Diving deeper than “Slobo Babe” with Sweden’s infectious, obnoxious concoction
Sweden’s Whale surfaced for a summer fling with the world thanks in no small part to Mike Judge.
Mainstream America discovered the Alternative Nation one-hit wonder when the impossible-to-ignore music video for “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” captured even the stunted pubescent hearts of Judge’s animated duo. “Dammit Beavis,” opined Butthead in 1995, “this chick loves me. And I love her.”
I can’t pretend my reaction wasn’t the same. Though Whale vocalist Cia Berg was already thirty when the video was shot, she sported fake braces, lasciviously licked her lollipop, and showed off her granny panties. Babydoll dress and stunning good looks aside, her voice was sultry, her lyrics evocative, her vibe geek chic bizarre.
VIDEO: Whale x Beavis and Butt-Head
Whale went about their career completely ass backward. “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” was the group’s first song and only commercial success. The original unit comprised Swedish hip-hop producer Gordon Cyrus and MTV Europe VJ/comedian Henrik Schyffert. The two met while making a commercial together and decided to write a song as a lark. Schyffert invited his then-girlfriend Cia Berg to sing and front the trio. Berg (now Soro) was also a Swedish television personality, having been a video presenter on Bagen (The Bag) and a program manager. Her initial new wave splash had come a decade earlier as sex kitten vocalist of the forgettable, brassy Oingo Boingo/Ivan Stang/Ernie Kovacs worshippers Ubangi.
Thanks to the fledgling band’s industry connections, East West Records let “Hobo…” hop their train in 1994 and helped fling the single into the charts. The song went top ten in Denmark, top 40 in Sweden, and managed to best Beck’s “Loser” for a week with a #24 placement on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
A vivid, colorful, kinetic video directed by auteur Mark Pellington followed. Known for his work with Pearl Jam and U2, Pellington’s efforts were rewarded with a Best Director win at the inaugural MTV Europe Music Awards. Competition in that category included Spike Jonze’s Beastie Boys “Sabotage” video. Pellington continued to collaborate with Whale but none of his other clips connected with the zeitgeist the way “Hobo…” seemed to effortlessly manage.
VIDEO: Whale “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe”
With a minor hit on their hands, Berg, Schyffer and Cyrus wasted little time putting together an album. East West accidentally let their option drop, poising the band to negotiate a better deal with Virgin. The stopgap E.P. release Pay For Me tantalized whetted appetites, featuring an inspired trip-hop take on Prince’s “Darling Nikki.”
“Hobo…” had been one helluva calling card. But that song’s mishmash of metal guitars, funk rhythms, and guy/girl vocal contrast only hinted at the myriad eclectic ingredients pulled from the pantry to cook up We Care. The band was now free to simultaneously reimagine itself as trip-hop dabblers, dumbed down rawkers, and the Saint Etienne of smut.
Meanwhile, Tricky was exiting Massive Attack and happy to collaborate. Though it did little good in the long run he was brought on board to produce two songs for We Care, including the lead track. “Kickin’” is built on a simple acoustic riff, handclap rhythms, and Berg’s mock Marilyn Monroe coo. By now Whale was riffing on Beck’s early lackadaisical glue-sniffing slacker vibe. The sharpest tacks in this tune are its lyrics about meaningless sex (they somehow manage to rhyme “umbilical” with “political”) a theme throughout the entire album.
Next on deck is “That’s Where It’s At.” Berg rap-sneers her way over four minutes of Swedish P-Funk. Choice lyric on this one is a dig that compare’s the body scent of Kurt Loder to “Laker locker odor.” One wonders if that had any bearing on the band’s inability to ever land another video in rotation on MTV.
Third track “Pay For Me” hits hard with a guitar crunch that is legit heavy, albeit too repetitive to satisfy true heavy metallers. Simpleton Rage Against The Machine fans may respond though–there’s even a bit of record scratching over the finale. While “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” was about a rich girl who slept with tramps for kicks (Slobo being a language-barrier misinterpretation of the British slang term ‘Sloane’ best translated as ‘preppy’ and exemplified by Lady Di) “Pay For Me” follows the classical definition of sugar daddy, with memorable lyrics like, “When gravity kicks my ass / You better pay for my tits to get fixed.”
“Eurodog” digs on continental Europeans, taking the piss by asking “Is there a cure for being Swiss?” Its sedate electro-funk series of nonsense rhymes (with a whiff of NIN) erupts into a shouted chorus that plays off the excellent P.D. Eastman children’s classic Go, Dog, Go!
Smutty lyrics abound in the following long jam. “I’ll Do Ya” settles in for over eight minutes of dumb fun, perfectly illustrating the biggest problems with We Care. In retrospect, the CD era gave artists license to put out albums that broke the one-hour barrier. While these durations might have created value for the consumer, it’s a rare band that can sustain interest over such a long period, especially on a record so calculatedly devoid of depth. Whale did later address this by crafting a much smarter sophomore album. Unfortunately the universe is cruel and their efforts were not rewarded.
The fine but forgettable ode to paranoia “Electricity” follows with a creamy bass line over era-appropriate glitchy trip-hop production.
And then smack dab in the middle of the record stands “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” in all its raucous glory. For anyone who never listened to Whale beyond the hit single, it’s easy to imagine this fluke as the band’s lone memorable song. If anything, the opposite is true. What made that single work so well was its sexy, colorful music video, and the sheer eye and ear-poking audacity of the song.
“Rock!” screamed Beavis and Butthead when the initial riff erupted out of their TV speakers. There’s an appeal to the lowest common denominator (I’m looking at you RHCP fans) among its stupidly macho male vocal shouts. But it’s Berg’s beauty to their beast that makes the whole song soar. That same combination worked for the B-52s, Sugarcubes, and Ethyl Meatplow. In fact, the guys in Whale are not bad looking. And they’re certainly capable of carrying a tune. But for the purposes of this song and video they subordinated themselves into tin foil cavemen in dresses, elevating Berg onto an angelic pedestal that made Whale’s entire musical career.
Clearly a tough act to follow, the other Tricky-produced tune “Tryzasnice” appears next. In a dismissive contemporaneous CMJ review of We Care, Chris Molanphy suggested that if Whale were smart, they’d hook up with someone like Tricky for their next album. I guess he received a promo sans liner notes.
Better by far is the pleasant, lazy day burbling of “Happy In You” which transports the listener back to a time when the dream of the ‘90s was still alive–despite lyrics about a conniving man who wedges himself into a relationship with his brother’s girlfriend.
“I Miss Me” is a shoegazing guitar-based rocker. If you made a mix tape of just these songs you’d get a very skewed idea of the musical breadth Whale were capable of conjuring. Regardless, it’s a reminder that the band took its glib name as a stab at other five-letter bands like Curve and Suede. At one point they even issued a fake bio that claimed a lineage back to 1986 under early incarnation The Southern Whale Cult. This was a tongue-in-cheek homage to The Cult who had shortened their name from Southern Death Cult. Not everyone got Whale’s joke. To this day the All Music Guide still includes this apocryphal info.
The last standout track on the album is the aptly title “Young, Dumb, N’ Full of Cum” which features another Beck-style mumbled vocal over yet another funky, laid-back jam. There’s an effervescent joy on display here, a celebration of the uplifting power of intercourse.
VIDEO: Whale perform on MTV Europe May 23, 1995
“I’m Cold” is the final unasked for eight-minute sojourn. Gospel-inflected, its church organs compete against sampled police sirens. A worthy tune on its own, but no listener is going pay much attention this deep into the album. Perhaps “I’m Cold” operates as a come down if you’re trying to drift off to sleep or prepare for the next day’s hangover to set in.
We Care concludes like an alarm clock with the 1:15 punk jam “Born To Raise Hell.” This kind of exclamation mark has worked on many records; in this case it’s too little too late.
For an album that is about nothing and stands for little more than shagging your way through the summer, We Care is a boisterous time capsule to a carefree era when part time jobs could cover rent, and the price of a thrill was the cost of a condom.
Whale did their best to capitalize on their fleeting fame by supporting Blur on US tour. They briefly split afterward then reformed as a quintet to offer a far more interesting and enduring sophomore album. All Disco Dance Must End In Broken Bones didn’t lean so hard on vapid lyrics or Berg’s sex appeal–though there is a jiggly, heart-stopping live television performance of “4 Big Speakers” that will leave certain viewers in a puddle on the floor.
Unfortunately …Disco Dance… failed to chart and Whale’s members promptly shelved their flash-in-the-pan. Each returned to their own successful career. Cyrus owns a production company with offices in Stockholm and Paris. Schyffert went on to great success as an international stand-up comic. According to Swedish Wikipedia, Cia Soro owns a bookstore in Sardinia with her husband.
Discogs lists no less than 64 compilations that include “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe.” Otherwise, Whale watchers yearning for more than scraps of lo-res YouTube footage have long since starved. The band folded on the eave of Internet ubiquity, leaving a two-album legacy, half a dozen videos, and almost no interviews to speak of.
But when it comes to mindless, effervescent dollar bin detritus from the ‘90s, those eight quarters could not be better spent.