Forget that their debut record sold two million copies. Forget the travesty of Mariah Carey beating them out of the Grammy for Best New Act. Forget even that this band's "It's only rock 'n' roll" attitude and catchy songwriting make it a meaty musical antidote to the weak, Axl Rose ain't-I-a-star? histrionics that are the point of most of today's Deep Purple derivatives.
The juiciest Black Crowes story, the one that made the cover of Rolling Stone last month, is how they were dumped from the recent ZZ Top tour. The dispute began when Bill Ham, ZZ Top's manager and director of that band's Lone Wolf Productions, and officials from the tour's co-sponsor Miller Lite formed a tight-assed cabal and tried to limit what the Crowes could say onstage. After repeatedly warning the group about banter that was supposedly bad for business, Ham and Miller Lite unceremoniously kicked the unruly boids off the band's first major-arena tour. Worst of all, the end came in the middle of a three-night stand in the Crowes' hometown of Atlanta. But the Crowes' getting booted off the tour is more than the familiar tale of how a collection of immature, overinflated rock 'n' roll egos blew it for themselves. What happened on the ZZ Top tour has shed overdue light on a new rock phenomenon: corporate sponsorship of rock 'n' roll and what the gray suits want for their money. "It started out with small things," says Crowes drummer Steve Gorman in a recent interview. "Like, the word came down that we weren't allowed to take any non-Miller products out of the dressing room. Okay, I can pour my beer in a cup."
As the tour rolled on, however, the relationship between the Crowes, Miller Lite, and Ham got worse. The band's vocalist and semicivilized mass of kinetic energy, Chris Robinson, exacerbated the situation with a nightly stage monologue extolling the virtues of live rock 'n' roll versus videos sandwiched between commercials. Just the mention of the word "commercials" made Miller Lite twitch. The company asked Robinson to stop.
Blessed with Zorro's taste in clothes, a gloriously tight butt and the kind of shoot-from-the-lip style that helped land James Brown in the joint, Robinson continued his nightly spiel. By the time the tour reached Atlanta, Miller Lite's yeasty paranoia was bubbling over. After the second show at the Omni, Miller Lite and Ham dumped the Crowes.
"Chris wasn't taking a shot at Miller," explains Gorman. "He was talking about us as a band, and the fact that all we can control about this business is our own music. We find the whole thing ironic because initially, we didn't even think about Miller and corporate rock, and now we're symbols of its dark side. Now that it's happened and people are talking, we hope everyone will be aware of what it means to take their money."
Speaking of dark sides, the real question about the Crowes' rude expulsion from this tour is how the members of ZZ Top fit in. How much influence over this decision did Billy Gibbons and company have? And did the members of ZZ Top breathe a sigh of relief when this ambitious young band disappeared and less-ambitious alternatives like Hall Aflame and John Mayall came aboard to finish out the tour? In other words, were the Crowes blowing the tres hombres off the stage? "We were either kicking their ass or boring the crowd to death, depending on your tastes," Gorman says. Fronted by the talented Robinson brothers, Chris and guitarist Rich, the band also includes Gorman, guitarist Jeff Cease and bassist Johnny Colt. "I mean, we don't have cranes in our show. They have cranes, booms, curtains, effects--a big, staged production. Meanwhile we just go out and let 'er rip. "Now, if they played today the way they did fifteen years ago, it would have been a run for the money every night." Getting thrown off the tour hasn't broken the Crowes' hearts. They were too good to play second fiddle to ZZ Top, and are now where they belonged in the first place, headlining a tour. Besides, getting in trouble with Miller Lite gives them the kind of rock 'n' roll outlaw image that sells tickets and pumps up the ego.
Gorman also suggests that the Crowes and ZZ Top, a match that looked like a natural on paper, didn't work onstage. Like ZZ Top, the Crowes is a latter-day sprout of rock 'n' roll with a commitment to its roots. But the band's mentors come from a different generation than those of that little ol' band from Texas. For ZZ Top, "roots" means T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters. By contrast, the Crowes' roots are all touchstones of Seventies protometal guitar rock: Faces, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Humble Pie, and the Rolling Stones. The generation gap proved too much of a clash. The Black Crowes' debut record Shake Your Moneymaker (Def American) is a tough, what-you- see-is-what-you-get collection of power-chord and blues-riff rock that steamrolls you like the second coming of Machine Head.