Saturday, May 08, 2010

Flash Metal Suicide: Jason and the Scorchers


Jason and the Scorchers
Lost and Found
EMI,
1985

I'll wager my own statement--if you don't like JATS, you just don't like rock n' roll. Period. You really just secretly have this thing against rock n' roll, ha ha.

Anyways, Jason and the Scorchers seem perfectly suited for a Flash Metal Suicide writeup. Here you have a band that was way too country for the rockers, way too rock for the country guys, too punk for the country guys and rockers, and probably not punk enough for the punks--too much twang, too rural of a sound to reflect the urban decay and political disapprovement that most punk seemed to embody. But i'm sure that the hidden consensus was probably like, "aw fuck, these guys are COUNTRY, man. Forget it". Well, at least that's what i'm sure I would have said (minus swear word) when I was 7 when "Lost And Found" came out. I admit to having actually heard JATS only until a very embarrassing (my embarrassment, not theirs) much later point into their career. Never heard 'em back then. And to top it all off, the band's first album (and quite a good one at that) in about 14 years--"Halcyon Times"--was released just a bit before I wrote this tribute here in the futuristic sounding year of 2010. How's that for poor timing? Or I dunno, maybe that's good timing--undoubtedly there's at least a slight bit more of awareness that they're still out there making music.

Jason Ringenberg and his Scorchers had no political agenda, they just wanted to rock hard, but they also wanted to reflect the surroundings of their Nashville upbringing--unlike some bands that try hard to ape another region's sound ("the grass is greener" syndrome in music), here you have a band that sounds exactly where it came from, but with a much needed dose of speed and energy brought in from their love of growing up listening to punk rock; tapping into the inherent energy in three chord country and bluegrass. It just makes total sense. Here's a cover of Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" from 1983, a revved up four on the floor version:







That sort of genre bending is like a recipe for disaster as a band, if you want to sell records and break through to a wider audience, but thankfully, the band just always sounded like a band being true to their roots--seeing the parallels between the 30's and 40's rural music in the blues and country; the 50's rock of Sun Records, and even some of the rawness of the 60's garage bands that had dug up the primal sounds of the 40's and 50's that were lost in friendly radio oriented acts.

Despite being signed to a major in the mid 80's and toning down the raging rockers just slightly on subsequent records following their killer debut, "Lost and Found", it's hard to believe that JATS came up with this sound. It really sounds exactly like the Ramones mixed with Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. It's the sound that no one was demanding in the early to mid 80's; happily out of fashion and out of step with what radio and your average fan was after at that time. There were no synthesizers or fancy studio tricks--just a band plugged into amplifiers, and adding more traditional sounds like fiddle, piano and harmonica in place of all the fancy 80's studio embellishments (the producer of "Lost And Found" was Terry Manning--the producer of ZZ Top records...all those early ZZ albums holding up extremely well as no bullshit albums to this day). And considering that the band probably sold about as good or maybe less after the buzz of "Lost And Found", the band had found out that they were indeed alone in their ambitions. The closest that anyone got to this back then was Steve Earle and the Georgia Satellites, and while they were still probably too Southern rock oriented for most audiences, they were also far less rowdy than JATS, where they had some wider appeal to cross over to regular rock audiences.

When they did a cover song, they didn't just play it. They damn near did it better than the original. For my money, they were the best American rock n' roll band of the 80's. They fucking own this version of "Great Balls Of Fire"--the recklessness and menace even in a mid tempo chugger of a song is astonishing. They achieve what most punk bands couldn't even manage when they were trying to be angry:







When you talk about debut records that come out swinging, few can beat "Lost and Found". As the old saying goes, "you have your entire life to make your first album" (save for the "Fervor" EP in 1983 and the "Reckless Country Soul" release in 1982). And an excellent life it must have been for Jason and the Scorchers--youthful energy, drinking, living life to the max. But the continued lack of proper recognition for this album is mind boggling--you don't hear about it much even to this day--or I feel that it hasn't got the accolades in the capacity that other influential albums have gained in esteem. I really get the impression that the band must have got TONS of heat from the Nashville establishment.....most likely there was a hidden backlash against them. Their music was deeply rooted in the traditions, but it wasn't purely traditional--it was a youthful version of that tradition, and i'd be willing to lay money down that there were some high up old guarders that saw to it that the band had nothing to do with their avenues of promotion or even live venues that had an unofficial blacklist for the band. It would be interesting to ask the band if they'd felt that at all, some sort of hidden wall.

In the mid 80's, true, genuine rock albums were not in plentiful supply. Most of the acts that had established themselves in the 70's were making radically slick albums and had lost alot of steam both creatively and in frequency of release, and most of the newer bands that were establishing themselves in the 80's were changing to suit the trends that sold records. Hell, even Southern Death Cult/ Death Cult/ The Cult changed radically from a goth/ post punk band to arena rock band.

In the mid to late 80's, there became enough of an underground where labels like SST and SubPop and Touch and Go had acts like the Screaming Trees, Dinosaur, Didjits, Urge Overkill--all which shared a love of what widely became known as "ironic classic rock" (or people at least had slapped those bands with the ironic rock tag, perhaps wrongly), but JATS did what they did without any irony in the early 80's. There really was no underground for it, other than the dives and bar rooms that JATS lit up organically through one night stands that were played as if they were their last. It was straight up, the real deal. Maybe if they'd started out 7-10 years later, they'd have only had the indie labels to embrace what they were doing and would have been marketed or promoted to underground audiences, instead of the "little band gone big" thing of EMI pushing their albums. It's tough to tell. They weren't college radio darlings, probably because of the big money and big shot at the big time that they had on a major and on MTV. And I think that they were "insurgent country" before that ever was a legitimate term. Nowadays, they'd fit right in on Bloodshot Records or Yep Roc.....but there was certainly no real support for what they were doing other than a smattering of folks that loved their live show and were tuned into what they were doing. I don't think that they ever sold that much on the majors, and "White Lies" was probably one of their biggest singles.

And I don't think that most audiences particularly liked a frontman to wear a cowboy hat. It just wasn't the image that most rock audiences were after. Jason Ringenberg was basically saying, "hey, here's what we're about. Take it or leave it" (the pink suit on the front of the album cover screams Flash Metal, too, so the band wasn't without some pizazz). The band had just slightly of an 80's look--a bit of eyeliner, etc, but even the image probably baffled people. On the album's cover, guitarist Warner Hodges is rocking a mullet and a leather jacket with a hand on his belt buckle, drummer Perry Baggs is wearing a jean jacket, bassist Jeff Johnson looks like he's a cross between best man at a wedding and a waiter at a high end restaurant. I guess when you take that all into account, you had four different guys with four different images, which likely confused audiences, too.

The album itself clocks in at just over a half hour for 10 songs. There's no filler, there's no chance for boredom-- they kick the saloon doors open, pound down a drink, fire a few bullets into the ceiling as the piano player ducks for cover, and then leave as quickly as they made their mark. Side A, in particular, is the more rocking one. Opening with the one-two-three punch of "Last Time Around", "White Lies" and "If Money Talks", there's no debate about what the band is about--three chords, recklessness and attitude. But amidst all the attitude and speed, there's always a top notch chorus. And Jason even has said that their drummer, Perry, is a great writer. No doubt. He was the main writer of "White Lies", the big single off the album--and for good reason. It's incredibly well written. Check the middle bridge breakdown with the minor chord sequence:







The video itself is Cadillacs, late nights, bar rooms, women and gold leopard print suits, but also with a sense of humour. Jason's blue suit and leopard print cowboy hat is part car salesman via rock n' roller. They tapped into the absurdity of the mid 80's, but it doesn't seem dated even now. It just seems like they're in on the joke--a great, silly video for a silly video era. Alot of bands made really serious, "hey, we're trying to rock" type videos. This is a fun video about not believing the lies your lady is telling you.

Finishing out side A is a cover of "I Really Don't Want To Know", the sped up bluegrass infused "Blanket Of Sorrow", and the slightly introspective mid tempo rocker, "Shop It Around"--about a woman that shops herself around to every guy in town; providing also the title for the album:

"So shop it around, shop it around...
to every five and dime in town....
me i'll be found at the salvage store...
among the lost and found..."







Side B starts off with a blazing version of "Lost Highway"; a mere 2 minutes' worth. But as is the true test of a band, it's how a band steps away from the loudness and speed, and the next three songs do this. "Still Tied" is a slow country type number. I'd checked the credits thinking that it was a cover song, but it's not--it's credited to "Ringenberg". When you're sure something is a cover because it stands up with the cover songs as well, if not better, you know you've come across something pretty special. It's a true classic. "Broken Whiskey Glass" follows, and for the first while, it's a pretty guitars/ vocals song only. Then the full band kicks in and starts the party again, and it's still a pretty introspective melodic song, but with guts--excellent chord choices and excellent melodies. "Far Behind" is a slower, reflective acoustic rocker that wouldn't sound out of place on a Mick Taylor era Stones album; Ringenberg at this point, lyrically, still trying to leave that cheating woman behind (I spot a pattern here). The album finishes off with "Change The Tune", another rager at 2:39 long, but sporting mandolin embellishments on the bridge lead parts, and perhaps the best lyric to close out the record and sum up what the band were about:

"going down highways not lit so well....
now they're makin' it something that's easy to sell...
maybe i'm saying what I shouldn't tell...
'cause even your heroes are wondering what to say..."


Ringenberg is one of the most underrated frontmen in the history of rock n' roll; a case for the frontman with no guitar to direct nervous energy into; armed with just a mic stand and looking the audience straight in the eye---someone there just to rile up the audience and get 'em going. I've long maintained that to be a truly great frontman, you've gotta be part madman, part entertainer. Most of my favorite frontmen looked like they escaped from an insane asylum. You'd better lose yourself in the moment. Ringenberg does. And when you front the Scorchers, you'd better match the power of the band. Ringenberg also does this.

Warner Hodges is also one of the most underrated guitarists in rock history--what he'd done in the band perfectly fused the boogie, country and punk elements that helped define the band as a real legitimately original and unique band that could otherwise be called a "rock" band. If you'd ask me, the Ringenberg/ Warner axis is as good as any other in the history of rock music. They just did it in a different way.

Here's an interview from 1984 that really, I think, summed up their mission in music. Gotta love it--leopard print interior Cadillacs, absurd rhinestone adorned garb and all:







Live footage of the band about 17 years into their career:









-Ryan Settee

3 comments:

Michael said...

"if you don't like JATS, you just don't like rock n' roll. Period."

Goddamn right, brother.

Medicine Stu said...

Saw 'em on wednesday...laughed cried jumped & stood stumped...one of best gigs fkn ever...

Medicine Stu said...

also when you say lost & found unheralded even still I always muse on that with The Sats, & Horseheads, big labels but squashed.Gig on wensday was tragically unattended but much-loved.

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