by Tom Hallett
Formed in the summer of 1990 by San Diego hardcore punker John "Speedo" Reis, Rocket From The Crypt immediately established themselves on the indie scene as a powerhouse live act. Speedo, along with bassist Petey X, guitarist ND, drummer Sean, and back-up singer Elaina, spewed out a raw, garage-y groove that was equal parts The Seeds, The Ramones, and Big Star’s more upbeat side. Today, you can hear their trademark, early sound in outfits like Teenage Fan Club, The Lemonheads, and The Posies. Though Reis was simultaneously filling lead singing duties in cult faves Drive Like Jehu, once the "Alternative Revolution" began to gain momentum and record companies started to show interest in the ‘Crypt, he focused all of his energies on writing and releasing the band’s debut album, Paint As A Fragrance.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "How many times can you use those words—justice,
freedom. It’s like margarine, man. You can package it and you can sell
that too. In America they have a great talent for doing that." —Keith
SONG OF THE WEEK: “One Big Holiday”
—My Morning Jacket
From the Crypt
Circa Now + 4
(Swami Records, 2004)
Alas, as it is for many an up-and-coming young band, the ‘Crypt went
through major lineup changes almost immediately after Paint was released
in 1991. Undaunted, Speedo recruited drummer Atom Willard and Apollo 9, a party
pal who also played sax, for the group’s second, seminal release, 1992’s
Circa Now! The album is a tight, hard-pop/post-punk melange of catchy,
hook-laden mini-anthems that, even a dozen years later, sounds fresh and exciting.
There are several key factors besides the actual music that make Circa Now!
both a personal triumph for the band as well as an important historical/pop
culture marker for the discerning music fan. Recorded in the Spring of ‘92
at Hollywood’s West Beach Recorders, the album was born amidst the riots,
fires, and hatred of L.A.’s Rodney King riots. In the re-issued album’s
liner notes, Speedo lays out the terrifying details in all their gory glory—the
band was literally quarantined in the studio, under martial law, for days while
the sirens screamed and the city burned around them. A small sample: "Cops
with riot gear cruised in jeeps barking, ‘Get off the streets! Return
to your homes at once!’ Fear was in their voices ... a guy with a Molotov
cocktail yelled, ‘Fuck The Police!’ We hightailed it back into the
studio and locked the door ..."
Rather than get caught up in needless histrionics, he recalls, the ‘Crypt
kicked back and concentrated on finishing their record—a smart collection
of (mostly) good-time rockers that, nonetheless, captures a bit of the paranoia
and chaos that whirled around outside the studio walls as the tape rolled. And
speaking of tape, after recording until nearly 3 a.m., the band noticed that
the tape they were using, (Ampex 499) was defective. That’s right, everything
they’d layed down that day was slowly crumbling from the edges of the
reel, and they were losing the previously recorded drum tracks with every second
of guitar, bass, or vocals they laid down.
Against military orders (by now the National Guard had taken over the streets
of Hollyweird), producer Donnell Cameron and sax-man Apollo 9 hopped on a motorcycle
and hightailed it through the smoking streets of L.A. to score new tape and
a couple bags of burgers. Once the transfer had been made, things seemed to
be going smoothly. They were held indoors under martial law for another two
days, in which time they recorded 11 top-notch cuts for what would be their
Headhunter/Cargo debut, Circa Now!
though many fans consider the album some of the band’s finest material,
Speedo himself is stoic about the album, shrugging, "[It] captures RFTC
before we had clarity—a snapshot of impulsive reactions taken during a
surreal moment. It isn’t the best work we have ever done, due in part
that it predates JC2000 (Horn player JC, the band’s sixth member, joined
in 1994) and his influence on our band ... [it] precedes the era of militant
rehearsal regimes, our synchronized dress sense and before we committed ourselves
to a lifestyle that would have us entertaining the globe. Some of the sounds,
songwriting, and aesthetics on this record are a bit dated. Although we surely
weren’t the first to employ the distorted vocal technique, it certainly
wasn’t the national pastime that it would soon become ..."
Which brings us to the next phenomenon to surround the release of Circa Now!
By 1993, the album had circulated in hip enough circles that it caught the attention
of blood-thirsty A&R reps around the country. While Nirvana, Soundgarden,
and Alice in Chains were sweeping across the airwaves of the world and changing
the face of corporate rock, bands like RFTC were quietly toiling away in the
trenches, playing club shows and festivals for relative chump change and happily
pleasing their small but loyal fan bases. Their reward? An all-out bidding war
between major labels for the rights to Circa Now! that left Interscope
Records the winner(?), paying an obscene $70 million to sign the band and $32
million to Cargo for the album.
The label then asked Speedo and the gang to head back in the studio and record
a few more tracks for the major-label re-issue of the album. The band did as
they were asked, but in the furor of the "Alternative Revolution,"
the label went ahead and released the record (without informing the artists)
as it was. As a result, four songs have sat in the vaults for the past decade
or so—hence the re-worked 2004 title, "+4." There’s one
last note to the tale of this album, though, and Speedo says it best in the
CD liner notes: "Returning to the studio gave us the opportunity to prove
our stupidity. In an attempt to save 150 bucks, we opted to use the spare tape
at the end of the Circa reels. In nine months we had forgotten the fact
that this tape was defective and weren’t reminded until it was too late.
We realized our mistake as large chunks of tape flew off the machine during
mixdown. The majority of the drums had been erased and our work had been in
vain. This tape has lived in the vaults of Universal Records for 11 years ..."
there ya go. All that remains to this story (the story of this album, not RFTC,
who released their most popular work to date in 1994’s Scream, Dracula,
Scream, are still going strong, and recently released a kick-ass live album,
2002’s Live From Camp X-Ray) is the music itself. Was the album
really worth $102 million? Is any album? Come on. It’s good stuff, much
better than a lot of the crap that was floating around in the early ‘90s,
but $102 million? Even Speedo admits that the tracks weren’t representative
of the band’s best work. But, in the immortal words of my ol’ drinkin’
buddy, Mr. G. Wine, "It’s still a pretty good record." And it
Ripping outta the speakers with a Cobain-sneer and a not-so-veiled axe threat,
"Shortlipfuser" is a crunching, raging slice of early ‘90s angst
that sets the pace for the entire Circa Now! album. Smart lyrics—this
time out dealing with domestic violence—augment this snotty, sax-fueled
saga. “Hippy Dippy Do" lightens things up a notch, with upbeat, smart-ass
vocals (them damn hippies!) riding springy, hook-y guitars and rattling snare.
"Ditchdigger," the album’s near-hit song (it received limited
airplay on MTV and on select "alt-rock" stations around the country)
is an undeniable classic. Gliding out on a snake-y riff and quickly morphing
into anthem-status, the track encapsulates the glorious melding (and wasn’t
it about goddamn time by then) of kickass hard rock, garage punk, and mega-guitar-pop
into one sticky, gooey, tasty ball that some lazy writer dubbed "alternative."
Yep, it was alternative, alright. Alternative to BAD music. Otherwise, this
track, and most of the other really decent music that came to light in the early-to-mid
‘90s, can be categorized as simply REALLY GOOD ROCK MUSIC.
Other standouts on Circa Now! include the driving, pulsating "Don’t
Darlene," the Cramps-esque psycho-surf-rawk of "Killy Kill,"
and especially the over-the-top, beach-ball-in-the-air anthem of "Hairball
Alley." This cut positively rings out with an undeniable joy and finds
Speedo gleefully using that "distorted vocal" technique he rants about
in Circa’s liner notes to the fullest effect. Totally crank-able,
and it hasn’t lost any of it’s urgency or energy over the past decade,
"Sturdy Wrist" is trippy enough to stand next to a Cows track on
a post-punk comp mix, "Little Arm" brings things down a notch; a twisted
teen-death ballad for Christina Ricci and Donnie Darko to sway in the shadows
to, and "Dollar" grinds its way into your consciousness with the refrain,
"Yeah, yeah, you’ll be sorry..." But if you’ve made it
this far into the record, you surely won’t be and aren’t. Sorry,
that is. Because the last track on the proper album is probably one of the most
perfect album-enders of the past decade (give or take a year or two), and says
it all about the Lollapalooza years in the same way Country Joe & The Fish,
New Riders Of The Purple Sage, or Dr. Hook had said it about the Woodstock generation
25 years earlier.
is the ultimate stoner rock track, replete with head-banging power chords, ubiquitous
dope references, and a green-bud vibe that could probably alert pot-sniffing
dogs from three states away. The cut fairly wobbles through its initial verses
and choruses, then simply swirls and twirls like so much smoke in a four-foot
bong until it’s down to a cacophony of beats, bass, and shouts: "Everybody
smoke pot ! Everybody smoke pot ! Everybody smoke pot !" A perfect aural
snapshot of the summer of the drugs, when riots overtook the streets of La La
Land, when a fresh-faced Shannon Hoon still toured the country crooning "No
rain...," when seeing Neil Young, Beck, Ben Folds Five and Morphine all
at the same outdoor gig was not only a possibility, but a reality. When record
companies still thought investing $102 million in an unknown garage/punk band
was a smart investment. And you know what? I couldn’t agree more.
Toss in the four bonus tracks ("Lamps For Sale," "Crazy Talk,"
"Flight Of The Hobo," and "Over The Rail," all tasty stuff,
especially for fan-atics of the band, but not key to the original album), and
this record is not only most certainly worth the $12 or so it cost back in 1992,
but is also very likely worth the $18.99 or so you’ll pay for it today.
Of course, the album’s back on a dedicated, artist-friendly imprint- Swami
Records—these days, and the wonks from Interscope have probably long forgotten
about it as they desperately bid for contracts with recent American Idol winners
for sums upwards of $500 million ... Man, if that don’t make ya pine for
1993, nothing will. Me, I’ll take Speedo’s words of wisdom to heart,
and advise you to do the same: "CRANK IT OR SPANK IT!!"
That’s it for me this time around, kidz. Tune in next week for more record
reviews, rock ’n’ roll news, an’ big city blues. Until we
meet again—make yer own damn news. ||
If you have local music news/gigs/CDs/conspiracies you’d like to
see mentioned in this column, or you’d just like to complain that your
one monkey did, in fact, stop a show, send replies to: (temporary e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org.