Song Writing

How the Dead Milkmen Came Back to Life

by April Fox

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You're cruising down the road, minding your own business, when some joker in a souped-up old sports car passes you on the right, exhaust choking you out and AC/DC blaring from the speakers. If your response is a loud laugh followed by a shout of, "I've got a bitchin' Camaro," congratulations: you're clued in to punk rock's worst-kept secret: The Dead Milkmen.

The Milkmen burst – okay, trickled, with an acrid smell you couldn't miss – onto the scene in 1983 with the release of their first album, Funky Farm. In a world dominated by catchy tunes from Hall and Oates, Michael Jackson and The Police, the Dead Milkmen were a welcome antidote to slick radio hits and pretentious hooks. They were a little vulgar, a little crass, kind of offensive, and unquestionably hilarious. These guys took the prerequisite musical anarchy of punk rock and shoved a hearty dose of Mad Magazine down its throat until what came up was nothing short of sheer irreverent musical bliss. Want proof? Listen to "Taking Retards to the Zoo." You'll laugh your ass off, feel guilty about it for a second, and then call all of your friends and make them listen to it too.

The Dead Milkmen kept a steady stream of albums coming between 1983 and 1995, when they went their separate ways. Their 1988 release Beelzebubba spawned the anthem for every girl who ever laced up her Doc Martens over a pair of torn fishnets: "Punk Rock Girl" was a fast-paced ode to love, stolen cars and fudge-banana swirl ice cream. Finally, MTV was ready for the Milkmen phenomenon, and the video for "Punk Rock Girl" saw decent airplay.

Featuring a girl with a bright green Mohawk, a pair of mall zombies, and the antics of a band who were clearly not taking the whole lip-sync-for-the-cameras thing seriously, the video spoke to music fans who wanted more from life than formulaic arena rock. Though "Punk Rock Girl" could be considered the band's signature song, it was written by Joe Jack Talcum before the Milkmen came together. When we spoke with Milkmen drummer Dean Clean, he stated that "Joe brought the song to the Dead Milkmen as a whole, thinking that we could probably do a good version of it." A good version of it - many fans would consider that an understatement; the song remains one of their most popular. The places mentioned in "Punk Rock Girl" – The Philly Pizza Company and Zipperhead – are long gone, according to Clean, a fact that likely disappoints young fans who go in search of the fabled landmarks made famous by the quintet from Philly.

The Dead Milkmen:
Joe Genaro (Joe Jack Talcum) - Guitar and Vocals
Dean Sabatino (Dean Clean) - Drums
Rodney Linderman (Rodney Anonymous) - Keyboard and Vocals
Dave Schulthise (Dave Blood) - Original Bassist
Dan Stephens - Current Bassist
The Dead Milkmen went on to release several albums throughout the '90s, including the compilation/greatest hits release Now We are Ten in 1993. The band called it quits in 1995 after 12 years together, and the following decade saw both triumph and tragedy for the band. The Milkmen released another compilation album, Death Rides a Pale Cow, in 1997, introducing a new generation of nerd-punk fans to their genius. In 2003, to commemorate the 20 year anniversary of the band's inception, they released the album Now We are 20, another compilation of hits and favorites, along with a few new b-sides and unreleased tracks. The following year, however, things took a serious and heartbreaking turn for the band.

On March 10, 2004, bassist Dave Blood – born Dave Schulthise – overdosed on pills. Blood had been passionate about the Serbian culture and spent time in the war-torn nation, writing articles for the magazine put out by the Serbian Orthodox Church and teaching English. When NATO bombed Serbia, Blood returned to the US to inform people in his home country about the plight of the Serbian people. Sadly, he couldn't bear the weight of his own personal struggles, and the musical world lost a talented and passionate artist when he took his life.

So what became of the rest of the Milkmen? Dean Clean, Rodney Anonymous and Joe Jack Talcum remained friends and went on to pursue other careers while still playing music in their own respective projects. In 2008, a voice from the past spoke up, and everything changed. The Milkmen reunited, joined by bassist Dan Stephens, for a festival gig, and decided to keep making music together. The Songfacts investigative team tracked down the man behind the reunion: Fun Fun Fun Fest founder Graham Williams, who told us how it all came about.
"When I was in sixth grade, my buddy's dad was friends with The Dead Milkmen's producer and they wanted some kids to sing on the song "Beige Sunshine." (From their 1990 album Metaphysical Graffiti.) It was fun, but I was into cheesy metal like Motley Crue and had no idea, at the time, how cool it was. I bought the tape when it came out and it changed my life. The first punk show I went to was that tour and since then, I've put much of my life into independent music.

I'd always wanted to see a DMM reunion and while it was sad hearing about Dave Blood's death, I was happy to hear they did a benefit show after he died. I reached out shortly after and they said the timing was bad, but kind of were like "We'll never say never," which left the door open for me to try again the next year.

I was having a hard time getting in touch and tracked down their old producer, Brian Beattie, to help put in a good word. After that, Dean got back to me. He looped in the whole band in an email thread that was basically "Man, I'd love to, but not sure Joe or Rodney has the time." Joe's response was similar, as was Rodney's. They basically all said they wanted to and still loved the band, but didn't know if the other guys were available, so seeing that everyone was in agreement I just said, "I'll pay you guys a good guarantee and fly you out to headline Fun Fun Fun fest in Austin."

I don't think they knew how popular they were. That show was amazing. They were so insanely tight it was like they never split up, and Rodney was just as energetic and hilarious as ever. He was even making up new lyrics he'd slip in, modernizing the classic songs for everyone and keeping it fresh. The crowd was as crazy and alive as any old DMM show, if not more so. Maybe it was cathartic for the band; it seems so for me, as a lifelong fan. I guess that helped convince them to get back into it, which is great."

The Milkmen aren't planning any major tours anytime soon, content to play the odd weekend festival and make appearances here and there. Clean tells us, "It's been fun, because it's been different. It's not like we're sitting on a tour bus for 6 or 8 weeks. We come out, have some fun for a weekend, play a show or two, see some of our old friends, and it's more relaxed. We all have day jobs now. But it's a lot of fun to do and we're enjoying playing again."

In 2011, The Dead Milkmen released The King in Yellow, their first studio album in 16 years. Full of the same clever musical debauchery thrown at you from their previous albums, The King in Yellow proves that The Dead Milkmen have what it takes to retain their claim as the kings of sharp, witty punk. They're a band that defies genre or classification; by turns political, silly, macabre and outrageous, The Dead Milkmen are unapologetically their own brand. They've weathered two and a half decades of musical trends, staying true to the music they love to play and proving time and again that there is nothing in the world that a road trip to the Bahamas and a nice tall glass of bleach can't cure.

November 10, 2011
To get the album and learn much more about the band, check out deadmilkmen.com.

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Comments: 3

  • Trevor Older from MichiganThank you for this.
  • Sabrina Sprinkle from Asheville, NcThis is extremely well written and by far the most information I've seen on one of my favorite bands in a long time. Thank you so very much for catching us up on where they are and what they're doing. Hopefully they'll play the Orange Peel one day.
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaAcrid is right! You weren't lying about that. I saw them play the Rat in Boston many years ago and they had a fog machine going full blast the entire night. I think half the crowd was ready to pass out by the end of the night. I have no idea how they got through the night playing in all that smoke, but they did and it was a fun night.
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