Two for One

On a new split double disc, the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5 revive good-natured pop-rock

Scott McCaughey just might be the busiest man in rock 'n' roll. Since 1994, McCaughey's "day job" has been playing guitar, bass and keyboards, both live and in the studio, as a hired member of R.E.M. The year before, McCaughey had started a music collective he dubbed the Minus 5 -- a revolving cast of players that has mostly counted Peter Buck as its only other consistent member. Two years later, Buck and McCaughey formed Tuatara, another recording and touring collective -- this one concentrating on avant-garde and somewhat pretentious rock instrumentals.

None of this would have come to pass, however, without the group McCaughey formed in 1982 -- Seattle's fun-loving, wonderful Young Fresh Fellows, a band that continues to get so little respect that a usually reliable Allmusic.com entry lists them as breaking up in 1993.

"Oh, we never broke up," McCaughey says with a laugh on the phone from the Seattle home he shares with his wife and 11-year-old daughter, four days after returning from a gig with R.E.M. at the Rock in Rio festival. "We're too . . . too lame to ever actually break up or make a bold step like that. We just kind of fizzle out at times, but we've always kept playing."

This one's for the ladies: Young Fresh Fellows (from left) Jim Sangster, Tad Hutchison, Kurt Bloch and Scott McCaughey
This one's for the ladies: Young Fresh Fellows (from left) Jim Sangster, Tad Hutchison, Kurt Bloch and Scott McCaughey
The dual and dueling covers of the new Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5 split CD.
The dual and dueling covers of the new Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5 split CD.

Granted, the group hasn't released an American album in nine years, but the Fellows continue to play regularly at Seattle clubs and festivals, as well as in Spain, where they have their largest fan base. "I don't know what sells thousands and millions of copies over there -- it's probably crappy pop like everywhere else," he declares. "But there's this underground of people who drink and smoke and stay up all night and listen to rock 'n' roll. There's this one whole area in Madrid that's all these tiny streets, and on every block there's, like, five bars -- bars that have a door but no sign, and you go in and it's just people drinking whiskey and beer and smoking cigarettes. And they have DJs who crank out the Ramones and the Dictators and the Young Fresh Fellows. I mean, it's crazy. The people there somehow seem to be able to stay out 'til five or six in the morning every night listening to rock 'n' roll, and still somehow function in their daily lives. I don't know how they ever get anything done, to tell the truth. We figured out that every time we go there for a week, it costs a year off of our lives. So we have to really consider things before we go over there. But it's really fun."

It's fitting that the Young Fresh Fellows should be so revered in a country that celebrates a strong bar culture, since the Fellows are one of the greatest bar bands of the last two decades. In fact, while talking to this reporter for CREEMmagazine back in 1987, the Replacements' Paul Westerberg compared the Fellows to an earlier great bar band: "They're like NRBQ, only better." Westerberg loved the group so much that, following a West Coast tour featuring both bands (including a now legendary show at L.A.'s Variety Arts Center during which Mats drummer Chris Mars passed out and was replaced by the Fellows' Tad Hutchinson -- which eventually led to so many people piling onstage with the very drunk Replacements that guitarist Slim Dunlap couldn't find an instrument to play), the lead Mat asked the Fellows to play his wedding. (At this event, the usually low-key Mars fell off a table while dancing and broke his arm.) Like the Mats, the Fellows' performances were musically brilliant and hilariously funny all at the same time. Blessed are the memories fans have of their shows at the old Club Lingerie: McCaughey in sunglasses and a Viking hat, looking not unlike a younger Nordic version of one of his idols, Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter; drummer Hutchinson donning a Mr. T head for the encore, groaning "Ouch! Ouch!" each time his sky-high cymbal would fly back and hit -- pity the fool! -- T on the noggin. Good-natured, almost dadaist, and so much fun.

Their alternative credibility -- and the fact that their L.A.-based label, Frontier Records, inked a licensing-distribution deal with RCA/BMG during the early '90s -- made it seem like the Fellows might reach a larger rock audience. The broadening of their cult was especially deserved after the release of 1989's This One's for the Ladies, unquestionably their greatest moment and a pop-punk masterpiece. A perfect blend of Ray Davies' proto-Britpop and bubblegum-inspired punk, the album was the group's first effort with Fastbacks guitarist Kurt Bloch, who brought a harder edge to their well-indexed book of '60s pop-rock clichés. But then a disastrous tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- Bloch broke his arm the night before the tour began during one of the group's onstage pile-ups to be replaced by kindred spirit Ward Dotson, then of the Pontiac Brothers, now of the Liquor Giants -- foreshadowed what lay ahead in terms of mainstream success. "I have a feeling their crowd was really young and obnoxious and stupid," McCaughey recalls, "and Ward was great, but I think we could've completely slaughtered them if we'd have been playing full-on with Kurt -- 40 minutes of blasting head banging, you know? It could have been amazing!"

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