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The Lawrence Arms surpassed disaster to make the punk classic Oh! Calcutta!

Illustration: Nick Wanserski

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The story of The Lawrence Arms’ fifth studio record starts, quite appropriately, with disaster. In the summer of 2005 the band, hot off a rigorous touring cycle in support of its 2003 album The Greatest Story Ever Told, returned to Chicago to start working on a follow-up. But things didn’t go smoothly for Brendan Kelly, the band’s bassist-vocalist, once he returned. “Through the writing and rehearsal period leading up to that record, and even the recording, I was in a fucking full-leg cast because I snapped my kneecap in half. From conception to delivery of Oh! Calcutta! I was one-legged. It was unbelievably painful for months and months. I think that so much of the rage in that record has got to come from me being completely fucking immobilized.”


That rage would amplify once the band started rehearsing for the album. When Kelly was able to shimmy himself up the stairs into the band’s practice space, the surroundings weren’t any kinder to him. According to Lawrence Arms drummer Neil Hennessy, “We rented a practice space above a dog-grooming business. It didn’t have any ventilation, there was no air-conditioning, and there were no windows. You walked up the stairs and felt like you were putting on a wet, dog-smelling sweater. It was so gross.” These conditions would directly inform Oh! Calcutta!, a record that, now 10 years on, is not only the defining work by The Lawrence Arms, it’s come to define the sound of an entire generation of punk bands.

Formed from the ashes of a handful of defunct ’90s bands (Slapstick, The Broadways, Baxter), The Lawrence Arms sprung to life in 1999 and, for a long time, lived in the shadow of two other Chicago acts: Alkaline Trio and Rise Against. As those two bands were making names for themselves—and slowly gaining mainstream success—The Lawrence Arms toured and released records with a fervor that matched that of their peers. By 2001, the band would be signed to Fat Wreck Chords, the label run by NOFX’s Fat Mike, which dealt almost exclusively in by-the-numbers skate-punk. To say The Lawrence Arms brand of midtempo pop-punk didn’t fit in—rich with references to classic Russian literature and obscure pop-culture ephemera—would be an understatement. The Greatest Story Ever Told received a chilly response from fans as well as the label, with Kelly having gone on record saying that even Fat Mike wasn’t a fan. And, while each member claims these circumstances didn’t directly inform Oh! Calcutta!, it’s hard to see the record as anything other than a departure.

While Greatest Story often gets tagged as a concept record thanks to the massive amount of footnotes packaged alongside the record’s liner notes, Calcutta is the one that features a truly defined premise. “Chris and I sat down and were like, ‘Here’s what we’re gonna do: We’re gonna make a record like Fifteen’s Buzz, or fucking [Operation Ivy’s] Energy, one of those records that, when we were kids, made us want to do this for the rest of our lives. But we have to do it with our sensibility.” That sensibility included borrowing lines from the jazz-inspired art-punks in NoMeansNo, as well as swiping the iconic melody from Chicago punk progenitors Naked Raygun’s “Soldier’s Requiem” and turning it into “Requiem Revisited.” It was a mish-mash of punk-rock obscurities, all filtered through the lens of The Lawrence Arms. All of these reference points can be found time and again throughout Oh! Calcutta!, but the album’s most defining trait—having Kelly and guitarist-vocalist Chris McCaughan sing every song together—came from another world entirely.

Like most bands with two vocalists, on The Lawrence Arms’ previous releases Kelly and McCaughan would anchor their own songs, occasionally dropping into each other’s songs for a harmony here or there. But on Oh! Calcutta!, their voices were put atop one another on nearly every line. It’s a tactic they picked up from a band that shared a punk pedigree but found success in the world of hip-hop: The Beastie Boys. Says McCaughan, “Brendan was definitely like, ‘How cool is what The Beastie Boys do in terms of how they switch lines? They’re kind of always involved in each other’s verses.’ You see this with a lot of hip-hop, so we were definitely playing with that idea. What’s weird is that Brendan and I have very different perspectives and voices. When I listen back [to Oh! Calcutta!] our voices have this weird blend, where there’s certain times we’re singing together and it’s actually difficult to pick out who is who.”


This vocal unity would become one of Calcutta’s defining qualities. But, when The Lawrence Arms went into the studio, producer and engineer Matt Allison was skeptical of the band being able to pull it off. Kelly explains, “We were talking to Matt and he was like, ‘I don’t know if it’s a good idea for you guys to sing every word together.’ And I was like, ‘No, no. It is. This is the record we’re making.’ And listen, Matt did a fucking awesome job. He’s a great friend and collaborator. I’m so proud to be able to work with him. But there was a moment to get him on board with it. I remember being like, ‘If you don’t think this is a good idea then you shouldn’t do the record.’ And he was like, ‘Oh no, no, no. I’m just suggesting that it’s highly unusual.’ I was like, ‘Well, we’re either going to fuck this up terribly or it’s going to turn out awesome. This is the paradigm. The form has to follow the spirit of the record.’”

What is noticeable from the very first notes on the album is just how punchy it is compared to the rest of The Lawrence Arms discography. Opener “The Devil’s Takin’ Names” sees Kelly introducing the record with a quick eight-count on his bass and, once the song kicks in—with staccato guitar, choppy drums, and an endless amount of attitude—what remains is a supercharged version of The Lawrence Arms. The band’s songs had never been this short, fast, or traditionally punk. Pair this with the band’s new, dual-vocal approach, and it felt like an awakening, both for the band and for the punk scene as a whole.

Kelly and McCaughan had long been great songwriters, but until Oh! Calcutta! they never carried with them this kind of combustive energy. When discussing his approach to songwriting, Kelly makes a comparison that is far too apt:

Whenever I write any song I always want it to strike the exact point where happiness turns to sadness. That is the ultimate bull’s-eye. I love a super happy song where all of a sudden there’s just one phrase and you’re like, “Oh, this is actually heartbreaking.” You know that episode of The Simpsons when they freeze Ralph Wiggum on the TV and they’re like, “Look. You can actually pinpoint the moment when his heart breaks.” That’s what I’m going for every time; that moment. And you miss it a lot, right? But when you hit it, it really feels good.


That moment, where Ralph Wiggum’s face contorts in sheer agony after Lisa Simpson bellows, “I don’t like you! I never liked you!”, is captured time and again on Oh! Calcutta! Whether it‘s “Recovering The Opposable Thumb” shifting from an uproarious rallying cry to an ode of defeat, or the Judy Blume-referencing “Are You There Margaret? It’s Me, God” showcasing the disillusionment of adulthood, the songs routinely see the band finding strength within itself. It’s what makes the propulsive stomp of songs like “Cut It Up” and “Key To The City” burst forth with all the urgency of sweaty, beer-soaked shows in a tiny club. And the subject matter, which focuses heavily on celebrating failures as if they were triumphs, makes it a sing-along record that gives hope to even the most disenfranchised punk fan.

A record as immediately grabbing as Oh! Calcutta!, The Lawrence Arms didn’t have to wait long for positive feedback. After years spent playing second fiddle to its Chicago peers, The Lawrence Arms finally found acceptance. “That record changed everything,” says Kelly. “Our shows got exponentially bigger. The amount of respect we got from people went from, like, none to some. The reviews for Oh! Calcutta! were overwhelmingly positive in punk-rock circles and it was the first time we’d ever gotten good reviews. And so many of them started out with, ‘I never really liked this band before.’”


While critics were rallying in support of Oh! Calcutta!, what proved its merit was the number of well-intentioned imitators it launched. While the tandem vocalist approached had long been employed by other greats of the punk scene—such as Dillinger Four and Hot Water Music—Oh! Calcutta! put wind in the sails of a newly emerging scene. Says Kelly, “That is something that is, like, interesting and unexpected. Shit, I’m just in a dumb, fuckin’, mid-tier punk band. We’re the scrappy little brothers of the Alkaline Trio. We’re the little friends of Rise Against. But it felt like, to me, that record had a humongous influence on the next crop of Fest bands.” It would become a sound that would be aped throughout the country, and as Kelly notes, helped shape the sound and style at the yearly punk-leaning music festival, Fest. The bands that once aped Alkaline Trio were now stealing moves from The Lawrence Arms.

But none of this would have happened without Oh! Calcutta!. It’s the product of a band that, by all accounts, shouldn’t have been the ones to make a record that galvanized the punk scene. But that’s exactly what so much of the album is about: Triumphing over circumstance. Up against insurmountable odds—a broken knee, an indifferent label, and the lack of a supportive fan base—The Lawrence Arms simply made a record for themselves. And, in doing so, they made a record that’s still resonant. Especially with the Ralph Wiggums of the world.


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