Label: Merge Records
Release Year: 2015
Admiration. Glory. Triumph. Bloodshed. Heartbreak. Violence. Freedom.
John Darnielle and company’s 2015 album tells you, right off the back, what it is.
“This is an album about professional wrestling.”
Wrestling as an industry is shrouded in the extremes of both sports and entertainment. The constructed nature of the actual matches, the line between real and fake that kayfabe creates is a blurry effigy of violence, art and acting that has captivated audiences for decades.
Beat The Champ is a story about professional wrestling.
Beat The Champ is a narrative about how storytelling can mean so, so, much more than the act itself.
I own two copies of Beat The Champ on vinyl in my apartment. I decided one Christmas to get the album for my roommate, we both loved the album deeply, still do now, but what I remember most about that moment is the absolute look of glee in his eyes; he bought the same album as a Christmas present for me.
This is easily one of our most played records.
Beat The Champ is not just an album, but it does an amazing job of both digesting the methodology of professional wrestling stories, and making listeners feel the exact emotions.
A sober beginning, Southwestern Territory tells the story of the experience of a wrestler, it feels like a recollection, a shoot without the vitriol. We are instantly sucked into this character without knowing a BIT of his backstory within the world of the ring. Darnielle gives us the man behind the mask, quite literally, before we step into the fiction. The somber flutes and instrumentals lull us into something calm, where in the thrill of the sport can hit us in the chest.
The Legend of Chavo Guerrero takes on the meta narrative of admiring a wrestler, and where it turns the audience to. Legend is about the real wrestler, the late Chavo Guerrero Sr. and the absolute admiration for his work in the early independent scene, all in the eyes of a child narrator. The thrill of telling Guerrero’s story is paired with the reverence and love of someone clearly dependent on wrestling as a coping mechanism and escape.
“I need justice in my life, here it comes.
Look high; it’s my last hope
Chavo Guerrero, coming off the top rope”
The reverence for Guerrero pushes the narrator from inspiration to action, where the consumption of the narrators safety net into reality, the acceleration of Legend in the guitar and thrill in Darnielle’s voice pushes us forward into the narrator’s rise to the industry itself.
Foreign Object is as brash as the subject matter entails.
Wrestling is planned, wrestling is scripted, and wrestling is fucking bloody. Techniques such as blading (intentional cutting of the skin to produce blood), and the use of weaponry in wrestling is as old as time, and Object treats these experiences, this violence as complete and utter joy. Easily one of the most bouncy tracts on the album, it's experiencing the violence from the perspective of the perpetrator, something I find sells the entire appeal of wrestling.
Something Beat The Champ does amazing at is pulling us in and out the intertwined nature of the life of a wrestler and the life of a man.
Where Animal Mask, Choked Out, and Heel Turn 2 come into play is bouncing between the backstage and interpersonal connections, and most importantly, struggles that the industry causes the main character. Choked Out throws us right back into the light of the ring and we live through the absolute thrill and terror of this lights out match where Heel Turn takes us into the real feelings of the reception behind the character in the ring, the real ache and bodily harm that comes from doing it, at this point, as long as the narrator has.
This interpersonal struggle bounces between the stage and the suffering. In Unmasked! and The Ballad of Bull Ramos this perspective hits an ultimatum. The career of a wrestler is both physically and mentally destructive and truthfully, as the ballad itself feels hopeful, the narrative itself is one that’s bleak. Ramos’ physical health is deteriorating, and we are finally granted the full picture of the man who we’ve been following for so long. This is the first time we’ve gotten the stage name of our protagonist, we’ve gotten so close to this man without even knowing his name.
For the last three tracks on the album, the two I mentioned, and the final track, Hair Match, I believe it’s important to understand the significance of these two experiences, unmasking and a hair match, in wrestling culture.
The mask is viewed as an extension of the self, you are your mask, in terms of both storytelling and kayfabe, the removal of a mask is like stripping a layer of oneself away. It is an utter uproot of your arc and character, it is a sign of change for younger wrestlers, and for older wrestlers, like Ramos, the upheaval often proceeds to an ending.
The hair match in wrestling is one of, if not, the most historically charged forms of wrestling matches in the industry. The hair match is a wager, once used in Spanish gambling matches, then, humiliation was the goal. The loser is held to a chair, the buzz of the razor fills the air, and lock by lock, a wrestler's hair is cut. [For more on hair matches, watch my favorite match with Rey Mysterio and CM Punk here.]
Remember at the beginning? When we established wrestling is fake?
A hair match is almost always a predetermined decision.
What Darnielle does here is subvert the notion of shame and humiliation that comes from these cultural touchstones in the wrestling industry.
There is no shame in the unmasking of Bull Ramos.
Lock by lock, the same tender flute that introduced us to this man, frees him from his career as a wrestler, and every bit of pain, hardship, struggle that came with it. Like the retirement of industry greats, like the deaths of wrestlers before their time, John Darnielle and Beat The Champ ask us to say goodbye.
And what better sports story can give is a true, proper goodbye.
Where Beat The Champ ascends as more than just a story of professional wrestling, is Darnielle’s personal experience with the medium.
The inside of the two record vinyl, while displaying the tracks and lyrics, also has a special introductory box. Here, Darnielle tells a story. His stepfather was abusive, this cycle of abuse permeated in every aspect of interaction, but where Darnielle found connection with the man was with wrestling. He describes Mike– his stepfather–cheering wildly for the heels, wherein his life at the time, a deteriorating situation, was encapsulated by being a wrestling fan.
“My life was chaotic and frightening. I did not cheer for the heels. I feared and hated them. I wanted to see them get punished. When, in the heat of battle, the good guys would abandon the rulebook in order to fight fire with fire, something inside me responded primally.”
The beauty of an album like Beat The Champ is the primal love of storytelling, and the resolution of a face beating a heel is a creature comfort for Darnielle, even decades after his experiences with his stepfather, and standing in the Grand Olympic as a child. We aren’t just being put through the experiences of a wrestler, but we live through Darnielle, and stories and inspiration that saved his life in the moments he needed it most. This is not a unique story, of a child holding onto heroes in the sports they watch, but one that I find time and time again one of the most powerful stories in the industry.
“During my teenage years, it was music that saved my life, but this album is for Chavo Guerrero Sr., master of the moonsault, on whom I pinned my hopes on when I was very young.”
Reviewer: Avery Martinez