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The Playlist - Failure's Fantastic Planet

By Mike Johns Dec 5, 2012 - 8:03 AM print

Now that it seems that everyone is getting used to the new format around here, I was hoping that today, you would be willing to indulge me a bit as I share with you a long-standing personal theory about one of my all-time favorite albums, Failure's Fantastic Planet...

Now, many of you reading this right now may be wondering, "Who the hell is Failure?" After all, they aren't exactly a well-known band, by any stretch. In fact, as far as alternative rock bands in the 1990s go, they're pretty much in the same boat as bands like Hum, Sloan, and Stereolab, who, despite being somewhat influential and well-known in their genre, never really had any major airplay outside of college radio. Sure, some of you may know who these guys are now in the age of the internet where guys like me are a dime a dozen and people are posting their entire record collections on YouTube, but chances are, unless you're a real music geek, the name 'Failure' is relatively new to you. At the same time, despite not being particularly well-known or popular in their time, their music has developed something of a cult following over the past decade, thanks in small part to the success of a band you have most definitely heard of...

Oh yes, Paramore, who's cover of Failure's most successful single, "Stuck On You," was essentially their first big single. This, along with a strong showing on the 2006 Vans Warped Tour, earned the band a major push by their record label, Fueled By Ramen, putting them in the position to become the mainstream success they are now. Of course, this wouldn't be the first time you've heard a Failure cover by a relatively well-known band...

Yes, that's A Perfect Circle, best known as one of Tool singer Maynard James Keenan's many side-projects, covering "The Nurse Who Loved Me", which, outside of "Stuck On You", is the song most associated with Failure as a band. So, right there, you have essentially two generations of music fans hearing Failure's music, quite possibly for the first time. You have people in their 30s, like me, that likely missed out on Failure while they were still together in the 1990s, hearing it from A Perfect Circle, a band that, quite frankly, resembles Failure more than they likely realize. Meanwhile, you have 'tweens, teens, and 20-somethings hearing it from Paramore, a band that, well, doesn't sound like Failure at all. On top of that, not only have you likely already heard Failure's two most well-known songs at some point in the last several years, they both, coincidentally enough, were taken off the same album - Fantastic Planet.

I had first heard Failure in 1996, in the midst of my somewhat long, daily commute to school. My family moved a lot when I was a teenager, and in a vain attempt to maintain just a measure of stability in my life, we attempted to keep me enrolled in the same high school I had been attending for as long as humanly possible. So, for the first semester of my sophomore year of high school, I'd spend no less than a half-hour or more on a commute from a house in Akron, where we were staying with one of my mom's friends for a while, to my school in Canton. On this commute, I'd be trying, desperately, to tune in the local alternative station, 107.9 The End, based out of Cleveland, and one day came across the song "Stuck On You"...

I would only hear this song maybe 5 times in the entire 3 or 4 month period I would be living in Akron, always during my commute, and therefore not having the chance to record the song to the volumes of blank tapes I acquired with what little money I was actually able to make off a paper route over the summer when we did actually manage to stay in one place for more than a week. For those of you thinking that I'm exaggerating in that last sentence, please keep in mind that between the summers of 1996 through 1998, my family moved at least 12 times.

Anyway, despite only hearing the song a handful of times, and only hearing the name of the band announced maybe once, the song resonated so strongly with me that I remembered it for months afterward, so much so, I tried singing it to the one girl in my new school that listened to The End in 1997, hoping she knew anything about the band. She, of course, had no idea what I was talking about. Fortunately, with something resembling a steady home and the ability to have something resembling a job and an income, I eventually found Failure's Fantastic Planet sitting at a mere $6 on a CD rack at one of the record shops at the mall, because back in the 90s, the Eastwood Mall had two record stores. Nowadays, I'm not even sure we have one, and if we do, it's probably an FYE.

So, here I am, something like 8 months removed from the last time I had even heard "Stuck on You", holding Fantastic Planet in my hand, looking down the shelf a bit to see Nada Surf's High/Low sitting there, just begging me to pick it up, as well. I had maybe $20 on me, and, for reasons I still never quite understand, CDs at the mall were priced anywhere between $8 and $10 more than if you got it from a chain store, like Best Buy, so there's no way I could have gotten both that day. The only reason I even looked at the shops in the mall was because, 9 times out of 10, if I couldn't find it at a Best Buy or a Circuit City, it'd be at the mall. Sure, you'd have to pay more for it, but you're also getting records the chains simply aren't carrying. I never once saw a Sonic Youth, Sloan, or even a Donnas CD at the chain stores in the 90s. Hell, I still can't get Sloan at a chain store, now! I can get freaking Dead Kennedys at K-Mart nowadays, and Best Buy can't carry the new Sloan CD?! Seriously?!

Anyway, back to the story at hand - It's Spring, 1997, and I'm at the record store in the mall. In my hand, I have a half-priced Failure CD, with some vague as f*ck recollections of one song I, at this point, now only think I may have heard. No one else I know knows the band, or the song, and even I'm starting to believe I just made the tune up in my head. Meanwhile, another CD I've had a hard time finding, one I have been trying to get for over a year, back when their song "Popular" was being played all the goddamned time, was there, taunting me. Ever since I saw Nada Surf perform "Sleep" on 120 Minutes, I have been trying to get this CD. It was on my Christmas wishlist, along with Weezer's Pinkerton. I was annoying the sh*t out of my mom and stepdad for months, once we finally settled in Warren, to let me get a job or a paper route or something, just so I could finally get this CD, and here I am. It's right there, and it's then that I find exactly one copy of Failure's Fantastic Planet for a ridiculously low price. So, there's this incredibly rare CD with a song I think might exist in my hand, or, for me at the time, something of a Holy Grail, the band that, along with Superdrag, practically defined the summer of 1996 for me. There was also, like, 6 copies of High/Low, and the world stopped giving a sh*t about Nada Surf almost a year ago. The choice suddenly became easy. I got Fantastic Planet.

I get home, and from the moment I had first listened to Fantastic Planet, I was convinced that it was a concept album. Somewhere between the art design of the album cover resembling that of a cheap sci-fi paperback, complete with a track listing outlined as "chapters", the on-going connective theme of the songs about being lost, lonely and desperate, and the structure of the album itself, which resembled that of the Who's Rock Opera, Tommy, it seemed a fairly obvious conclusion. It was, at the very least, a concept album, in the vein of works like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Rush's 2112. It even appeared to have a something of a narrative, like the Who's Tommy or the collective works of the band, Coheed & Cambria. Thus, I've spent almost a decade returning to Fantastic Planet, time and time again, attempting to figure out just what the narrative was, and coming up with a fair share of theories, all of which, in the end, turned out to be fairly off.

Originally, I believed that Fantastic Planet was something of a space odyssey, the story of a man, reflecting on his life as he drifted helplessly in space. If this idea sounds familiar, it's because it's been done before...

With Fantastic Planet, though, I thought the band had expanded on the premise a bit, going into the protagonist's life before getting lost in space, falling in love, and lamenting as he went hurtling towards a fiery hot death in the heart of the nearest sun. That theory, though, fell apart rather quickly upon repeated listens, and the realization that I may, in fact, be taking the name of the album and its accompanying artwork too literally. It wouldn't be until much later, when I had an internet connection, and actually thought to look into the album more, that I finally found the song lyrics, transcribed. Needless to say, actually seeing the words to the songs helped fill in a lot of the questions I had about the album and its concept as I began to see just how flawed my theory really was.

That's not to say that Fantastic Planet isn't a concept album. It very much is, at least, thematically speaking. Like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Failure's Fantastic Planet is meant to paint a picture of the human experience with sound. Whereas Dark Side of the Moon dealt with the various stages of life, beginning and ending with a heartbeat and a breath, Fantastic Planet, at least through any interpretation of the sound and lyrical content I can manage, deals with the various stages of drug addiction, beginning with causal use, as depicted in "Saturday Savior", and ending with the proverbial rock bottom moment in "Daylight", where the addict, knowing his addiction is going to kill him, faces the crossroads, to continue his path towards impending death or choosing to get help. Fantastic Planet even begins and ends in a similar fashion to Dark Side of the Moon, as a rotary chime is played over and over again at both the beginning and end of the album.

When it comes right down to it, this is an album that really needs to be heard, beginning to end, in one sitting with no distractions at least once. I know that's a lot to ask for in today's world, where music is becoming more and more disposable, and attention spans are getting smaller. At the same time, I really feel like albums like this, which take that hour or so to really paint a picture and try to take your mind through an experience, are a big part of what makes music so interesting. Sometimes, it's good to think. Plus, it covers a pretty pertinent subject of our modern lives, and the struggle that many of us have with our own addictions, be it drugs, alcohol, or what have you. It opens up the mind of a drug addict, told from the perspective of guys who, more than likely, were dealing with these struggles first-hand. It covers the ecstasy of the high ("Blank"), the paranoia one often suffers as a result of their drug use ("Leo", "Pitiful"), the feeling of persecution by cops and society ("Sergeant Politeness"), the helplessness of being caught in mid-overdose, knowing you can probably die and not being able to save yourself ("Smoking Umbrella"), feelings of resentment and loneliness caused by your addictions ("Pillowhead"), the self-destructive cycle of self-pity ("Heliotropic"), the desperation of seeking your next high and the lengths an addict will go to for it ("Dirty Blue Balloons"), the point where you begin to realize that you're not using because you want to, but because you need to, just to feel okay ("Another Space Song"), and the incredibly destructive, codependent relationships you build with fellow addicts in order to enable one another and continue your drug-addled lifestyle ("The Nurse Who Loved Me"). Even "Stuck on You", a song I had, for the longest time, believed was something of an obsessive love song, is probably more than likely the addict relapsing after a period of sobriety. I would imagine that most Paramore fans, and maybe even the band themselves, would be a bit surprised to learn that the intense love song that basically launched Paramore into the mainstream was more than likely a heroin addict's love letter to his drug of choice. Instead of an unending devotion to a lost love, "Stuck on You" may be, in fact, an admission of failure, that the drug had burrowed so deep into the addict, like a summer tick, that sobriety may simply not be possible. When you think about it like that, Failure's Fantastic Planet is actually a very dark, depressing album. It's also an incredibly beautiful piece of art.

To this day, one of the best decisions I ever made was buying this CD for that mere $6 from the record shop at the mall. From being a song I only vaguely remembered hearing over a series of long car rides, to the wild and inaccurate theories about what each song meant, and then, finally figuring it all out, this album has come to mean a lot to me over the past decade and a half. It's a CD that, even after hearing quite possibly thousands of times, I've never gotten sick of. If anything, I keep finding new things to appreciate about it. I can't say that about many records, or even that many bands. All I can tell you is that if you're willing to give an hour to Fantastic Planet, you won't regret it. 

In the meantime, here's Failure, in all of their glory, live, from June 1, 1997...


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