Beat the Champ by The Mountain Goats Album Review: The Best Oud to Pro-Wrestling Since Chikara’s Glory Years
The notion of professional wrestling as an art form to the layperson, casual viewer, and perhaps even specific individuals in the business itself, is often times expressed as ludicrous. Perhaps the cultural stigma accumulated over decades is too great a barrier to overcome, but regardless of the cause, wrestling, as much as those within a niche community may discuss it, myself included, we are in the minority as people who favour the consumption of their wrestling through a more critical, and to an extent, less visceral lens. In spite of this, there still exists room for the general public’s view to sway, and if not increase the popularity of wrestling by a small amount, at least improve its perception.
‘The Wrestler’ in 2008 had that opportunity, although of course the probability of a single popular film, book, TV series, or movie reversing all of the damage done to public opinion is small. Regardless of whether The Wrestler’ could have made a positive impact or not, its portrayal of wrestling and the people involved was, in several ways, overtly negative. There haven’t been many analogous projects since, and the subject of this review, ‘Beat the Champ’ by the Mountain Goats, certainly isn’t such a project. There exist numerous differences between the two, one of the most important being that ‘Beat the Champ’ is an indie album and not an Oscar nominated film and its portrayal of pro-wrestling is wholly more positive.
In short, ‘Beat The Champ’ is a love letter to professional wrestling, the variety of which I hadn’t come into prior contact with. There existed Chikara at its creative peak, which one could argue was a tribute to much of what wrestling is, but that was still a pro-wrestling product. Wrestling references and quotes are fairly common in hip-hop from Madvillan to Eminem, a whole song in the case of Milo’s ‘Sweet Chin Music’, however, where the analogy between ‘Beat The Champ’ and the music of those mentioned above, and many more, fails is in their length and intent. Where you might find a wrestling inspired lyric in even a Neil Young record from the 70s, references of that sort, and even songs in the case of Milo, use a wrestling-related lexis to express unrelated ideas – and this is far from the case in ‘Beat The Champ’.
Throughout its 13 tracks ‘The Mountain Goats’ founder, John Darnielle, hops from one topic to another flame balls, masks, hair matches, and Chavo Classic are but a few of the topics that share centre stage. What is indeed very unique about the concept album is not only the variety of topics addressed, but also the manner through which Darnielle does so, both lyrically and musically. Most every song on the album is written from a unique perspective. The album’s first track ‘South Western Territory’, is a prime example of this, the story of an 70s/80s territorial performer losing his last match in the Los Angeles territory before “Black[ing] out from local TV”; all narrated in the third person. Whether or not this was a journeyman performer with a number of jobs, as alluded to by “work like a dog all day”, or simply the tale of a star leaving the Los Angeles territory for another is unknown. Several other tracks,”Animal Mask”, “Luna”, and “Werewolf Gimmick” are similarly open-ended.
Conversely, other tracks on the album are highly specific, focusing on single events or wrestlers, such as the tense ‘Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan’, whose story should be self evident from the title – “some times you get heat, sometimes it follows you around” and “When the blade hits bone, everybody hears it sing. Shower room full of people, no one hears a goddamned thing” are two lines that serve as standouts in particular. “I am climbing down the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram” is also a personal favourite from ‘Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan’ If only as a wrestling fan/astrophysics student; two interests one doesn’t find amalgamated all too often.
As has already been made evident by the use of words such as “heat” and “gimmick”, this is an album that makes use of several insider terms, which must have been a risky move given that the band’s primary audience isn’t the wrestling fan, even if there will exist some degree of crossover. The album shouldn’t work, but it does at almost every point. One standout track is ‘The Legend of Chavo Guerrero’, which is written from the perspective Darnielle, reflecting on his feelings towards Chavo Classic as a hero for justice, as a child. ‘The Legend of Chavo Guerrero’, whilst the catchiest of all songs on the album, also distils some insight into Darnielle’s current fandom in that he “heard his son got famous and went nationwide…I don’t know if that’s true”, which would imply that he is a lapsed fan, or fell out of love with pro-wrestling during childhood.
‘Fire Editorial’ and ‘The Ballad of Bull Ramos’ are two more songs that focus on specific wrestlers, with ‘Fire Editorial’ describing The Sheik in ‘Michigan’ and ‘Ontario’. In that song is also mentioned Indiana, where he wrestled for the AWA and WWA in the 1960s. ‘The Ballad of Bull Ramos’ discusses the nature in which Ramos lost a leg, went blind, and suffered kidney damage due to diabetes, leaving him to reminisce on his Houston porch about his career triumphs. Reading through the track listings, this track title in particular may seem a deliberately obscure choice to write a “ballad” about, but the vast majority of people who watch wrestling as children develop esoteric favourites, which is a verification of this album’s honest and genuine nature. Likewise, when these songs were being written and recorded they could have thrown in references to more well known names, but the resultant product wouldn’t have been as genuine.
The Luchas de Apuestas quota was not left unmet with ‘Unmasked’ and the closer ‘Hairmatch’ both serving as creative and moving descriptions of the emotion that drives a well-built match of that archetype. Some of the instrumentation on ‘Hairmatch’ was very Slint-esque and similar to the opener of ‘Spiderland’ – instrumentation wise, it wouldn’t have been out of place in the famous Generico/Steen video package for Final Battle 2010. ‘Unmasked’ had its interesting moments, if only because of its use of the mask match as a metaphor. There were songs similar to ‘Unmasked’ that used wrestling more as an analogy than as the main focus of a narrative – ‘Werewolf Gimmick’, ‘Choked Out’ and ‘Luna’, the latter of which is in no way related to Luna Vachon. However, these tracks or just musically and thematically consistent enough, as to not disrupt the flow of the album as a whole.
There have been lyrics and songs written about pro-wrestling in the past, they are at times hideous at other times they make a positive impression — you hear them every week on the Art of Wrestling. However, never has there been, at least to my knowledge, a set of recordings that represented pro-wrestling’s good side so well — and perhaps more importantly, reminded us of the intrigue and passion that fuelled our initial interest.