In a small suburban Milwaukee tavern, the familiar cadence of kick and snare drums attributed to the outset of Presidents Of The United States of America’s 1995 breakout “Lump” turns the attention of the about 50 people. Heads tilt, looking in the direction of the, at most, two-foot tall stage strewn with untended instruments. A few jersey-clad women drag their companions to the dance floor to get a better look at the performers.
To be clear, the Presidents are not here. And Weird Al—who actually was in town to perform at the Wisconsin State Fair a month earlier—isn’t here, either. No, instead, we are congregated here on Friday the 13th in the middle of the Midwest to bear witness to Wisconsin’s own incarnation of Weird Al: Cheeseheads With Attitude.Cheeseheads With Attitude—commonly stylized as “C.W.A.,” which, of course, is a play on seminal hip-hop outfit N.W.A.—were born in Oshkosh (yes, of B’Gosh fame, that children’s clothing mail order catalog) in the fall of 1996. The three-piece was the benefactor of two external circumstances of the time. Earlier that year, the aforementioned Mr. Al released his platinum-selling Bad Hair Day. Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers were in the midst of breaking a near-30 year-championship drought. Using the increasingly popular parody platform and co-opting all the meaty, cheesy, alcoholic, and football-obsessed points of Wisconsin pride, C.W.A. forged a perfect marriage of distinct local quirks and mainstream music consciousness.Sampling instrumentation from artists like Beck, Tone Loc, and Beastie Boys, C.W.A.’s debut Straight Outta Wisconsin—also a less-than subtle nod to N.W.A.—was something of an unofficial soundtrack for the Badger State during the prosperous Packers runs in 1996 and 1997, in which the team went to two Super Bowls (winning one) while Brett Favre became the Justin Timberlake of Wisconsin. The six-song album, and the C.W.A.’s entire catalog thereafter, is heavy in hymns about the Packers, of course. However, the Cheeseheads also struck a chord with a keen acknowledgement of Wisconsin’s unique and much-maligned cultural nuisances. Delivered in a thick Germanic lilt that definitively belongs to native Wisconsinites, the trio referenced the in-state standards of Friday night fish fry, ritualistically drinking outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, and partying in small townships named after Native American words like Weyauwega and Ozaukee that were unpronounceable beyond state lines.
The amalgam proved popular enough to outsell legitimate artists like Madonna and The Spice Girls in C.W.A.’s home market during that short period in the late ‘90s. But even 17 years later, even after Brett Favre had pulled a Judas and accepted 40 pieces of silver in form of a Minnesota Vikings jersey, the trio is still popular enough to bring a diminutive-but-devoted group of fans out to the band’s inaugural “Milwaukee” show, which is where I’ve found myself.I put Milwaukee in quotations because the show is actually in West Allis—the Florida to metro Milwaukee’s United States. Once a bastion of industry during an era in which Americans made things, Milwaukee is in the long process of reinventing itself one spruced up factory façade, repurposed vacant lot and gentrified neighborhood at a time. West Allis, a 61,000-person city that flanks a portion of Milwaukee’s western side, didn’t get that memo. Amid the semi-operational baseball card shops and various acts of crime too petty to crack a COPS B-roll sits the venue of C.W.A.’s fated Milwaukee area debut. An admittedly clever double entendre, Whammy Bar, is a railroad track-adjacent watering hole that’s quietly nestled near the intersection of 61st Street and Beloit Road.
The tiny townie bar doesn’t seem befitting of a group that sold some 50,000 records in total (at least, that’s what the C.W.A. history claims they sold), played for 10,000 people in San Diego outside Super Bowl XXXII, and once opened for Journey in Oshkosh. After all, these are the Cheeseheads With Attitude—the band with far and away the best songs about the Green Bay Packers, which is actually a very specific, very real genre of music.
Seriously. C.W.A. aren’t alone in making iconic music about the Pack. Groups like polka fiends the Happy Schnapps Combo pad their catalog with hits like “C Is For Cowboys,” “We’re The Minnesota Vikings,” and the still-beloved Packers rally cry “The Bears Still Suck.” Additionally, rocker Eddy J. Lemberger has made a name for himself with regionally renowned “(That’s Why) I Love My Green Bay Packers” and nationally panned “Aaron Rodgers Rock ‘N’ Roll.”But Cheeseheads With Attitude are different. Because C.W.A. have a professional musician up their sleeves.In 1987, Stevie Rachelle took over as vocalist of glam metal band Tuff. The Phoenix-based act toured four continents, played concerts with Lita Ford and Skid Row, had a song in the score of Wayne’s World 2, and was briefly part of the Atlantic Records roster. Tuff’s 1995 break-up paved the way for Rachelle to return to his home state and become “St. Evie,” swapping his teased hair and sleeveless shirt for a flex-foam cheese hat and football pants. He formed C.W.A. with friends Jamie “Super J.” Fonte and Mark “Foolio” Stadler. After four albums, the Cheeseheads aren’t merely the most noted purveyor of Packers parodies. They could be the biggest sports parody act in the world. And definitely bigger than Whammy Bar.
Yet, if anything can explain the turn of events that events that brought C.W.A to metro Milwaukee’s last remaining hair metal bar, it’s time away.
All cheese has an expiration date, and Cheeseheads With Attitude are no different. By 1999, Mike Holmgren—Green Bay’s most accomplished coach since Vince Lombardi—had left for Seattle. Reggie White talked his way out of town though racial and anti-gay commentary. The team’s brief dynasty had elapsed and C.W.A. was all-but broken up. Around that same time, Tuff was featured on VH1’s Where Are They Now: Hair Bands II. In 2000, Tuff would provide the answer to the question, as Rachelle rejoined the band and left C.W.A. in the rear view mirror.After Green Bay’s 2010 Super Bowl campaign, C.W.A. resurfaced to release Green N’ Gold Hits, which features some classics, like Village People homage “P-A-C-K,” in addition to new song “Packer Face.” They’ve obviously replaced Favre’s tarnished name (that’s now merely an image of a small, crooked penis and Crocs) with Aaron Rodgers’ in the remix of Kid Rock “Only God Knows Why”-inspired song “Packers Fan.” Since that 2011 release, Foolio, Super J. and even Tuff frontman alter-ego, St. Evie, return early each season to play a select few Wisconsin dates on abbreviated tours.And that’s why I’m at Whammy Bar, in the belly of the microscopic music venue that’s three-quarters full of patrons wearing unlicensed jerseys of retired football players and sipping $3 domestic beers from yellow plastic cups.C.W.A. launches into an energetic performance of Packers-tinged Presidents tribute “The Pack Is Back”—especially energetic considering the trio is now on the wrong side of 45. Save for St. Evie, who has managed to cling to some of his svelte glam rocker physique from his occasional Tuff tours, the group’s traditional garb of yellow football pants and implicit-Packers jerseys emblazoned with C.W.A. and their individual moniker don’t seem to fit the same as they did when I saw them at a Media Play in Appleton when I was in middle school. Still, each note is struck with the same trademark grating Midwest accent with which it was recorded. The subsequent “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll”-themed parody “Back To The Super Bowl” would make Joan Jett smile, and the references to Piggly Wiggly and fishing on Lake Winnebago in “Talkin’ Packers With Me” would surely elicit a similar response from Poison.
I quickly find myself caught in a torrent of state pride, nostalgia, and blind Packers love. As the opening goat bleats of “(I’m A) Cheesehead Baby” pang off the framed Kiss posters and wall-mounted drum heads autographed by bands I’d never heard of, I’m 12 again, eating hot beef sandwiches in my dad’s basement and watching Favre toss touchdowns seemingly at will to (pre-hot tub statutory) Mark Chmura. By song’s end, I unconsciously join the chorus of “Oh gosh darnit don’t ya know, I’m a cheesehead baby, the pride of Wisconsin” with, well, the pride of Wisconsin.Between-song interactions are endearing. “One CD for $10, two for $20, three for $30,” they say in unison. They sell CDs on stage during songs, which is something I have never seen before. I even overlook when Super J. is introduced and lisps “That’s ‘Super Gay’ to you, bitch!” As the last “NEE-NAH!”s of “Where The Hell Is Neenah?” (a Tone Loc homage about a city best known for producing manhole covers) are atonally belted out, I’m hooked. C.W.A. excuses itself for an intermission, promising to play more songs after opening band Addiction completes another hour of tolerable hair metal covers.C.W.A. does no wrong during its 10-song set. That is, until they come back and perform the identical 10-song set again.Yes. That bears repeating: These guys are playing the exact same set twice in a row.Super J. lisps his second occurrence of stage-scripted homophobia of the night and feigns shock for in-microphone belch number two of the past 120 minutes. They do the same hand gestures in Randy Newman rip-off “I Love Green Bay” and recycle the “$10, $20, $30” bit and, along the way, my newly reclaimed Northeast Wisconsin youth is stolen from me.Because now, here, in the middle of this shitty fucking bar on the outskirts of “Milwaukee” after hearing the Lady Gaga-like “Packer Face” for the second fucking time, as Super J. screams, “Let’s see some titties in this bitch!,” I realize that these three regional semi-celebrities and apparent 50,000 record selling-moguls—the pride of my youth, the soundtrack to all things Packer Pride, the ingrained lifeblood of myself as a Wisconsinite—are nothing more than frauds and snake oil salesmen who are monetizing our state identity in $10 stage-sold increments.And now, the last lines of C.W.A.’s second rendition of “Where The Hell Is Neenah?” are competing with the whistle of a nearby train, and I look at the three men standing before us at Whammy Bar; before those of us who don our green and gold regalia with pride and are willing to shell out $5 (or $7 “Bears fan” cover to the few not outfitted in Packers apparel) to hear live versions of parody songs that reflect our sports fandom; those of us who deal with our culture being lampooned in stand-up routines and dumbed down in sitcoms, and who have our entire lives reduced to “flyover country” by people on either coast. For us, the Pack never left. And the Cheeseheads With Attitude—born during prosperous Packers times, absent during the darker days, and then resurfacing after another Super Bowl victory—did.Tyler Maas should probably stay out of West Allis for a while. He's on Twitter – @TylerJamesMaas