Graded on a Curve:
Redd Kross,
Third Eye

Over the course of their long bubblegum meets indie rock career, cult faves Redd Kross have established two indisputable facts: (1) there’s nothing they love more than to sing about the signifiers of seventies kitsch, and (2) they are a power pop band of sublime brilliance who have never gotten their deserved props because they have consistently refused, as the Raspberries and Big Star did, to remove tongue from cheek, preferring to sing about elephant flares and tube tops at the mall to the serious love songs that make power pop, well, power pop.

Since 1980, when they were mere middle school kiddies opening for Black Flag, brothers Steve and Jeff McDonald of Hawthorne, California, home of the Beach Boys, have been cranking out songs about Linda Blair, “Dracula’s Daughter” (one of the most sublime power pop songs ever written), Frosted Flakes, 1976 (the year I graduated high school!), McKenzie Phillips, Lita Ford—and I could go on and on. They’ve also covered artists as varied as Charles Manson and The Carpenters—and that’s real breadth! And their early punk bona fides were established with Replacements-fuck-you-tunes like “I Hate My School” and the great “Notes and Chords Mean Nothing to Me.”

Their 1990 major label debut Third Eye followed upon the relative success of 1987’s Neurotica, but whereas Neurotica was all over the fucking place, and has even been cited as an inspiration for grunge, Third Eye sticks more to the power pop format exemplified by the wonderful “Bubblegum Factory,” which sounds like The Archies, especially when Jeff McDonald sings, “Take me on a tour of the bubblegum factory/I want to see where love is made,” backed by Susan Cowsill of sixties popsters (and Partridge Family inspiration) The Cowsills.

And not only does it stick more to power pop—unbelievably, almost half of its songs aren’t send ups or played with a wink of the eye to you and I. “Annie’s Gone” has an almost new wave feel, that is until the chorus comes along with its deliciously gooey center. “Can’t believe she’s gone away/Can’t believe she’s gone to stay/But it’s true/Annie’s gone,” sings McDonald, before one of the tamer guitar solos I’ve heard recently takes over. “Where Am I Today” is another beautiful power pop song unadorned by kitsch. This one is great and it’s for real; “This is where I am today,” repeats an unsatisfied Jeff McDonald over a lovely melody, and he sings the lines with a passion that is utterly devoid of irony. Watch out Eric Carmen; the McDonald Brothers, should they ever say fuck it let’s get serious, just might write a song as great as “Go All the Way.”

“I Don’t Know How to Be Your Friend” is also played straight up; it reminds me of a great Big Star song, with McDonald sounding like Mr. Sensitive as he sings the title over some big power chords and a beautiful melody. The guitar solo on this one is rip-roaring, and it goes out in a big way, just like a great power pop anthem should. “Love Is Not Love” also suffers from an irony deficiency despite its mention of astral planes, but it makes up for it with a lovely melody as McDonald sings, “Love is not love/Give me something I can feel/Give me love that’s so surreal/Tie your chains around me/Because I am sick of being free.” Toss in another great solo and some more cool backing vocals by Susan Cowsill, and what you’ve got is a power pop classic, right down the last moment, when McDonald cries, “Sing it out!”

“Zira (Call Out My Name)” is another non-joke, a racehorse of a tune, very catchy and with great backing vocals. “Call out my name,” sings McDonald, “You know I’ll be there,” while his guitar soars like, I don’t know, Boston. Then he sorta channels Eddie Van Halen, and this one is guaranteed to get your pulse racing. “The Faith Healer” treads the fine line between pure power pop and kitsch; its melody is lovely, and it has real propulsion, but its theme is pure New Age kitsch.

“1976” is pure Redd Kross genius, with a great riff, some chukka-chukka guitar, and lots of great lines (“Tube top baby/Six-feet tall/She is the fox of the shopping mall”). Why, they even bring up the gasoline crisis. The theme is adolescent suburban boredom; there’s nothing to do but hope to run into chicks at the shopping mall and make astrological come-ons (“Hey baby/What’s your sign/I could tell it was the same as mine”). It even includes lines sung by a guy who’s a dead ringer for Gene Simmons of KISS, a band Redd Kross loves to cover live. “It’s 1976!” McDonald sings before a great Elton John-style piano plays a very cool solo, then he repeats “Feels so good to see you here” while the backing singers repeat “1976!”

Equally great is “Elephant Flares,” another raver. A song about pants (we can never get enough of them) it’s filled with great lines, including the Beatles rip, “I am free and so is she and you are me/And we are all together,” to say nothing of “Driving down the highway/In my Trans Am custom T-top car/Hear some BTO/Playing on the radio/Turn it up and go!” His love may not comb or wash her hair, and all his friends “say there’s things in there,” but he doesn’t care—“See her groovy movements,” he sings, “Connect with her third eye/A teenage incantation.” And the song goes insane at the end, with lots of “yeahs” and a freakout guitar and this one is a classic, fer shur.

“Shonen Knife” is that rarest of Redd Kross tunes; a tribute not directed to the bygone seventies, but to the contemporary Japanese rockers. That said it rocks, and rocks hard, and this time along the guitarist solos like he means it. The chorus is a pun: “I must be where I must go/Take me down to Abba Road,” sings McDonald, who also makes you feel at home with the lines, “Come right in now, enjoy a choco bar/With the Shonen Knife/Yes, the rock and roll stars.” “Debbie and Kim” likewise salutes some Redd Kross contemporaries, most prominently Kim Gordon (“Electric sonic youth directs me towards the sun/Two girls with yellow hair assure me that it’s fun/Well one plays bass, and the other one, well, she’s the dancer/I fall out of the blue and ask to be their sister”). It opens with some great feedback, then McDonald comes on all sensitive, and if I don’t have a clue what most of the song’s lyrics mean, I get, “I’m just looking for a good thing to happen/Something really insane/And I’m just looking for a good thing to come my way/Anything—come today.” That and “electric bass yeah!” A lovely song, this one, and another power pop powerhouse.

Nobody was happier than me when Redd Kross ended a 1997 hiatus to release the excellent 2112 LP Researching the Blues, which included such great tunes as “Dracula’s Daughter” and “Stay Away from Downtown,” and proved beyond a doubt that they hadn’t lost a step. In a just world, they would be worshipped as power pop gods, and as the greatest power pop band to come along since the Raspberries and Big Star. Alas, but good for those of us with a lively sense of humor and a strongly developed sense of irony, they’ve refrained from ever taking themselves too seriously, and are hopelessly in love with low-brow culture, and just can’t help but express it in their music. Researching the Blues includes an absolutely brilliant tune entitled “Meet Frankenstein.” That’s not the way the Raspberries did it, and I for one am glad Redd Kross do what they do. It makes me smile. Smile! Seems they came from Beach Boys territory for a reason.


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