The Eraserheads For and Against the Masses

Glenn Tuazon

Glenn Tuazon Gabrielle Lamontagne B 620x544

Illustration by Gabrielle Lamontagne B.

The Eraserheads, famous for songs about everyday Filipino life, departed from their successful formula after the release of the experimental Christmas album Fruitcake. The significance of the album may have been lost on fans in the 90s. Seventeen years later, Glenn Tuazon explains why this concept record requires a second listen.

an album by The Eraserheads

After the creative peak comes the indulgent follow-up. This is an unspoken rule in the music industry: A band that hits the top enjoys carte blanche to release a difficult follow-up record. While some succeed (see: Sandinista! by the Clash and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins), a lot more do not (see: The Second Coming by the Stone Roses, Be Here Now by Oasis, Neither Fish nor Flesh by Terence Trent d’Arby).

And then there’s Fruitcake, the greatest—or at least, the most important—Filipino album of our time. The trouble is, nobody remembers.

eraserheads fruitcake

The Eraserheads are undisputedly the greatest local band ever. But most Eraserheads career retrospectives consist of truncated remembrances of their history. In Tikman ang Langit, a collection of essays about the band, most contributors stopped with Cutterpillow and “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” virtually ignoring the band’s career from 1996 to 2002. The simple and apparent reason: It’s always easier to frame an artist’s career around milestones and peaks, smoothening out points inconsistent with the narrative of greatness.

But the career of the “best Filipino band ever” was wildly uneven and mired with failed expectations, mostly because of a once-captive audience that squarely abandoned them at the first sign of change. Ultraelectromagneticpop-to-Cutterpillow-centric recollections of the Eraserheads’ career ultimately either: a) strengthen the public’s amnesia concerning the last half of the band’s career, or b) serve as simplistic ways of recounting how much the Eraserheads meant to the local music industry.

The reason behind the truncated recollection of the Eraserheads’ career is that one album that seems to disrupt the consistency of the greater narrative (that the Eraserheads are the best Filipino band ever): Fruitcake. There appears to be some difficulty justifying the band’s inexplicable decision to follow up an instant classic (Cutterpillow) with a concept Christmas album with no songs witten in Filipino.

There’s always something suspicious about Christmas albums. Even at first glance, most reek of opportunism. In the United Kingdom, the “Christmas number one” is such a highly sought-after title that some artists pander to the buying public—a trend masterfully spoofed in Love Actually and unfortunately continued by every reiteration of “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time?” In other instances, the Christmas album is an easy cop-out for artists to finish long, multi-record deals by releasing an album full of rehashed Christmas carols.

Fruitcake is anything but this, although anyone could be forgiven for initially thinking it. The Christmas album is typically the most expendable part of an artist’s canon—the album listeners can skip with impunity. Fruitcake, on the other hand, is an all-original album, with a central concept and a vaguely discernible storyline about a young girl who runs away from home and meets a motley crew of characters. (Those who bought early releases of the album were rewarded with a Fruitcake storybook, which explained the album’s storyline.)

The eponymous lead song, a fantastic album opener, is anything but lead single material. It begins innocuously enough with a softly strummed guitar and Ely Buendia singing, “There’s a fruitcake for everybody, there’s a fruitcake for everyone.” The central metaphor of fruitcake-for-everyone persists until it becomes apparent that it is not a metaphor at all. The song, literally, is about serving fruitcake to the entire world. Neither does it qualify as an all-year-‘round song (unlike mainstream Christian songs whose vague lyrics can be easily recast as balladry) as marred by the bridge, which goes: “Christmas time has once again arrived / There’s some mistletoe and a little snow, but we don’t get it down in Fruitcake Heights.” There’s a throwaway reference to Star Margarine, but everywhere else, “Fruitcake” is a marked departure from the band’s early songs’ references to SkyFlakes, tindahans, and Paraluman. “Fruitcake” was the sound of a band inching away from “El Bimbo.”

(An unverified quip: I recall more masa radio stations opting to use “Old Fashioned Christmas Carol,” the most accessible song from the album, as the first single. This song features the Eraserheads as the Carol Kings, singing a hodgepodge of mangled Christmas songs [“Silver bells, silver bells, silver all the way!”]. Over the radio, it was a mildly delightful track; but in the context of the album, it served as comic relief after the slightly menacing “Gatekeeper.”)

The second single, “Trip to Jerusalem,” was a surprisingly mature take on the classic soft-loud-soft rock anthem, with Buddy Zabala’s bass taking center stage—melodic during the verses and propulsive in the choruses (although it drops off in the song’s best part at four-and-a-half-minutes). Apart from the strained musical chairs symbolism pervading the song and the fact that its six-plus-minute length makes it an unconventional choice for a single, it is more notable for its failure to reap the same accolades as “El Bimbo.” A couple of years after winning the MTV Asia Viewer’s Choice Award for “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” the Philippines fielded “Trip to Jerusalem” as its entry for the same award. It didn’t win.

The rest of Fruitcake is a masterful series of character studies, akin to Parklife or The Village Green Preservation Society. Like Blur and The Kinks, the Eraserheads delved into an eclectic collection of genres and styles to communicate the personalities of the strange residents of Fruitcake Heights.

The Eraserheads introduce “Lord of the Rhum” through heavy metal riffing and distorted vocals. The song degenerates into sinister chants of “Mix, fold, bake, decorate,”repeated ad nauseam.

“Fruit Fairy” has manic guitars and even more frenzied horns, in contrast with the hilarious piano shuffle of “The Fabulous Baker Boy.” (And oh, the Fabulous Baker Boy doesn’t use “brown sugar or milk from a can.” He doesn’t use anything at all, because, as the twist goes, he just orders fruitcakes from the Swiss Alps. Don’t blame him though: His father just died in a freak baking accident. It’s sketches like these that make Fruitcake a compelling and entertaining listen, even after seventeen years.)

The rest of the album is a series of fantastic, albeit strange, songs. “Styrosnow” is a children’s song about making do with fake snow in this tropical climate (and is a wonderful reference to the last scene of the “El Bimbo” music video). “Monovirus” sounds like a simmering zombie infestation, which culminates in an outbreak. The band crams four Cure references in the sudden drum freak-out (“I need the Cure; I want to go to bed; kiss me, kiss me, put a head on the door”), making “Monovirus” a self-aware gothic song. “Christmas Party,” a celebratory anthem, sounds like a long lost 1970s pop gem. “Christmas Morning” is the album’s equivalent of “Goodnight” from The Beatles—a satisfying, gentle comedown after a long sonic journey.

Put together, Fruitcake marked a decisive turn in the Eraserheads’ career. At this point, they were no longer strictly a pop-rock band singing about unrequited love and getting stoned. They became an experimental collective that branched out into a sprawl of styles. To use trite phraseology, Fruitcake signified the Eraserheads’ evolution: Eraserheads v. 2.0.

Unfortunately, the masa did not follow and were observably bewildered by the change. (The use of the term “masa” is not unintended nor is it a carelessly deployed word. Masa is a charged term, which holds a special place in the band’s history, and one that the Eraserheads themselves deployed in a later track.)

Placed in context, Fruitcake was part of a conscious effort by the band to move away from Philippine FM radio and into the greater Asian market, and possibly farther than that. Following closely on the heels of Fruitcake was Aloha Milkyway, a collection of mostly English language songs (save for “El Bimbo”) carefully selected to appeal to markets outside of the Philippines. While it was moderately successful, it did not signify the band’s ascent into global superstardom. Apart from “Julie Tearjerky,” which garnered some airplay in US indie rock stations, the band’s foray into bigger markets pretty much fell flat.

They failed partly because of a lingering public demand for the “old” Eraserheads, that lovable college frat band which sang about mundane everyday experiences. A track like say, Ultraelectromagneticpop’s “Shirley”—about an up-and-down college romance—was infinitely more relatable than “Shadow,” Fruitcake’s character sketch about a friendly dog. There was a sinking feeling that “ang banda natin” was no longer playing “our” songs but their own.

The Eraserheads eventually rebuked the fans who abandoned them through the seminal “Para sa Masa,” from their next album, Sticker Happy. “Para sa Masa” is a song written in the classic Eraserheads style, with a thinly veiled admonition of the public that failed to appreciate their evolution. I may be speculating, but it perfectly sums up how the band felt about the cold reception to their Christmas album.

“Mapapatawad mo ba ako kung hindi ko sinunod ang gusto mo?” In that one line, the Eraserheads apologized for Fruitcake. And then they followed it with a quick left hook: “Pinilit kong iahon ka, ngunit ayaw mo naman sumama.” They were saviors of Pinoy rock and roll, faced with philistines who didn’t want any saving. Ouch.

Even so, “Para sa Masa” offers a sarcastic apology, as the rest of Sticker Happy finds the band happily experimenting with heavy sampling. And while not quite Fruitcake, Sticker Happy proved that the Eraserheads, after Fruitcake, were beyond the point of return.

The song is best seen as a love letter to their confused fans, an explanation why they changed their sound from Fruitcake onwards:

“Naaalala niyo pa ba
Binigyan namin kayo ng ligaya
Ilang taon na ring lumipas
Mga kulay ng mundo ay kumupas
Marami na rin ang mga pagbabago
Di maiiwasan pagka’t tayo ay tao lamang”

Not that Fruitcake was a work of high-art, or that it was an inaccessible and difficult piece that took ten listens to “get.” Far from it, Fruitcake even replicated the feel of an A.S.A.P. or Party Pilipinas production, featuring guests like Rico Blanco, Agot Isidro, and Francis Magalona. Fruitcake was fun and eclectic at the same time: It bore the sound of the Eraserheads taking seemingly crazy ideas from all band members and turning these into full-fledged songs. They appeared to have shed off the pressure to compose mostly campfire-and-gin sing along songs similar to those of the Circus era. Instead, they wrote songs that were just as accessible, but were not quite “Pare Ko.”

(Past Eraserheads albums had always accommodated crazy ideas, but relegated these into odd fillers. Ultraelectomagneticpop had the throwaway “Ganjazz” and “Honky-Toinks Granny,” Circus had the entertaining and now-iconic “Punk Zappa” series, and Cutterpillow, in a curve ball, threw in a song called “Fill Her,” a lilting acoustic piece that was neither a filler nor a classic Eraserheads ballad. Fruitcake, in turn, had piano instrumentals entitled “Shadow Boxes Accountants,” “Shadow Read the News Today, Oh Boy,” and “”)

Fruitcake ultimately failed not because it was bad, but because it was different. It was a victim of timing—it was released less than a year after “Torpedo” and the rest of the Cutterpillow-era singles scorched the pop charts. It was hard to blame the public for wanting more of the same.

Some of the most important moments in music history were the products of big change and the subsequent backlash that came with it. Who could forget the first time Bob Dylan went electric in the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when a fan shouted “Judas!” at him for not trying to be Woody Guthrie? Electric Dylan eventually produced a trio of masterpieces from that era (Blonde on Blonde, Bringing it All Back Home, and Highway 61 Revisited).

To a lesser degree, the Fruitcake gamble had the same effect. While there was no singular “Judas!” moment, it’s not hard to imagine the same thoughts going through the head of a “Pare Ko” or “Alapaap” fanatic hearing “Flat Tire” or “Hitchin’ a Ride” for the first time.

For the rest of their career, the ‘Heads appeared to reel from the Fruitcake incident (much like Axl and the Guns were reeling from The Spaghetti Incident). In the years that followed, the band attempted to release the next Cutterpillow. Natin99 came close through the band’s apparently conscious decision to write an all-Filipino set of tracks. Natin99 struck a balance between the first three albums’ melodic sing-alongs and Fruitcake/Sticker Happy’s sonic experimentation, all the while pretending Aloha Milkyway was just a bad dream. Unfortunately, the band had stepped too far away from the plate, making it difficult for them to regain the full trust of their fans. It’s not difficult to imagine Natin99 songs like “Maselang Bahaghari” and “Huwag Kang Matakot” reaching the same heights “Huwag Mo Nang Itanong” reached (and the two songs are much better than “Overdrive,” which was a bigger hit than both). But at this point, there was already a creative wedge between the Eraserheads, who probably viewed Natin99 as a compromise, and the masa who approached it with caution. (This was compounded by the band’s choice to include the tongue-in-cheek “Pop Machine” in Natin99, which, at least to this author’s mind, appeared to be the band criticizing the masa’s expectation from them.)

Fruitcake’s apparent failure was not so much the product of the Eraserheads dropping the ball, but the band rolling the dice. While the result of this gamble was a fantastic assortment of tunes, many listeners were a too busy trying to make sense of their surprising career move, rather than making the effort to hop along for the journey. The potential game changer for OPM became a mere afterthought, a failed experiment that deserved no more than passing mentions in discussions about the band’s legacy. (“Fruitcake? The Christmas album?”)

A seminal album deserved better.

— — —

On 30 August 2008, a large crowd swelled in Fort Bonifacio for the first Eraserheads concert in years—one succinctly called “Eraserheads: the Reunion Concert.” The Reunion Concert was unfortunately notable because the band had to cut the it short after Ely Buendia suffered health complications.

As a result, “Lightyears,” a beautiful, string-laden deep-album cut from Fruitcake-–my favorite ‘Heads song—took center stage as the unintended finale of the concert. “Lightyears,” never released as a single and stuck in the deep recesses of a largely ignored record, inadvertently became the set closer. The slightly saccharine track from Fruitcake took on a completely earnest skin, becoming the poignant, lighters-in-the-air anthem it always deserved to be.

Even under the most luckless of circumstances, this proved to be a slight vindication for the least heralded, but arguably the most important, album in the Eraserheads canon. It just took most people a little more than a decade to realize it.