Dr. Frank, the idiosyncratic songwriting genius for the Mr. T Experience, is the Cole Porter of Punk* -- an unusually skillful tunesmith, and one of the best lyricists working in the rock idiom. The band itself started in the mid-80s, and specialized in upbeat, joyously moronic punk rock novelty songs -- which in and of itself was not unusual for the time. Unfortunately, the band was a victim of its own success: after the initial amusement passed, many listeners moved on, assuming they knew what the band was about, sadly unaware of the artistic growth to come in later years.
The band has had a huge -- if unrecognized -- impact on American pop music, since they were probably the main influence on fellow East Bay pop-punkers (and ex-Lookout! labelmates), Green Day. Numerous other lesser bands were to follow -- Blink 182, etc., etc... Somehow, though, Mr. T missed the big brass ring, and for the last few years, the band has hovered underneath the halo of actual stardom, humbly (but not quietly!) churning out album after album of the best pop-punk America has to offer. Plus there are the live shows, which are a source of unremitting pleasure... I usually max out on any musician after seeing them two or three times, but each time I've seen MTX, the band has always sounded fresh, fun, and de-lovely.
So, here we have it. This page is an effort to convince the world that Dr. Frank is not merely a brilliant, gifted genius, but also an accomplished songsmith in the old Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building traditions. The guy's got a great ear for wordplay, a bunch of brainy preoccupations, and a rather well-polished act of self-deprecation. (For a more focused explanation of my admiration for Dr. Frank's songwriting, check out the related article, MagFields vs. MTX.)
Mr. T Experience "Everybody's Entitled To Their Own Opinion" (Disorder, 1986/reissued on Lookout!)
The opening salvo of MTX's war on hearing aids, this is generally credited as the first East Bay pop-punk album, the one that started it all, etc., etc... Loud, dopey, aggressive stuff - equal parts Ramones, Adicts and Archies. The guitars are sloppier than on later records, and stylistically closer to the So-Cal snotpunk and hardcore bands that Dr. Frank and Jon Von (and all other California punkers) were listening to in the early '80s. Highlights include "I'm In Love With Paula Pierce" and "Danny Partridge Is Busted," as well as a couple of nice cover tunes such as the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Mary Mary."
Mr. T Experience "Night Shift At The Thrill Factory" (Rough Trade/Lookout, 1988)
When I listen back to this album, I think fondly of my college days, when I would play "Now We Are 21" on my local radio station and gleefully howl along at the top of my lungs. Being unable to separate myself from the pleasures of these youthful indiscretions, I'm not sure how well the records holds up objectively... still, these lads sure were enthusiastic. By and large the sound is still pretty snotpunky, with traces of the Who, the Clash and the Dead Kennedys (among others) popping up in all the right places. If you're paying attention, though, this is where Frank starts to hit his stride as a songwriter -- some of the more ambitious tunes are a bit clunky tunewise, but there are hints of things to come. Includes my all-time favorite MTX song, "History Of The Concept Of The Soul," an audacious outing which shrinks a philosophy term paper Frank wrote into 1:18 of pure brilliance (and, as far as I know, the only punk song yet to use the abbreviation "ibid"). Also has that dumb crowd-pleaser, "Itching Powder In The Sleeping Bag," and one of Jon Von's best songs, "What Is Punk?". A fun, explosively youthful record. (NOTE: Lookout's CD reissue includes the faux-anthemic ode to the birthplace of the East Bay pop-punk scene, "Gilman Street.")
Mr. T Experience "Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood" (Rough Trade, 1989/Lookout CD, 1997)
Originally an EP tossed off to keep "the kids" busy while the band puzzled over whether or not to break up (what again?), this includes several all-time faves such as the faux-anthemic "At Gilman Street" and the fab Sesame Street cover, "Up And Down," which is the song that almost made them famous. The CD re-release includes a bazillion other songs from miscellaneous singles, one-offs and split 7"s, one of the best of which is "Swallow Everything," which is from some compilation somewhere. If (like myself) you were trying to convince the world that Dr. Frank is a genius lyricist, this disc might not be the place to start... but if you just wanted to hear a bunch of great punk songs from the early 1990s... then dive right in!
Mr. T Experience "Making Things With Light" (Lookout, 1990)
Mr. T Experience "Milk Milk Lemonade" (Lookout, 1992)
I have to confess, I'm not really familiar with this album. Like I said, I lost track of the band for a while.
Mr. T Experience "Our Bodies, Ourselves" (Lookout, 1993)
Ditto on this one. A heard it a couple of times (my girlfriend loves it) but it kind of struck me as a little too close to the bone -- like depressing in a not-so-funny way, or disturbing somehow. Maybe now that I'm mouthing off about it online, I'll go back and make more of a concerted effort.
Mr. T Experience "Taping Up My Heart" (EP) (Lookout, 1995)
The vinyl version, which has fewer songs than...
Mr. T Experience "...And The Women Who Love Them" (EP) (Lookout, 1994)
A six song CD, including "Taping Up My Heart" and "We Hate All The Same Things," both of which are absolutely brilliant. This is the record that made me come up with the Cole Porter comparison... and I stick by it. Some of the most clever wordplay in punk is contained herein, as well as some of the band's catchiest melodies. Note to record label: this is "greatest hits" material.
Mr. T Experience "Alternative Is Here To Stay" (EP) (Lookout, 1995)
A hilarious little one-off which pokes fun at the mega-success of Green Day and all the lame, copycat bands that came in their wake. Meanwhile, Frank and the boys -- who inspired Green Day in the first place -- were schlepping their guitars, drum kit and amps from show to show. The B-side "alternative" version of "Alternative Is Here To Stay" is, of course, the exact same version as on the A-side. Another small, sweet stroke of genius.
Mr. T Experience "...And The Women Who Love Them (Special Addition)" (Lookout, 2002)
The original Women EP, remastered and paired up with Alternative Is Here To Stay, as well as a slew of great one-off singles, B-sides and tracks from compilations and acoustic side projects running up to the fabled Love Is Dead LP. Lotsa fun on here, and a real bargain for MTX fans looking to fill in the gaps. Recommended!
Mr. T Experience "Love Is Dead" (Lookout, 1996)
A stunningly well-crafted pop album, and , if I had to pick just one -- my favorite Mr. T album. What's not to like? "Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba" is one of the catchiest, head-bobbinest tunes ever... one of those can't-get-this-out-of-my-mind songs, and the ultimate punk rock campfire song. (Plus the video made it onto MTV!) "Dumb Little Band" explores the whole why-didn't-the-pop-punk-bandwagon-stop-at-our house phemonenon, and "Thank You" is an anthem for anyone who got beat up in junior high with any great regularity. Beatles-y melodicism and traditional dumbness get their due in "I Fell For You," and " I Just Wanna Do It With You," respectively. But back to Frank's brilliant lyrics for a moment -- "I'm Like Yeah, But She's All No" is a clever exposition on incoherencies of contemporary speech, and "That Prozac Moment" is worth it for the title alone. "Deep Deep Down", though, is this album's chilling masterpiece -- a first-person narrative of an infamous local homicide, told from the point of view of a sociopathic killer boyfriend who accompanied the police while they searched for a body that he had himself hidden in the woods. Okay, so I'm a little worried at why Frank chose to write this character sketch in particular, but undeniably this is not a lightweight song. Plus, Frank puts a tune to an old Dorothy Parker poem ("Somebody's Song"), which is in itself a real class act... An all-around great record... and highly recommended!
Mr. T Experience "Revenge Is Sweet And So Are You" (Lookout, 1997)
Another well-crafted pop album, which some folks faulted as a retread of the Love Is Dead formula. Then again, is that really such an awful thing? This record should hold your attention from start to finish, what with no-brainer novelty songs such as "Lawnmower of Love" and "With My Looks And Your Brains" paired off with melodic masterpieces such as "Another Yesterday" (a radio hit that never was). Well worth your time.
Mr. T Experience "Road To Ruin" (Skull Duggery, 1998)
Mr. T covers an entire Ramones record. And why not? It's not like Frank can't play the chords...
Dr. Frank "Show Business Is My Life" (Lookout, 1999)
With some assist from Kevin Army, The Hi-Fives and various pop-punky pals, Dr. Frank "goes solo" for an album or so... Admittedly, a lot of this is pretty glib, but then again on tracks like "Knock Knock" (as in, "who's there?") glib is probably exactly what we want. In some regards, these songs are more personal, and Frank's wry, unrelenting pessimism takes on a life of its own on this disc; he also streches out for some of his best lyrics, such as "Population Us" and "This Isn't About You Anymore"... I still can't tell if the existential crisis portrayed in "Sad, Sad Shadow" is all tounge-in-cheek, or just partially... but for all us fan geeks, this record does not disappoint.
Mr. T Experience "Alcatraz" (Lookout, 1999)
Apparently, this brilliant little album threw Mr. T's pogo dancing fan base into a little head scratching tizzy, though to tell the truth I find it hard to understand what they found so traumatic. Was anybody really surprised by the Cheap Trick-isms on guitar, or the latest batch of low-achiever romance ballads and night-of-the-living-loser one-liners? Was the addition of a Hammond organ really that shocking? ... After a couple of decades of pop-punking away, Dr. Frank finally started to bust out a bit musically, and experiment with lush, almost New Wave-y production. The way I see it, he's is on a musical journey similar to what Dwight Yoakam went through with his whole hard country/'60s pop crossover jag (which has lasted several years and took several albums to come to fruition)... Like Yoakam, Frank is pushing against the boundaries of a dearly beloved musical style that, nonetheless, a lot of people see as stylistically limited. And like Dwight, he's finally coming of age. These are clearly some of his best songs, covering some familiar lyrical territory, while also moving onto more challenging material such as an eggheady tribute to feminist scholar Naomi Wolf, disguised in the trappings of a schoolboy crush. Standing in for all the maligned and neglected "little bands" of the world, Frank kicks off this fab new album with a scathing broadside which parbroils rock critics who like to sell records rather than review them ("I Wrote A Book About Rock and Roll") ( ... I'm sure he has some specific poison-penned purple prose peddler in mind... All I know is that, as one of many aspiring egotistical, self-referential, pretentious, name-dropping, pop cultural know-it-alls, this song has been known to make me visibly cringe, yet as a listener, I bust out laughing each time I hear it.) Along with the usual mix of complicated one-liners and Elvis Costello-y wordplay, MTX is pushing at the boundaries of their power-chord, pop-punk shell, experimenting with a new arsenal of deliciously poppy musical arrangements. Highly recommended!
Mr. T Experience "The Miracle Of Shame" (Lookout, 2000)
This fab 5-song EP is a continuation of the stretching exercises of the last album and, like Alcatraz, has the fans running back to their CD players, hitting Repeat, and wondering if they heard themselves correctly. Sure, considerable risks are being taken musically, but the fact remains that this is another wonderfully clever batch of songs, including such wonders as "Leave The Thinking To The Smart People", the Television Personalities tribute, "I Don't Know Where Dan Treacy Lives", and (my favorite), "Stephanies Of The World Unite", which treats certain women with a sorority-ish name as if they were some criminal organization on an old episode of Get Smart. And for the MTX old guard, there's the ever-anthemic head-bobbing hit, "Mr. Ramones"... proof that you can have your artistic growth and start a slam pit, too.
Dr. Frank "Eight Little Songs" (Self-Released, 2003)
A swell set of bedroom demos and future hits, self-produced to sell to fans at shows and (I think) online somehow. Features the catchy, go-go rhythmed "Boyfriend Box," twisted acoustic ditties such as "Institutionalized Mysogyny," and Frank's big hit in the blogosphere, "Democracy, Whisky, Sexy," prompted by a comment made by an Iraqi citizen asked what he would look forward to, following the American invasion... er, liberation... of Iraq. (More info about the song, and presumably the EP, can be found on Dr. Frank's political blog, The Blogs of War, or the Lookout! website...) More hilarious, ridiculously clever, insightful lyrics, catchy melodies, and a few pleasantly unguarded moments. Expect the best of these songs to wind up on an MTX album someday soon, though perhaps in slightly altered form... In the meantime, check this disc out!
Mr. T Experience "Yesterday Rules" (Lookout, 2003)
The latest edition of the MTX Starship is a tight, fluid band whose melodic chops match the wit and sparkle of Frank's latest set of twisted tunes. It's the first time in years Mr. T is officially a four-piece, with guitarist Ted Angel matching Frank lick for lick, and longtime ace drummer Jym holding down the rhythm with their versatile new bassist, Bobby J. Yesterday Rules shows the good Doctor still in top form, with songs that skillfully balance a moody pessimism with a deceptively simplistic playfulness. The searching spirituality of recent records has been scaled back, as has much of the musical experimentalism that bewildered some of his head-bobbing fan base. Nonetheless, this disc is as musically diverse as they come, with '60s-styled go-go riffs and Cheap Trick power chords lined up alongside good old 1-2-3-4 punk, lilting acoustic ditties, and even a whiff of country-rock. Above all, Dr. Frank remains a preeminent spokesman for today's contingent of irony-drenched, asocial, overeducated slackers, those of us who like to screen all our calls and stay in the apartment for days on end. Several songs promise to become classics, notably the sardonic "Jill," the jaunty "Institutionalized Misogyny," singalong crowd pleasers like "Boxfriend Box" and "F***ed Up On Life," as well as the moodier, more personal songs such as "London." As ever, Frank's lyrics have more depth to them than you're likely to parse out in just one listen -- that's why this catchy little disc will likely stay on "repeat" on numerous iPods for many months to come.
Mr. T Experience "Songs About Girls, Etc." (1999)
It's a shame there isn't a US equivalent of this groovy Japanese best-of, which has 22 fine MTX classics on it. Nice song selection, although I'd probably also pick a few tunes that weren't included here...
"King Dork" (Delacorte Books, 2006)
by Frank Portman
Dr. Frank tackles the "young adult" book market... No, seriously! But is it written for kids, or written for adults? Buy a couple of copies and try and figure it out for yourself... I read about half of this book while sitting in the bathtub, mostly because having started, I couldn't find a bookmark and I was really into the story and I didn't want to lose my place. Finally the water was getting cold and my toes were all pruny, so I tore one of those irritating subscription inserts out of the "New Yorker" and used that... I used to spend a lot of time as a kid reading stuff in the tub... In fifth grade, I plowed through a pretty hefty chunk of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ursula K. LeGuin and Encyclopedia Brown books that way... Oh, and about a bazillion comics books, pretty much every title Marvel Comics put out at the time, even though they were at their creative nadir then... I was still a devoted reader right up until the end of the disco era. All of which may seem a bit off the topic, except that this is my little way of saying that when Dr. Frank writes about social outcasts and uber-nerds, I, too, have lived the life he describes. In addition to being whaled on at every recess break I can remember, I also waged a two-pronged war on popular culture, boning up on my "Welcome Back Kotter" episodes so I could chime in on the playground discussions the next day, while also staying up late to watch the then-cutting edge "Saturday Night Live" and air-drumming along to "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones, as well as the Sex Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks and the Damned, all of whom I fervently loved in '77-78 and forsook for old-school country music in '79 after I decided that pop songs about abortions were kind of tasteless and gross. (I later regained my sense of humor, only to lose it again later, in an ongoing pendulum of anal retention...) Naturally, growing up in the Midwest at the time, I had next-to-no-one to talk about any of this stuff with, and if anything I look at King Dork's protagonist, Tom Henderson with a bit of envy.. at least he had one friend at school, and he came of age well after the glory years of Barry Manilow, Pablo Cruise and Kiki Dee...
But enough about me. Suffice it to say that this witty, hilarious portrait of geekiness and irony-shrouded alienation rings true, even for an old fart like me. It's also great that the book's narrator is SO far out of the social mainstream of his school that he is able to view all of the various cliques and niches with equal amusement and dispassion. The observation that the metalheads could actually be kind of nice people, relatively speaking, is the sort of thing that only a true loser could say -- the point being, that as self-defined outsiders, at least they weren't highschool bullies the way the jocks and "normals" were. It's also nice that the author -- a pop-punk pioneer who now has enough perspective to poke fun at punk rock, too, champions early '70s bubblegum and hard rock without having to resort to facile or apologetic irony. This is a pop culture excursion that has depth and soul... Plus, it's funny as hell. If half of this rambling "review" makes sense or rings a bell, or if you're already a Dr. Frank fan, then you will love this book.
Various Artists "Turn-On...Tune-In...Lookout! The Lookout! Video Compilation" (Lookout!, 1998/2003)
Old-school pop-punkers such as The Mr. T Experience, The Smugglers and The Queers join several generations of their musical acolytes in this fun set of sassy, goofy, low-budget videos. Also of note are three videos by the still-indie version of The Donnas (same "ooh-baby, we're so bad, we're so hot, yeah right-you wish!" come-on schtick, but a less slick image and more endearing amatuerism), scruffy popsters The Hi-Fives, and newer powerhouse bands such as the Pattern, The Oranges Band, and Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. Lookout! fans should enjoy this collection a lot -- my personal faves are the MTX "Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba" video and "Punk Rock Girls" by the Queers, both directed by local (Berkeley) filmmaker Jennifer Kaufman, each shot on real film (not video) and in black & white... The Queers video, which features a montage of fan portraits taken at a Queers show in '96, interspersed with shots of the band playing live, has a classy, arty feel to it, and gives us a great glimpse not only at the band, but of their fans (...us!!) as well. The MTX video is a perfect, hilarious encapsulation of the Mr. T's nebbish image... the band setting up to play in a suburban house, and the video ending before they even start. All of these clips reflect the buoyant saucy perkiness of the Lookout! scene. Some videos are super-low budget, low-concept, while others are more ambitious and visually arresting... But they're all a welcome contrast to the slick, corporate videos that are beamed to us via MTV, etc. These clips are more low-key and more personal -- just you, the band, and a few minutes of fun. (Note: the DVD version is newer, and has some extra material, from the original VHS, which came out in 1998.)
Dr. Frank now has his own website... check it out for the latest info and musings on his books, music and adventures in the blogosphere...
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