A few years ago, "grunge" could be defined as a persistent fungus found in shower stalls, or as the flannel coating that forms on the teeth of drunks who collapse without brushing.
Today, of course, Seattle artistes and rat-pack journalists have turned "grunge" into a revolution. Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, Tad, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and other grunge greats have made loud, low-fi, guitar punk-pop the hottest thing since Saturday Night Fever ignited disco. To many, Nirvana's blinding success has become a symbol of all that's wrong with the recording business--in short, a slavish devotion to fad (and album sales) over real talent. Since "Smells Like Teen Spirit" conquered the world, labels have become unquenchably convinced that grunge is good and that anything with a loud guitar has to be grunge. The "Teen Spirit" funnel cloud has spared nothing in its path. Sucked up by the gale force of A&R enthusiasm are bands that used to take great pride in calling themselves "punk." It's the kind of black-and-white nonsense that gives major labels a bad name.
"It is really, really stupid and boring and unimaginative," says John Reis of San Diego's Rocket From the Crypt, a punk band that's been the recent object of the majors' frenzied desire to sign anything remotely grungy. "It happened with punk, it happened with disco and now it's happening with grunge. It's just another way to sell records. I know that kind of thinking is out there. It doesn't really sicken me, because I don't put a lot of time into distancing myself from it."
That's easy to say when you live in San Diego, a city out of the sphere of L.A.'s recording-industry madness. What's more exciting to Reis than the grunge craze is the resurgence of hard-core music in San Diego.
"San Diego is, although this sounds really dumb, undergoing kind of a punk renaissance right now," he says. "Fortunately, it's going unnoticed to the point that it's not getting sickening."
Off the top of his head, the seldom-sickened Reis mentions the Nephews, Custom Floor, Truman's Water, Fishwife and Deadbolt as his favorite San Diego bands. Reis, also known as Speedo, modestly omits saying that he and his Rocket cohorts, bassist Petey X, guitarist N.D. (Andy Stamer), drummer Atom (Adam Willard) and saxophone player Apollo 9 (Paul O'Beirne), are infinitely more talented and focused than any of the bands on that list. Their blend of distorto-pop and speed-punk is original. If they lived in Seattle, they'd already be stars.
Rocket's first album, Paint As a Fragrance, was released in 1991 on Cargo Records, a label jointly based in San Diego and Chicago. The acclaim for that disc, the band's numerous vinyl seven-inch recordings and its raw live shows--added to the industry's consuming quest for grunge--made the band the object of a label-band courtship dance. After much thought and the advice of more than one lawyer, the band is ready to sign with Interscope Records. It's always instructive to see how rebellious, spontaneous, do-it-yourself punk bands rationalize the paradoxes that rehearsing, writing popish tunes and signing with a major label present.
"We aren't in a position to manufacture or distribute our own records," Reis says, choosing a common tack. "Nor is that something that interests us. "So far, nothing's getting gruesome at all. With Interscope, we should have more control over what we do than we did with Cargo."
That's brave talk from a band that espouses the ever-admirable, if unrealistic, "we don't need anyone" punk ethic. Keep in mind that this is a group that once refused to play anywhere with a stage.
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"We were just a group of friends who got together, got drunk and hung out," Reis says, explaining the band's genesis. "Coincidentally, we just happened to be holding musical instruments and making a lot of noise."
After Paint was released (and about 500 people bought it," Reis snorts), the band underwent an unusual personnel change. Replacing back-up vocalist Elaina and drummer Sean were drummer Atom and sax man Apollo 9. Although the Rolling Stones, and even the Ramones on the soundtrack to Rock n' Roll High School, used horns, few punk bands today feature the instrument as prominently as Rocket does.
"We're about density, and so there is definitely a place for the sax," Reis says. "It adds a lot and fills out the sound. The funny part is, I didn't realize that Paul had only taken two weeks of sax lessons. I thought it was two years. He still doesn't really know how to play."
Besides unconventional instrumentation and a wacky weakness for matching outfits, another aspect of the band's appeal has come from the booming market for seven-inch vinyl. Since 1991, the band has released eight seven-inchers, including the Steppenwolf goof "Normal Carpet Ride," on Sub Pop and a take of MC5's "Gold" on Drunken Fish Records. Reis estimates that the group will release 12 seven-inchers this year. Calling himself a recording junkie, Reis says seven-inchers give him an excuse to go into a studio and record with his friends. What he's not saying--a defining trait, it seems, of all punk bands--is that there is an immense collectors' market for seven-inch recordings and that the once-extinct 45 is an effective way of adding an underground mystique, even to major-label bands.
"I'm not a vinyl purist. I'm not out there waving a flag for the cause of vinyl," Reis says. "But in terms of listening, a seven-inch has a certain advantage. You drop the needle, turn it all the way up and get a quick blast, a quick fix."
But before drawing any conclusions about this band's ability to carry a recording farther than a 45, consider that its latest, Circa Now!, is a polished, pulverizing gem. Often compared to Nirvana's Bleach, the new album is still rough around the edges, but the band's songwriting, arrangements and playing have all improved. The vocals are up in the mix. Most telling of all, though, are the hints of a shy, pop sensibility that show through in tunes like "Ditch Digger." Is this a sign of creeping commercialism? An easing of the assaultive punk approach? A palatable compromise to the punk/major-label contradictions?
"I'm not ashamed of it, but not a lot of time went into our first record," Reis says. "On the new one, it's a balance. It had a lot of thought put into it and, by the same token, no thought went into it. Do you know what I mean?