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."
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 CREEM magazine 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!"
And then, of course, something else entirely happened in Seattle -- and the group that had titled its first album The Fabulous Sounds of the Northwest and had worked with Butch Vig years before the rest of the world had heard of the Nirvana producer/Garbage drummer basically got left behind.
"I thought it was great," McCaughey says without hesitation. "I mean, I liked most of those bands, and so I was really happy that they were doing well. I didn't feel like it was this big thing. People always kind of think, 'Well, God, the Fellows got overlooked.' But we were a different kind of thing. Compare one of our records to a Nirvana record. There's just no way it would ever be as popular or sell as much. Nevermind has great songs, it's played and produced really well, and it's loud. But it's kinda clean-sounding. Our records are all over the map. There are just so many different kinds of songs, and they are kind of loose and goofy. It's just not something that I ever thought would appeal to a mass audience. So I never felt like we got overlooked. I always felt like [the success of other Seattle bands] was a really good thing. I mean, it would have been nice if fewer people had died from heroin overdoses as part of it, but, musically, it was a great thing. And I was glad that Mudhoney got a record deal and that the guys were able to buy houses and stuff like that."
Yet their fans still feel the Fellows were robbed. "Unlike most of the bands I've worked with, the Fellows never gave me a moment's heartache," says Frontier Records owner Lisa Fancher. "They were kind to everyone; they showed up where and when they were supposed to, and they never complained about anything -- ever. I highly resent the fact that the less excellent versions of the Fellows -- like They Might Be Giants and the Branched Ladies -- became rich, and they didn't. Then again, things that make me angry only make Scott laugh -- one more reason why he rules."
Fortunately, this Rodney Dangerfield of rock bands is getting another shot outside of Seattle and Spain with the release of Because We Hate You -- which is packaged as a goofy "Battle of the Bands" double album with a second disc, Let the War Against Music Begin, by the Minus 5. The brain child of Mammoth Records' new president, former Hollywood Records A&R honcho Rob Seidenberg, the two discs deserve a Consumer Guide award for providing so much great pop material at such a bargain price. It's undoubtedly Minus 5's disc -- which McCaughey describes as "way more poppy and not quite as slow and weird" as the previous Minus 5 albums -- that will get the most attention, because of the presence of Buck and other special guests like Robyn Hitchcock, various Posies, and High Llama Sean O'Hagan. But make no mistake about it: From the Beach Boys/Beatle-isms on "Barky's Spiritual Store" and the glorious "Little Bell" to the hard-rockin' interpretation of Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart's bubblegum classic "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight" (complete with the asides of "Ah, c'mon now!!"), the '60s-style epic "The Ballad of Only You and the Can Present Forest Fires" and the psychedelic splendor of "Lonely Spartanburg Flower Stall" (which merges Little Richard's "Lucille" with the Only Ones), the Fellows' album is also a big gem in this double-sided pop crown. In its own way, it's every bit as good as -- if not better than -- This One's for the Ladies.
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Though the Fellows have created a candidate for best pop album of 2001, don't expect to see them on MTV anytime soon. "I could show you our tax returns for the Fellows for the last five years, and it's not enough income to support one of us, much less four of us," McCaughey says. He also admits that the Fellows could be like that other bar band Westerberg once compared them to -- playing legitimate rock 'n' roll well into their 50s. "Like I said, we're too lame and wishy-washy to break up, so I think we'll just always do stuff when it seems like a fun thing to do -- and when we can all swing it."
Naturally, the times when they can all swing it have become fewer over the years. "It does get harder and harder," McCaughey observes. "Because now [bassist] Jim [Sangster] and his wife just had a baby, so it's not a great time for him to be footloose and fancy free. None of us are footloose and fancy free anymore. We're all 40 -- or more, in my case -- and, you know, we have certain responsibilities.
"Amazingly, none of us actually have jobs," he says with another hearty laugh. "Which is either really admirable or really embarrassing."