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Camper Van Beethoven: Beloved revolutionary indie sweethearts

Here's the story of how Camper Van Beethoven came unglued and put the pieces back together.

Maybe it’s true, at least in some respects, that the suburbs, in all their bland uniformity, really are cultural wastelands, and the arts, especially those with ethnic origins, get snuffed out like the weeds of the chemically treated lawns found there.

In his experience, coming of age in California’s Inland Empire, Victor Krummenacher of Camper Van Beethoven, the eccentric musical surrealists of the ’80s who were making alternative-rock way before there ever was such a term, found that such notions don’t always hold water.

“I can’t remember what Camper record it was — maybe it was the third one (1986’s self-titled effort) — but Spin magazine reviewed it and kind of chided us with, ‘Don’t these boys know that there’s no culture in the suburbs?’ You know, I was insulted,” says Krummenacher, the band’s bassist, “and also just... that’s not true. Culture is where humans are. Culture is where people are, and I think one of the things that Camper’s always set out to prove is that culture from what people consider the sticks and small towns is just as good, just as valid, just as real as anyplace else.”

Spawned from the California communities of Riverside and Redlands, where Krummenacher and boyhood friend David Lowery grew up, Camper Van Beethoven turned the underground upside down in the early ’80s by cross-breeding ska, psychedelia, country, folk and even progressive rock with punk’s “loud fast rules” ethos.

All that genre-hopping madness, combined with the absurdist humor and cracked world view of Lowery’s lyrics, coalesced into something that defied categorization, and it angered and confused punk’s hardcore stormtroopers.

“I don’t really remember getting physically assaulted, but we were in physical danger,” says Lowery of the tense, sometimes even violent, atmosphere at Camper shows, where bills included punk acts with a more pure musical gene pool.

Never ones for diplomacy, Camper Van Beethoven, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2008 with a series of commemorative concerts and a greatest-hits CD, Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength And Beauty, took unnatural glee in egging them on live and on record.

“Believe me, we could really ride the crowd, and we would not always be nice,” says Krummenacher.

A career-spanning collection, Popular Songs mines the group’s five studio albums for underground favorites such as “Eye Of Fatima Parts 1&2,” “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt,” “All Her Favorite Fruit” and, of course, the band’s signature song, “Take The Skinheads Bowling.”

This good-natured, comic jibe at a group not known for having much of a sense of humor appeared on Camper Van Beethoven’s 1985 debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory (worth in the neighborhood of $20 to $40, or more, in near-mint condition, depending on whether you have the one with the handmade cover, letterpress design and inserts), a record reissued a year later to choruses of critical acclaim.

“I think we did [the LP] in about 24 hours, in three eight-hour sessions,” recalls Lowery. “I remember it was really hot in Davis, Calif. [where it was recorded]. It was a brutally hot summer, and we went to record it in one of the few 8-track studios we knew of.”

The marathon session resulted in a seminal indie release, and “Take The Skinheads Bowling” is a song that’s had a lasting impact on underground music. Even the skinheads eventually took to it.

“Actually, for the most part, skinheads seemed to anthemize the song and liked it,” says Jonathan Segel, the band’s resident multi-inst