The Mountain Goats are an indie folk rock group formed in California that are known for their detailed musical storytelling, clever lyrics and concept albums devoted to one particular theme. In 2015, the group released Beat the Champ, thirteen tracks dedicated to the lead singer John Darnielle’s childhood love of pro wrestling. When the album became available for pre-order, so many fans clambered to get their hands on it that they managed to crash the website. It has since become of their most acclaimed albums by fans and critics alike.
Despite this enthusiasm from The Mountain Goats’ cult-like fans, I feel as though this beautiful album still doesn’t get quite the praise it deserves from the wrestling community after being released for 3.5 years. So, I’ve decided to dissect each song from one of my favourite ever albums to explain what makes them so great, what makes each song so unique to the rest of the album, and what little details will put a smile on every wrestling fan’s face that listens to it – this is Beat the Champ Deconstructed – a Detailed Look at a Love Letter to Pro Wrestling.
1. Southwestern Territory: 4:14
The album opens with Southwestern Territory, a tribute to the small independent promotions that Darnielle would attend as a child, and the wrestlers that inhabited them. Darnielle himself described this as:
“A song about the days of the regional territories in professional wrestling, and I explain this for the people who didn’t say ‘yeah’. Wrestling became big business when the regional territories got consolidated. Before that, it was strictly a working-class sport. It was very cheap to go to the wrestling matches. You could take your whole family for a twenty-dollar bill.”
Accompanied by a somber piano throughout, the song beautifully paints a picture of 70s and 80s regional wrestling, both on small black and white screens, and inside local venues filled with cigarette smoke and dreams, such as the Grand Olympic Auditorium which Darnielle would attend as a child. With the chorus, “Climb the turnbuckle high, take two falls out of three, blackout from local TV“, the song is as much as it is about telling a story and portraying emotion, as it is about pro wrestling.
Throughout the track, different instruments are introduced, ranging from haunting woodwind to a hopeful, uplifting strings section. These changes in instruments and tones perfectly mirror the various emotions we all experience when watching pro wrestling, as well as the highs and lows of being a part of the business.
2. The Legend of Chavo Guerrero: 3:00
Starting off with an immediate upbeat pace, totally in contrast with the previous track, The Mountain Goats go from a visual imagining of territorial pro wrestling to a literal telling of Darnielle’s life experiences.
The Legend of Chavo Guerrero is simply a tribute to Darnielle’s childhood hero and the life that he led, going through his achievements and exactly what Chavo meant to him. Slipping in obscure references like Red Shoes Doogan (a referee in California), you really feel how strong Darnielle’s fandom was and how significant Chavo was during this time.
The importance of Chavo is highlighted the most in the second verse, when Darnielle unexpectedly brings up his abusive stepfather (something Darnielle has written several songs about in the past). He openly discusses how despite how much his stepfather would berate Darnielle for watching Chavo, he used pro wrestling to help get through negative experiences in life and escape reality, something which many of us can relate to.
Darnielle manages to turn a song about the life of legendary pro wrestler into a relatable story of fandom and abuse, and that’s the magic of his songwriting. The most heartwarming part of this song though is the fact that Darnielle actually got to meet his childhood hero when he starred in the music video for this track before he passed away. A lovely end to an awful experience.
3. Foreign Object: 2:51
I guarantee this is the catchiest song you will ever hear about stabbing somebody in the face.
When any wrestling fan sees the title of this track, they’re going to instantly warm to it. Foreign Object is one of those terms in pro wrestling that every fan knows about, and contributes to the fabric of what makes the sport as weird and entertaining as it is. The term is obscure enough to feel like a song made exclusively for wrestling fans yet catchy enough to just be a genuinely damn great song. Speaking about the song, Darnielle explained what he believes the difference between amateur and professional wrestling is:
“When a wrestler has a weapon… if you watch high school wrestling, college wrestling, you may think that usually they don’t have weapons. And that’s true, but that’s because they’re still in high school and college. They haven’t really leveled up to the real wrestling. They’re still learning. They can’t be trusted with weapons yet. Only the professional wrestler is really equipped to handle a weapon.”
As soon as the song begins, you’re instantly hooked by an insanely catchy horn section that will stick in your head like a sharp foreign object. In terms of melody and stay-in-your-head-ness (it’s a technical term, trust me), this is the best song on the album. It will be the one that you’ll be driving yourself mad with for days on end because you can’t stop humming it. Just make sure you don’t sing a song about stabbing people in the eye out loud in front of other people.
4. Animal Mask: 2:54
The humble Battle Royal – a staple of territorial wrestling shows, and the subject of this next song. At Mountain Goats shows, Darnielle explained that Animal Mask is:
“A song about how, from the moment of your birth, you don’t owe anybody a look at your true face… This song is also about a battle royal that takes place in the labour and delivery room.”
This much softer acoustic tune with a foot tapping drum beat is about the early days of wrestling and the early days of life. It takes an almost nostalgic look back at the good old days, with catchy results. Far less literal and possibly the least clear song on the album in terms of imagery, yet it’s still the best song about a pro wrestler with an animal gimmick in a Battle Royal match you will hear this year.
5. Choked Out: 1:42
Yet another huge contrast from the previous song, Choked Out is a violent burst of a song with a pounding pace and ferocious delivery from Darnielle throughout. The tune describes the narrator being placed into a submission hold in the ring, the effect it has on him mentally and physically, as well as the psychology of a pro wrestler. Choked Out becomes more chaotic and vicious as it goes on to reflect that in-ring mentality and the desperation of avoiding that sleeper. Once again, the band captures the intended emotions and tone perfectly.
6. Heel Turn 2: 5:58
Track 6 is a tribute to the moments in pro wrestling where good guys suddenly turn to the darkness, the moments when, as Darnielle explains, “suddenly you see a guy go ‘man, fuck it’“.
Placing himself in the mind of a pro wrestler that’s just shown his new villainous ways, Darnielle explains why they’ve turned heel and the effects of him turning heel. The name alone immediately draws in wrestling fans, and provides great imagery of something we have all seen a thousand times, ending with a beautiful, standout piano solo.
7. Fire Editorial: 3:22
Fire Editorial is dedicated to the legendary pro wrestler and WWE Hall of Famer, The Sheik, a pioneer in the world of hardcore wrestling. When Darnielle was a child, The Sheik was one of the biggest heels around:
“He didn’t want to win; he just wanted to murder his opponents. And the wrestling magazines would write these editorials, you know… ‘Someone has to stop the Sheik! Someone’s gotta stop him! ‘Cause he’s gonna blind somebody! He will blind them! We gotta pass a law against this guy!’
Track 7 is a tribute to those magazines that would write about how dangerous this man was. Although at no point does it directly refer to who it is about or specifics of Sheik’s career, Darnielle still uses his amazing storytelling skills to paint a fantastic visual. Fire Editorial audibly separates itself from the rest of the album with a jazzy piano. With the variety of genres and instruments used throughout Beat the Champ, it is a great reflection of the diversity of pro wrestling.
8. Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan: 3:48
In another example of differentiating from the rest of the album, Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan is more of a spoken word piece than a song. It is a very literal and up front telling of the death of Bruiser Brody. The serious mood of the track is set throughout with a simple baseline and crashing cymbals, accompanied at points by mysterious strings that hint at something ominous happening. One of the best details in the song is when Darnielle describes the actual stabbing, his voice becomes much more striking and loud to accentuate the violence and horrific nature of this tragic event.
9. Werewolf Gimmick: 2:34
In this song, Darnielle assumes the role of a wrestler with a werewolf persona. Fuelled by an energising beat, as if you’re about to go down to the ring yourself, Werewolf Gimmick places you in the mind of a performer as they approach the building and psyche themselves up for the fight ahead. Delivered with passion and aggression throughout, Darnielle certainly lives the gimmick in this one, with great results.
10. Luna: 3:27
Track 10 is about one of the most recognisable females in the WWF during the 90s – Luna Vachon. As Darnielle explained at a live show:
“Luna Vachon was a wrestler with power and grace, and could make you believe that she had been possessed by evil. Right, which is a great thing to be able to do… to make somebody think, ‘I just love evil.’ That was her deal.”
During her life, Luna sadly had to cope with a lot of problems, including her drug addiction, her bipolar, a raging fire in 2009 that destroyed her home, and her eventual suicide in 2010. This soft track takes you through the difficulties of Luna’s life, mainly the devastating fire that took everything away from her. Luna is a somber song about such a larger than life character.
This song is an example of how the album isn’t just about wrestling, it’s about life and the people behind what we see on our screens. Luna depicts the tragic events of somebody’s life who we all know because of wrestling. It’s about the stories we learn and the people we meet from being a fan, it’s about how real life can sometimes be more dramatic than what we see on screen, serving as a harsh reminder that no matter how eccentric a personality on TV is, they’re still a real person that has to deal with real life situations.
11. Unmasked!: 3:28
As a child, Darnielle watched a lot of pro wrestling courtesy of Mexican wrestling broadcasts on the Spanish language UHF station (hence why he was such a fan of Chavo Guerrero). Inspired by the many Mask vs. Mask matches he would watch as a kid, Unmasked! is a beautiful song all about a luchador coming to the end of his career and bowing out in the traditional way, by putting his mask on the line, and revealing his true self for all to see. Darnielle’s character in the song talks about his in-ring persona as if they are a completely separate person, building upon the idea set in previous songs that these performers are still real people beyond what we see on screen.
12. The Ballad of Bull Ramos: 2:53
With a great, upbeat tune featuring an infectious beat from start to finish, track 12 is a very literal, autobiographical account of the life and death of Bull Ramos, a local territory wrestler from Darnielle’s childhood. There’s no deeper meanings or metaphors in this one, it’s simply a telling of Bull’s life through his own voice, with a running beat throughout that feels like a truck going down the road, just like the one Bull would drive back when he was still alive.
13. Hair Match: 5:40
Beat the Champ ends with a tribute to good old Hair vs. Hair matches. Ending with the slowest, softest track of the album, Hair Match is a stunning way to cap off this love letter to pro wrestling. It takes you through the wonderful, gimmicky world of pro wrestling, describing how their match stipulates there will be no cameras in the building, yet somehow there just happens to be one there and somebody hits record for us all to see.
With lines like “look at all the cheap cars” and “from the thrifty down the street”, Hair Match acknowledges pro wrestling’s status as a working class form of entertainment, whilst using beautiful imagery and well-structured lines to highlight how wonderful it is. Also, the woodwind instruments used in the first song return as a lovely little callback to the beginning of the album.
Before the enchanting woodwind closes off the album, Darnielle leaves us all with one of the final lines, speaking directly at pro wrestling, that sums up exactly what Beat the Champ is all about, and what made this sport such a major part of his childhood:
“I loved you before I even ever knew what love was like.”
Follow me on Twitter and let me know what you thought of the album – @HairyWrestling