Listen to this track by stylistically diverse and under-the-radar-influential trio from Phoenix, Arizona Meat Puppets. It’s “Swimming Ground”, a single released in advance of their 1985 album Up On The Sun, and eventually appearing on that record, too.
The band originally started out as a Southwestern representative of the west coast hardcore scene. But, their interests in roots music and in psychedelia helped them to forge a style of their own beyond that. Yet, even if they weren’t really a punk band in the end, they certainly took some very important notes from the punk ethos.
One of those things is singing about what’s around, writing about subjects that are perhaps not the most tried and true when it comes to popular songwriting, and using what’s on hand to do it, including the limitations of one’s own voice. This song is a good example of that, exemplifying a DIY, make your own rules approach with which punk is associated.
But, in this case, it was seen to be in opposition to the aesthetics of punk at the same time.
For one thing, this song presents something rather unexpected, in that it’s about something that is not polarizing or incendiary for the sake of it. In fact , it ‘s about a common and highly treasured experience to most childhoods in most places in the world; a cool place to swim on a hot day. A lot of the roots music that they’d referenced heavily on their previous album still remains. On this track to my ears, there is something of Townes Van Zandt‘s world-weariness in the delivery of vocalist and guitarist Curt Kirkwood to mark a departure from the shriek and shout of the band’s two earlier albums.
There is also a kind of ecstatic and life-affirming vibe not unlike the brightness and optimism of a sped-up Grateful Dead. Instead of the distorted murkiness of “Lake Of Fire” as it appeared on their previous album Meat Puppets II, on this song we get buoyant guitar lines full of complexity and vigour. It was indicative of a departure all around during a time when challenging the orthodoxy of punk was a risky move.
The 1980s was a time when music was extremely tribal in nature, both among fans and the bands they loved. Styles of music were looked upon as banners to which a fan would swear allegiance. So, when this song came out, the idea of a band who once was so connected with American punk rock referencing Deadhead folk-rock and psychedelia seemed jarring at best to many. It would have been very difficult for earnest punk fans to tell which colour of flag this band was sailing under by 1985. This seems ridiculous now in an age when musical styles are seen more as ingredients as opposed to indicators of impermeable social classes.
But, maybe that’s why Meat Puppets came to be seen as good examples of how independent bands should operate for other bands who would form by the end of the decade. They created a band that plays by its own rules, and is what it needs to be to convey their material best. It isn’t about planting a flag for a particular movement. This song holds its own meaning for many people as well as for its writers, not just for a strict segment who are dressed in a recognizable costume. In this, “Swimming Ground” is an important song in their catalogue. It demonstrated a sort of rebellion against the rebellion, which is always a nice twist when it comes to rock music of any particular stripe.
That rebellious spirit would ultimately endear them to their audience, with those inspired bands in their wake that would batter those shaky walls between genres built up in the 1980s. By 1991 or so, they’d crumble altogether. This would be around the time Meat Puppets began to be cited in rock articles and interviews as being early visionaries to where rock music could, and should, be going; sung in one’s own voice, and using any texture necessary to put across the material.
After a couple of break ups, Meat Puppets are a going concern today. Immerse yourself in their meaty goodness at themeatpuppets.com