Ben Lee Shares “Pop Queen” and “Blind + Stale” Demos Ahead of RSD Release
The indie musician also preps us for his Record Store Day release with liner notes written by Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham.
Ben Lee is celebrating Record Store Day with the release of Grandpaw Would: 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, his debut solo album originally released on the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label. This expansive re-issue features, well, a lot, from LP sets with splatter vinyls to eight unreleased tracks. Today, we’re sharing two of them, “Pop Queen (Demo)” and “Blind + Stale (Demo),” along with liner notes written by Damian Abraham of iconic punk band Fucked Up.
These songs are lo-fi gems that exude vulnerable, innocent energy much like daydreams, in a fashion similar to Daniel Johnston or The Microphones. Listen to “Pop Queen (Demo)” and “Blind + Stale (Demo)” below, and read Abraham’s notes beneath. Find more info on the release here.
We bought CMJ because it came with a CD. The College Music Journal may have been conceived as a hype sheet for radio music programmers, but to my brother Tristan and me it was the magazine that came with a CD. On it would be a selection of twenty or so new songs that would be competing for listeners’ attention for the months to come. Buried on one of these CDs in the spring of 1995 was Ben Lee’s “Pop Queen.”
The song was jarring in a CD full of the loud guitars of people like Thurston Moore (solo album), SNFU (the greatest Canadian live band), and Everclear (their offering, “Heroin Girl,” is far and away their best song). Struck by the awesomely catchy melody and how the singer sounded like he couldn’t be much older than we were, we quickly thumbed through the magazine to find the accompanying half-page write up for the song. I read in disbelief that the singer was in fact my age and had already released records with his band on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label (Sonic Youth were my Grateful Dead, too). It also said that his latest record, a solo effort, was being released on the label owned by the arbiters of cool–the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal Records.
We were instantly obsessed. Running up to the CD store (the guy who ran it HATED vinyl), my brother placed a special order for the import (Canada was not America after all) and laid down the required deposit (buying music in the CD era was a process). And we waited. We satiated ourselves with “Pop Queen” and the cover of Noise Addict’s “I Wish I Was Him” that Kathleen Hanna did on the Rock Stars Kill compilation we had found used shortly after.
At this point I must stress how clutch it was to have a sibling who was getting into the same music that you were. The short two and a half years of age between us meant we were discovering this music at the same time. We were a music discovery team. We had double the investigation skills, double the buying power, and a partner for this budding music obsession.
Each week we would go to the used CD store and find two more pieces of the massive music puzzle we were trying to put together. We would sit and study thanks lists looking for connections, dissect the lyrics, and proselytize and fantasize about the new world of music that was unfolding before us.
I don’t know if I have ever anticipated a record more.
I have a very vivid memory of my brother coming home with that CD. The way the sun hit the cellophane as we frantically opened it and flipped through the booklet before racing to put it on.
The things that hit me about Grandpa Would on that first listen are still the things that strike me all these years later about the record. Firstly, how raw and honest it is. It certainly isn’t raw in terms of recording. I remember a point in reviews being made about Brad Wood’s production on it, and years later I can really appreciate how important he is to this record. The cleanness of production is what makes it all the more raw: You can hear everything. Ben isn’t hiding behind the wall of feedback or wearing the armor of fuzz that seemed to insulate so many of my other musical heroes at the time.
The emotions of songs like “Side View” shine with a vividness. Each word carries weight and sits with you. Adults understand their emotions differently and articulate them in a certain way. There is an honesty in the expressions of youth. An untested passion and fearlessness that disappear and change as life tumbles us around. This record is Ben Lee, the brilliant songwriter, facing the world for the first time. With Grandpa Would it’s like he is singing his unbelievably catchy, beautifully written diary from the age of 15, in all its unfiltered honesty, right into your ear.
And to me at age 15, it felt like someone was singing my life back to me. With songs like “The Loft” and “Don’t Leave,” my hopes and heartbreaks were given soundtracks. They quickly became staples on the therapeutic mixtapes I would make myself to help get through the crushing hell of high school (the one-two punch of 7 Seconds’ “Committed For Life” and Ben’s “Pathetic” being jarring favorites).
Ben was the dream: If you are talented enough, you can use music to get away from school and the bullshit and go on tour with all your heroes. I know Ben Lee was paramount in my mind when I put my phone number on that sheet of paper at the back of the venue the Opera House for a battle of the bands later that year. (So blame this record for Urine Trouble and every band I was in after.) But I wasn’t Ben Lee and Urine Trouble was certainly no Noise Addict.
When I finally had the chance to speak to Ben after all these years, I found him reticent about the idea of him being a music prodigy (as the music press had been want to call him at the time). Understandable, but when pressed he admitted he was writing three to four songs a day and dropping off a tape to his management each week. How many young teenagers are churning out a cassette full of songs a week, let alone with ones like this?
This remains a pivotal record for me. It came to me at a crucial point in my young life and set me on the path that I’m on. I’ve found myself coming back to it consistently over the years in a way that I do with few others. Ben Lee remains one of my favourite songwriters. I have grown up with him. At every stage, aspects of his art will reflect my own life back at me in the same way Grandpa Would did all those years ago. Without any hyperbole: I don’t know if my life would have turned out the same without it?