Since Adam Yauch's passing last week, I've been thinking a lot about the album that converted me into a real Beastie Boys fan. As a teenage girl, I didn't find what I was looking for on License to Ill, or in their pseudo-fratboy "antics." You know, giant inflatable penises onstage and a generally metallic attitude toward females. I was probably a little afraid. Definitely too young to grasp any of the knowing humor behind a giant inflatable penis.
I think at some point, someone should make a documentary about the Great Inflatables of rock. Off the top of my head I am thinking of the giant inflatable cobras I saw at Aerosmith and the giant inflatable mouth & tongue when the Stones played Dodger Stadium several years ago. Giant inflatables are not to be taken lightly. They can be a huge hassle. At the Stones show, the tongue wouldn't unfurl and inflate properly, so it was sort of flaccid and weird for much of its appearance. I believe giant inflatables are like fireworks—the two really go hand in hand—in that they give roadies and crew a huge headache and can be downright dangerous, but when they work, they turn even smart audience members into complete idiots. This is a kind of liberation.
In any case, if I had known then what I know now about giant inflatables, I would have probably realized the Beastie Boys were geniuses. As it was, their music didn't appeal to my ears as much as other pop music and even other hip-hop of the time, although we didn't call it hip-hop. We called it rap. (And they didn't play it on KROQ. The first girls heard singing "Brass Monkey" at Immaculate Heart High School were African American, because they were listening to KDAY.)
All the obituaries I read for Adam Yauch mentioned Paul's Boutique as their seminal album, their Sgt. Pepper. But I think that's probably, at the deepest level, not true. (I don't even think Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper.)
The Beasties' most expansive, intriguing, and thematically meaningful album was not mentioned in any of the obituaries I read. That album is Check Your Head, which also represented the Beastie Boys' return to recording and playing as a real band. Importantly, Check Your Head also contains as many pop thrills as any Beasties' album besides License to Ill, of course. Those pop thrills are what makes it work. I love the way that "Something's Got to Give"—which comes off as a meditative premonition of the impending L.A. riots—seques into the silliness of "The Blue Nun" ("Mmmm... It does go well with the chicken.")
I have a lot to say about Check Your Head (and its spinoff, The In Sound from Way Out) an album that was recorded in Los Angeles—specifically, Atwater Village—using instruments found through the Recycler. But now I am going out into the great, wide world.