By Chuck Eddy
“They took the doors off their hinges and moved them around. They flooded two floors with the fire hoses. They plugged up the toilets and destroyed the furniture. They terrorized the other guests. They were just having fun.”
”Hammer of the Gods,” 1985
At 32 minutes past two the morning of 16 January 1987, two Beastie Boys broke into my West Hollywood hotel room and dumped a wastebasket of extremely wet water on my head, my bed, the carpeting and my Converse All-Stars. (I’d stupidly left the chain-lock unsecured, and I suppose they bribed the night clerk into giving them a key.) Earlier that evening, after Pee-Wee Herman had visited their dressing room and before they appeared on Joan Rivers’ show, the Beasties were tossing parsley at me, dropping ice cubes in my hair, and “dissin’” (graffiti-artist lingo for “saying bad things about”) my brown socks and flannel shirt. I interpreted all of this to mean that they did not like me.
But I don’t feel alone. Just days before, they’d been evicted from the Sunset Marquis for throwing chairs out their window into the swimming pool. And that week, they’d also become the first group ever to be censored on American Bandstand—Dick Clark, who’d put up with Johnnies Rotten and Lydon in past episodes, apparently determined Adrock’s mid-song crotch-grab was just too much. The Beasties had previously been banned from the Holiday Inn chain after they’d cut a hole in the floor of one suite to serve as a passageway to the one directly below; they’d been banned from CBS Records headquarters after allegedly ripping off a camera at a label party. And MCA brags that he punched a Bay Area Music interviewer in the face not too long ago. These guys are total jerks, and they’ve got the fastest-selling debut album in CBS history.
MCA, real name Adam Yauch, says he’s skimmed through “Hammer of the Gods,” a book that depicts Led Zeppelin’s early career as one massive, Satanic orgy, complete with fishing for sharks out hotel windows and sicking the prize catches on baked-bean marinated groupies. “It happens that we are living up to that reputation, but it’s not intentional,” MCA tells me. “We respect what they did. They were the only band that never buckled under to their label, and they sold more records than anybody.” Beastie Mike D, whose stage handle is shortened from Michael Diamond, is wearing a Houses of the Holy T-shirt. The first noises you hear on the Boys’ Licensed to Ill album are John Bonham’s drums, lifted from Zep’s mega-swing classic “When the Levee Breaks.” I ask Mike D what his favorite LP of 1986 was, and he answers Led Zeppelin IV.
There’s a feeling I get…
When I look to the West…
And my spirit is crying for leaving…
Made up my mind
To make a new start
Goin’ to California
With an achin’ in my heart.”
—Page & Plant
Led Zeppelin IV, 1971
Upon arriving in Los Angles to meet the most famous Caucasian rap trio in the history of Western Civilization, I found that their record company has sent a limousine to the airport to pick me up. I’m taking one of those huge black ones where the celebrities can look out but the peons can’t look in, and of course I’ve never even touched one before, and I thought it was obscene. The driver gave me the scenic route down to Sunset Boulevard, and he pointed out Engelbert Humperdink’s abodes, and we passed UCLA. The driver showed me this monument made of four white columns at the top of a small hill. He said Al Jolson was buried there.
Like Gigolo Al, and like Bob Wills and Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones and the disco Bee Gees as well, the Beastie Boys are white people making what is supposed to be black music. Like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote all of the Coasters’ hits and whose “Girls, Girls, Girls” MCA claims did not influence the groups very similar “Girls,” and like the Dictators, whose Go Girl Crazy anticipated punk and whose White Castle infatuation MCA claims did not influence MCA claims had no effect on his crew’s own sliders-by-the-bag fetish, the Beasties are young middle-class Jewish males chronicling the dilemma of urban-American teen hooligancy. Or rather, in the Beastie Boys’ case, half-Jewish. “Purely coincidentally, we each have one Jewish parent,” explains MCA. Adrock and Mike D, now 17 and 19 old respectively, grew up in Manhattan; MCA, 20 comes from Brooklyn Heights. MCA and Mike D “have been friends forever and were boys together,” MCA says; Adrock, a.k.a. Adam Horvitz, met the other two in junior high school. Noted playwright Israel Horvitz, Adrock’s dad, left home when the Beastie was a baby. MCA’s first criminal act was setting a print shop on fire.
“All the kids from our high school listened to Deep Purple, crap like that,” Mike D says. “When you see that shit it doesn’t make you want to go out and play it.” Yauch, Horvitz and Diamond opted for the (then) unpopular alternative, dying their hair orange or shaving it off, checking out the Stimulators and Sham 69 at New York clubs, and eventually starting their own hardcore squads.
“Everyone we knew was in a band,” Mike D says. “That’s what was cool about punk.” The original Beastie Boys comprised Yauch, Diamond and two more; Horivitz’ band, The Young & the Useless, would open shows. Eventually, the combos merged. After releasing the 7-inch Polly Wog Stew EP on the Rat Cage label in 1982, lured by a Gotham rap subculture that seemed to parallel punk in the do-it-yourself-music department, the Beasties decided to expand their horizons.
“We went into the studio and recorded 10 songs, and we did the song ‘Cookie Puss’ as a joke,” MCA remembers. “We were making fun of Malcolm McLaren, and the whole downtown art scene that was exploiting hip-hop.” A poor mix caused eight tunes to be shelved, but “Cookie Puss” came out as a 12-inch single, backed with a rasta-toasting/ Musical Youth parody called “Beastie Revolution.” The A-side was a seemingly sexist and racist stylus-scratch rendering of a pornographic phone call to an ice cream sandwich store, and it turned out to be 1983’s funniest novelty record. Rick Rubin, a club jockey whose band, Hose, did grunge-metal versions of Ohio Players and Rick James numbers, heard the disc and liked it. Beastie gigs gradually evolved from “a lot of new wave Wild-Style Burner Style music with the turntable next to the drum riser (sez MCA) to all-the-way-live rap, and Rubin produced 1985s awesome “Rock Hard”/Party’s Gettin’ Rough”/ “Beastie Groove” EP. The record kidnapped sections outright from AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and Zep’s “Black Dog.” The Beasties chanted, “I’m a man who needs no introduction/Got a big tool of reproduction.”
Furthering their ironman-funk synthesis on the “Soundtrack from the Video ‘She’s on It’” single, and helped along by a distribution deal Rubin’s Def Jam Records had established with CBS, the trio burst onto MTV in late ’85. A year later, after a summer of opening for the suddenly huge Rubin-produced Run D.M.C., the Beasties were bonafide stars; within six weeks of its release, Licensed to Ill had already sold over a million copies, and was kicking its way up to the Top 20. If you go to high school or live in a college dorm, you most likely know the thing forwards and backwards by now. Licensed to Ill has pushed rap into the whitest corridors of America’s heartland, and (along with D.M.C., Metallica and the Rubin-produced Slayer) had made the future safe for dangerous teenage music, a form that seemed to have died. CBS, concentrating on Bruce S. and Michael J., has an unexpected blockbuster on its hands. And the Beastie Boys are playing their fifteen minutes of fame to the hilt. “Five years from now I might be selling used cars on the lot,” MCA says. “I really don’t give a fuck, ’cause I’m having so much fun now.”
For example: I’m at the hotel, as are members of the Beastie entourage, which consists of Sean, their hepcat British manager, Hurricane, a brawny deejay who carries lots of gold junk around his neck, Cey, who has known the Beasties since childhood and now serves as roadie and astrologer and all-around nice guy, and Eloise, an overweight go-go dancer who’s supposed to look “sexy” when she strips down to her black lace, I guess, but mostly just comes off as gruesome. The Beasties aren’t there, and the limo driver says it’s time to leave for the Rivers Show. All of a sudden a luxury machine burns rubber around the corner, just missing the limo, and skids to a halt in front of the hotel gate. MCA jumps out and runs inside, and Adrock takes the wheel even though he’s never driven a stick-shift before. MCA’s done doing what he was doing, and the treacherous three are ready to go now, but they’re not riding in the limo; they’ve just rented a Town Car after getting bored with a Ferrari and a Rolls, and they don’t want their dollars to go to waste. “We ride three in the front, you in the back,” Mike D tells me. “That’s the rule.”
The limousine goes first, and we follow. The auto I’m in is manned by derelicts: MCA’s wearing a wrinkled long-sleeve white button-down, a black leather jacket, and a five o’clock (or five day, maybe) beard-shadow; Adrock has an “Appalachian Basketball Camp” shirt, a red Texaco baseball cap and a light-blue windbreaker; Mike D, skinnier, and nerdier-looking than his cohorts, has a gold Volkswagen pendant, black horned-rim glasses, and an earring. Their jeans have holes, their Nikes lack laces (some new fad, I think), and I’m no queer but I know that these are not the prettiest men I’ve ever seen. Anyway, we’re chasing the limo, and Metallica’s “Battery” is blasting from our tapedeck, and the dudes in front of me are banging their heads towards the windshield as if they constituted one orgasm. They release their seatbacks so they can ride horizontally, they “accidentally” bump bumpers with the limo a few times, they shout catcalls at the usual feminine suspects. (“Before we were successful we used to stand at the streetcorner and yell at girls,” Mike D later informs Joan Rivers. “Now we can sit in a Ferrari and do it, and it’s a lot more effective.”) And the doo-wop along with the cassette, which plays the Coasters, Elvis, Roxanne Shante, Marvin Gaye, ? And The Mysterians, Stevie Wonder, and—as a tribute to their adolescent homeboys, I gather—Deep Purple.
“It becomes hard to remember that “Smoke on the Water” was never a good song and was barely a good joke— and even harder to remember that old bromide about what happens to those who don’t learn from the past.”
Boston Phoenix, December 30, 1986
Afoot in our land is disillusionment like has not been seen since the Watergate years. For the generation weaned on Danny Bonaduce, awakened by Haldeman, Erlichman and Dean, and enlightened by punk and its progeny, this disillusionment casts doubt and cynicism on not only our leaders, but on the mass media that stimulate our national mood. Be a sourpuss and call it premature nostalgia if you need to, but the current interest in early ’70s rock is no retreat; fact is, punk promised more and then failed more miserably than any other rock ‘n’ roll ever has. When Redd Kross covers Kiss, when “Walk This Way” goes Top 10, when the Golden Palominos hire Jack Bruce, it’s not retreat—rather, it’s a necessary return to unfinished business. If the Sex Pistols never happened, we’d probably better off than we are now. And if the Beastie Boys don’t come right out and say this, their record certainly implies it. To me, the most amazing thing about Licensed to Ill‘s success is the youth of its audience. That children of the ’80s are buying it proves how universal its ideas are. Because to get all of the details, you have to be a child of the ’70s.
As I’ve said, Bonzo slapping his drumkit starts off the thing. But before the vinyl’s been exhausted, we’ve also heard musical or verbal snippets from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” Zep’s “The Ocean,” War’s “Low Rider,” Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle” and “Take the Money and Run” (plus they did a cool a capella “Joker” during the Joan Rivers rehearsals), Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” Aerosmith’s “No More No More,” Creedence’s “Down on the Corner,” and some Barry White tune whose title alludes me. It’s no accident the record starts with a song called “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” – the oeuvres of Bill Haley and Bobby Fuller and Kurtis Blow and Schoolly-D are plundered, too. But Licensed to Ill isn’t just about creative in-joke robbery; if it was, it wouldn’t be worth much. All those borrowed bits and pieces are used to make connections, to outline the perimeters of the youth culture on which the Beasties’ B-boy-brat stance depends. When I asked MCA about the lyric “sit around the house, get high and watch the tube,” he answered, “We’re not using it because it’s in a Steve Miller song. We’re using it because it’s a good line.”
So in the long run, what makes Licensed to Ill a great album—one of the best of the last year, and one of a mere handful of listenable recent ones on major labels—is that it’s got great songs. First off, they sound great; Rubin is one of the few current producers out there who refuse to sell out rhythm to disco-syndrome water-torture monotony, and this album’s got his biggest beats ever. With him the Beasties could get by on their cockiness alone. But what I really mean by great songs is great songwriting, by which I guess I just mean common sense. Wiffleball bats and swirlies and Phyllis Diller and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Budweiser and Rice-a-Roni and angel dust are things we live with in this world, and sometimes even things we talk about in real life, but I’ll be damned if anybody else has ever written songs about then, and even if somebody has, they never wrote a couplet as unpretentiously jocular as “My pistol is loaded, I shot Betty Crocker/Deliver Colonel Sanders down to Davy Jones locker” or “Went to the prom, bought a fly blue rental/Got six girlies in my Lincoln Continental.” It’s all about specificity, I reckon. And when the words fall together into a fantastic delinquent anthem like “Fight for Your Right (To Party)”or a fantastic rock star rave-up like “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” (with glaciated guitar from Slayer’s Kerry King) or a fantastic ghetto-gangster boast like “The New Style,” I just can’t figure why a person would resist. If being “offended” is what bugs you, you don’t love rock ‘n’ roll.
When I woke up late in the afternoon
She’d taken all the things from inside of my room
I found myself naked in the middle of the floor
She’d taken the bed, and the chest of drawers
The mirror, the TV, the new guitar chords
My remote control and my old skateboard
She robbed us blind, she took all we own
And the boys blamed me for bringing me home.”
“She’s Crafty,” 1986
There will always be party-poopers whose knees jerk whenever rap is mentioned; it takes no “talent,” they say, anybody could do it. For all I know they’re right, but I don’t think it matters—if punk should have taught us anything, it’s that rock is the property of ordinary people, not supergeniuses. It’s not what somebody “could” do that’s important; it’s what they do. And though when I listen to Licensed to Ill I wonder why nobody has ever accomplished the Beasties accomplish here, I’m nevertheless more cynical about hip-hop than they are—to my ears it peaked around 1982, and (save for a couple big acts who transcended the form) it’s mainly cliché-recapitulation, best exemplified by all those “Roxanne, Roxanne: answer-records and television theme mastermixes. According to the Beasties, if I lived in New York—where “you here it in the clubs and you hear it on the boxes in the streets,” Adrock says—I’d think differently. “There’s more copycat metal than copycat rap,” MCA opines, hitting me in my soft spot. “We hereby challenge Bon Jovi to an MC contest,” taunts Mike D.
To be fair to those still skeptical about this stuff, I thought the Beastie Boys were less than brilliant live—reminded me more of a high school talent show than a rock gig, and all the somersaults and funky chickens and spastic ticks didn’t conceal the fact that they dance even worse than Madonna, who they toured the country with in ’85 and were scheduled to eat dinner with the evening after they doused my bed. Of course, the Rivers show may have been an atypical performance; “they told us if we fuck up one more time on live TV, we’re done,” Mike D had related earlier. Maybe they were toned down, or maybe they were over-rehearsed, or maybe I just haven’t seen enough rap shows to know I’m supposed to watch when all that’s onstage is a turntable and three kids with microphones. The interview with Joan was certainly entertaining—MCA sat in her chair, Adrock on her desk, Mike D next to her with his arm around her; they gave her an apple with a bit taken out, and told her they were working on a concerto at Julliard. When we’d walked into her studio that afternoon, we’d seen a picture of Run-D.M.C. on the wall between Dr. Ruth and Vincent Price, so perhaps Joan digs this boogaloo thang enough to invite the Boys back. Don’t know whether she appreciated the “Extended Sexual Orgasm” book they presented her and her hubbie backstage at the end of the night, though.
Well, you can’t claim good fortune has spoiled these guys—from what I hear, they’ve always been like this. But they say they enjoy the fame, even if it means meeting dimwits like Dweezil Zappa, and even if they have to put up with fools who ask them whether they’re actually black. “When my mom first heard (the album) she said it sounded like it would be real successful,” MCA says, and I expect an A&R department to give her a call any day now. The Beasties have run into a brick wall or two—Michael Jackson, who owns the Beatles’ catalog, refused to grant them permission to include their surf-guitar/doo-wop of “I’m Down” on the LP; an intended non-LP B-side called “The Scenario,” a murder story that the group calls their best song, proved to be too graphic for CBS. The label also advised (but didn’t demand) the Beasties not to call their album Don’t Be a Faggot, which was its working title. But the threesome is mostly satisfied with the freedom they’ve been granted, and they realize it’s a rare thing in the age of Tipper Gore and Muzak Top 40. Says MCA: “The unique thing about the Def Jam deal is that we get the power to do what we want to do.”
The group expects to contribute “The Scenario” to a film soundtrack in the near future. Another unreleased cut, “Desperado,” will be included in Rubin’s Tougher Than Leather flick, due for release this year. Meanwhile. The Beasties are barn-storming America’s auditoriums with funk-wavers Fishbone and laff-core phonies Murphy’s Law, spreading their decadent sex-and-drugs gospel to the initiated and uninitiated alike. (David Lee Roth asked them to open his tour’s concerts, but they wanted to headline this time.) After that, who knows? “I don’t know if we’ll die doing this,” MCA remarks. “And I don’t think we should disappoint our audience by letting them know what we got planned.”
“When in doubt, whip it out, I got me a rock ‘n’ roll band, it’s a free-for-all.”
“Free For All,” 1976