Using a lazy, lame oxymoronic term like “country punk” or “cowpunk” to describe the music Jon Langford (The Mekons) and his crew of UK and US music vets ply their trade in is both cheap and unfair. For years, modern country music has been polluted with radio friendly fake optimism and predictable themes sexily packaged in slick imagery and faddish cool. Meanwhile, punk at its best has always stood for raw lawlessness and angry cynicism created with only rudimentary instrumental technique and unapologetically presented using lo-fi, DIY aesthetics. The Waco Brothers’ sound is most definitely influenced by both country and punk, but perhaps it’s best to stick with the more commonly used and more widely inclusive term “alternative country” to describe what’s going on here.
Whether intentional or not, there’s a strange, almost subliminal, seemingly unintentional connection to Don McLean’s “American Pie” that creeps up every now and again on Going Down in History. McLean’s epic folk song about the tragic plane crash deaths of musicians Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in 1959, an event regularly referred to as “The Day the Music Died”, no doubt influenced Langford. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn via interviews that the aforementioned 1971 hit was in regular rotation on Langford’s stereo during the writing and recording of the ten songs that make up Going Down in History.
“This is the first track from the last album,” are the introductory words to the rollicking opener “DIYBYOB”. This lyric could be interpreted as a tongue-in-cheek obvious truth or, if the Waco Brothers have decided to end the band’s two decade run with Going Down in History, it could be taken literally. Lastly, the line could be read as a dark, eerie portent that has Langford unknowingly predicting the group’s death. Yikes! Let’s hope, for the sake of the band’s family and fans, it’s the first rather than the other two less desirable options.
The second verse of “DIYBYOB” begins, “On the day after the music died.” Again, an ostensibly obvious reference to McLean’s song. Additionally, the chorus ends with the repeated line, “You can’t kill us, we’re already dead.” Spooky, right? This particular lyric is made even more creepy when paired with the album’s cover, a photograph featuring the husk of an abandoned automobile (a Chevy?) and a reflected image of the Waco Brothers upside down in a shallow, muddy pool with no physical manifestations present in the place where their bodies normally would/should be. But the “American Pie” connections don’t stop there. It’s also worth mentioning that the song “Lucky Fool” utilizes a chord progression strikingly similar to “American Pie”.
The ten tracks on Going Down in History are split 50/50. The first three and last two lean more toward country, and the middle handful tend to take a more rock/punk approach. Regardless of whether the songs’ lyrical content is sociopolitical as in “Building Our Own Prison” or the record’s title track, or geared more toward relationships “All or Nothing” and general aggravation “Had Enough”, all the songs are performed with a driving, inebriated, freewheeling sense of gusto, and there’s not a single ballad or instrumental to be found in the barely thirty-minute set.
Overall, Going Down in History is just okay. Although the singing here isn’t by any means distinct or memorable it’s good enough. On the other hand, the lead guitar work is very good. All the solos are consistently spot-on stylistically, and they never overstay their welcome. To the detriment of the listener, however, there aren’t any surprises here. Langford and company never stray from the rip-roaring bar band rockers they dole out, and after only a few listens the songs start to blur and melt into one another. Going Down in History would have been more interesting and worthwhile lengthwise if it included a couple additional songs that took the tempo in another direction or deviated even slightly from the Waco Brothers’ overused formula. Instead, the most interesting aspects of this record are ridiculous, imagined conspiracy theories concocted by the reviewer to make an otherwise mediocre album seem more compelling.