Dig! The Brian Jonestown Massacre Vs the Dandy Warhols Great Psych-Rock Rivalry
Dig! is a 2004 music documentary by Ondi Timoner that chronicles the rise and fall of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, two bands who became close friends and played 1960s-style psychedelic and garage rock beginning in the 1990s. Dig! is the story of two extremely egotistical frontmen: it’s a story of catastrophic fall-outs, overindulgence, anti-heroes, and the underground’s reluctance to sell out.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, led by the troubled genius and provocateur Anton Newcombe, are presented as the jokers and the junkies, but also as the OG, the masterminds and grafters. The Dandy Warhols were fans of the band and inspired massively by the Jonestown’s sound and style but blossom into a commercial threat to their artistic influencers. The rift builds tensions between the groups—particularly Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor-Taylor, the two frontmen—and Dig! captures the classic love-hate relationship better than any fictional film ever could.
Anton Newcombe is the primary focus of the film, simply as he is the most baffling and wild character in the whole thing. You will likely form an opinion of him and sit in one of two camps: Firstly, that he’s a tormented soul and musical prodigy—a gifted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with an extraordinary vision for his art who, despite his problems with drug and alcohol abuse and a troubled upbringing, never gives up. This idea is evidenced by the fact that The Brian Jonestown Massacre made three brilliant records in the space of just one year: Their Satanic Majesties Second Request, Take It From The Man! and Thank God For Mental Illness. Or you may be in the second camp, and believe that Newcombe is a narcissistic, volatile, violent and controlling character—almost like a cult leader.
We see Anton attacking his band members and people in the crowds, and shouting his mouth off about having the artistic direction as he was the band’s only valuable member. Although the film appears to highlight the darker side of Newcombe (members of both groups have fiercely criticised the documentary for its portrayal of him), Dig! is an exciting and personal journey into the highs and lows of being in a very cool band, focusing on the relationships between the groups rather than their creative processes.
It is fascinating to see the extreme margin of commercial success between the two groups. The Dandy Warhols got signed by Capitol Records early on. They became massive in Europe after their huge hit single “Bohemian Like You” was featured in a cellphone ad. In contrast, The Brian Jonestown Massacre had barely any mainstream success, most likely due to their in-fighting and loathing for “controlling” record labels. Even when (or perhaps especially if) they had an awareness that label people were scoping them at their shows, they would often assault each other up on stage (a display which people would attend their gigs in the hope of witnessing first hand), leave the show early or quit the band without warning.
Maraca and tambourine man, Joel Gion, the face of the BJM in a sense, states he had officially quit the band 21 times in total. Indeed, from one shot to the next you don’t know who’s in the band anymore. People leave, but come back the next day. Others go, and you don’t even realise.
The Dandy Warhols lived like saints in comparison; they were willing to pen the hits and do the polished (and pretentious) video shoots, and behave like civilised people to keep their label happy. Guitarist Peter Holmström commented, “there’s no way to have a revolution if you stay underground” when the band is accused of “selling out”. It was this which caused the toxic fallout among the two groups—a rift which went from gentle teasing to songs dissing each other (The Warhols released, “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth”, which appeared to be about the Massacre, and BJM responded with their song, “Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth”). At one point the Warhols files restraining order against Newcombe after he sends them a box of shotgun bullets each wrapped in pretty paper. While it’s hilarious to watch, it’s also regrettable that these great friends who have a huge admiration for each other, turn out this way.
Of course, The Warhols’ lifestyle was a world apart from the BJM’s because of their label deal and chart success. The Jonestown “commune” was a squalor compared to the Dandy’s lavish apartments and hotel suites. In a perfectly symbolic moment that shows just how vastly different their fortunes were at that time, both bands were issued with drug charges while on tour. The Warhols got charged with marijuana possession by the French police but got let off for the price of “four T-shirts” whereas the BJM got arrested and the tour had to be disbanded. Anton got bailed out and played solo sets for its remainder.
The film captivates throughout, highlighting the camaraderie and clashes between the members and in their rival groups. There is a scene in which the Massacre play some country songs on the New York subway, which is truly magic. They bring joy to everyone around them, in the stores and offices they sing in. Though it is quite cult-like, and while the violence between the band members can be incredulous, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, such as the infamous quote “you broke my f*cking sitar man!” from Newcombe as he sits on the pavement outside a venue.
Dig! showcases how bands battle in a brand-new light; those who were once great mates turn to fierce opponents, fuelled by seeking victory in their own ways. While members of BJM seem to get on with everyone, for Newcombe, there is a deep wound that just won’t heal because he picks at it so much. It becomes an obsession of both Newcombe and Taylor-Taylor. If you didn’t know better, you would think they were in love. As the Warhols gain fame, Newcombe falls deeper into heroin addiction and looks close to death at times. Yet, despite their success, Taylor-Taylor appears to want what BJM have—that effortlessly cool swagger and freedom to do what they want. There was no media bandwagon behind these feuds because they were both underground bands at the time, so you won’t get a Beatles vs Rolling Stones or Blur vs Oasis story here.
The film ends on an eerily predicted note. Newcombe states that there would be no garage rock revival if it wasn’t for the BJM (the Massacre offshoot Black Rebel Motorcycle Club became big figures in the scene), Holmström (Warhols guitarist) prophesies that the BJM would become influential in the future and achieve a cult following and he was absolutely right. Newcombe cleaned up his act and got the noted members of the band back together. The Brian Jonestown Massacre have gained the foretold colossal cult status. They play festivals worldwide; their shows sell out, their music has been featured in brilliant TV shows (“Straight Up and Down” is the theme song for Boardwalk Empire). Psychedelic rock-obsessed youths snap up their albums like there’s no tomorrow.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre ushered in a new era of psych and garage rock with bands like Psychic Ills, Wooden Shjips and The Black Angels all taking inspiration from their sound, and their cult standing is what they desired and deserved all along. By overcoming their demons and avoiding being commercially viable, The Brian Jonestown Massacre are a group who have transcended the negatives of Dig!, come out on top and conquered the underground.