In the late 1990s, power pop genius Eric Carmen of Raspberries fame–embittered, said some, by his failure to write that big hit record he’d spent his whole life dreaming about–disappeared into the wilds of Cambodia.
I was a cub reporter who wanted a job, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice job, and when it was over, I’d never want another. I finally discovered Carmen in a cave in the jungle, and everything I saw told me he’d gone insane. There were skulls on poles, and thousands of scraps of paper all containing the words, “I want a hit record, yeah.” He acknowledged that he could no longer write, and I innocently asked if he’d ever considered writing something… funny. He looked at me oddly, poured a bowl of cool water over his bald head, and said, “Funny? Power pop? There’s nothing funny about power pop… nothing… nothing. You know what my nightmare is? A power pop band crawling along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering… and laughing.”
Eric Carmen’s nightmare is real, and it has a name: Redd Kross. Over the course of their long career the camp-crazy pranksters in Redd Kross have declined to take anything, much less their own tremendous power pop skills, seriously. True, Redd Kross has written a whole slew of power pop gems such as “Annie’s Gone,” “Where I Am Today,” and “I Don’t Know How to Be Your Friend.” But the boys in the band have spent just as much time and effort writing songs about such trash culture icons as Patty Hearst, Mackenzie Phillips, Lita Ford, and Tatum O’Neal, and recording covers of songs by KISS (“Deuce”) and the Brady Bunch Kids (“It’s a Sunshine Day”) as well as songs from Bewitched (Boyce and Hart’s “I’ll Blow You a Kiss in the Wind”) and the camp film classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (the Carrie Nation’s “Look on Up from the Bottom.”)
In short, Redd Kross has always been too enamored of its own nudge-nudge in-jokes to play it straight as a power pop band, and too good at writing great power pop songs to ever walk away from what comes so naturally. It has always lacked that quality of “high seriousness” that Victorian era power pop critic Matthew Arnold praised in the works of Badfinger, Big Star, and The Raspberries, but it has always had their skills.
The band’s back story is a familiar one. Brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald formed The Tourists in 1978 when Jeff was 15 and Steve a mere 11–an age when I was still entertaining myself by shooting my GI Joe in the groin with my BB gun–then changed their name to Red Cross and recorded two embryonic works of genius, 1980′s Red Cross and 1981′s Born Innocent. Upon being threatened by that uncharitable organization the American Red Cross with total monkey blood transfusions unless they changed their name, Red Cross became Redd Kross, supposedly in homage to comedian Redd Foxx. Over the ensuing years the boys’ chops improved, they became the most dapper dressers in rock’n'roll, and they released a succession of LPs that were as flawed as they were loveable, the end result being their relegation to permanent cult status, a state of affairs that Red Kross self-mockingly acknowledged in the title of its 1993 EP, “2500 Red Kross Fans Can’t Be Wrong.”
Well, all that has changed. 1997′s Show World was followed by a 15-year hiatus, and during this long break something inexplicable happened: Redd Kross got down and got serious about power pop. The result is 2012′s Researching the Blues, which is not only Redd Kross’ finest and most consistent album ever, but one of the very best power pop albums to come along since the heyday of The Raspberries and Big Star. Not only does it contain the utterly gorgeous “Dracula’s Daughter,” the hook-heavy Raspberries homage “Stay Away From Downtown,” and the infectious “The Nu Temptations,” there’s not a single kitschy pop culture reference or laugh line on it. Even “Meet Frankenstein,” whose title makes it sound like just more proof that Redd Kross is the John Waters of rock, turns out to be a minor power pop gem. Eric Carmen, bless his white suit with wide lapels soul, would be proud.
Me, I’ll admit to being torn by this development. I’ll always love the camp-obsessed Redd Kross, and admire their determination to follow their deranged muse wherever it leads. And I will be forever heartbroken if they never get around to covering “Don’t Sit Down on the Plexiglas Toilet,” Styx’s inexplicable foray into potty-training rock, which includes the immortal lines “Don’t sit on the Plexiglas toilet/Said the momma to her son/Wipe the butt clean with the paper/Make it nice for everyone.” But if taking things more seriously means more albums as great as Researching the Blues, well, what can I say? So long clean butt.
Anyway, Redd Kross–whose line-up included Jeff McDonald on guitar and lead vocals, Steve McDonald on fuzz, bass, and backing vocals, Jason Shapiro on guitar and vocals, and Roy McDonald (no relation to Jeff and Steve) on drums–played the Black Cat on April 5, and boy were they great. Not only did they play a career-spanning retrospective of their “hits,” they also demonstrated their mastery of rock’s entire library of cool onstage moves.
Believe me when I say that Redd Kross–unlike some seemingly comatose bands I could name–are just as much fun to watch as they are to hear. Whether the brothers McDonald were standing side by side moving their hips and guitars in sync, or Jeff McDonald was making any of several hundred hip hand gestures, it was impossible to take your eyes off them. And they were loud as shit too, so loud indeed that my ears continued to ring well through the next day. Live, Redd Kross is far more power than pop, and I would go so far as to label what they played hard rock. This led to my only disappointment of the night, namely their failure to play “Dracula’s Daughter,” presumably because it’s far too tender a flower to withstand such volumes.
The show began on a note of larceny, with Jeff McDonald saying, “Uh, the person who stole the set list is going to have to shout out the songs to us.” The band opened with oldie “Linda Blair,” which featured squealing feedback and some Metallica-quality headbanging by Steve McDonald, then played a trilogy of their power pop classics, namely “Lady in the Front Row,” “Stay Away From Downtown,” and “Jimmy’s Fantasy,” which opened with Jeff McDonald singing a cappella before the band exploded like a hard rock hand grenade.
“Uglier”–which included a great wah-wah guitar solo followed by a scream of “Look out! Look out! Look out!”–was followed by “Switchblade Sister,” the great “Annie’s Gone,” and Redd Kross’ cover of The Quick’s “Pretty Please Me,” which Jeff McDonald introduced by saying, “Some people say this is the power pop Holy Grail. You be the judge.” Me, I’ll take “Go All the Way” any day, but I did love Jeff’s histrionic hand claps (I’m not certain his hands ever came together) and post-song quip, “We’ve played here before. We were opening for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.”
Red Kross then played “Researching the Blues,” which opened with a brutally hard guitar riff and offered up a splendid chorus as well as some great vocal back-and-forth between the brothers McDonald, followed in turn by camp faves “Frosted Flakes,” “I’ll Blow You a Kiss in the Wind,” and my evening’s highlight “Follow the Leader,” which featured a great chorus and dissolved into a frenetic free-for-all that segued briefly into Iggy and the Stooges’ “TV Eye” before ending in a squall of feedback that led straight into set closer “Crazy World.”
Returning for an encore Jeff McDonald asked, “You guys want to hear some golden oldies?” The crowd shouted “Yes!” and the band obliged by playing “Cover Band” and “Annette’s Got the Hits” from the “Red Cross” EP, followed by “Everyday There’s Someone New” and “Kill Someone You Hate” from 1981′s Born Innocent. They then ended the evening by taking requests from the audience. First a guy called out “Linda Blair,” which meant either he’d missed the beginning of the show or was that insane person (he exists) whose idea of a perfect show would be 16 straight renditions of “Linda Blair.” More songs were called out, at which point Jeff McDonald said, “The guy with the crazy eyes wants to hear “Deuce.” We’re not sure if we remember it, but we’ll give it a try.” But as it turned out, crazy eyes got his wish because (who says rock’n'roll isn’t fixed?) the whole thing was an elaborate set-up–I got my hands on a set list (which the band kindly autographed for me) after the show, and there was “Deuce” listed as the show closer. (Not that it matters much: “Deuce” rocked.)
Meanwhile, back in Cambodia, Eric Carmen was feverish. As I pressed a cool towel to his forehead, he grew nostalgic and in a fragile whisper told me how he’d discovered power pop watching Badfinger on a TV show. “I was listening to them… and I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God… the genius of that. The genius. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure…”
As his voice died away I realized that he too was dying, and I was there at Eric’s side to hear him utter his final words, “The humor… the humor.”