BLAG. Vol. 8
Prompt: A great album with a glaring flaw.
In the documentary It’s Gonna Blow!!! – San Diego’s Music Underground 1986-1996, one of the talking heads jokes about the post-Nirvana feeding frenzy – and I paraphrase – “Everyone [in San Diego] was on a major label. In fact, it was weird if your band wasn’t on a major label.”
It’s a striking contrast against the locale I grew up near: Chapel Hill, NC, which was also being groomed by the media as “The Next Seattle.” The difference was, the lightning rod of Superchunk and Merge Records didn’t take the bait. Plenty of local bands did land major label contracts, but the general consensus from the local scene was a defiant “meh, we’re good.”
Therefore, I saw the San Diego story as a cautionary tale. So many bands took the jump to try and “make it,” and most languished in what I call “Major Label Purgatory,” where a band becomes big enough to warrant a full-time gig, but isn’t successful enough to make any money, much less pay back the advance from the label. Every band in the documentary – save for Blink (182) – was promised the world, but none came out of the grinder intact.
There was one band that was supposed to be San Diego’s runaway hit. They were the mainstream crossover that would become a household name next to Tevin Campbell and Candlebox. They were supposed to be the Next Nirvana. That band, one of my absolute favorites, is Rocket from the Crypt.
In It’s Gonna Blow!!!, John Reis recollects the work ethic: Rocket from the Crypt practiced several hours a day, seven days a week. They toured extensively to promote their major label debut, Scream Dracula Scream – one tour offering free admission. Also consider that at the time, Reis was doing double duty in Drive Like Jehu.
Or, hear it from Daniel, when he wrote up a Facebook post about Buzzfest ‘98:
“I remember very clearly that Rocket from the Crypt was the first band of the day. Poor Rocket from the Crypt... they were trying so hard to break through, but they just couldn’t do it. I think that Scream Dracula Scream was probably just too good of a record (I still listen to it all the time... I kind of miss records with production that clear and powerful, but they don’t exist now that multi-million dollar recording budgets don’t exist either) and the band members were too smart for their own good. Scream Dracula Scream was clearly them trying to dumb it down, but like the Ramones they were smart people playing dumb, and while that plays great in the punk scene it’s just too much for Joe Six Pack to wrap his head around. Anyway, despite the fact that they were clearly doomed, RFTC worked their asses off... I must have seen them ten times between 1997 and 2000 without even really trying, including a great free show in Schafer Court at VCU during the fall of my freshman year. And they didn’t just play, they worked the crowd as hard as they possibly could. I remember the horn section wandering around the amphitheater, dancing with people in the aisles... it’s like they were trying to win fans over one at a time.”
Rocket from the Crypt’s 1998 album, RFTC, was the peak of their reach. As a sophomore major label release, it’s grander in a flawed way. The songs are bigger in instrumentation, needing an extra percussionist on tour. Kevin Shirley, known for his work with Journey, worked the knobs. The band hired a tiger for its promo photos (See the image header. I know this is listed as an album detraction, but it’s hilariously gratuitious). If Daniel thought Scream Dracula Scream was dumbed down, consider songs like “Dick on a Dog” and “Let’s Get Busy.” The songs played up the good-time-beach-party-anthem radio hit pandering, and that glossy sheen dampened the band’s trademark punk abandon.
However, the record still holds up as classic RFTC. There’s some brilliant bangers: “Made for You” and “You Gotta Move” stand out, and the opening track, “Eye on You” is one of the band’s finer moments. Featuring vocal work by Thee Headcoatee’s Holly Golightly, she weaves around Reis’ lead and the call-and-response backing vocals like Klay Thompson on a good night. I’ve given the record lots of listens over the past week, and the album still holds up great in 2017.
The most glaring flaw wasn’t apparent until the release of 1999’s All Systems Go, Vol. 2, Rocket from the Crypt’s collection of b-sides, demos, and other oddities. Somewhere in the middle of that compilation are tracks from a session at Milton Keynes’ Linford Manor with Holly Golightly and Dustin Milsap (ex-Rice) on backing vocals: “Cheetah,” “Turkish Revenge,” “U.S. Aim,” “Raped by Ape,” and “Crack Party.” The first being previously unreleased, and the latter four were b-sides for two editions of the “Break It Up” CD single.
WHERE WERE THESE SONGS ON RFTC? There’s a sharpness to these songs that reveal the loud, dumb, and mean, rather than just loud and dumb. Golightly’s presence adds polish, and her charismatic swagger is a brilliant foil against Reis’ glower.
Basically, I’m saying that RFTC’s biggest flaw was “Not enough Holly Golightly,” but you could say that about most records out there.
What I'm listening to:
Pod Save America podcast (Crooked Media)
I've lamented to Daniel that my hiatus from the BLAG was mostly blamed on myself writing a punk-related reaction to whatever political theater/hijincks is happening with President Trump's administration, and then torpedoing the idea the next week, when something else happens. My wife is a long-time listener, so we've taken to consuming this when our kid decides to take her nap on the way to the grocery store, and we have to burn an hour in the parking lot.
The podcast is hosted by four former President Obama staffers: Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor, all discussing the current events of the week with a cadre of guests in politics and media. It's got an obvious leftist bias, and it's steeped pretty hard with Democratic establishment rhetoric, so there's a lot of "talking points over substance" to wade through. It's at its best when they get wonky about mundane administrative work and behind-the-scenes minutia, then make comparisons between their time in the White House versus how Trump is running the show.
Which sounds like a very dry listen, but remember that Obama staffed his office with a bunch of hip millennials, so they're intelligent and savvy – and can build pretty successful inside jokes.
Heavy Metal: LP 3 (Harbinger Sound)
Here I am, still digesting LP 2, and Heavy Metal drop another. How much foresight goes into their writing? As with previous ventures, this record is brimming with wacky ideas and executed with a spastic, Brainiac-like energy – yet the compositions seem so carefully curated. Listening to Heavy Metal is feeling unsure whether or not you're the butt of a grand joke.
With that said, LP 3 is probably Heavy Metal's most straightforward release to date. I don't know if that means they're finally finding their footing (and what a ride it's been), or they're just messing with us.