been the legendary Seattle band, The Fastbacks. And, well, as fate would have it, we had a band. They tried out a bunch of self-deprecating names (this was Gen X’s heyday, we liked to take the piss out of ourselves), and settled on Flop.
Willoughby had been the frontman of Pure Joy, who were booked to play with Game Theory at UW. But Flop took the stage instead, and this was how Pure Joy’s members learned their band was defunct. To call Flop shambolic would be an understatement. Their early live shows involved heavy alcohol drinking, falling down, smashing their instruments, and getting banned from clubs in both Seattle and Vancouver. Now this is an impressive thing, to get banned from clubs in those cities. Seattle, of course, is where grunge comes from, and people forget just how raw, nasty, and vicious this music was when it emerged, before it got cleaned up and placed in designer flannel for MTV. Vancouver, meanwhile, was one of the birthplace of hardcore punk. My point being that clubs in both cities had seen some crazy shit. And still, Flop got banned.
Flop & The Fall of the Mopsqueezer was their début album, released on legendary LA indie label, Frontier Records. The album was primarily recorded one night after returning from a gig up in Vancouver (GoogleMaps tells me the drive is about 2h45m, which is a lie. I’ve done this drive many times, the shortest one was about 2h30m, the longest was close to 5 hours, in part due to the border, in part due to traffic, which, in Vancouver, is epic and constant). Flop had been on hiatus for much of the previous year, 1991, after Thompson had headed up north to Alaska, to do the sorts of things one does in Alaska. But his return fired up the band and got them into the studio.
They recorded at the legendary Egg Studios in Seattle with equally legendary Kurt Bloch (frontman for the Fastbacks). The result was this beautiful concoction of punk and power pop. Flop were one of my favourite bands in the early 90s. I saw them open for I don’t-even-remember-who sometime in the fall of 1993, I think it was the Commodore Ballroom, and I might even hazard a guess that it was the Afghan Whigs they opened for. But it might have also been The Screaming Trees. Whatever. I was hooked. I immediately made my way to Zulu Records on West 4th Ave., but the best source for underground music in Vancouver, and bought their new album, Whenever You’re Ready. I love this album, and play it a lot, even now. But then I found their first album, Flop & The Fall of the Mopsqueezer! in the used section at Zulu a few months later.
I saw them in January 1994 at the then-new Starfish Room in Vancouver, opened up in the old Club Soda spot (I’m presuming the lot it was on is now condos because, well, Vancouver). Everclear opened for them. Everclear fucking stunk. Flop were amazing.
But when I got Flop & The Fall of the Mopsqueezer, I immediately realized that as good as Whenever You’re Ready was, this was better. It opens up in a fury of guitars and furious pop punk via the Buzzcocks with ‘I Told You a Lie.’ Flop were marked, more than anything by Willoughby’s voice, which was a rarity in those days, he was clear-voiced, he was melodic, and you could actually hear his lyrics. His songwriting always seemed to me to be a mixture of the Beatles and the afore-mentioned Buzzocks.
It is the second track on Mopsqueezer, ‘Anne, that is brilliant, flat out perfect, a blast of guitars and fury. The song begins with a distorted riff and the feedback in its wake and Willoughby sings of Sister Anne being in the garden watering her mother’s dahlias, and then the guitars, drums, and bass crash in and he tells us he is sitting alone inside his room until he feels the valium. The song is all of 1m56s long, it is short, it is perfect. This is the song any musician wishes they’d written.
‘Glue Factory’ starts off in a sludgy bass and guitar squall before the furious moving song begins. It always struck me that with some more distortion and a different singer, Flop were a grunge band. But, rather, they generally eschewed distortion, and thus played at a speed that, really, only Mudhoney ever got close too. I suppose they also could’ve been a hardcore band, but Willoughby loved his melody (this was one of the insults one of my roommates used to throw at me, I loved melody too much).
Listening to ‘Tomato Paste,’ track 4, as Willoughby sings about a pretty girl, I might as well be sitting in the bagel café I worked on on West 4th, about a kilometre west of Zulu, and where I spent most of my time, I worked evenings, sitting on my arse in the window reading. I played this album a lot that summer. It was 1994. And there is an absolutely amazing guitar lead on this track.
Flop cover the Kinks’ ‘Big Sky.’ And as much as the Beatles and the Buzzcocks are amongst their influences, so, too, are the Kinks, especially lyrically, as occasionally Willoughby breaks out in the pastoral. I love the Kinks. But, I have to say, they can’t hold a candle to Flop’s version of ‘Big Sky,’ which is sped up, louder guitars, more crashing drums, and Willoughby emulating Big Sky, who is ‘too big to cry’ about all the misery and suffering he sees below, and singing in a detached manner, buried deeper into the mix. I think I once listened to this song 10 times in a row, in part because I was impressed with the fact that I could just press a button on my CD player and it would re-play a track. No more of the endless stop, rewind, play of the cassette-deck.
My sister, when we were younger, had much more patience for this. She got herself obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name.’ She had the cassette single. One day, I counted, she played it 63 times in a row.
‘Hello’ is almost acoustic, just Willoughby and a guitar, about when he
Threw a stone into the bottomless sea
Tied to it was a hope that you’d come back to me.
And then about a minute in, Johnson’s drum roll announces the arrival of the rest of Flop and we get the rocked out version of the solo beginning.
‘Sister Smile’ starts off like the slow song at the high school dance, flanger and guitar, slow-moving. It’s the slow dance, and the kids are as awkward as they are, slow dancing, debating how close they should get to their partner, mindful of their hands, both exhilarated and terrified. And even when the song picks up some, it still stays relatively slow and mellow.
‘Morton the Venerologist’ is one of my favourite tracks of all-time. At 5m39s, it is the longest song by some measure in the brief Flop oeuvre too. It begins with Thompson and Schurr in lock-step, the drums and bass looping along before the guitars announce their arrival in a haze of noise and feedback and a wah-wahed lead takes over, courtesy of Campbell. The lyrics are about trying to sort oneself out in the world. Whatever, the lyrics here are secondary to the crashing, banging brilliance of the music.
Whenever You’re Ready was their major label début, on Sony’s 550 records, and then, they got dumped and returned to Frontier for 1995’s World of Today, with Schurr out and Dave Fox, formerly of the Posies, in. And then, Johnson left for Europe. And as they had gone on hiatus when he went off to Alaska, the band now split. They were done. They did reform for a one-off gig in 2012, as Johnson was home from Istanbul for his parents’ 50th, and neither Schurr nor Campbell had even played their instruments for a decade. And that’s it. That’s the Flop story.