On its records, Too Much Joy sounds like your average Nineties punk/pop band: jangly guitars, power drumming and lyrics about the painful intricacies of love in the last decade of the century.
The group's history as a live act, however, reads like a police blotter. In 1990 alone, the members of Too Much Joy got into fights with two other bands, Wonderstuff and the Darling Buds; were arrested on obscenity charges in Broward County, Florida, for playing 2 Live Crew songs; and were sued by the creator of Bozo the Clown.
Living a rowdy, devil-may-care rock 'n' roll lifestyle is one thing, but these guys are contenders for "Street Fighting Man" of the year. Do they want to play music or be cartoon characters?
"We're not out to get in fights with the whole world," guitarist Jay Blumenfield says by telephone from his hotel room in Lawrence, Kansas. "We're just sick of watching people who say one thing and sit back and do another. We're trying hard not to be hypocrites."
Last year, in addition to appearing in court, Too Much Joy also signed with Irving Azoff's new Giant label and recorded its first major-label record Cereal Killers. A tight, fourteen-song collection of angry-young-man power-pop that has appealing flashes of the Clash and Gang of Four in it, Killers is a record to be proud of. But the screaming headlines about the group's slugfests and legal problems have overshadowed its musical talent. The year began with a lawsuit filed by Bozo the Clown's creator Larry Harmon. Harmon got peeved when the boys used a sample of Bozo's voice to open their semiobscene tune "Clowns." After a few legal volleys were exchanged, the band agreed to remove the sample from the record and pay Harmon $200.
"It was our confirmation that art really does imitate life," Blumenfield says. "I mean, we write a song about evil clowns and an evil clown calls us up and sues us. What could be more perfect? The best part was that Bozo's evil-clown lawyers had little Bozo heads on their stationery."
Then, after spending the spring touring, the band headed to Florida for a show at a club called Futura. There, while the legal obscenity case against 2 Live Crew was still pending, Too Much Joy got up and courted arrest itself in support of the rap group. The band belted out its renditions of 2 Live Crew no-nos like "Me So Horny" and "If You Believe in Having Sex." Predictably, the set was interrupted by sheriff's deputies who hauled the band off for an up-close-and-personal night in a Florida jail. Freed on bail, the band returned to Broward County in January 1991 for its trial. A jury of six spent less than fifteen minutes before acquitting Too Much Joy on all charges, as 2 Live Crew had earlier been cleared. The jury also blasted the prosecution for attempting to violate the First Amendment--the basis of the band's defense--and for wasting taxpayers' time and money on frivolous cases. The verdict came down on the same day that the air war in the Persian Gulf began, however, so the members of Too Much Joy never got the headlines they thought they deserved.
"Despite the war, we feel like the trial exposed the complete ludicrousness, the absurdity of what's going on with music in Florida," Blumenfield says. "It made a lot of people down there feel really stupid and that's what we set out to do."
Their legal hassles strike many of the band's detractors as the grandstanding of a bunch of spoiled rich kids. Growing up in the privileged confines of Scarsdale, New York, it's true that Blumenfield, drummer Tommy Vinton, bassist Sandy Smallens and vocalist Tim Quirk have rarely had to wonder where their next slice of pate was coming from. Starting out as the Rave, the band spent time under the handle Ton Tons Macoute before settling on Too Much Joy. The latter name is a reference to the African drummers known as "joy boys."
After all four members graduated from college in 1987, Too Much Joy got serious about touring. That exposure won the band a deal with Alias Records, and its debut disc Son of Sam I Am was released in the summer of 1988. Successful tours opening for established acts like the Mekons, Mojo Nixon, and Love Tractor brought the group to the attention of Azoff and Giant Records.
Considering its members' topsy-turvy lifestyle, it's not a big surprise that the band's relationship with Giant is the opposite of what most alternative bands encounter at major labels.
"Unlike most record-label stories, where the label wants the band to smooth it out and try to make a hit single, Giant keeps telling us to keep it rough, keep it rockin'," Blumenfield says. "They're afraid we're going to go too pop.
"But to us, `pop band' is not a dirty word. If you can have a Top Ten hit on your own terms, then I'd say you've got it all." Because of its growing success, the band's days as an opening act may be nearly over. So may the members' days as pugilists. But the members of Too Much Joy think their scrapes have taught them some valuable lessons. They feel like they're maturing.
"We don't play noisy, stupid music because ten of our friends think it's cool. And we don't get in fights because it will give us a wild image. A lot of it comes down to how we were treated as people. Even if you're Madonna, you have to treat people with respect. "Looking back, I guess some of the things we did weren't real smart. But when we feel justice is not being served . . . we act."
Too Much Joy will perform with Royal Crescent Mob at Chuy's on Saturday, June 22. Showtime is 8:30 p.m.
The group's history as a live act reads like a police blotter.
The year began with a lawsuit filed by Bozo the Clown's creator Larry Harmon.
The set was interrupted by sheriff's deputies who hauled the band off for an up-close-and-personal night in a Florida jail. "I guess some of the things we did weren't real smart. But when we feel justice is not being served . . . we act.