SWAMP AND CIRCUMSTANCENEW ORLEANS' WHITE-SOUL TORCH PASSES TO THE RADIATORS, PURVEYORS OF "FISH HEAD MUSIC"
Just when you thought it was safe to go near the water . . . there's a slimy new connection between aquatic life and party rock. It began with Jimmy Buffett's "Parrotheads"--scrambled adults who suck down margaritas and totter into Buffett gigs with large, plastic shark fins strapped atop their foolish heads.
Even more disgusting are those deranged, rhythm-crazed individuals who are devoted to what's known as "Fish Head Music." Although it conjures up images of live bait stores, poisonous Thai food and a long-ago Rolling Stones album, "Fish Head Music" is about as accurate a term as you'll find to describe the music of New Orleans' Radiators.
The Rads, as they are known at home, are the musical offspring of Lowell George and Little Feat. Grounded in bluesy guitar, funky organ riffs and the soulful vocals of main songwriter Ed Volker, their electrifying music is white soul at its cheesy, unrepentant best. Not surprisingly, beer-blurred covers like "Cripple Creek" are also a Radiator specialty. And like Little Feat and the other white soul band from New Orleans, the Subdudes, they also incorporate lots of pop melodies and rock n' roll guitars. Being New Orleans natives, these sweaty groovers also show the effects of having listened to a lot of Meters records. The progenitor of the Neville Brothers, the Meters are the mother lode of funk. Anyone who thinks James Brown or Sly Stone can get down should clip his funk-o-meter to a Meters jam and watch the needle dance. Like Buffett's fateful "Parrothead" utterance, the term "Fish Head Music" was coined by Radiators' leader Ed Volker. In the late Seventies, the then-young Radiators were having trouble getting gigs because they wanted to play originals. Caught in the mind warp of disco fever, crowds at that time preferred covers. Tired of lying or trying to fudge, Volker finally snapped. When a would-be fan asked him what kind of music the band played, he blurted out, "Fish Head Music." When asked to explain, he flashed an evil grin and delivered the punch line: "It's hard to explain. You'll just pay the cover charge and hear it for yourself."
Like all disgusting nicknames, "Fish Head Music" has stuck with the Radiators. Longtime fans wear tee shirts proclaiming it. Some even show up at concerts wearing Creature From the Black Lagoon outfits.
Part of the reason the Fish Head phenomenon has caught on is because the Radiators are a band whose big-boogie reputation rests on their frenzied, marathon live shows. Together for 15 years, the Rads literally live on the road, playing more than 250 nights a year. But like all great live acts, the Rads know the downside of being a band that needs a crowd to get up. Like the quintessential live act of them all, the Neville Brothers, the Rads' live energies don't translate in the studio. They have yet to make a good album--and that's one reason the band was dropped by Epic Records in 1992. "We're a live band who goes into the studio once in a while," says Rads bassist Reggie Scanlan from his home in New Orleans. "I've never felt that the Nevilles have really nailed it in the studio, and I guess you could say the same for us, too." The only hope for bands that shine onstage but can't get it up in the studio is the live album. Why the Nevilles and their label, A&M, haven't tried a live set remains a mystery. After they were unceremoniously dropped from Epic, the Rads decided that a live album was a natural. Recorded at a Halloween party in 1991, the band's self-produced live disc, Snafu 10/31/91, is rough, rowdy and has all the juice fans always wanted to hear. The other benefit of a live album is that it gives a band an "official" bootleg. Today's technology has turned bootlegging live shows from a black market to a profitable science. Scanlan estimates there are "hundreds and hundreds" of Radiators bootlegs in existence. The band decided it was time to bootleg itself.
"We know people are out there taping. We see them from the stage, but we don't know who they are," Scanlan says. "It's not that we mind so much, but we'd like to buy some of those tapes. Instead of trying to hunt tapers down, we decided to release one of our own board tapes. It was a typical Radiators show--it lasted all night and we didn't really know any of the songs we played."
Despite the fact that it's not in record stores and most copies are sold on the bandstand, Snafu has been a solid success. It's convinced the band to permanently reactivate its own Croaker Records label for a second, more serious live album. The new project--which Scanlan says will be a two-CD set--was recorded during a two-night stand at the World Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. The band chose the World over a famed N.O. landmark like Tipitina's because the World is wired directly into a digital studio down the street. In two nights, the band recorded 60 songs. Approximately half that number should make it onto the CD, which Scanlan says should be ready by this summer.
"Being dropped by Epic was sort of a downer, but it wasn't the nail in the coffin," he says. "A record deal has never been the Radiators' bread and butter. It doesn't play the same role in our lives as it does in a lot of bands'."
As musical life expectancies go, the Rads are ancient. Casual friends who had played in local bands like the Dogs, the Palace Guards, Road Apple and the Rhapsodizers, the Radiators first got together to jam at Volker's house one Saturday afternoon in 1977. Joining Volker and Scanlan that day were guitarists Dave Malone and Camile Baudoin and drummer Frank Bua. After five hours of jamming, the consensus was that this group was meant to be a band. With the exception of percussionist Glenn "Kul" Sears, who was added in 1980, the Rads have the unheard-of distinction of having never had a personnel change. Starting out as Earl King's back-up band, the Rads quickly moved to sets of originals, and their now-infamous "Fish Head Music." Because they've been on the scene so long, the thirtysomething members of the Rads have participated in a large slice of N.O. musical history. Scanlan brings his own piece of New Orleans pedigree to the band. Back in 1977, the band's founding jam session broke up when Scanlan had to go play his last gig as the bassist in Professor Longhair's band.
"Playing with Fess was like going to grad school," Scanlan says. "Basically, the bass in his band was superfluous. With the possible exception of George Porter [the Meters], his left hand was the equal of any bass player. He kept me because onstage he needed something louder than just his hand. The trick for me was to just try and stay with him.
"The thing I remember most was he was really a super nice guy. A lot of the older players didn't mind letting the whole club know if you made a mistake. But with Fess, if you fucked up onstage, he'd give you a look, but it was between you and him."
With the death of Professor Longhair, Clifton Chenier and others, former upstarts like the Radiators have been thrust into the weighty role of being the old men of the N.O. music community. But instead of being tired and ready to give it up, the Rads seem eager to move on to new heights like the upcoming Phoenix show--the band's first-ever concert in Arizona. "Personally, we're beyond the bickering and arguing that goes on in most bands," Scanlan says. "Musically, time has made us all better players. What we want to do now is circle in on our essence. We'll never get there, but we want to try and finesse it.
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