From Record Collector No 174, February 1994
EVAN DANDO'S PEPPY U.S. PUNK BAND GO BACK A LONG WAY, AS PAT GILBERT DISCOVERS
Last year, the pop world threw up a new icon. He was 26 years old, looked like a teen pin-up and claimed to own little more than a few old clothes, a surfboard and a toothbrush. His favourite historical figure was Charles Manson, and he name-dropped the cult country rocker, Gram Parsons, as if the future of Western civilisation depended on it (which might well be the case). Everything about this man was faintly exciting and exactly right: in fact, Evan Dando, the lynchpin of U.S. pop-punk trio the Lemonheads, blew through the U.K. music scene like a refreshing jet of ocean spray.
The first time most Britons saw Evan was in November 1992, when the Lemonheads performed their cover of Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson" on 'Top Of The Pops'. It wasn't the greatest version - it had been recorded in a couple of takes after a German festival appearance a few weeks earlier, and merely sounded like a poppy hardcore band halfheartedly going through the motions. But though it was a throwaway gesture, "Mrs. Robinson" had enough kitsch appeal to haul the Lemonheads into the public eye, and to whip up interest in their album, "It's A Shame About Ray", which had been issued on Atlantic the previous July. One spin of this LP wooed most critics, who soon recognised it as a lopsided, sun-kissed masterpiece, revealing Evan's (un)healthy interest in mass murderers, mellow punk toons, hanging out and, erm, taking lots of drugs. And, as if to highlight its mix of the strange and the beautiful, it included a version of the oddball ditty, "Frank Mills", culled from the musical, "Hair".
All of a sudden, everybody wanted to know more about the laid-back and good-natured Mr. Dando, and by the dawn of 1993, Evan had become everything he'd always wanted to be - a bona fide pop star. Ben Deily, the group's very first guitarist, comments: "If there was any justice, Evan should have been the one to make it, because he wanted it more than anyone else. It was very important to him, and he just plugged away at it."
Unlike your average pop hopeful, though, Evan had a musical pedigree that was second to none. "It's A Shame About Ray" wasn't a finely-tuned debut, as some observers imagined, but the fifth album from a band that had existed in various forms since 1986. In fact, in U.S. hardcore circles, the Lemonheads had always been recognised as purveyors of grade-A pop-punk, a fact underlined by the asking price for their first EP, "Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners", which even in the pre-fame days had hovered around the £60 mark. In 1994, you'd be lucky to pick up a copy for less than £75...
The Lemonheads' history can be traced back to the early 80s, when two pupils from the Commonwealth, a progressive high school in Boston, Massachusetts, began jamming together on guitar and drums. At that time, Ben Deily, an English Literature buff, and Evan Dando, the son of a successful lawyer and a fashion model, were both heavily into punk bands like Buzzcocks, Black Flag, the Replacements and the Saints, and spent most of their time just kicking up a racket in their bedrooms. However, the limitations of being a two-piece soon became apparent, so in late 1983, the pair enlisted the help of school chum and artist Jesse Peretz, a battle-scarred veteran of the school jazz band.
With Jesse handling the bass duties - rather badly by all accounts - the trio got down to writing a set of trashy hardcore songs, two of which Evan and Ben recorded on the school's four-track in late 1985, as part of a class project. (According to Ben, one number was an early version of "So I Fucked Up", which later appeared on their first EP.) Inspired by the results, the band decided to cut some proper tracks in a local studio, and set the date for a few days after their high school graduation, in the summer of 1986.
With Evan and Ben swapping guitar and drum roles, the trio taped five songs, four of which were warm, raucous originals - Dando's poppy "Mad", "Glad I Don't Know" and "I'd Like To", and Ben's fiery "So I Fucked Up" - while the fifth, "I Am A Rabbit", was a savage cover of a 1978 song by an obscure New Zealand punk band, Proud Scum, which healthily proclaimed, "I am a rabbit, I have to have it!"
Keen to put out the tracks as a single, the Whelps, as they now called themselves, approached a local DJ, Curtis W. Casella. He had formed Taang! Records two years earlier, Specifically to release an EP of rare recordings by a defunct Boston skate-core band called Gang Green ("Sold Out", Taang! 1, 100 copies, clear vinyl). Curtis remembers: "I was doing a radio show at Harvard University in Boston, which the Whelps admired quite a bit. They liked one record I played in particular, 'I Am A Rabbit' by Proud Scum, and ended up recording it. They said that they wanted to put out a single on my label, but I said 'no' because I didn't know if I still had a full-time label going at that time."
However, a few weeks later, Curtis did decide to revive Taang!, though he was still unsure about signing the Whelps. Eventually, he suggested a compromise, offering to include their recording in his first mail-out - if they paid for the manufacture of the single themselves. The band agreed, and Jesse, with the help of a friend, immediately organised a run of 1,000 7" EPs, featuring four of the tracks that they'd recorded earlier that summer. ("Mad" was omitted, but later turned up on the CD version of their third album, "Lick".) The EP was christened "Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners" and, on the suggestion of their friend, Ivan, whose Warhol-esque features grace the cover of "Creator", the trio renamed themselves 'the Lemonheads' after a brand of American sweets (which, incidentally, bear the legend 'Say No! To Drugs'!).
With the trio promoting the single with a handful of live dates at dives like Boston's Rat Club, "Laughing..." quickly sold out. However, the fall was approaching fast, and Ben, Jesse and Evan began to prepare themselves for college, though around this time Evan still found time to pop down to Costa Rica to experiment with cocaine. "Jesse and I went to Harvard," recalls Ben, "and Evan went to Skidmore in New York State. But after three or four months he split - he hadn't been going to classes and was just a bit of a wastrel, so he came back to Boston and got a job working at a tennis club." "I lasted one semester," Evan told the 'NME'. "I got one D minus and four Fs, and spent all my money on drugs. I ended up saying 'fuck this' and drove away in a snowstorm."
Throughout Evan's time at college, the Lemonheads remained fairly active, playing small gigs around Boston, and answering the growing pile of fan letters they were getting from cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco. Curtis was pleased with their progress, and offered to help finance an album, with a view to releasing it through Taang! the following spring. So, in January 1987, with drummer Doug Trachten in tow, the band began recording what would become "Hate Your Friends", finishing it off a few months later as a three-piece. "Doug was one of the most kind-hearted people I've ever met," says Ben. "He was very nice. But, among other things, he had an earring and a mohawk, and at that time Evan and Jesse were into having a restrained appearance. He didn't last long."
When "Hate Your Friends" - which was originally going to be called "Six" - eventually appeared in June 1987, in a range of limited editions, it was instantly hailed as a classic. The urgency of the "Laughing...' EP was still much in evidence, but it was obvious that Evan in particular was embellishing his songs with subtle twists and turns, with harmonies accentuating his nagging melody lines and ringing guitar riffs adding sophistication to their otherwise ragged sound. Several of the tracks, including "Sneakyville" and "Belt", were unremarkable hardcore, but "Don't Tell Yourself', "Second Chance" and "Hate Your Friends" highlighted the pop sensibilities lurking behind the all-out power punk. Ben provided some searing melodies, too, especially on "Uhhh", which owed as much to Stiff Little Fingers as to Black Flag.
Strangely, though, the two best songs from these sessions, "Ever" and "Sad Girl", were shelved, and didn't see the light of day until they surfaced on 1989's "Lick" album. "I don't know why they weren't used," muses Ben. "They were kind of poppy and zappy, but at that time Evan and Jesse didn't like poppy and zappy."
"Hate Your Friends", which featured an old black-and-white photo of Jesse's brother and sister on the cover, sold steadily throughout 1987, and was given an extra boost at the end of the year when the video made for "Second Chance" was screened on American MTV. With Jesse and Ben still at college, the Lemonheads were pretty well tied to Boston, though they did find time to play short tours and one-off gigs in other parts of the States, and to record a version of Big Star's "Mod Lang" for a compilation of Boston punk bands, titled "Crawling From Within". The album is described by Taang!'s Chris Conway as "impossible to find", and even Curtis, who ranks himself among America's Top Five record collectors, can't remember which label put it out. However, as many as 2,000 copies are thought to exist, arguably making it easier to locate than the Lemonheads' rare first EP. Incidentally, the band also donated two already-available tracks to a flexidisc available with the U.S. magazine, 'Flipside'.
In the summer of 1988, the band returned to the studio to record their second LP, "Creator", this time with drummer John Strohm, from Juliana Hatfield's twee pop-punk band, the Blake Babies. During these sessions, the group began exploring a darker, heavier vein, resulting in sumptuous, resonant rock songs like 'Burying Ground" and "Clang Bang Clang (later reworked on "Lovey" as "Left For Dead"). while also tuning into the weird reference points that would enrich their later albums. "Creator" was the first public glimpse of Evan's fixation with Charles Manson, the magnetic late 60s counter-culture figure, jailed in 1970 for his involvement in a string of murders. including the mutilation of Roman Polanski's wife. Sharon Tate (nice bloke, eh?). Complementing a faithful cover of Kiss's "Plaster Caster", Evan took a solo stroll through Manson's "Your Home Is Where Your Happy", a melodic dash of acoustic whimsy which had originally appeared on the hippie guru's "Lie" album, recorded with the help of the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson. What's more, "Clang Bang Clang" was named after the first three lines of the Manson song, "Big Iron Door". In complete contrast, Ben Deily indulged himself by quoting from the mystical American poet Emily Dickinson...
Born out of this maelstrom of ideas, some of which worked, many of which didn't, "Creator" was an early warning sign that all within the Lemonheads was not well. "My stuff, like the jangly love song 'Postcard', was wildly resisted by Jesse and, to a certain extent, Evan," recalls Ben. But though Deily was the odd man out musically, he managed to keep on friendly terms with Evan, who was becoming increasingly frustrated with the band's lack of direction. "In the fall of '88, after 'Creator' came out, Evan started quitting on a regular basis," explains Ben. "Throughout the history of the group, he was never satisfied with someone and was always complaining about them. I may be wrong but I flatter myself for being the only member that Evan didn't want to get out. He was always coming up to me and saying, 'We gotta get rid of that drummer, he sucks', or, 'Jesse's a shitty musician, we gotta get rid of him'."
Tensions eventually reached breaking point on stage at a club in Cambridge, the suburb of Boston near to Harvard. According to one eye witness, Evan was throwing a bigger moody than usual that autumn night, and opted to play the "Sweet Child O' Mine" riff for all his guitar solos. After the gig, no-one said much: as far as everyone was concerned, the Lemonheads were finished.
Following the split, Jesse and Ben buckled down to their college work, while Evan and John Strohm headed off to help out on the Blake Babies' "Slow Learners" album. However, in January 1989, a Dutch booking agency with an interest in U.S. hardcore offered the Lemonheads a European tour, prompting Evan to reform the group - with himself as the drummer. "He thought it was the way to end his malaise," recalls Ben. With the tour confirmed for May, the group decided to record some new material, using four hours of studio time they'd won in a Boston 'Battle Of The Bands' contest the previous fall. Corey Loog Brennan, who'd previously played guitar with an Italian hardcore group called Superfetazione, was called up as second guitarist and, in February. the Lemonheads set to work in earnest.
Unfortunately, those brisk four hours became two long months, as the uninspired four-piece painstakingly tried to piece together a new album. Having quickly completed several impressive pop songs, including the plaintive, jangly "Mallo Cup' (like themselves, named after a brand of American candy), the group were compelled to make up the running time with re-reworkings of "Glad I Don't Know" and "I Am A Rabbit" from the "Laughing..." EP, and pointless covers of Suzanna Vega's "Luka" and Patsy Cline's "Strange". The two brilliant left-overs from the "Hate Your Friends" sessions, "Sad Girl" and "Ever", were also thrown in for good measure, as was "Mad", the debut EP out-take that was the first song the Lemonheads ever recorded.
The resulting album, "Lick", issued in April 1989, was something of a minor triumph. Where "Creator" had failed with its eclecticism, this new work succeeded in its accessibility and levity, and underscored the fact that the Lemonheads still had something to offer. Even so, after several disastrous hometown gigs, during which Evan sang from behind his drum kit, and a three-date tour with Bullet Lavolta, the internal wrangling resumed. With the European tour looming, and their cover of "Luka" ram-raiding the singles chart, Ben quit to concentrate on his studies. "The last time I rehearsed with them we were trying out a drummer for the European tour," Ben recalls. "I can't even remember his name. I think it was Mark."
The departure of Deily marked the end of the first phase of the Lemonheads' career. Up until that point, the group had been a two-headed beast and, like many such monsters, was devastating when the two brains worked in tandem but confused and self-defeating when they didn't. True, most of the songwriting had been done by Evan, yet Ben's imaginative guitaring and forthright pop tunes had lent the band a robust, no-nonsense dimension. In fact, Deily's "Ever" and "Uhhh" rank among the early Lemonheads' finest moments, and illustrate why his new group, Pods - who issued their debut EP, "It's A Bummer For Bourbie" (Stone Records, 1,000 only), last year - are beginning to make ripples Stateside.
In retrospect, though, it was undoubtedly Deily's exit that allowed Evan to develop as a songwriter and the Lemonheads to become a worldwide success. With Evan's penchant for cover versions, a myth has grown up that the post-Deily Lemonheads have become nothing more than a vehicle to bear the excess luggage of Evan's self-indulgent journey into the coolest bits of rock history. Yet this evidently isn't the case: Dando merely choses to wear his influences with pride, a trait stemming from the same musical largesse that compelled him to celebrate the brilliance of Proud Scum, and to expose the talents of Robyn St. Claire, who originally penned the Lemonheads' "Into Your Arms" hit for her Australian band, Godstar.
Since Deily left, Evan's free spirit has been allowed to roam, and through his personal obsessions with Charles Manson, his recreational drug use and his un-self-conscious desire to align himself with good music (he's played bass and drums on records by the Blake Babies, Smudge, Godstar and Speed Niggs), he's been able to nurture his own artistic greatness. And for that we should be thankful.
The European jaunt of 1989 - during which the band recorded a BBC John Peel Session ("Clang Bang Clang", "Circle Of One", "The Door", "Mallo Cup") - proved to be a success, and on their return to America, the Lemonheads embarked on another short tour. "Their drummer jumped ship, though," laughs Ben. "They were on the road at the time, and they'd just received a huge royalty cheque, so they felt obliged to spend my share on flying a new drummer to L.A. from Boston! They said, 'We'll pay you back!' They did, eventually, but I had to hire a lawyer."
After the U.S. tour, Evan began searching for a major record deal and, after much wrangling, the Lemonheads, who'd recently recruited ex-Bostonian pastry baker David Ryan to fill the empty drum stool, signed to Atlantic in the late spring of 1990. The deal had been secured chiefly on the strength of the band's cover of ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith's "Different Drum", which was set to appear in the U.K. through Fire's Roughneck subsidiary. In fact, Atlantic rush-released the track in America on a five-song CD, "Favourite Spanish Dishes" (named after the book appearing on the sleeve, designed, like all the band's covers, by Jesse), which also featured versions of New Kids On The Block's "Step By Step" and the Misfits' "Skulls".
Around this time, the Lemonheads covered "Hey Joe" for an EP given away with German magazine 'Goar', which also included a 45 second Dando original, "Society", together with versions of Manson's "Your Home Is Where You're Happy" and Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere", recorded with the Speed Niggs.
In the early summer, the Lemonheads began work on their Atlantic debut album, "Lovey", with all-rounder Evan recording many tracks single-handedly. The result was a meaty, chiming rock album, lent much-needed texture by a faithful cover of Gram Parson's "Brass Buttons", the sub-metal "Year Of The Cat", the melodic, easeful country rock of "Half The Time" and the plaintive "Stove", written about Evan's experiences trying to sell a cooker(!). Old collaborators Juliana Hatfield and Corey Loog Brennan were called upon to provide backing vocals and guitars respectively, while Boston actress Polly Noonan featured on the weird answerphone message that rounds off the proceedings.
Throughout the recording, Jesse was preoccupied with his film degree and, following his graduation in July, he quit the band - in Leeds, in fact, during a short British tour. With no group to promote it, "Lovey" died a death, and Atlantic wondered whether they'd lumbered themselves with a real turkey. "They were gonna drop the band, because it only sold 11,000 copies," rues Curtis from Taang!. "By then, 'Lick' had sold 30,000, and they couldn't understand why an indie could sell so much more than a major. Only one person, Tom Caroline, wanted to hold onto the band. They'll never let them go now."
A U.S. tour followed, before Evan and David headed out to Australia in early 1991 for a brief string of dates, which was promoted with a limited edition yellow vinyl 7", kicking off with the track "Hate Your Friends". In many ways, this trip to Australia was the most important event in Evan's career. Within a few weeks of his arrival, he had teamed with local Sydney band the Hummingbirds, who featured Nic Dalton on guitar, the owner of a label and record store called Half A Cow. During his lengthy sojourn, Evan ran into many of the characters who would influence, and 'star' in, the "It's A Shame About Ray" album. Tom Morgan, who then played in Half A Cow band Sneeze, and who now strums away in Smudge, co-wrote several of the songs on the LP, including the title track, in which 'Ray' - the name Australian surfers use to address strangers - is meant to represent an Everyman figure; Alison Galloway, the drummer in Smudge, was the inspiration for "Alison's Starting To Happen" ("you're the puzzle-piece behind the couch that makes the sky complete"); and Tom Morgan's room-mate, Nicole, was the girl in my "My Drug Buddy", a beautiful, somnambulistic ode about a narcotic-fuelled midnight walk down to the river. It didn't end there, either: Milo, the baby of Robyn St. Claire - the bassist in the Hummingbirds, for whom Nic was filling in while she was pregnant, and who also wrote "Into Your Arms" - was the subject of the breezy "Rockin' Stroll".
When Evan settled back in Boston in late 1991, many of the Aussie brigade followed him and, in early 1992, Nic Dalton was recruited as bassist for a Lemonheads spring tour. After these dates, Evan, David and Juliana Hatfield began work on "It's A Shame About Ray", which appeared in July. At first, the record got a lukewarm reception, but as more people cottoned on to its sublime mix of styles - pop-punk, country, acoustic folk - and began exploring its network of references and codes (for instance, the backing vocals on the track "It's Shame About Ray" namedropped Shorty Shea, one of Charles Manson's alleged victims, while cover model Polly Noonan screamed the spoken intro to the snappy "Bit Part"), word of its rich, melodic brilliance spread.
To promote the album in the U.K., Warners issued a version of Patience And Prudence's "Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now" (not on the LP), which sank without a trace, as did the four-format follow-up, "It's A Shame About Ray" itself. However, the next release, "Mrs. Robinson", recorded to draw attention to the home video release of the 'The Graduate' in the States, and the first Lemonheads record to feature Nic Dalton on bass, hit home all over the world. The band, and especially Evan, became overnight stars.
In the early months of 1993, Atlantic lifted the poppy "Confetti" and "Shame About Ray" as singles, while Evan, Nic and David, with the help of Tom Morgan, Juliana Hatfield, funketeer Rick James and Belinda Carlisle, started work on a new album, "Come On Feel The Lemonheads". Sadly, the pressure on Dando to come up with a worthy follow-up to "Ray" took its toll, and his consequent abuse of crack-cocaine meant that the recording of the vocals had to be delayed. Nevertheless, it was worth the wait as "Come On..." proved to be a beautifully flawed gem, with Dando embracing a range of musics, including country ("Big Gay Heart"), whimsical pop ("It's About Time"), punky thrash ("Style") and boistrous indie ("Into Your Arms"), with consummate ease. And, as if to articulate Dando's fractured mental state, the latter half of the album was splintered by long silences and studio tomfoolery, before being closed by a heartfelt version of Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets". With "Into Your Arms" and "It's About Time" providing the band with two more hits at the end of 1993, and with Dando pledging to clean up his act, the future looks bright for the Lemonheads. Evan evidently has the ability to write interesting and innovative pop songs and, if the pressures of the music biz don't destroy him, and his own penchant for substance abuse can be tempered, then no doubt his status as an icon will be sustained for a long time yet.
Special thanks to Curtis Casella, Ben Deily, Mary Ellen at Taang!, Tony at east west, Dave at Plastic Head, Sean at Vinyl Solution, the ever wonderful Richard Kilby, and Dave Wilson for help with illustrations and prices.