In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs with a cappella interludes.
Canadian art-core trio NoMeansNo has always had an experimental bent. The brothers Wright—bassist and vocalist Rob and drummer and vocalist John—formed the band at the ass-end of the ’70s, as punk was congealing into a sleeker, faster form known as hardcore. But, even then, the Wrights had little interest in chasing the land speed records that were being set with each new hardcore single, setting their sights on abstraction instead. For its first four years NoMeansNo would use this bass-and-drums setup to assault audiences with a jazzy, prog-rock fueled take on punk until, in 1983, it recruited Andy Kerr as its first guitarist.
Kerr would stick around until 1992, the same year the band contributed a track to the Dead Kennedys’ tribute album, Virus 100. The record is notable for both its self-aggrandizing nature—it was released on Alternative Tentacles, the label owned by Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra—and the fact it’s a tribute album that’s actually worth listening to. Virus 100’s appeal largely stems from from bands like NoMeansNo—as well as Faith No More and Mojo Nixon—deconstructing the Kennedys and crafting songs that fit with their own twisted ideologies. Yet for all the subversive takes on the famously subversive band, it’s NoMeansNo’s a cappella cover of “Forward To Death” that is the most accosting.
NoMeansNo had briefly incorporated a cappella at the end of “Two Lips, Two Lungs And One Tongue” from 1989’s Wrong, but “Forward To Death” lets the band dive in, making full use of those exact body parts. Whether it’s the “Doot-Dat” drum tones, lip-smacking bass lines, or hummed guitars that rattle like bratty buzzsaws, it’s a track that basks in punk’s simplicity without being diminutive. Even if it lacks all of NoMeansNo’s hallmarks, it’s a fitting tribute from one iconic oddball to another.