Is there an appropriate and accurate way to describe "Sexx Laws"? Cheesy hiphop banjo funk? Well, let's leave it to Justin Meldal-Johnsen: "We like to call it boogaloo rather than funk. It's inspired by the '60s British TV style. You know, where you have this really over-active bassline like some guy's popped a couple of pills and just really gone for it? There is a black 70s element, but it's not quite laid back enough. Oh there's nothing laid back about 'Sexxlaws'." (from this interview)
A relatively corny but still entertaining Brass Menagerie horn line leads the song, along with Beck's exaggerated vocals. It sounds as if this song (along with "Debra
") kick-started the whole Midnite Vultures
vibe, and with that memorable chorus and title, it certainly made the song an appropriate first single.
Beck explains his inclusion of horns here, and throughout Midnite Vultures
: "I think my main interest in using the horns was for performance - so much music today is so guitar heavy. I sought other places to get muscle into the music. Many bands rely heavily on guitar to pump up the sound, but I thought it would be interesting to make the horns into the guitars." More specifically, he says he got the sound for the horns of "Sexx Laws" from the L.A. Rams: "I think it was the L.A. Rams. I used to watch them when I was growing up, and it just reminded me of Monday Night Football in 1978."
"Sexx Laws" is a superb band performance, as well. Justin plays a super-funky bassline. Beck of course tosses a twist into the song -- some country banjo and pedal steel! Only Beck could pull something like that off and get away with it. Herb Pedersen, the banjo player, sounds like he's having a great time. Interestingly, no drummer is credited in the liner notes.
Lyrically, the song sets the standard for what's to come on Midnite Vultures
, putting it in a good spot as the first track. Beck's persona of adventure and sexx and exotic locations and Sports Illustrated
moms and not being afraid to cry is one he would use throughout the album. Beck also makes it sound like there was a bit more work and thought put into it than one would initially assume: "It?s me playing with the ridiculousness of those entrenched ideas about what a man does and what a woman can do. A lot of soul music comes from a real masculine strength, but there's also this intense vulnerability about it. You have the masculine tough-guy exterior and the emotional openness, which is feminine, as well. I wanted to have fun with that, turn up that contrast a little bit without getting bogged down into preciousness and psychobabble." This idea is clearly where lines like "I'm a full-grown man but I'm not afraid to cry" here or "I'll do your laundry, massage your soul" on another Vultures
song come from. In fact, in 2005, he was asked specifically about the "full-grown man" line, and Beck replied, "it was also a play on R&B songs where these strong, masculine figures break down like little babies. There's something interesting about that world where you can be intensely sensitive and fragile and take care of your woman."
Also to note, the idea of defying sex laws originated with Ol' Dirty Bastard, on his song "Don't U Know": Ripped off my drawers as if she had claws / Broke the rules that defied sex laws / She responded quick, with a slick, welcoming kiss and an ice cream lick / Ooh I begged, I begged, "Easy on my balls, they're fragile as eggs.
Played live 299 times:
Earliest known live version: August 29, 1997
Latest known live version: August 18, 2023pre Vultures
"Sexx Laws" itself is a song that was built from one of Beck's on-stage ad-libs: "I wanna defy the logic of all sexx laws" was an occasional war-cry during some concerts during the end of 1997 and 1998.
1999-2001 Midnite Vultures tour
Beck played "Sexx Laws" immediately as he started promoting Midnite Vultures in 1999, and continued with it at nearly every show on the Vultures tours of 2000 and 2001.
The song regularly sounded quite fresh and exciting, Beck and the band clearly invigorated by it. The Brass Menagerie and his new back-up singers were a great addition. In fact, Beck memorably described singing "Sexx Laws" on stage, "I thought it was interesting performing in front of the horns. Makes you want to run for your life and do 300 pushups. There's something about the overtones-the sax and trumpet-they're really still a novelty to me."
One great addition to the song on stage is some cool, vaguely honkytonk piano by Roger Joseph Manning Jr. Piano is mixed a little low on the record, but live, it could come to forefront a little better, emphasizing the song's country base.
Interestingly and somewhat rarely for Beck songs, "Sexx Laws" would drift around the setlist - first song, middle of the set, closing encore, whatever. The version on February 19, 2000 closed the show, ending with about six minutes of noise, feedback, and Beck shouting.
A new addition to "Sexx Laws" was developed later in the Vultures tour: a live banjo solo! Earlier in the tour, the banjo part was a tape, but by the time of the Japanese leg, at least, lead guitarist Lyle Workman was playing a banjo on stage. It's really cool, and Beck seems to enjoy it: on May 21, 2000, at the end of the solo, he gives a loud "Oh shit!" of amazement. I'm not quite sure when this new arrangement first began exactly. It seems to have begun around May, 2000, and it continued through until the end of the Vultures tour.
A surprising one-off new arrangement of "Sexx Laws" was performed at the spontaneous "secret" concert at The Largo club in Hollywood on June 16, 2000. Having played with Jon Brion, Roger Manning Jr., and Justin Meldal-Johnsen a short improvised set, Beck was about to leave the stage. They fortunately decided to quickly add one more song. "What should we do?" they wondered. Jon Brion suggested "Sexx Laws" and Beck found the suggestion amusing, but was game, despite not having the horn section, banjo, or anything like that! It was scaled back to bass, piano, and drums. Roger asked what key, Beck said "Whatever" and off they went. The sparse arrangement showed off the quality of the song at the core of what is usually a wild, fully-layered performance.
2003 Sea Change band versions
Beck's Sea Change tours went through numerous iterations. Early on, he did some solo acoustic touring, and never played "Sexx Laws" on those. Then he did a few months with The Flaming Lips as his band, and they also never played the song. (I find this a little surprising, as The Lips apparently helped convince Beck to do some Vultures songs, and they could have done interesting things to a song like "Sexx Laws"!)
However, Beck put "Sexx Laws" back in on his other full-band tours at the time (Australia/Japan, and the US and Europe summer band tours).
In March 2003, Beck took Smokey, Justin, Joey and Greg with him to Australia and Japan. During the Japan portion of the tour (naturally, that's where the Ginza line is), they played "Sexx Laws" for the first time in a few years. Without a horn section, Greg played the main riff on his keyboards. The whole song is a bit slower and laidback, not so upbeat, much more soul to it. A cool re-working, for sure.
After that, the song has crept into a few of the European festival sets. Beck wrote in his journal from Europe that the fans "like the sexx laws out here, even though it kicks like some saturday morning cartoon jizzy." Sometimes however, they just did a shortened version of the song (just a verse/chorus quick arrangement).
2005-2007 Guero/Info tours
Beck played "Sexx Laws" with some regularity on the Guero/Info tours, esp. earlier throughout 2005. In 2006-2007, Beck and his band moved away from it, though it did pop up on occasion. This band also dropped the horns, using a sort of 8-bit keyboard sound to play the riff. It is cool, but certainly lacks the muscle that the rowsing horn section brings to the song.
2008-2009 Modern Guilt tour
Similarly, Beck did not frequently perform "Sexx Laws" on the Guilt tour, but it was never too far from his setlists and it showed up just around 5 times during 2008. They did do it at all 7 shows during the final leg of the Guilt
tour in 2009, though, pulling it back out for the Japanese tour.
2011-2013 pre-Phase tours
Beck didn't really tour in 2010 and 2011, though he did one benefit gig in 2011 that was highlighted by his inclusion of a jazz band into his regular band. The jazz band's horns led him to doing "Sexx Laws" at that one show, but then in 2012 and 2013, Beck never played the song.
2014 Morning Phase tour
Beck returned to "Sexx Laws" on his Morning Phase tours. "Sexx Laws" was not performed on the first leg of the Morning Phase tour, but on the second leg, he brought it out and ended up playing it at almost every night for the rest of the year. The song had a lot of rowdy moments, but pretty much followed the album version. The horns were a tape, Gus played the banjo solo, Jason and Smokey shredded on guitar, Justin dropped a MAD bassline. "Sexx Laws" really allowed this all-star band do their thing, and it was a great fun time.
2015-2017 post-Morning Phase tours
The success of the song in the encore of shows in 2014 led to the song continuing as one of his closing set of songs in 2015-2017 as well. It was, however, dropped from the shortened set when Beck opened for U2 at the end of this time period. In the beginning (2015-2016), the band had slimmed down some, so the horns are still taped and the banjo solo was replaced by Roger Joseph Manning's swirling keyboards. Justin's bassline continues to lead, and sounds sort of nuts. (Seriously, the second verse is so hype. When Dwayne Moore replaced JMJ in 2016, he kept it up too. Perfect!) And as it became more and more Beck's purpose on stage through these years, "Sexx Laws" developed more audience participation: Beck getting the crowd up and singing along, etc.
So to sum all that up. "Sexx Laws" has never really been far from the setlist. The times it wasn't regularly played never really lasted very long. It has changed a little along with changes in band personnel and personality (if there's horns or not, if the band has more than 5 people, etc.), but mostly never strays from the construction of the record. Occasionally, the horns are replaced by keyboards or wiped entirely, most often they are played as a tape. The famous banjo solo is usually also taped in, but sometimes if there's extra band members, someone will drop some live banjo for it (usually Lyle Workman on the Vultures
tour or Gus Seyffert on the Morning Phase
tour). It is a rowsing and fun song to hear in person, still.