Graded on a Curve:
Redd Kross,
Teen Babes from Monsanto

I love Redd Kross. The power pop/punk outfit’s undying affection for pop kitsch is infectious, and will live on forever in such songs as “Linda Blair,” “Tatum O’Tot and the Fried Vegetables,” “McKenzie” (about the train wreck Mackenzie Phillips), and St. Lita Ford Blues,” to say nothing of their affectionate covers of other bands’ material—“Stairway to Heaven,” anyone?—which are largely to be found on the original soundtrack to 1984’s Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Teen Babes from Monsanto from the same year.

Pranksters who adamantly refused to take their assigned role as serious rock stars seriously, Redd Kross—they had to change their name from Red Cross following the threat of a lawsuit from that notoriously bloodthirsty organization—have far more in common with John Waters than Roger Waters. In short, they like to crack themselves up, and have always been willing to pay the consequences in terms of rock cred. Good for them.

By 1984 the band’s membership had changed radically from their primitive and barely pubescent origins in 1980, with guitarist Greg Hetson splitting for the Circle Jerks and drummer Ron Reyes leaving to join Black Flag. By 1984 it was just founding brothers Steven (fuzz, bass, vocals) and Jeff (lead vocals, guitar) McDonald with Dave Peterson on drums. As for Teen Babes from Monsanto, it featured six covers and one original, and the surprising thing about it, not having heard it for so long, is how straight they play it. They’re not butchering the songs for kicks the way, say, Yo La Tengo do on 2006’s Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics. Yo La Tengo’s takes on songs like Yes’ “Roundabout” are hilariously and deliberately inept, and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard their version of “Rock the Boat.”

But I’m not here to write about Yo La Tengo. They may have done sloppy better, but sloppy wasn’t what Redd Kross was, and still is, about. They’re may be into camp, and songs about George Harrison and elephant flare jeans, but they’re a kick ass rock band, melding power pop, psychedelia, and straight up hard rock. Critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Convinced that life is a wonderful thing to waste… “, but they’re not wasting their life. They’re celebrating it in all its absurdity, Alfred Jarry style, and that is a commendable life ambition.

If I have any reservations about Teen Babes from Monsanto, it’s that Redd Kross don’t take their affection for disposable pop culture far enough. Covers by the Rolling Stones and the Stooges? Come on guys, you can do more obscure than that. Sure, the Stones tune is not one of their best known, and the Bowie cover is likely to be known only by hardcore fans, but they’re not obscure enough; they should be covering Sammy Johns’ “Chevy Van,” not the Stooges’ “Ann.”

But hey, they sure start off on the right foot, with a sincere cover—all of their covers reek of sincerity, and this oddly enough from a band that personifies irony—of Kiss’ “Deuce.” They bring the noise and the propulsion, and the vocals are great, especially the way Jeff McDonald spits out the word, “Deuce.” In short, they have no trouble whatsoever playing heavy metal; McDonald screams, his brother plays excellent guitar, and frankly their version trumps the original without their even trying. They then move on to the Stones’ “Citadel,” and it’s great; they make a bigger din than the Stones ever did, and Jeff McDonald sings the lyrics like he means them. Throw in some great guitar by brother Steve—especially on the solo that takes the song out—and Redd Kross is two for two.

They approach camp on their cover of the Shangri-Las’ “Heaven Only Knows,” but the harmonies are too sharp, and their musicianship too good, to make a nice ironic shambles of it. As for the Stooges’ “Ann,” it’s fabulous; McDonald’s vocals are appropriately desperate, and brother Steve delivers a guitar solo so laden with feedback, fuzz, wah wah, and anything else you can think of that they walk away, I shit you not, having met—and perhaps beaten—the Stooges at their own terms. Redd Kross’ take on David Bowie’s “Saviour Machine” (off The Man Who Sold the World) opens with a big bad bass, which is followed by some mammoth Ronson-ized guitar riffs and McDonald’s vocals, which do justice to the original. Throw in some berserker guitar towards the end, and oh by jingo, we have another winner.

Redd Kross’ cover of Boyce and Hart’s “Blow You a Kiss in the Wind” is the closest they come to camp, but instead of desecrating the tune they celebrate it, even throwing some harmonica and tambourine into the mix. The vocal harmonies are top-notch, and when they say they’ve got to throw a kiss into the wind they sound like they mean it. This one really shows off the boys’ power pop props—they were born to sing songs with melodies as classy as this one. As for “Linda Blair 1984,” I don’t know what it’s doing on the album. It’s an original and a superfast punk salute to one of their icons, all speed and mayhem, and it sounds as out of place here as a cover of “Pay to Cum” would. Steve unleashes a series of power chords at the end that go on and on, then follows them with some deranged distortion, and Jeff’s vocals are appropriately frenzied, but I can’t help but think they’d have been better off doing an iconic cover, say of “We’re an American Band” or Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” Alas, that was Killdozer’s job, and Killdozer is long gone. In short, you don’t always get what you want, as somebody—I think it was Jean Paul Sartre—once said.

In the end, Redd Kross succeeds on its own terms, playing what I suspect were some of their faves and playing them well. If nothing else, they put Kiss to shame, and that makes me happy indeed. They would go on to put out a couple more albums of great, kitschy originals, and I for one think their latest, 2012’s Researching the Blues, is their best yet, even better than 1987’s Neurotica.

I like to think that someday Redd Kross will be acknowledged as a power pop band every bit as good as The Raspberries and Big Star. If not, it will be because they never met a lowbrow pop icon they could resist writing a song about, and Matthew Arnold’s high seriousness just isn’t in their DNA. And I say good for them. As a famous man once said, “Better in the gutter than on a pedestal.” And as another famous man, Neil Young, once pointed out, abandoning the mainstream was “a rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.” Like Mackenzie Phillips, for example. And Gandhi too!


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