by John Wenz
"I knew people that were riding Big Wheels when the Beatles broke up who still worshiped them like gods. Omaha has always been slow to change, being insulated by the rest of America's conservative bulk. I felt that the adoration of the Beatles had gone on quite long enough. Better Beatles stripped the songs of their sacred status, like saying “we're not afraid of your gods!” …. actually we had no material, and this is just what we pulled out of our asses. The important thing to us was to be doing something. We started on the first practice with nothing. Jay had Lennon and McCartney songbooks. I just read the lyrics while the guys plinked around. We ended up liking the formula — so it stuck!" — Jean Smith, lead singer
If you can call what Jean Smith does "singing," then she's a hell of a frontwoman, and deserves nothing but the finest honors for this column's celebration of National Women's History Month. But more than a singer, she's a performance artist — she didn't need any Lydia Lunch screeching to get this no-no-wave idea across. Listen to those vocals, as she reduces this song to a shattered husk, the little not-so-Wurlitzer keyboard in the background driving the song into the ground, the Shaggsish drumming hardly keeping the beat. Christ, man, this is high art. This is one of the finest things to come out of Nebraska music in the history of ever.
I mean, this song (and its parent album, Mercy Beat) are some of the definitive Nebraska recordings of the punk-rock era, at a time when that term applied to a small scattering of weirdo bands across the state with names you haven't heard and splits and singles you can no longer find.
In 1980, almost as soon as the band had released its first single (the "Penny Lane" / "I'm Down" split), they were gone, moved on to other cities and other pastures. There's scant mention in a two paragraph review of another band coming after, The Sounds of Roy.
It took a Hook and Crook Records release of the original sessions that produced that single to bring forth the majesty of this band.
It sounds like I'm being an ironic jackass about my love of The Better Beatles. This couldn't be further from the truth. There is nothing not to love about this band, and when we talk about the history of Nebraska music and Nebraska frontwomen, Jean Smith's arty and artful take on the Golden Calf of rock bands should put her in the Pantheon of the finest artists. Hell, this could be in the same breath as Young Marble Giants and other stripped-down acts of the era that knew the key to reinventing music was to completely destroy it and start over again at the real core. And that's as punk as it gets.
John Wenz is completely serious about this review and will fight you if you disagree with him. He is also the listings editor of Hear Nebraska and is on the desperate hunt for other relics of the early punk era in Nebraska. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.