If you want to understand small-town Wisconsin, consider the origin of the word “cheesehead”. Once used as a derogatory term, Wisconsinites quickly adopted it and soon thereafter started regularly wearing foam slices of cheese on their heads. Once upon a time Manitowoc had a Minor League team called the Skunks, named as such because we always let our rivals choose our team names. We take “more bars than churches” as a point of pride, not an indictment of our character. And we make fun of our thick Midwestern accents just as much as you do. Before that no-good Steven Avery came around, Manitowoc’s most famous were the Happy Schnapps Combo, a fusion of German and Polish polka music that gave the small town its very own sound. A parody of portly, backwoods, beer-drinkin’ hicks, made up entirely of portly, backwoods, beer-drinkin’ hicks. Gotta write what you know!
The Schnapps started sometime in ’88, founded by Jim “Bruiser” Krueger, who made his mark on the music business by penning the Dave Mason hit “We Just Disagree” in ’77. He palled around L.A. for a while, eventually releasing his own solo album, with a cover that made him look like the reincarnation of Jim Morrison himself. But after striking out in Cali he came back to Manitowoc, instantly becoming the small town’s most famous musician. He formed a couple of bands, one of which was the soon-to-be-legendary Happy Schnapps Combo. Five guys, including two sets of brothers, all of whom gave themselves beer-swiggin’ German nicknames: Otto, Wolfgang, Horst, Wenzel, and Helmut. The Schnappers’ debut was called 100 Proof, featured a photo of one of the band members passed out on a bar stool, and had my Mom’s phone number in the booklet, as she managed the band through much of the 90’s.
Luckily there was a listenable CD copy of 100 Proof lurking in her basement, because I remember having this one on cassette, and you ain’t gonna find this on Amazon MP3 or nothin’. First thing that stands out after so many years is how many of the bars and restaurants referenced here still exist – I think nearly all of them, actually? The Manitowoc of 1991 is apparently exactly like the Manitowoc of 2017, full of joints that somehow manage to stay open despite dirt cheap prices and no clientele. But in other ways things are very much different. One of the songs (“Pump It Up”) is a hybrid of polka and rap, written way back when the rockheads assumed rap was just a phase; suffice to say it sounds so naive now, though it still manages to make me laugh. Also, the fact that the band can’t bring themselves to say the word “ass” yet will sing about jackin’ it to 15-year old cheerleaders. Different times, indeed.
100 Proof would wind up being sort of a dry run for Raise It!, their second album. As someone who has seen this band live a dozen times I can say that this is the one which houses most of their classic tunes; it was probably the most common CD in the Manitowoc bar jukeboxes up until the internet ones came along. Maybe not a quantum leap from 100 Proof, even nicking one of the tunes from it (“The Bears Still Suck Polka”, which still makes the Schnapps relevant on local radio twice a year), but it’s better in pretty much every way. Several classic tunes which every Mani’twocker oughta know by heart, and surprisingly a bit of commercial potential to boot. “No, I Don’t Wanna Do Dat” wound up becoming a staple on the Dr. Demento show, and “Fleet Farm” was used in commercials for the store, in a somewhat bastardized version of course. You’ve got an incredible cover of “Born to be Wild” and a track called “Polka No.9”, which is exactly what you think it is. I have no idea how this would come off to someone not from the area, much less someone who isn’t in the Midwest at all, but to me this is a classic; truly music of the people, written by and for the man who just wants to live his life like an irredeemable slob (“Wenzel’s Perfect World”). It doesn’t exactly glamorize the lifestyle – puking is a recurring theme in the Schnapps’ music – but that’s the way we are.
Unfortunately it would up being a bit too true to life. Jim Krueger developed pancreatitis and passed away in 1993, which wound up killing a potentially big commercial deal they had brewing with Pepsi. A big loss for Manitowoc, but ultimately the band soldiered on, with Bill Soucy, the band’s “designated sober guy”, taking over the frontman role. They wound up releasing a few more discs throughout the 90’s, before Soucy retired for good. Amazingly the Schapps are still around, in some incarnation at least. Wenzel has remained the sole original member for nearly two decades; nowadays the band is led by a dude named Stosh, who embodies the group as well as anyone. They’re still a blast to see, playing something like 15 shows a year, including Oktoberfest and the County Fair, for which they still draw a good crowd. Apparently they have a new CD out, including such titles as “You Can’t Beat Our Weiners” and “Make Your Liver Giver”. Still making Manitowoc proud, after all these years.