Themed Album Analyzes the Fringes of the American Landscape
By Michael Wench
In 1988, in a small, barren studio in Hollywood, Florida, about two miles west of I-95, the band Skum began work on what was supposed to become one of the great themed albums of the rock era.
Grunge music was already making a rumble in the American Northwest. While it would be several years before Grunge decimated what we all loved with its self-pitying songs about rich white kids’ angst, the writing was on the wall. The West Coast record companies were mostly to blame, with the signing of any band with a blond lead singer who had played at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. The power ballad and MTV heavy rotation was the result. Gone were the straight up rock and roll albums like Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin or Fair Warning by Van Halen. In vogue were mindless songs — ear candy. Good for a moment and forgotten the next. Themed albums such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, and the Beatles’ White Album were things of the past. Faded, like the vinyl album covers in our closets. It was all changing. No one had the guts to stand up to the modern, formulaic recipe for popular music.
When Skum first walked into Walker studios, they may not have fully understood what they were doing in terms of historical significance, but still they were doing it. What they produced and then lost was an album filled with biting social commentary. The album was aptly entitled Lost at the Circus. It was a blistering look at the backstreets and alleys at the social fringes of America. It took the listener into the rooms and the minds of common Americans – where few people dared to look — much less study.
Skum, then riding their wave of modest popularity, was taking a chance. A band that had a reputation for fun and wildness was doing something remarkably serious. Maybe they didn’t see it at the time, but in hindsight, this was a high watermark for the era of big albums. In a way, Lost at the Circus was the Alamo for rock and roll as we knew it.
“Lost at the Circus is an honest look at America’s outcasts and unwanted — the five percent no one dared talk about,” Hart Baur, lead singer of Skum, commented. “The album is not so much a social commentary but an observation. The title alone says it all. You see a grown man holding a teddy bear, crying at the circus, and you know something has gone horribly wrong, but you don’t want to know the backstory, so you walk away. This album discusses what would have happened if you’d stayed, and tries to analyze what went wrong.”
The album includes ten songs, with two more to be recorded at Abbey Road in London. The songs are an offering from the band’s eight year period performing from Virginia to Florida.
The album starts with the musical intro “5 of Spades” and launches into the band’s signature opening song “We Are Skum.” “5 of Spades” is a loud, brutal lead-in to the album,” said lead bassist Pat Burke. “The five of Spades personifies the fact that sometimes you don’t get the cards you want, but you still have to play with the cards you’e dealt.”
“We Are Skum” is the first song written by Skum. It is an existential offering that questions how as individuals we each may have faults, but is that any worse than a society of “skum” that has forgotten the individual? Obviously, the band is playing with semantics here by using their name. To many, this is simply a song about themselves. However, digging through the lyrics, one finds it’s much deeper than that. It tells the side of those who are deemed by society as unfit, unworthy of recognition. The line, “’Chad came down and took the chord’ very well signifies life being taken by someone who deems this person as ‘less than worthy’. John Eaton had this to say, “There is an element of homeless abuse in this song, and even though we cover this in “Jon the Bagman” there is a lot in here. This song, I think, is the most layered lyrically of all of them.”
Rhythm bassist Todd Mittlebrook added: “Sadly, ‘Lost at the Circus‘ and the stories of the common man struggling are more relevant today than they were twenty years ago. The average American is having a more difficult time today than they were in 1988.”
The song “Hanging Out with Fred” is the tale of a man who toils at his menial job as a laundry cleaner and finds his ‘kingdom’ is illicit sex with co-workers. Can anyone say they haven’t seen this type of situation, yet how many times have they turned a blind eye to this too common struggle?
“Bad Checks” is another brilliant gem. It’s a song about the existential tale of a Dr. Andrew Watson. Like other persecuted religious figures throughout history, he gave away what he didn’t own. He paid for his friends with bad checks and then was betrayed by those he clothed. He was forced to flee the country seeking a better world elsewhere. It is a song that revels in the guilt of those who persecuted the very man who gave his name on their behalf. Is this a song that exposes treachery or poor decisions, or both? The listener must make his own determination, and that is how the band wants it.
“Jon the Bagman” takes a serious look at homelessness. The song, absent of emotion, simply points out homelessness as a part of everyday American life. For better or for worse, Jon — the protagonist of the song — cannot find solace in the anonymity of the streets as he’d hoped. What does leaving his job and his wife get him? Cracked ribs and a beat-down by thugs. No glory here, no hero in the song. Just a guy who made bad life decisions.
I believe “16”, a song about an underage porn star, is the most important of the album. This song approaches a social malaise that has plagued the adult film industry for decades. Pretending it doesn’t exist is akin to being complacent. We all are responsible for it, and Skum chose to take a stand. This song alone merits an award. “16” is a “sobering song that sheds light on a very dark corner of society,” said Baur. “You can run from it once the light is upon it, but if you do, you’re allowing it to continue. It is called the “adult” industry for a reason. It’s for adults. “Lyrically, this is a brilliant piece of work,” said Burke. “It’s a simple take on a very serious topic. And the music? This song is going blow people away.”
The tale of a lost soul in the song “Shaken It” is certainly one of the most controversial rock songs of the past thirty years. The song parallels the southern Gothic tale told by Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” by using a narrator to speak about sexual frustration. It’s about a young man not blessed with looks, wit, or intelligence, who was “still a virgin against his will” at age thirty-three. The song addresses how he chose to deal with his sexual frustration. It is a shocking song, but based on a true story. It leaves you unsettled, but at the same time strangely fulfilled.
“Keychains and Cigarettes” — the only song with a writing credit by original guitarist Jon Tarrant — compares everyday living to that of life inside an insane asylum. It is a composite of the unwell. We see the demented — trapped in their minds by demons only they can see — yet we as a society are happy to drive past without caring. For better or for worse, this is perhaps the most important song on the album, and Eaton lays down a blistering guitar solo that leaves the listener speechless.
The album is rounded out by “It Happened” and “Mace your Face.” These two songs detail a bad night, one ending in childbirth and the other with a street criminal in ungodly pain. Both are based on true stories, according to Baur. “’Mace’ is a song where the victim is also the criminal,” said Burke. “Johnny (Eaton) lights up the sky with that solo. This is what rock and roll is supposed to be.”
Mittlebrook added, “In America, our generation is probably the first generation in a long time where the children will not be as prosperous as their parents…that’s a hard pill to swallow. America is filled with stories about good people who have abandoned the American Dream. This album is written for the common man in order to tell their side of the story.”
Lost at the Circus still doesn’t have a release date. But, according to Baur, you can download “Jon the Bagman” and “Bad Checks” on a variety of platforms. It’s interesting to hear a themed album that was written more than twenty years ago. Sadly, the album is more relevant in today’s troubled world than it was in 1988 when it was written. Skum hoped this album would speak for their generation, and who knows what might have happened had it been released then?
Thankfully it will soon get its moment in the sun.
“Bad Checks” and “Jon the Bagman” are now available for digital download.