Wheatus: how we made Teenage Dirtbag

‘I wanted it to sound like Metallica and AC/DC from the waist up and Public Enemy from the waist down’

Brendan B Brown, singer/songwriter

I’d had the riff in my head since college. I wrote Teenage Dirtbag lying on a futon staring at the ceiling in a rented apartment on Long Island, New York. The song is fictional, but has a bit of scenery from my childhood.

I wanted the chorus to be defiant. When I was 10, there was a drug-induced, satanic ritual homicide by some teenagers in my neighbourhood. This guy lured his friend into the woods and stabbed him in the name of Satan. The murderer was wearing an AC/DC T-shirt, and after the murder, those letters came to mean Anti-Christ/Devil Child. I was an AC/DC fan, so I became a dirtbag in the eyes of the authorities of my little seaside town. And when I sing, “I’m just a teenage dirtbag”, I was like, “Well, what difference does it make, because you’ve made your mind up, haven’t you?”

But back in the 80s, the traditional American high school experience and the prom date was already in the culture, with John Hughes movies such as The Breakfast Club, and maybe that helped me create the fantasy. I went to a boarding school where there were no girls, so there wasn’t even the opportunity for rejection. I was intensely lonely as a teenager – sometimes I would play guitar for 14 hours a day. But I had ideas about what a social life was like. I was sort of watching out of the window.

The girl in Teenage Dirtbag is wearing “Keds and tube socks” because I was setting the narrative in the 80s. I mentioned Iron Maiden because The Number of the Beast was the most notorious example of “Satan rock” of the time. The boyfriend character was based on a nameless conglomeration of the many douchebag bullies who wanted to show you their father’s gun. And I sang both the male and female parts because, when I was getting beat up, a lot of bullies were homophobic. I wanted to irritate them by putting on a female voice.

We went back to the drawing board many times. I have vivid memories of explaining to the producer, Phil, that I wanted Teenage Dirtbag to sound like Metallica, AC/DC, Paul Simon and James Taylor from the waist up. And then, from the waist down, LL Cool J and Public Enemy. Like, hip-hop feet with rock’n’roll hands. As a production concept, that’s difficult. But every time it comes on the radio, I’m proud. It’s this weaponised piece of pop culture. When we play it, if the room is full, the crowd sing so loud we can’t hear ourselves.

Philip A Jimenez, producer and multi-instrumentalist

Brendan and I were two weirdos who found each other. He played me Teenage Dirtbag on acoustic guitar and I knew immediately that it had the potential to reach a big audience. It was story-based, almost like a folk song, and I liked the way it set the scene of this classic American high school. As a teenager in the US, you think about the prom the whole time. It’s sort of like your wedding. You imagine it’s gonna be some crazy night where the stars align – or it’s going to be terribly tragic. Teenage Dirtbag is a song about rejection, but then the good guy wins.

I thought it was interesting, too, that Brendan’s lyrics talked about the boyfriend bringing a gun to school. This was all before Columbine. In 1999, when the Columbine school shooting happened, we were still recording, and that lyric made us all a little nervous. That line was censored on some versions of the song but it’s not as if we were suggesting it’s a cool thing, and it’s more important to talk about these things, especially as school shootings have become the new norm here in the states.

I wanted those choruses to be explosive. We worked hard at getting an acoustic feel so that when the distortion kicked in, it could be punk-rock. The sound effects, like the bell and the car, were an offbeat idea – Brendan and I were looking through 80s movies for a car-chase scene and sampling sounds.

We didn’t have a record deal when we made it, and we recorded everything at Brendan’s parents’ house. The internet wasn’t really a thing yet, but we put the song up on something called Billboard Talent Net – within a week we were the most downloaded song in New York. We’d been playing little venues. After that, there were three labels at the shows wanting to sign us.

Are people impressed that I played on Teenage Dirtbag? In my home town, everyone teases me about it. If I walk into the pub, they’ll put it on. Or they’ll give me 11 cents, joking that it’s my cut.