20 years after its release, Eraserheads’ Ultraelectomagneticpop has become less an album and more a cultural landmark. It is cited more often for its contribution to the Philippine music industry than for its merits as a collection of music. This phenomenon is not at all uncommon for era-defining albums – Nirvana’s Nervermind is largely viewed now in the same light. Yet there remains a striking difference: Nevermind, upon revisiting, is still a really good record.
Ultraelectomagneticpop just hasn’t aged well. This is not at all a pejorative remark, but rather an observation that reflects the amazing degree to which Pinoy rock has evolved over the last 20 years. The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, which also marks its 20th anniversary this year, hardly sounds dated in a 20-year-old’s iPod that also features Heliotropes and Yuck. Bjork and PJ Harvey’s 1993 releases – Debut and Rid of Me, respectively – would still blow listeners away in 2013. The Eraserheads debut, however, would sound quaint and unfashionably old if released today.
Unlike the alternative rock of the west that still seems unbelievably 20-plus years old, the nascent years of Pinoy alternative somehow feel as if they happened 30 or 40 years ago. All those songs by The Youth, Alamid/Athena’s Curse, and Siakol sound so 70s for some reason, and not because they have any sonic links to 70s Pinoy music, but because that’s how distant early 90s Pinoy music feels today. The industry sure had a lot of growing up to do in such a short period of time.
This brings up an obvious question that almost answers itself: if the songs in Ultraelectomagneticpop are indeed so basic and unsophisticated, then why hadn’t anyone come up with an album quite like it prior to 1993?
Consider, for a moment, the state of Pinoy music in the early 90s: remnants of 80s balladry drifting like tumbleweeds across a wasteland peppered by outgrowths of rap, as subterranean 80s punk and metal seethed underneath. It was a strange time desperate for a transition: the heydays of Gary Valenciano, Martin Nievera, and Joey Albert have passed and rap was still considered too much of a novelty genre for Francis Magalona to be widely relevant, and certainly the joke-rap of Andrew E. and Michael V. wasn’t legitimizing the artform any time soon.
It was a limbo begging to be taken over by the burgeoning Pinoy alternative music scene. Yet, despite the airplay provided by new radio station LA 105.9, underground bands just couldn’t break through to the mainstream. A lot of them also intentionally wouldn’t, as they sounded decidedly and stubbornly un-pop.
This may seem unfathomable today but hipness in the early 90s was measured in noise and roughness. And hatred, lots of hatred. If one thinks of hipsters today as annoyingly dismissive, then the punks and metalheads of the early 90s would seem like Nazis in comparison. Punks hated metal, metalheads hated hip-hop, and both hated all of pop. And this wasn’t even “hating” in the current context – this was a juvenile, violent hatred not far from racial discrimination. As far as these Neanderthals were concerned, their superiority came with a mission: to rid the world of all kabaduyan. The Eraserheads making their major label debut even poppier than their self-released Pop U, then naming it “Ultraelectomagneticpop” was a statement so extraordinary, it’s hard to put it in the context of these genre-polygamous times. The Eraserheads wanted to make a pop record in a scene where pop was absolutely anathema and thus did so with carefree, tongue-in-cheek ambivalence. The result was a refreshing mixture of anarchic, earnest, fun, and masa-friendly pop.
Not only did the Eraserheads make Pinoy alternative music safer for the mainstream and vice versa, they also tore down the wall between pop and the so-called “alternative”, liberating those two disparate poles from their self-made restrictions. Ultraelectomagneticpop showed that “alternative” music didn’t need to be all about aggression and revolution any more than pop ballads needed to be all about the same tired declarations of everlasting love. Eraserheads are credited for breaking Pinoy Alternative into the mainstream, yet their real legacy lies on how they expanded the possibilities of Pinoy pop forever.
It certainly helped that Ely Buendia, considered the torchbearer of Pinoy Alternative, not-so-secretly started out as a traditional pop songsmith. Hooking up with a bunch of like-minded schoolmates and getting regular gigs at Club Dredd – where they were exposed to a scene that was still very much influenced by punk – all seem so circumstantial now in hindsight. It turns out Pinoy mainstream pop needed those circumstances; it needed a jolt of punk looseness, vigor, and everyman honesty. Sappy ballads may still rule the mainstream to this day, but the idea that local rock music – whether via 6Cycle Mind or Kitchie Nadal or Parokya ni Edgar – can be an enduring staple of mainstream radio was born with Ultraelectomagneticpop.
The rawness of the album could easily be forgiven if it were to be viewed as the primordial soup from which much of modern Pinoy rock emerged. One could easily trace the dog-and-pony histrionics of Parokya ni Edgar, Itchyworms, Tanya Markova, et al from “Toyang”, “Tindahan ni Aling Nena”, and “Combo On The Run”, all of which bring back the charming memory of a younger, goofier Ely Buendia; far from the stone-faced, humorless, too-cool-for-school sunglassed mannequin we all know today. One could also see the beginnings of the long tradition of narrative lyrics in Pinoy rock from almost every other track in Ultraelectomagneticpop, chief among them “Pare Ko”, the album’s most lasting tune, and still the greatest Pinoy love song of the last 20 years, if not of all time.
“The mother of all our pop songs,” Ely Buendia said in a 1993 interview from fanzine-cum-song hits Rock and Rhythm. “This one should be given an honorable burial.” When the band laboriously re-recorded “Pare Ko”, a song they all considered dead before its radio birth, Buendia hated the result. He hated the mixing and insisted that the Pop U version was better. While it’s amazing to rediscover how sick and tired the band was with “Pare Ko” way before it became a ubiquitous hit, it’s hard not to agree with Buendia. The original Pop U version is better: it’s janglier, more plangent, and has a Daniel Johnstonian rawness that sounds more kindred with the song’s drunken pathos.
The version in Ultraelectomagneticpop is obviously poppier and it had to be. It had to be slowed down and polished a bit to create enough of an anthemic resonance that would reach jeepneys and carinderias across the nation. It had to shed its dorm room claustrophobia and open its sonic doors to the very communal rite it was celebrating. “Pare Ko” is the ultimate Pinoy love song because it is the perfect expression of our understanding of heartbreak as an experience that shouldn’t be lonesome, but shared. You don’t mope in your room for days, wallowing in the darkness. You go tell a buddy all about it over a few beers. “Kailangan lang ay ang iyong pakikiramay.”
“Pare Ko” sounds dated, but it isn’t. At the heart of it is a loss of innocence that will always feel new because those first few pangs of pain – like the lovelorn, friend-zoned losers who suffer from them – aren’t exclusive to any generation and will never become obsolete. It is a masterpiece that salvages Ultraelectomagneticpop from being a mere inanimate monument in OPM’s historical landscape.