Back when Ricky Nelson sang about being a lonesome "Teenage Idol" playing one-night stands, road songs were still a novelty, something chain-smoking Brill Building songwriters cooked up in between gulps of coffee. Once rock stars began writing from their own personal experiences, hundreds of songs came down the pike lamenting the toll entertainers pay and pay to come to our hometowns and bring us some cheer. Boo friggin' hoo!
Bitching about the road never got haughtier than on the Kinks' Everybody's in Showbiz album, where Ray Davies complained about the beer-stained pillows, the lukewarm tea and not having time to change his underwear or take a poo. Really, wouldn't you rather hear him sing about "Waterloo Sunset" than "motorway loos"? Or the indigestible road food clogging them up?
On the other hand, Willie Nelson can't wait to get on the road again, and why would a man in braids who owes the IRS back taxes lie? Look inside the Groovie Ghoulies' van and you'll see Willie's smiling visage tacked up on a sideboard. That's because this band loves the road, having clocked in seven U.S. tours, two Canadian tours (yes, Canadian tours count) and three European tours since 1997! If anyone should be complaining about lack of sufficient poo time, it's this motor-vating bunch.
But it's Album Number Six for this Sacramento foursome and the CD artwork to Travels With My Amp opens up to reveal a "fun-filled" cartoon map plastered with "points of interest" and holiday snaps like Groovie Ghoulie singer and founder Jeffrey "Kepi" Alexander posing by a 50-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant, early clues that there'll be no songs about lonesome hotel rooms and identical-looking towns. Songs about blue-skinned girls and Criswell, maybe . . . but not a single anti-road song outta 14!
If I might toot the GG van horn for a moment, Travels With My Amp is an album about and for the road, and should be sold at every highway minimart alongside wet naps and Tic Tacs. Nearly every road-related problem that can confound a traveling band is tackled handily on this here album, except van trouble, which is what we suspect has eighty-sixed our planned interview with the band.
Either that or they're busy posing next to the world's largest ball of belly lint in Mound, Minnesota, for the cover of the next album. Ah, well, maybe they'll make it here before the final run-through. For quicker comprehension of these rabid tourists, here's a track-by-track analysis of this road-tested CD:
Don't believe the denials from soundmen that there is no "suck" button on their mixing boards employed to keep out-of-town bands in their place. I've seen that suck button hit numerous times. It's red, it's round and it's usually hidden underneath a half-eaten tuna salad sandwich. That's why the Ghoulies kick this set off with a sound-check-masquerading-as-a-riff-based-instrumental. It allows everybody in the band enough time to yell and kvetch at said sound man until guitar, bass and drums can be discerned -- and it's in the key of E for easy tuning. But if you're thinking "Boothill Express" is the name of some kick-ass takeout restaurant in Missouri, think again. It's actually the name of a funeral coach built in 1850. Audio school graduates, you don't wanna mess with this macabre crew!
"Bye Bye Brain"
This is a breakup song and a sad one since it involves Kepi's ex-girlfriend sticking pins in an unauthorized Kepi voodoo doll, which the band will make absolutely no money on. Instead, let's use this track as an excuse to talk about Kepi's singing style, since his are the only vocal cords that appear on the entire album. No harmonies, no double-tracking, just Kepi singing bop after blitzkrieging bop. How does he do it night after night without incurring irreparable throat damage? By singing only seven notes, all but the last two out of his left nostril! Unbelievable, yet true!
One of the best-kept secrets in indie rock is the astonishing eight-octave range Kepi possesses in private, but refuses to exploit in concert. And who can blame him? Look in the back of Flipside or Maximum Rock & Roll and see how many kids are trading rare Caruso tapes. Not a one! So why subject your audience and yourself to the rigorous demands of Rigoletto when you can sing "Bye Bye Brain" and 20 other brisk selections in the low key of G and still be loved the world over? Back to monotone, I say! Some may think that's a slam on Kepi, but many of the punk greats, from Joey Ramone to Lux Interior to Sonny Bono, all made incredible postnasal rock. If anything, Kepi frequently manages to sound like Joey Ramone passing through Lux Interior's left nostril.
"Daughter of Frankenstein"
More vocal-saving secrets! Kepi never screams his head off like the Muffs' Kim Shattuck or veteran wailer Roger Daltrey, who marches straight to bed after the last encore in order to be able to scream the following night. Instead, Kepi inserts an all-encompassing "awwlright" to bridge the gap to the next instrumental passage. This is an "awwlright" which never sounds like it has an exclamation point at the end of it, no matter what the lyric sheet says. This is an "awwlright" you use if someone offers you a stick of gum, and Kepi's using it to tell us about the daughter of Frankenstein. That's the big difference between the Ghoulies and their less poppy, more accessorized counterparts, the Misfits. If those guys were singing about a girl who's got it all sewn up in the looks department, there'd be revulsion, sure, and even more grappling with the "would I throw her out of bed" dilemma. The Ghoulies prefer to think of their "Daughter of Frankenstein" as a rarefied beauty: "She can charm and enchant, awwlright," yelps Kepi, and from the sounds of it, she sounds pretty well-adjusted for the child of a celebrity monster.
"Free Bird" and "Happy Birthday"
Ahh, those pesky requests! It doesn't matter who you are -- every band gets corralled into playing "Happy Birthday" sooner or later. It's the most performed song of all time, even though no one actually likes it. It's never shipped platinum and it always falls apart when the sensitive issue of the "do we sing the how old are you now?" line arises. That's why the Ghoulies' power-chord-thrashin' "Happy Birthday" dispenses with everything but the essential first verse words and the equally short playing time.
But what about silencing those yahoos who keep calling out for "Free Bird" every night? No one knows why they do it, probably the same reason construction workers think catcalling at beautiful women will eventually work for them. As a rule, no touring band ever honors the "Free Bird" request unless they are in the deep, deep South. Here the Ghoulies dream up their very own "Free Bird" and, at a ripping 39 seconds, it can be repeated whenever necessary: "Hey Free Bird! You haven't got any chains/Why don't you use your bird brain/Why don't you just disappear." Ronnie Van Zant's probably somewhere shitting his hat with laughter. "That's a good 'un."
"Hard Night's Day"
Nothing like a 24-second song to hurry up a set. Perfect for squeezing in another number after last call.
"Hair of Gold (And Skin of Blue)"
Some would say the group is advocating necrophilia but they'd be dead wrong. On this number, the Ghoulies take a stand on the racial inequality that still exists in this country. It's really "Brother Louie" and "Society's Child" for the translucent-skinned set (that, or it's about nailing a Smurf).
Although the group took its name from the early '70s cartoon The Groovie Goolies, you'll note that they spell it differently to avoid legal hassles and having to perform "Chick-a-Boom" every night. Luckily, the gang from Horrible Hall is not joining the glut of reunion tours this summer -- how are you going to compete with the voluptuous horror of Poison/Dokken/Cinderella and Slaughter on one bill? Or worse, Yes touring with Kansas and threatening to play only the long songs!
The new Groovies have fashioned their own "Goolies Get-Together" theme crossed with Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," and it's here we learn that "dysfunctionality" and "flushing your future down the drain" can have just as galvanizing an effect on siblings as love and togetherness. Since most families only come together around food, it's nice to know that the Ghoulies are able to subsist on a road diet of "confections," "salty snacks" and "bottle pop," as one road receipt in the Travels With My Amp insert reveals. More troubling is that at one pit stop they spent $16.41 on four "Space-Playsets," five "Lizzards" and five "Giant Bugs" and only 59 cents on food (and that was a Kit Kat bar!).
"I'd Rather Be Alone," "(The Girl Is) An Unsolved Mystery" and "Criswell Predicts"
This trio of numbers offers different consolations for dealing with relationships on the road. 1) It's better to break up with your girlfriend before the tour so you don't run up a phone bill fighting; 2) Find a girl who's hard to figure out and let things deteriorate from there; 3) It really doesn't matter who you make a play for since famed Ed Wood soothsayer Criswell believes sisters are doing it for themselves and don't even need men for breeding purposes anymore. To keep her hubby Kepi in line, guitarist Rochelle "Roach" Sparman has a Teletubby she snuggles with on the tour bus. And it's one of the hetero ones!
"Rock and Roll Leprechaun" and "Dancing Late at Night"
One of the biggest disappointments of being on the road is meeting your idols and finding they don't live up to your expectations. Here, the Ghoulies have that problem neatly solved -- they just worship Jonathan Richman, the Mister Rogers of rock. Expecting him not to be friendly or flaky is like expecting ice cream not to be cold.
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Another nod to Willie Nelson and just about the most welcome road song since "Route 66." Kepi knows men won't stop for directions and would just as soon stick a CD in the stereo if it offered helpful, face-saving suggestions like "5 & 95 go up and down/10, 80, 90 go east and west."
To quote our irrepressible tour guides, awwlright!
The Groovie Ghoulies are scheduled to perform on Sunday, June 18, at the Nile Theater in Mesa, with Buck, Sixth Year Senior, 3 Chord Monkey, and Joe Would Be the Ruler. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.