Sunday, April 4, 2010

8. Redd Kross

About once a year, we go through a Redd Kross phase. As this year's phase winds down, it seems like the perfect time to write about the band.

Redd Kross is one of those California-based bands with siblings at its core. (See also: the Beach Boys [from Hawthorne, CA, just like Redd Kross], CCR, and Van Halen.) Jeff McDonald (voice/guitar) and Steve McDonald (bass/voice) started playing together in the late-'70s, when they were both very young. (Jeff was barely a teenager and Steve was still in primary school.)

How we discovered Redd Kross:
When we were 14 or 15, we first heard Neurotica, the band's high-water mark. We immediately fell for its catchy songs with peculiar lyrics. (Two examples: "Tabasco is hot; / Some call it love" from "Janus, Jeanie, and George Harrison" and "Steven says 'papaya'; / he says 'papaya' / yeeeaaah!" from "Ghandi Is Dead [I'm the Cartoon Man].") Redd Kross was also the first band we ever saw in a club. We were underage at the time, but managed to get in using some borrowed ID. After the show, our friend Mike said we should talk to the band. We were nervous, but delighted to meet Steve, who was surprisingly friendly and wide-eyed. (At the time, he was really into the word 'groovy.')

Why Redd Kross is worth listening to:
Redd Kross writes and records songs that might be seen as superficial because they're steeped in pop culture references. But the brothers McDonald are delightfully playful and generally successful at negotiating the Spinal Tapian line between clever and stupid. No other band sounds or looks like Redd Kross. Imagine the Partridge Family with longer hair, better songs, and more drugs. Perhaps the Japanese all-girl trio Shonen Knife is as close as it gets. (RK more or less 'discovered' SK. The bands have also recorded songs about each other: 'Shonen Knife' by Redd Kross and 'Redd Kross' by Shonen Knife.)

Where to start:
Neurotica (1987)

The albums:
The band's first EP, Red Cross (1980), doesn't stand up well when placed beside some of the other recordings coming out the early LA punk scene (i.e., X's Los Angeles, Minutemen's Paranoid Time, and the early Black Flag singles). Then again, the band members were still in high school at the time. "Annette's Got the Hits" is the best number on the EP. This minute-long ditty about Annette Funicello is the first of many celebrity-related songs the band will write.

Redd Kross's first LP, Born Innocent (1982), opens with "Linda Blair," the song's first couplet being, "In The Exorcist, baby, you were really insane. / You got busted, you got busted, you got busted for cocaine." (According to interviews we've read, Redd Kross's name comes from the crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist.) The second song, "White Trash," underscores the album's snotty, kids-fucking-around-with-instruments tone. (The song's chorus is "You're just white trash. / You better watch what you say to me. / Just white trash / And your brother can't even read. Whew!") "Cellulite City" might be our favourite track on Born Innocent. Even after dozens of listens, its last lines remain incredibly funny and poignant: "Feel free to plug your ears / 'Cause I've only been alive for fourteen years."

Long before it was cool, Redd Kross released an EP of cover songs, Teen Babes From Monsanto (1984). (The band has always done dyamite covers.) Some of the songs are what you would expect (Kiss, Rolling Stones, Stooges, and Bowie) and some are more surprising (Shangri-Las, and "Blow You a Kiss in the Wind" from the TV show Bewitched).

Here's "Blow You a Kiss in the Wind" as it appeared on Bewitched:

And Redd Kross's cover version:

Neurotica (1987) is the group's most consistent album. It's confident, hooky, and sprawling (in a good way). It overflows with pop, love, pop culture, and punk-metallic goodness. There are a few songs that we don't love, but we're still glad they're there. In a just universe, songs like "Peach Kelli Pop" and "Love Is You" would have been blasting from car radios across North America in 1987. Instead, they were relegated to being spun on tiny university radio stations by grad student DJs. Trouser Press calls Neurotica the band's "national underground breakout record," whatever that means.

It's difficult for us to characterize what we love about Neurotica. Somehow, it manages to be simultaneously goofy and sincere. We find its distorted, catchy songs pretty irresistable. At this point, the group's songwriting and musicianship were at their zenith. There are gorgeous little moments in nearly every song. We love the dip in Jeff's voice when he sings the word "dance" in the lyrics "Tell me why they don't understand / When you take a little chance / The answers might come / And you learn how to dance" (in "Play My Song"). We love the bit in "McKenzie" (about One Day at a Time star Mackenzie Phillips, of course) when Jeff sings "I can make you happy" and the (Partridge Family-inspired?) backing vocals come in "Happy! / Happy!" We love Steve's melodic bass playing, Robert Hecker's guitar hijinks, and the Goldilocks-like use of cymbals (just the right amount).

We're too lazy to embed any music (as you may have already noticed), so we're stuck with what's freely available online. Here's some footage of Redd Kross circa Neurotica, playing the album's title track live:

After Neurotica, the band had some record label-related legal troubles and was unable to record under its own name for quite some time. Unfortunately, the loopy, Beatles-tweaking music the brothers McDonald recorded as the Tater Totz was not as beloved as their Redd Kross jams.

Redd Kross has released some great post-Neurotica songs (e.g., 'Bubblegum Factory,' 'Mess Around,' 'Switchblade Sister'), but it's never managed to put together another brilliant album. Maybe this will change now that the band has returned to its classic Neurotica line-up?

Other listening/viewing:
Sadly, there is no book about Redd Kross. (An oral history would be a great idea, folks! Put us down for an advance copy, please.) However, there is a Redd Kross podcast, which includes a few Robert Hecker-related episodes. ("Ted" -- aka episode 5 -- is infamous. It's a recording of a guy who auditioned to be the lead singer in a post-Redd Kross band that Hecker was assembling. Problem 1: Ted can't sing. Problem 2: He only knows one or two lines from any song, even the ones he suggests they play. Despite how embarrassing it might sound, it's actually strangely compelling. In particular, his version of "Start Me Up" is amazing. He only knows three words from that song. "Start me up! / Start me up, start me up, start me up! / Start me up! / Start! Me! Up!" Truly mind blowing.)

We'll leave you with one last video chestnut. A couple of years ago, Jeff McDonald directed a brilliant video for the Steven McDonald Group's blistering cover of Kim Fowley's song "Motorboat":