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Young Fresh Fellows on the outer limits of rock 'n' roll foolishness


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At some point we all stopped caring about the rockin' enchilada that makes the best eating in rock 'n' roll--good drumming, killer guitar riffing, shimmery melodies, hooks galore. These things were all just stock-in-trade for some bands, bands like the Beatles, the Kinks, the Hollies, the Rolling Stones. There are still groups like that out there, but the music business has evolved so that we don't hear them in the same way--sure people listen to a lot of classic rock, but the way we hear pop music has grown more sophisticated and demanding with the times. When we stopped caring is open to debate, but I think it came around 1970. Before that, if you could transfer a slice of the rock 'n' roll zeitgeist onto a pop tune, you could rule the world; after that, you could be, say, the Flamin Groovies, and write songs as good as the Beatles, and look forward to an unmarked grave.

Now everything's synthesized or sampled or brightened or given that studio sheen, and the old stuff--or new stuff modeled out of the same clay as the old--sounds a little dusty. Now, this is progress, and that's just fine--the more machines the better, say I, and now that a lot of bands are doing great using drum machines instead of a drummer I look forward to the time we can do away with certain lead singers. But at the same time we should have respect and even love for those who still till the fields of authenticity, for the bands who count out time in 4/4 instead of beats per minute, who don't traffic in power ballads, and who think that a good song needs about five hooks, a point, and a couple of jokes to be worth playing--or, more to the point, recording.

The greatest of these bands is the Young Fresh Fellows, a four-man bunch of pop demigods from Seattle. In two shows last weekend--a scheduled Saturday concert at Lounge Ax with Texas fireburner guitarist Evan Johns, and an unadvertised free-for-all the next night with local pals the New Duncan Imperials--the band did what it does best. It doesn't lay claim to rock immortality and it doesn't do anything profound, in the normal sense of the word. But listen: The show Saturday started out uneven, a little unjelled. But two hours later a sweaty and entirely awed crowd watched guitarist Kurt Bloch hook his legs into a hole in the ceiling and trade guitar riffs--good riffs, hanging upside down--with slippery-fingered Evan Johns, who'd jumped up onstage for the encore. Lead Fellow Scott McCaughey, meanwhile, ran over and dumped a bottle of beer down the front of Bloch's (upside-down) shirt, letting it run down his chest to splash out over his chin. A few minutes later, the show closed down with a full-scale rendition of "There's a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)," done almost straight except that McCaughey's eyes had rolled back into his head. I thought I was gonna die.

The Young Fresh Fellows are at once the court jesters and kindly paters of the Seattle music scene; though somewhat overshadowed now by the mildly interesting but much less diverting Sub Pop crowd--which tends toward the monster guitar rock of Soundgarden--the Fellows and their record company, Popllama records, owned by the Fellows' longtime producer, Conrad Uno, have produced a lot more compelling material over the years. A recent story in Rolling Stone described the Fellows as "extremely talented and extremely unfocused," which may be true but kinda misses the point. The Fellows really honestly believe that their job is to write good songs and make good records and put on spectacular live shows. That's what they're focused on. That's what they think all rock bands should do. They're not so much subscribers to the indie ethic of indifference to major-label success as personifiers of it. The band, but McCaughey particularly I think, understands that major record companies are somewhat extraneous to what a lot of groups, including the Fellows, do. This doesn't mean that big record companies are necessarily bad, or that the Fellows, after six or seven years of sleeping on couches, might not like success; it's just that they never lose sight of the fact that that's all secondary.

McCaughey, who writes a lot, but not all, of the band's material, is a strange guy: he must be approaching 40, and I haven't the faintest idea what he did before the Fellows, but with a friend named Chuck Carroll he moved to Seattle in 1980, looking for a good place to start a rock 'n' roll magazine. They liked Seattle, and decided to stay even after they found out there was already one there. (The Rocket, for which members of the band write or take photos.) Drummer Tad Hutchison is Chuck Carroll's cousin, and was once in the Des Moines band the Law, which, after he left, turned into Scruffy the Cat. (Scruffy recently broke up, and lead singer Charles Chesterman is currently working on an album with the Fellows in Seattle.) Later Hutchison turned up in Colorado with bassist Jim Sangster in a band called Fun at the Zoo. Carroll and McCaughey, quickly perceiving that they had in their reach one of the finest rhythm sections in America, hauled Hutchison and Sangster out to Seattle, and the Young Fresh Fellows came to be.

The band's first two albums, on Popllama, Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest and Topsy Turvy, are intermittently funny ("Rock 'n' Roll Pest Control," "The New John Agar"), efficiently constructed examples of light-intentioned Amerindie rock 'n' roll exposition. But The Men Who Loved Music (1987), the band's first through a slightly larger label, LA's Frontier, is one of the signal indie albums of the 80s and one of the most elegantly distilled examples of half-serious rock 'n' roll classicism of all time. If on the earlier records nice ideas and nice melodies only occasionally come together in the same song ("Young Fresh Fellows Theme," notably), The Men Who Loved Music is fabulously consistent. It's not really about anything, and it's not necessarily well structured or even entirely coherent. But it is a testament to the concept that a rock band should be good-humored and fun. By the end of it, you're so caught up in the Fellows' discursive and textured and (always) tightly wound world that it's almost moving. This is one of the greatest records I've ever heard, you think to yourself, and these guys probably still have day jobs. Maybe half of the record's 14 songs are just classic, from the propulsive arrangement and stellar first line of "When the Girls Get Here" ("We'll talk about integrated circuits and things") to "Amy Grant" and its startling revelation of its Christian-pop-star subject's nighttime fantasies (Barry White). "Hank, Karen and Elvis" is a song that's often misinterpreted as being about how depressing it is to see behind your heroes' facades (the title subjects are Williams, Carpenter, and Presley); it's actually about how funny it is that people get depressed about such things at all. "My Friend Ringo" (written by Scruffy's Chesterman) is an amazing song about feeling like a schlemiel but being able to identify with Ringo, fabulously arranged and performed; and "Where the Hell Did They Go?" is a raging and (again) funny song about being sad about the deaths of John Lennon and D. Boon.

That record was followed by Totally Lost, a slightly less wild and much more serious offering that didn't have much of a spark. (Though if you're really into the Fellows, it's worth finding the CD-only track from it [there's a different LP-only track], "World Tour 88," which is about the Fellows but not written or performed by them.) This One's for the Ladies, the band's last album (released toward the end of last year), is a nice return to form. There's no problem with McCaughey's wanting to get out of his novelty niche; the only problem is coming up with nonnovelty songs as good as the novelty songs. On this record the band does. It starts out with the title tune, a pretty funny heavy-metal goof. Then follows an urgently melodic statement of intent, scintillatingly written by new guitarist Kurt Bloch (Bloch played in another Seattle band, Fastbacks; Carroll had gotten sick of touring). "Still There's Hope" is a poignant meditation on throwing in the towel on rock 'n' roll: "I think it might be time / To give it up, shut it off," sings McCaughey. But the band searingly contradicts him, Hutchison's drums and Bloch's outraged guitar nearly bursting out of the speakers.

"Carrothead" has a huge melody and a rollicking, lilting guitar line by Bloch; lyrically, it's a typically dissociative McCaughey number that seems to be about various aspects of the environment (waterfalls, trees) attacking him; fortunately he's able to take refuge with the title character, who is apparently a girl. "Middleman of Time," a slightly oblique but warm tribute to the Beatles, is a riveting, propulsive song driven by a slew of guitars. There's a nice faux country number, "Deep Down and Inbetween"; a Bloch tribute to "Telstar," "Lost Track of Time"; and an absolutely killer cover of Ray Davies's "Picture Book." The record is a striking reassertion of the group's abilities.

Since This One's for the Ladies, the group has been goofing off. McCaughey recorded a nice solo record, My Chartreuse Opinion, nicely timed to interfere with Ladies's release. The Fellows put out a two-song single with Scruffy the Cat earlier this year, their contribution being "My Boyfriend Is in Killdozer," and are planning the release of no less than six other singles in the next few months, one of them on Chicago's own Pravda. The shows in Chicago were a one-shot; the band will probably go on tour again later in the fall.

The show Saturday began with "Amy Grant," a funked-up crowd pleaser ("She comes home from work / And takes off her pants / That's what I like / About Amy Grant"), and continued with "Taco Wagon," the mostly instrumental workout that leads off the second side of Ladies, and a concussive "Picture Book." On a good night--which is what, after some initial discomfort, this one became--the Young Fresh Fellows are a sight to see. It was the first time new guitarist Bloch had played in Chicago, and the new lineup worked very well. Bloch, shaggy-haired and wiry, rampaged from one side of the stage to another; Sangster bounced enthusiastically, and McCaughey, with his vaguely Ian Hunter-esque mane of curly locks and omnipresent sunglasses, was soon screaming into the microphone and bashing away at his guitar.

What cements the group, however, is the drumming of Hutchison, the most spectacular drummer I've ever seen; all jerks and flailing arms and legs, he looks like he's playing drums and trying to get out of a straitjacket at the same time. His appearance is usually pretty outlandish--when the band opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers last year, he wore a rather disturbing Mr. T mask for most of the show. Generally he wears a football helmet, to protect himself from a unique feature of his drum set--a seven-foot-tall bamboo pole with a wok and a cymbal tied to it. Whenever Hutchison hits either, the pole flops back and forth wildly (and dangerously). Over the two nights, however, he was fairly low-key, sartorially speaking, sporting a brilliant lime green suit and brilliant red tie both nights (though he came onstage Sunday wearing a cascading wig of shiny tinsel). He flails away at his set, looking sometimes like he's juggling, other times like someone just dumped a hot plate of soup down his back; his style is all rolls and fills and machine-gun-like fillips. (He's a worthy successor to Seattle's Gary Abbott, the one-man demolition squad who drummed on the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie.") Occasionally, Hutchison ends up standing on top of the drums themselves, still smashing away. This isn't always smart: you could see a series of scars down one side of his face; a few weeks before, the standing-on-the-drums trick went awry and pitched him forward onto one of his cymbal stands and down onto the floor; he got two black eyes, seven stitches, and blood all over the place.

Sangster's bass is wrapped up intimately with Hutchison's drumming (they've been playing together for a decade); when they're really together, and Bloch and McCaughey are into it, you get swept up along with the band to the outer limits of rock 'n' roll foolishness. And foolishness it was: besides the band's own immortal songs--everything from "Rock 'n' Roll Pest Control" to an unnamed song from the band's official bootleg album (Beans and Intolerance, attributed to 3 French Fellows 3) with the chorus line "I wanna die in a women's prison"--the group essayed about a dozen covers. Beginning with a short swing at Bread's "If," they also did full-fledged versions of "76 Trombones," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" (sung by Hutchison, with the words changed from "What do you get when you fall in love?" to "What do you get when you kill yourself?"), "My Sweet Lord," the theme from Sesame Street, various songs by NRBQ, "Hang On Sloopy," "Burning Love," and, finally, the cathartic and rather disturbing "There's a Kind of Hush."

The hanging from the ceiling incident came during the NRBQ's "Ain't It All Right?" This was another dumb move--the reason this was only Bloch's first visit to Chicago with the Fellows was that during the 1989 tour he collided with Sangster and nearly fractured his arm; a few nights later the arm ended up on the bottom of an onstage pileup and was severely broken. Of course, putting Evan Johns, a hellion in his own right, onstage with the Fellows was just asking for trouble; during all of it, Johns just grinned wickedly and kept up his lightning-fast runs. It was almost frightening to watch Bloch bash away upside down--you felt sure he was going to slip and break his neck any minute. But Bloch kept up with Johns all the way, and McCaughey finally took pity on him and lifted him down. Drunken carousing in Chicago is fast becoming a Young Fresh Fellows tradition. Last year, after the Chili Peppers show at the Riviera, they ended up at Lounge Ax quite late, only to find the Insiders playing. Chasing the localites off the stage, they played dumb covers until McCaughey passed out in a heap on the floor.

Sunday night was much looser and less spectacular. The band vowed not to play anything they'd played the night before, and kept their promise, playing other Fellows hits (a perfect "Carrothead," and a cheerful plea for endorsement bucks, "Beer Money"), a Johnny Kidd and the Pirates song, "Restless" (some of the Fellows, in the guise of the Mighty Squirrels, recorded a tribute album to Kidd a few years back), and treating the audience to the sort of entertaining disarray you'd expect at an off-night show. Particularly notable was an extended version of Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl," the melody of which the band seemed to keep mixing up with James Taylor's version of "Handy Man." Hutchison sang, inserting absurdist lyrics ("July--Did July to me?") and bits of conversation ("Hey--Why was the Calendar Girl depressed? 'Cause her days were numbered! Get it? Days were numbered?")

It all sounds self-indulgent and rude, but the Fellows are so winning onstage, and seem so anxious to please, that the audience forgives them their sloppiness and claps anyway. On Sunday, McCaughey, wearing a huge felt cowboy hat, opened solo, strumming a guitar and singing "The Back Room of the Bar." (Various members of the group, still wandering around the club, looked up disconcertedly and headed for the stage.) Once assembled, they broke into "Still There's Hope," Bloch's reflective ode to giving up and selling out. "I might get sold on cashing in," sang McCaughey in the song's quiet chorus, but on the verses, with Bloch boiling behind him and Sangster and Hutchison driving the band, he sang a different, um, tune: "I do all that I can / It isn't much, it's not enough / But it will just have to do." It's enough for me, and probably you, too; but can the Fellows find happiness and support in a world that might not appreciate their particular brand of youth, freshness, or fellowship? We can only watch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.


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