Monday, January 10, 2011

Flash Metal Suicide, The Supersuckers

This might be kind of an obvious one, but I was a bit surprised at why The Supersuckers hadn't had a Flash Metal Suicide on here. Maybe it's because of just that--obviousness. It's like an ancient code that no one else can decipher, you know that they know what they're talking about and they know that you know what you're talking about, while the rest of the people around you are confused as to what you're saying. The 'Suckers are well revered in these parts, yet you'd be surprised at who doesn't know about the greatness of this band. Bear with me here on the synopsis of my experience as a fan; I won't include the earliest material (pre "La Mano Cornuda", which means "The Smoke of Hell" and "The Songs All Sound The Same", those have some great songs too), since I didn't grow up and evolve with the band through those first five years.

The group seems to have run out of some steam and are arguably coming towards the end of their career--Rontrose Heathman had quit last year in 2009, and in fairness, I don't think that anyone can truly replace his style. And that leaves only half the band as original members, and as some may remember, even guitarist Dan Bolton had quit for a spell before the band went on the big Pearl Jam tour. When Dancing Eagle left the band after "Motherfuckers Be Trippin" and they'd ushered in their rotating stool of Spinal Tap-esque drummers (I remember the guy, Jason Finn, from The Presidents of the USA--you know, "Lump", "Peaches" filling in on a couple of days' notice for Mike Murderburger on one extremely cold night here in the middle of Canada in about December of 2003), something felt a bit off, and it's never quite felt right since a few years after "The Evil Powers Of Rock n' Roll" days.....they're still arguably one of the greatest rock n' roll bands, but not the greatest rock n' roll band as they once were.

I'd felt that after they'd put out several great albums and when I wasn't seeing hardly anyone else I knew that was into them, that maybe they'd had the wind taken out of their sales (initial typing error--I meant "sails", but "sales" pertains)--you know, having given 150 percent and still never getting bigger than they were. Hell, my mixtapes for friends didn't seem to be that well liked, mostly it elicited a "these guys are pretty cool" response, but nobody that I thought was a convert. It's one of the reasons that I sat down and wrote this; there was nothing quick about it, and my only reward is the thought that maybe there's some more people out there that could get into the band, but most likely, i'm writing this for the reassurance of those that already know. Such is the predicament that i've long come to realize.

The 'Suckers could tour almost anywhere and have a decent sized audience, but having read some of singer/ bassist Eddie Spaghetti's writings on the internet over the years and having read some interviews in magazines, i've sort of got the impression that after maybe the year 2000 or so and when the guys in the band were starting to have families, that their requirements and dedication to what they were doing should have netted them more than they did. If that's the way that they feel, I can't blame them. My musical collection is littered with bands that should have been way bigger than they were, but had peaked out their audience draw at something that was respectable, yet not something where they were actually getting to enjoy the labors of their work. For the Ramones, i'd always got the impression that they were on the road so much that it was their only home, yet you'd think that despite their legend, that they would have had more to take home at the end of the day. Everyone thinks that guys in well known bands are driving Ferraris and rolling in the cash, but most of them are the working poor--they may be assets rich and they may have nice amps and clothes and whatnot, but they're still in debt up to their eyeballs.

But most likely, the Supersuckers weren't selling a helluva lot of records, despite getting some videos of theirs played on the video stations and playing live on TV with Willie Nelson, and having things like the endorsement of Lemmy and whatnot. Dancing Eagle leaving was in a way the unofficial start of the end; the band of four brothers that were together since high school (a large part of their charm and solidity, I think) was finally no longer, and despite Scott Churilla (Reverend Horton Heat) being their best drummer since--and though they've had some technically great drummers-- no one's quite had that feel like Dancing Eagle did for the Supersuckers' style, that sort of give and take. Perhaps the 'Suckers are/ were too full on, too clever, too good for their own good. They're certainly the complete opposite of bland--if nothing, the band is all character, a near cartoon of larger than life "sex, drugs and rock n' roll" proportions. And then there's the name, which--I have to admit--i've always sorta cringed at when trying to get new people into the band. It was, after all, a reference to a porno movie. Maybe that kinda held them back a bit, I don't know.

The first time i'd heard of them was seeing the "Creepy Jackalope Eye" video--I thought "hey this is pretty cool--punk rock played by guys with cowboy hats on", then i'd read a review of the "La Mano Cornuda" album that was really good, as well as reading an interview with the band in something like Hit Parader (yeah that seems odd in hindsight) where they'd said that the cd was so short that the bonus track was just the entire cd being played again. Sold. I'd picked it up in late 1994, and it immediately changed my perception on a variety of things, namely that i'd finally understood Motorhead (granted, I was 15 at that time) and Motorhead's relation to punk music. I think that "La Mano Cornuda" is about 26 minutes long, and that was probably the shortest album i'd heard up until that and out of there with little filler, starting off with the soundbite, "this album is for the fuckas, and those who want to be fuckas". What I really liked, is that even on songs like "High Ya", they'd managed to cram some sort of obvious guitar god solo in there, despite it's almost minute long length. Another thing that i'd really finally understood, is the connection between classic rock, punk, country and metal.....that they were all the same-- AC/DC, Ramones, Motorhead, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson. No fights over the jukebox, they were all welcome. And the rolling, sped up country shuffle underneath songs like "Sugie" and "Mudhead" really made sense. It rocked hard, and had it's roots in the past, but it roared--just absolutely roared. There was sort of a surf thing on some of the songs, too; the guitar break in "Clueless", the overall general evil surf feel of "Sugie". They've never really had that feel since then.

I'd always felt that they were kind of the odd band out (much like Jason and the Scorchers), because they really fell between a variety of extremes in the rock world, but seemed to arrive at a good blend of the ones that made sense. The guitar solos were really over the top--here they had two guitarists trading off leads in Ron Heathman and Dan Bolton; Heathman tapped into his inner Fast Eddie and Angus, and Bolton tuned into his inner Chuck Berry on wah wah and slide (I believe that most, if not all, slide work on the records was done by Dan--the slide work always being one of my favorite things on Supersuckers albums that had kind of disappeared post "Evil Powers Of Rock n' Roll"). They're one of my all time favorite guitarist combos--Downing/ Tipton, Taylor/ Richards, etc, you name it. But amidst the alternative bands of the day (alot of which I dug), here you had a band that said, "hey, it's okay to rock", and they even had the devil horn salute on the cover of the record. Maybe it was the irony of it, or maybe it seemed ironic, but what I liked the most about them then is that sense of humour. The lyrics were awesome. They still are. This record just doesn't let up--the songs usually last barely over 2 minutes, but it's amazing how catchy and well written that they are, and a song like "Gold Top"--a song about a guitar--really probably sums the record up best. Best lyric (courtesy of "How To Maximize Your Kill Count"....the Supersuckers' holy grail of "sex, drugs, women and killing" reigning supreme):

"you need to get yourself some invitations, we're gonna have a little fun...
pack up on the ammunition, and then invite everyone...
now lock the door and have 'em gather round...
while you cuss the bastards out as you mow 'em down..."

The guitars are just huge on this record--mixed high (Eddie's vocals are pretty low in comparison), and the twin guitar attack is just absolutely spot on. Conrad Uno produced this one, and much like my reason for buying the Weaklings' "Just The Way We Like It", him doing the album gave it that extra credibility, as i'd liked what he did on Mudhoney albums; "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge" having a looser, more garage-y feel to it, coming off the sludgier, fuzzier early stuff. My favorite song on "La Mano Cornuda" is probably "Born Without A Spine"--i'd never seen 'em play it live (nor in footage that i've seen them or in live setlists), it's not on their greatest hits or anything like that, so maybe it's one of those fan favorite type cuts, but I like its 50's greaser punk feel to it and how it doesn't succumb to the rockabilly cliches. It sounds like it's influenced by it, but it's tempered with enough punk and metal to make it sound like their own thing. Whoever's doing what on guitar in each stereo channel, it doesn't matter--Ron and Dan are tuned into the same source, competing for dominance, but ultimately creating one big awesome riff even though there's usually two completely distinct things going on in each stereo speaker (shut one speaker off and you'll find out what I mean--it's like two different songs, but in a good way).

When "The Sacrilicious Sounds of the Supersuckers" came out in 1995, on the first few listens, I wasn't too impressed. I dunno, I think it sounded too clean, I think, as I remember it. But on further spins, what it lacked in the conciseness and anger of it's predecessor, it also had gained in terms of variation and probably even songwriting. I think that it's also a bit more southern rock influenced, though not on immediate listen; something like "Hittin The Gravel" kind of has that feel to it. Eddie's vocals are also pretty much front and centre, and while they'd been buried on "La Mano Cornuda", this record was, at the least, a means to really reveal Eddie Spaghetti as an excellent vocalist--great timbre, great attitude, great melodic sensibility in a tough rocker type of way. This one is probably the least liked in the Supersuckers' catalogue by their longtime fans, but I seem to remember somewhere that Eddie said that this was their "Thin Lizzy album". Kind of. It's more classic rock oriented, I suppose (the middle bridge riff definetely borrows from Thin Lizzy, most likely as a wink to those that can hear the direct cop), but it's still got that punk/ metal thing to it. Needless to say, I don't understand the ire towards this record--it's still a great rock n' roll album by any band's measure (with a cool parody of Paul Weston's "The Sweet and the Swingin' ") , and if anything, pre-dated the 70's classic rock and Southern Rock worship with punk and metal influences thing found in later Hellacopters material and some of the growing rock n' roll movement in the late 90's/ early 00's. Being the odd band out that they were on the SubPop roster, this was a road that they had to pave, themselves. If nothing else, the slower tempos of songs like "Doublewide" (still in the band's live setlist) and the introspective, heartfelt songwriting of "Marie" make this album a winner, too.

Ron had left the band prior to this record out of having to take care of some personal things, and they'd replaced him with Rick Sims, of the Didjits--one of my favorite bands now, but not then. Didn't get 'em at the time, the suits or the crazy over the top persona, but i'd finally understood his Nugent via MC5 schtick a couple of years after this record. Needless to say, Rick didn't entirely fit in and some reports have stated that he overstepped his bounds in the band, and Rick's own statement (something like "I need to do my own thing") and forming the Gaza Strippers not too long afterwards would seem to point towards that. Anyways, the band does have a slightly different and unique chemistry, and there's plenty of great tracks. Songs like "Bad, Bad Bad", "The 19th Most Powerful Woman In Rock" and "The Thing About That" are some of their best. And "Born With A Tail" is still in their live setlist. The album sags a bit around the "Bad Dog" point (a Sims co-write that doesn't quite have the style that the 'Suckers need), but Sims redeems himself with "Stoned If You Want It" (probably my favorite song on this record), and "My Victim" (a take on "Try A Little Tenderness") with it's extended goofy rock out outro, are both great. The album ends off with "Don't Go Blue", which, despite being a slow country waltz contrasting with the louder rock stuff on the record, finishes the album off perfectly.

The followup album to this could really be the epitome of a Flash Metal Suicide--the point where you lose a shitload of your entire fanbase. "Must've Been High" is still one of my all time favorite kissoffs to the expectations on an artist or band--a la "Metal Machine Music", but namely because it's done so damn well. Part of the problem with stylistic 360's is that if you're gonna diversify as an artist, you'd better understand your change of direction and why you're doing it. Alot of artists just do it because they're following the money, or because a manager thought it was a good idea to do disco or whatever. "Must've Been High " is a country album, through and through, done old style, in tribute to Willie Nelson (who sings on a bit of the album) and the old Nashville greats. If anyone was in doubt, the band states the change of direction right on the back sleeve of the release:

"Honest. Pure. Simple. These are the qualities that attracted us to punk rock......three chord songs, sung from experience, played on an old, beat up acoustic guitar"

And I don't know if it's a failure or a success as a Flash Metal Suicide, since "Must've Been High", released in 1997, is still the best selling album in their catalogue! But really, the amps are pretty much turned completely down, the acoustic guitars, fiddles, dobros and plate reverbs get turned up, and the band gets to reflect on their career and where they're at. Ron even came back into the band for this one, though he's listed as "Renaldo Allegre" and you'd think that this would be a supercharged rock album (especially considering that he's wearing a "I like both types of music...heavy and metal" t-shirt in the liners), but no. Eddie sings most of the album in a lower, bassier voice, and while he's excellent when he's yelling and being the loud wiseass, it's remarkable how great he sounds on this with the more relaxed vibe, almost like a totally different singer. Hey, if Elvis can be a lounge singer, then Eddie can be a country hick. "Don't Go Blue" ending off "Sacrilicious" had pointed in that direction, both Eddie and the band getting to exercise the use of space and arrangements in songs, even if they're just three or four chords. The reflective songs are all appropriately hurting; "Barricade" (the metaphor of the physical barricade between the band and audience appearing to be a metaphor for other walls that the song's character has created for themselves, out of protection) being the best, with "Roamin' Round", as well as "Hungover Together" and "One Cigarette Away" coming very close. There's a few rockers on the album, "Dead In The Water", "Blow You Away" (sounding like a countrified version of "Drink And Complain", even with the lyrical reference "....guess i'll just drink and complain") and the excellent honky tonk of "Non-Addictive Marijuana". The album ends off on the excellent instrumental "Hangliders", and then you hear the sound of a needle lifting off the implied vinyl, and then the hidden bonus track, "Supersucker Drive By Blues" kicks ass back into gear and provides the same foresight for the next album that "Sacrilicious" did in sympathy for this one; instead of having a country song end off a rock record, it's reversed here.

And what a reversal. I can't think of too many albums that do polar but spiritually connected opposites better than "Must've Been High" leading into "The Evil Powers Of Rock n' Roll", released in 1999. "The Evil Powers..." is still in my top rock albums of all time, simply because it continues probably what I wanted to hear to follow up "La Mano Cornuda", but with even better conviction, songwriting and production. The band had really, really upped their game on this; not only did they put out the best country album in some time, but they turned the tables and made the best rock n' roll album in quite some time. I suppose some of the albums before had sounded tongue in cheek, like they were homages to their favorite bands, but here, they really erase any doubt as to whether they mean it or not.

And even the album title is one of the best titles,'d think that at this point in music, arguably 50 years into rock n' roll, that i'd be tired of yet another song or album with the title "rock n' roll" in it, but no. And then there's the album cover--the band playing behind a wall of Marshall stacks. It visually denotes everything that you're in for, but the full throttle Chuck Berry via Motorhead delivery is just insane, it can back up everything that the band is doing, right from the opening seconds of the opening song, the title track, through the almost psychedelic haze of the slower heavier part and ending of the fairly epic (for them, anyways) "Hot Like The Sun". Some bands have to tell you that you're about to rock or that you're gonna rock, and "The Evil Powers Of Rock n' Roll" is perhaps more suggestive than descriptive. But maybe it's just more like the classroom bully ripped you off and then spent your money in front of you. Best to just sulk off home, and realized that you've been taught a lesson. Sometimes you just can't beat the best, and sometimes you can't even join 'em because they don't want you, anyway. This band of four like minded brethren tell you right in "Santa Rita High", when they were "an abomination barely gettin' by" and having "instigated ditch day" that they weren't having any of your games, while they were out in the band ditching class and out living life on the town. In fairness, Eddie had said in an interview one time, that the reasoning for his continuation of being in the band and being a musician was something to the effect of "i'm only otherwise qualified to flip burgers". Let that be a lesson to all you aspiring rockers. But you get the sense that the band is the real deal, they're the characters and topics that they sing about--they may have the bruises to prove it, but they'll endure in the end.

Even more amazingly, the band was 10 years into their career (counting the Black Supersuckers days). If you think of all the best bands, how many of them got better at the 10 year mark? Some got better quite late into their career--Judas Priest, comes to mind nearing the ten year mark with "Stained Class", "Hell Bent For Leather" and "British Steel"-- but that's the exception to the rule. Really, there's not a weak track on here, and it's hard to really pick a highlight--but i'd say the title track, "Gone Gamblin'", "I Want The Drugs", "Santa Rita High" and the minor key reflective (but still gutsy) rocker in "Goin' Back To Tucson" are my favorites. Needless to say, if you don't own this one, you need to buy it right now.

Something that comparatively fewer people know about the band, is that they were actually signed to Interscope Records, and then dropped amidst the Universal merger. You know, this screams out Flash Metal Suicide--band gets fucked around by label, etc. etc. It's something that you sit on your porch and pine about the old days to your grandkids. They'd recorded an album with Tom Werman (the early, classic Cheap Trick records aside from the debut; Motley Crue, etc), and I believe the title was "Play Some Rock n' Roll", and then they'd re-recorded those songs as they were the same (or basically the same) ones on "The Evil Powers of Rock n' Roll". I'd asked Eddie about it on the old, old Supersuckers message board a long time ago (as memory serves correctly, it was the purple version), and he'd said that he'd liked them and that he'd like to see them released some day. The masters are probably languishing in the Universal vault somewhere; nestling alongside the broken dreams of various other bands (it was no secret that tons of bands were dropped and lots of executives were fired after the merger).

I'd really like to hear those recordings, and if Universal is still letting them rot, I find it weird that they'd keep 'em and not just give 'em to the band. I guess the rationale is that they're still an "investment", but it's dubious as to what purpose the masters would serve to them. But the band's will and strength endured in the end; some bands have broken up over far smaller issues. The Supersuckers, if they ever get those master recordings back, could eventually issue some sort of huge re-issue of "Evil Powers...." with both versions on there. THAT would be awesome. But appropriately, the band wasn't sounding deflated from the Interscope experience, at all--if anything, it seems like that experience had made the band stronger. To re-record something that you'd already recorded and make it sound convincing is even more difficult to do. Some bands don't even adequately capture the fire from their demos, let alone re-doing an entire actual record. Suffice to say, without actually hearing the original version of this record, there's little way that it could be bested by the released version--equalled perhaps, though. There's undeniable fire and passion on this one.

Rounding out the 1999 releases, was "How The Supersuckers Became The Greatest Rock and Roll Band In The World"; a greatest hits thing that likely became the "obligatory contractual fulfillment" to close out the 'Suckers' SubPop requirements. One thing that the band doesn't do, is mince words--they put it right out there. They finally appear officially on album cover art as the cartoon that they always kind of seemed like in real life; 60's sort of Jack Kirby influenced art with scantily clad girls waving lighters (how different in contrast this is, in reality, to the actual Supersuckers audience, which is mostly pretty gruff, hard living dudes). The compilation is a good selection of their best songs, though the songs tend to be skewed more towards the poppier Ramones styled punk ("On The Couch" was never among my more favorite songs), rather than the metallic Motorhead stuff. The unreleased tracks are pretty good, too--some covers ("Bloody Mary Morning" with Willie Nelson playing; Ice Cube's "Dead Homiez") and the inclusion of the Baseketball movie soundtrack song, "Psyched Out" which likely didn't do the Supersuckers' career any good considering that about 15 people saw the movie and was universally panned.

Anyways, the followup to "The Evil Powers Of Rock n' Roll" in the album "Motherfuckers Be Trippin", is pretty good. It gets derided at times for being an inferior version of "Evil Powers..." and in some ways, that's true (ie: "Damn My Soul" is "Hot Like The Sun"; "Sleepy Vampire" is "Goin Back To Tucson", "Rock Your Ass" is "Cool Manchu" etc), but I think that for the first time, the Supersuckers took a step backwards and had rehashed the same album, and maybe that's where the criticism lies. Anticipation was very high with this record. And maybe part of the disappointment stems from that it took four years to make this one, while "The Evil Powers..." only took two and is still a better record. All of the previous albums have enough variation to them from the prior one to it (and certainly "Must've Been High" confirms that), and something like "Sacrilicious", even though alot of the signatures appear to be the same on the surface, definetely have enough differences in that one could like or dislike certain albums because they were too unlike the others. Nonetheless, "Rock N' Roll Records", "Rock Your Ass" and "The Fight Song" are great, and "Pretty Fucked Up" is a classic. It's not a weak album by any stretch of the imagination, but the band's nemesis--like i've mentioned in other writeups--is their own history and output. This would be a perfect album leading up to "Evil Powers....", but certainly not after it, and factoring the four years into the equation that it took to make the album probably works more against the record than for it. But songs like "The Nowhere Special", with it's excellent sense of melody, is more unique to this's probably their most melodic straightforward-tells-a-story rocker since "Marie".

Here's where it starts to get a bit grim, and i'm not alone on this--after this period, the band just wasn't the same. I just can't shake it, never have been able to since, despite trying to fire myself up for anything new from the band over the last long while. Don't get me wrong, even the Supersuckers' worst stuff would still be any other bands' best stuff. With all of Eddie's claims that they're still "the best", I unfortunately have to disagree. As mentioned before, Dancing Eagle was probably symbolic of a bigger issue within the band, something happened, some disagreements happened or whatever, and whatever it was had turned the band in a direction of the downslide. A few years back, the band had their van (with all their gear) stolen, and I can't imagine that would be exactly promising for any band at any point in their career. Some things like the "Devil's Food" compilation and "Live At The Magic Bag" seemed more like stopgaps (or better yet) releases in lieu of actual releases, as the band had stated that taking time off to make records takes away from their main income in touring and selling merch, live.

In fairness, it could just be age--bands hit a certain age and a certain period where they can no longer recapture that initial spark. And also in fairness, everything has a lifespan of where it lives and is vital, and then is no longer once what it was--the band had an awesome run where they were just the best fucking rock n' roll band around, and maybe it's just selfishness or naivety, but i'm sure that I speak for most people when I say to "gimme more of what made such and such band or album great". I want it to last forever. Without slagging the mighty band too much, nothing has since convinced me that the spirit isn't gone--Ron leaving would signify that, and he didn't really look that happy on stage in the last few years in the band. The band's official statement was something like "we hope he can find the happiness that had eluded him these last few years". Longtime MidFi (the Supersuckers' label) all around band helper and label guy, Chris Neal, had quit (which had basically ended MidFi), and Eddie had recently got signed to Bloodshot Records to do his solo country thing, so I don't get a good feeling about the continuity of the band (and as I write this, the band's website has an malware attack thing on it that means that I can't even access the website, and apparently neither the band nor the webmaster want to fix it). I think that the band will always continue in some capacity, but they're not young lads by any means, and with each passing year, things that were once easy, become more difficult to do. With every new tour, you have to ask yourself what you're in it for and what you're getting out of it.

On a good note, maybe it's just nostalgia in me that's talking, but i'll always keep on buyin' if the 'Suckers' keep on sellin'. I still remember how awesome it was that they brought the arena to the clubs that they'd played, every night, and the club to the arena every time they'd actually got on the big stages, the big tours. That was one big little stage, I tell 'ya.

--Ryan Settee

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Rontrose Heathman and Eddie Spagetti and myself lived in the same small apt. bld. in west seattle,wa. 98-2000' being neighbors and guitar players,became fast friends. Saw both sides of the Suckers.great band. I miss Ron as he moved to Tacoma,later I to Vegas.anyone with contact info please e-mail me

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