The Dead Milkmen reached the height of their popularity in the late eighties, at the forefront of college rock jokesters like King Missile and Camper van Beethoven, playing pop-punk songs with tongues firmly in cheek. The Philadelphia foursome consisted of Joe Jack Talcum (Joe Genaro) on vocals, Dave Blood (Dave Schulthise) on bass, Dean Clean (Dean Sabatino) on drums, and Rodney Anonymous (Rodney Linderman) on vocals and synth. Often saddled with the labels of “sophomoric” and “juvenile”, the band gained popularity with the songs “Bitchin’ Camaro,” “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything)” and the MTV staple “Punk Rock Girl.”
The origin of the band’s name is shrouded in lore. Some believe it was a satirical swipe at the more “serious” punk band the Dead Kennedys. At times they’ve claimed the name is a reference to Milkman Dead, a character in Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. Whatever the origin, the concept existed years before the real band actually formed. Joe Genaro, attending high school in Wagontown, Pennsylvania, began recording comedy albums about a fictional band called the Dead Milkmen, fronted by the equally imaginary rock star Jack Talcum. To further the myth, Genaro cataloged the adventures of Jack Talcum in the Dead Milkmen Newzletter, a zine that parodied Paul McCartney’s Wings Funclub Newsletter. The tapes and newsletter came to the attention of fellow student Rodney Linderman, and the two began collaboration.
When Joe left Wagontown to attend Temple University, he and Rodney kept songwriting by mail. At Temple, Joe met future tour manager Dave Reckner and road manager Dan Mapp. Through Reckner, he was introduced to drummer Dean Clean, who played in a band called Narthex, and eventually to bass player Dave Blood. When Narthex disbanded, Joe recruited Clean to play with him and Blood. Rodney joined them later that summer, and in 1983 the Dead Milkmen played their first official gig.
The band built a loyal fan base by selling homemade cassettes at their shows. One tape, Death Rides a Pale Cow, contained the first version of “Bitchin’ Camaro.” The popularity of that song helped the band score a live studio performance on a popular local radio show, resulting in the recording Dead Milkmen Take the Airwaves. The resulting exposure catapulted interest in the band and helped them secure a deal with Fever Records.
Their debut album, Big Lizard in My Backyard, was recorded for less than a thousand dollars and contained material from their previously released cassettes. “Bitchin’ Camaro,” the half spoken-word, half explosive punk riff on an out of control car, and the tasteless “Takin’ Retards to the Zoo” earned the band a wider cult following. They launched a tour in the summer of 1985, but only played 23 of the 42 dates scheduled, canceling the rest.
The band followed up with the album Eat Your Paisley! In 1986, which contained the minor hits “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies” and “Beach Party Vietnam.” They continued their equal opportunity satire with the 1987 release Bucky Fellini, which landed them on the national album charts with the single “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything),” a spoof of the gloomy eurodance music that dominated the dance clubs and mocking the inherent pretentiousness of the scene. Their loyal fan base continued to increase, and even included Ex-Detroit Tigers infielder Jim Walewander.
The band signed to Enigma records, where they made the album Beezlebubba and released the single “Punk Rock Girl,” a love song of sorts. The video for “Punk Rock Girl,” filmed in and around Philadelphia, was in heavy rotation on MTV and put the Dead Milkmen on the verge a breakthrough. Unfortunately their follow-up album, Metaphysical Graffiti, didn’t meet expectations, though it did feature guest vocals by the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes on the track “Anderson, Walkman, Buttholes and How.”
Enigma folded soon after Metaphysical Graffiti was released and the band was left searching for a new label. They ended up at Hollywood Records, a subsidiary of Disney, where they recorded the 1992 album Soul Rotation. The band edged towards a more adult, indie pop sound, and even adopted new pseudonyms; Rodney Anonymous now called himself H.P. Hovercraft and Talcum took the moniker Butterfly Fairweather. The cleaner production and tamer lyrics ended up alienating much of the core fan base and didn’t help the band cultivate a new audience. Not Richard, but Dick, which followed in 1993, saw the Milkmen continuing to make music in a subdued vein. Sales were poor and the band was once again cut loose from their label.
To celebrate their tenth anniversary, the Dead Milkmen distributed Now We Are Ten, a limited edition compilation of their earlier cassette-only recordings with four additional live tracks.
Back with Restless Records, which had distributed their initial Fever label releases, the band put out the live album Chaos Rules – Live at the Trocadero, which captured the bulk of their more popular songs from the last decade. Their next studio album, 1995’s Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), would be their last; they disbanded shortly after it came out. Restless put out a 1997 compilation, Death Rides a Pale Cow – the Ultimate Collection, though the CD doesn’t include any of the 1992-93 Hollywood Records releases as the company refused to grant permission.
The members of the band each pursued new projects. Rodney Anonymous started the band Burn Witch Burn, while Dean Clean and Joe Jack Talcum teamed up as Butterfly Joe. The two also gigged with several local Philadelphia bands and the burlesque performance troupe Big Mess Orchestra. Dave Blood quit playing bass, due to extreme tendonitis in his hands, and cultivated an interest in Balkan History. He eventually attended graduate school at Indiana University.
2003 saw the release of Now We Are Twenty, a reissue that expanded on Now We Are Ten and the DVD Philadelphia in Love, featuring videos, live clips, and commentary by the band.
The Dead Milkmen reunited in 2004 under less than ideal circumstances: to play a tribute concert for Dave Blood. The news of his death was made public to fans by his sister Kathy on the band’s website. “This Morning Dave Blood is no longer with us,” she wrote. “He chose to end his life. He left a note that said…he just could not stand to go on any longer.” He had overdosed on pills. Blood had spent time teaching English in Serbia, but eventually returned home to live with his parents in Pennsylvania. Having a hard time adjusting to life outside the band, Blood had suffered from depression and according to friends, was troubled by the death of his mother to cancer.
The remaining Dead Milkmen, with musician Dandrew Stevens (the Low Budgets) filling in on bass, played a concert in honor of Dave Blood at the The Trocadero on November 21, 2004 supported by a collection of Philadelphia bands. The show sold out and the band added a second night, with proceeds from the concert going to the Studenica Monetary in Serbia.
Though still officially disbanded, the Milkmen’s website is updated frequently and the remaining Milkmen still pursue solo projects. Rodney Anonymous plays with his wife in Burn Witch Burn, a goth/celtic/bluegrass/punk/Slavic band. Talcum works for a video and web development company and plays with the band the Low Budgets. Clean works in an energy management and information company and still plays with the Big Mess Orchestra.
The Dead Milkmen, with their silly pseudonyms, brash, take-no-prisoners approach to songwriting, and DIY ethos served as a template for the bratty pop-punk bands that came after them.
Funky Farm (cassette), Jerrock, 1983
Death Rides a Pale Cow (cassette) Jerrock, 1984
The Dead Milkmen Take the Airwaves (cassette), Jerrock, 1984
Someone Shot Sunshine, (cassette), Jerrock, 1984
Big Lizard in My Backyard, Restless, 1985
Eat Your Paisley!, Restless, 1986
Bucky Fellini, Enigma, 1987
Beelzebubba, Enigma, 1988
Metaphysical Graffiti, Enigma, 1990
Soul Rotation, Hollywood Records, 1992
If I Had a Gun EP, Hollywood Records, 1992
Now We Are Ten, self-released, 1993
Not Richard, But Dick, Hollywood Records, 1993
Chaos Rules - Live At The Trocadero,Restless, 1994
Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), Restless, 1995
Death Rides a Pale Cow—the Ultimate Collection, Restless, 1997
Cream of the Crop—The best of the Dead Milkmen BMG Special Pproducts, 1998
Now We Are Twenty, Rykodisc, 2003
Arnold, Gina. “First Flight.” Musician Aug. 1988: 94-96
Brennan, Carole. “Dead Milkmen.” Contemporary Musician, Volume 22: 94-95
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“Dave Schulthise, 47, Dead Milkmen’s Bassist. Arts/Culture Desk Obituary. The New York Times. 13, March 2004: A15.
Chinmusic! # 2. “The Dead Milkmen/Detroit Tigers connection.” <http://www.chinmusic.net/walewander.html>
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Luerssen, John D. “Dead Milkmen’s Dave Blood Dies.” Billboard Magazine 11, March 2004<http://www.billboard.com/bbcom/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000460203>.
Rapa, Patrick. “Blood Brothers.” Philadelphia Citypaper.net 11 Nov. 2004 <http://www.citypaper.net/articles/2004-11-11/cover.html>
RobertChristgau.com “Consumer Guide Reviews” Ed. Robert Christgau.<http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?=1411&name=the+dead+milkmen>
Trouser Press.com. “Dead Milkmen.” <http://www.trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=dead_milkmen>
VH1.com. “Artists A-Z: Biography: The Dead Milkmen.” <http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/dead_milkmen/bio.jhtml>
Wikipedia.com. “Dead Milkmen” <http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dead_Milkmen>
© Mike Dressel 2006