A History Lesson

From the self released "Now We are 10" CD.

"Daddy, where do Dead Milkmen come from?"

Some of them come from a place with the unlikely name of Wagontown, located in Pennsylvania’s Amish countryside. Believe it or don’t, that’s where Rod and Joe spent their Wonder Years. They first met in the high school lunch room, but never talked much. "Joe was a real quiet kid. Kind of like most serial killers, come to think of it."

Fortunately, Joe’s sociopathic impulses were channeled into the media. While working with video at school, Joe and his friend Garth recorded comedy tapes (audio) at home. Somehow the idea of the Dead Milkmen popped out. The imaginary band was led by an imaginary rock star named Jack Talcum, who had high ideals that never came out quite right in his music. On New Year’s Eve 1979, the duo recorded a tape called So Long Seventies, the first to feature the concept.

Somewhere around that time, Joe put together the first issue of the Dead Milkmen Newzletter. The Newzletter was something of an inverse takeoff on the Wings Funclub Newsletter, a relentlessly upbeat and fluffy account of Paul McCartney’s latest doings. The DM Newzletter, on the other hand, was a fanzine that took a relentlessly negative attitude toward its subject — and considering that Jack Talcum was dumber than a stump, it was an easy thing to do. Joe says he did it "to kill time in Wagontown. There wasn’t much else to do." He estimates that the DM Newzletter’s top circulation back in those high school days was about 4.

Meanwhile, Rod was involved in the school paper, developing his verbal satire skills. He heard a copy of So Long Seventies and couldn’t believe that quiet kid in the lunch room was involved. When Joe and Garth recorded their next tape in February 1980, Rod joined in. They thought his banjo playing was okay, but they were really impressed by his ability to make up lyrics on the spot. That tape was called Folk Songs For the Eighties and signaled the birth of the Rod and Joe songwriting partnership.

When graduation rolled around, Joe went on to Philadelphia’s Temple University as a communications major, and Garth signed on with the Air Force. Rod had another year to go (remember, he’s the baby of the band). They kept in touch by mail. Rod sent lyrics which Joe set to music. Joe kept the DM Newzletter going, with Jack Talcum getting into ever stranger situations.

In Temple’s Radio/Television/Film 101, Joe met David Reckner (now the DM’s manager) and Dan Mapp (now the DM’s road manager). At the time, Reckner was ad hoc manager for high school-mates of his, Dean and Mike, who had a band called Narthex — a gritty duo with an out-of-whack sensibility. "We just never found a bass player who could put up with us," Dean recalls. As they made their wobbly progress from suburban DIY gigs to Philly underground clubs, Joe watched from the sidelines, no doubt forming his master plan. In March 1982, Joe dragged Rod out to see a Narthex show at the Landmark Tavern. Inspiration struck hard — something along the lines of "If these guys can get away with it, so can we!" and a fateful vow was made. Within a year, the Dead Milkmen would become a real band and play the Landmark Tavern (unfortunately, the Landmark stopped booking bands long before that deadline… something about trashed toilets). The die was cast.

Living in the Temple dorms, Joe had become friends with Joe S, who shared Joe’s enthusiasm for punk and new wave. Joe confided that he wanted to form a band. Joe S suggested getting together with his older brother, Dave, who played the bass. Dave brought his bass to the dorm, and they hit it off. Working with Rodney’s lyrics and their own, they started putting songs together. They also had their fill of dorm life. Joe and the brothers soon moved to a rowhouse in Philly’s Manayunk neighborhood. The songs kept coming, and they recorded A Date With the Dead Milkmen, a raw, homemade tape that got them some local fanzine exposure.

By summer 1983, Narthex had pretty much done all that they could get away with. Mike (now with the Headspinners) gave up music for a while, but Dean immediately got together with Joe and Dave for a jam session down in Manayunk. Reckner, who drove Dean and his drums down for the event, was thoroughly unimpressed. "Who’da thunk it?" Undaunted, the guys rehearsed a couple more times in the following weeks, now at Dave Blood’s parents’ house in Ridley Park (Dave’s parents requested that they play very loudly — seems they had a feud going with their neighbors). Meanwhile, Dean lucked into a little DIY gig out in the suburbs. Were the DM ready? "What, me worry?"

On July 23, 1983, the Dead Milkmen rolled into the parking lot of the Harleysville Youth Center. Things would never be quite the same again. Dan was along to play bass with his band, the Singles. Completing the bill was kiddypunk combo, Mister Happy, featuring Jon Wurster on drums (now with Superchunk). But most importantly, having missed every rehearsal so far, Rodney finally showed up. The last puzzle piece fell into place. We won’t say that the DM manifested instant godhood. But one can definitely say: as primitive or shaky as they may have been that night, they also oozed primal Dead Milkmanishness all over the place. The goofy pop sensibility, the love of obnoxious noise, the unbelievably tasteless sick jokes (and of course the mighty F word) were all there in full force, ready to spread through an unsuspecting world. The wheels of the milk-truck began to roll.

As the DM’s rehearsal space rotated to Dean’s parents’ house in Sellersville, a circle of local kids began attending the practice sessions. More DIY gigs popped up. One, in a barn out in the sticks, resulted in a live tape called Funky Barn — the first tape sold to their growing following. Rod plastered downtown Philly with flyers promoting the DM, inviting people to get on the DM Newzletter mailing list — and they did. In December 1983, the DM played the Eastside Club; in those days, a cornerstone of the Philly underground scene. A month later, they finished work on another basement tape, Death Rides a Pale Cow, which included the first version of Bitchin’ Camaro.

But the biggest break came on May 6, 1984. Back in the early eighties, everyone in the Philly underground (and surrounding suburbs) listened to WXPN’s Sunday night punk ‘n’ stuff program, Yesterday’s Now Music Today (don’t bother listening now — those days are long gone). Bitchin’ Camaro was already getting some airplay, which probably helped the DM get booked for a live studio performance. The guys were at their tightest (which was still pretty loose), and the broadcast resulted in their best sounding tape yet, Dead Milkmen Take the Airwaves. But more importantly, the concentrated exposure really put them over. At their next show, opening for JFA, the response was phenomenal. It seemed that overnight the DM had gone from being Philly’s stupid little joke band to Philly’s most popular joke band (not counting The Hooters). The connection to Fever Records came within the year, and a certain Big Lizard invaded the nation’s backyards soon after.

M.Ace / 1993