Poppin' Off

Basking in the glory of coolness that is Cherry Poppin' Daddies, woefully unsung heroes of evolutionary, cross-genre rock

Two band names have crumpled the brows of daily newspaper editors more than any others this decade. One is the Butthole Surfers. The other, Cherry Poppin' Daddies.

In the first case, the cause of consternation is clear: No way can the word "butthole" appear in a mainstream newspaper, let alone a phrase suggesting one should, or even could, "surf" a butthole. Thus, dozens of articles in papers across the country have appeared under titles like "B-Hole Surfers Set to Ride Through Town," or ". . . . Hole Surfers Tonight at the Underground."

The offensive content in "Cherry Poppin' Daddies," however, is only implied--albeit strongly enough that mainstream press censors have wielded their black pens with equal vigor, yielding headline references like "C.P. Daddies," "Cherry Poin' Daddies," and (no kidding) "Cherry &$%@!# Daddies."

Come on, now. Might not this name for the superb seven-piece power swing/ska punk band from Eugene, Oregon, simply refer to a group of patriarchs who puncture the fruit of Prunus ceresia?

Uh, no.
"It was back in '89, right around the time the band was forming. I was listening to a lot of jazz then, and a friend of mine had made me a mix tape of race music from the '20s, and a lot of the lyrics were sexual, and somehow at a practice we picked up the words 'Cherry Poppin' Daddies,'" says CPD front man Steve Perry ("absolutely no relation").

"'Mr. Wiggles' was our working title at that point, and this was clearly better--a little racy, but also jazzy and funny and a little sexy. So we went with it."

In Eugene, Oregon, circa 1989, however, no band with a name like that was going to go very far without drawing ire. Like most college towns in the late '80s, Eugene (home to the University of Oregon) was newly in the grip of "political correctness," and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies made good "direct action" fodder for the polypropylene leggings set. Shows were picketed and heckled, and the band was skewered in letters to the college paper and Eugene Weekly as purveyors of the patriarchal mindfuck. The giant "penis on wheels" the band used as a stage prop didn't help much.

Seven years later, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies are still stirring up controversy--Perry says a protest letter that recently circulated in Portland's young, hip southeast district called for a boycott of the group. The band is also--incredibly, unjustly--still not signed.

"We've been offered a number of crappy record deals, where the terms are essentially, 'You can do what we tell you to and we'll take all the money,'" says Perry (a.k.a. MC Large Drink). "That's not a deal, that's a rip-off."

The Daddies' third and latest album, Kids on the Street, came out this February on the band's own label, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. Like the first two CPD albums, "Here Comes the Snake" is a classic bump 'n' grind. "Irish Whiskey" is full-throttle ska/punk. "Don Quixote" sounds like the Duke Ellington Orchestra back from the grave. "Silver Tongued Devil" is tiki goes Nashville, "Trapped Inside the Planet of the Rollerskating Bees" is Devo vs. Man . . . or Astroman?, "Cosa Nostra" is Henry Mancini on a Vespa, and "Flower Fight With Morrissey" is probably the best song title of the year.

Rolling Stone and MTV haven't noticed, but the Cherry Poppin' Daddies were lounge before lounge was retrochic, punk before punk had its renaissance, and ska-flavored before ska was the flavor of the year. Not that Perry begrudges the ongoing skavolution--"All of a sudden last summer, all the kids in the coffee house where I hang out were wearing Operation Ivy tee shirts. Then the shows started to double and triple. It's been fantastic." He'd just like a little credit where a lot is due.

"It would be nice after so many years just to get acknowledged," he says. "We're not looking for huge accolades . . . we just want to be known at least as an also-ran. But we're not really worried about it. We're like a dog that's been kicked a lot. We're used to it, and we've still got a million shows to do."

A straight-out freak on stage with a roller-coaster range, Perry is most often compared to Iggy Pop or, get this, Sammy Davis Jr. "Spastic but smooth," he says. "That's me."

Curiously erudite for a pop singer and devoutly bohemian, Perry dropped out of the UofO's chemistry program to start the Daddies, but says he does a lot of heavy reading on the road. Most recently, he's been interested in Italian neorealists, who made art dealing with the country's social problems in the wake of WWII, and deep-focus photography. "I'm trying to figure out how I can apply that technique to my songwriting," he says. "That's my trip."

Perry often speaks in terms of "trips." Kids these days, he says, are on a "decidedly different trip" than their predecessors of even a few years. "They're feeling a need to hear something different for a while," he says. "I've seen it happen, and I'm from the Northwest, the bastion and birthplace of moody, shoegazer rock. I mean, people here still care what Mudhoney's up to.

"I think this shift is putting the emphasis back on the music, which is overdue. A band like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion--I mean, what the hell is that? It seems like people are going to those shows not so much to hear the music as they are to just bask in the glory of the band's coolness."

Throughout the early '90s, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and a funky, horn-endowed outfit from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, called Black Happy more or less defined the Pacific Northwest's alternative to alternative. Both bands managed to build a solid regional fan base (Black Happy and the Daddies were huge even in Alaska) and log respectable sales for self-releases, but on a national scale, they were too much too soon.

"The tenor of that time was, if you had horns, you got no respect," says Perry.

Last year, Black Happy broke up and re-formed as Shoveljerk, shedding its horn section in favor of a relatively anonymous but eminently more marketable guitar-rock sound.

Perry swears he'll never go that route. "My trip is all blues and jazz oriented," he says. "Bent notes and pentatonic scales. And I like the fast, big-band stuff, Cab Calloway, all those jazz cats.

"Whatever I play, it's got to have that jazz feeling of looking out the rainy window at the people going by, that bittersweet emotion of when you're in the middle of the road trip, and you're lonely, and you're broke, but damn, the morning is beautiful."

The Cherry Poppin' Daddies are scheduled to perform on Saturday, December 7, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with the Suicide Kings, and Medieval Knievals. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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