SO, HOW COME YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF REDD KROSS?
Redd Kross is the coolest band in the world!” proclaims Weiland, lead singer of grunge superstars Stone Temple Pilots. Unfortunately, that’s the problem. To be labeled cool in rock-as the Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu, the Mekons, and countless other legendarily cool bands will tell you-can be the kiss of death. That quality doesn’t often translate into the six-figure sales that major labels expect. But what makes the Redd Kross story particularly frustrating to their fervent fans (whose ranks include Paul Westerberg, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and actress Christina Applegate) is that, with their retro cute looks and relentlessly melodic, radio-friendly sound, they were born to be modern-rock gods.”(Redd Kross) are definitely one of the most important bands in America,” says Sonic Youth front man Thurston Moore, whose taped interview with the group will accompany several thousand copies of Redd Kross’ highly praised new album, Phaseshifter (Mercury).”It’s infuriating… because you just know they would really thrive in the mainstream.” The tale of Redd Kross is about as Partridge Family as punk gets. Brothers Steven and Jeff McDonald-26 and 30 respectively-spawned the band’s hair- thrashing harmonic rock in their family’s garage 15 years ago. Reared in the L.A. suburb of Hawthorne,Calif.(also, auspiciously enough, birthplace of the Beach Boys), the McDonalds hadn’t even sprouted peach fuzz when punk rolled around in 1978. But what they lacked in facial hair they make up for in precociousness: By the ages of 11 and 14, Steve and Jeff were accomplished club rats, wheedling regular rides from their parents to local Black Flag and X shows. Stoked by these punk pioneers, they formed a band, recruiting a drummer from Steve’s junior high orchestra, and a more reluctant guitarist in Jeff’s high school photography class. ”He didn’t know if he wanted to be in a band with an 11-year-old,” explains singer-guitarist Jeff (Steve plays bass and sings). Fast-forward to 1982: Redd Kross has changed its lineup and released an EP, several singles, and a full-length LP, Born Innocent. But despite heavy hype from well-known L.A. radio deejay Rodney Bingenheimer, the brothers’ hopes for national recognition have been detoured by their own particular roadblock. ”We never toured,” says Steve, who was then 14.”Our parents wouldn’t allow it.” Their follow-up EP, Teen Babes From Monsanto (campy covers of songs by such acts as the Stooges and The Rolling Stones) fared better; finally legal, the brothers hit the road with an act that gloried in the bouncier detritus of ’79s pop culture (bell-bottoms, Kiss songs, lyrics about Linda Blair). That bizarre and sophisticated humor-so at odds with the then unsmiling, buzz-cut hardcore scene-earned the band a cachet among its peers that peaked with 1987’s metapsychedelic Neurotica, the first Redd Kross album distributed by a major label (Big Time, through RCA). ”Neurotica was a life changer for me and for a lot of people in the Seattle music community,” says Jonathan Poneman, cofounder of the influential Sub Pop label. ”For (a band ) to embrace something so unapolegetically crass and packaged-there was something really punk about doing that then.” But with soap-opera synchronicity, just when Redd Kross’ credibillity seemed about to translate into commercial recognition, Big Time folded, trapping the group in contractual limbo for two years and threatening to destroy its musical clout. ”Bands do not have that kind of authority very long, and once you lose it, it’s hard to regain it, ” says Poneman. Enter Atlantic Records. In 1989 the label decided to explore the alternative market and signed Redd Kross to a one-album deal. ”The label was completely and totally dedicated to breaking this band,” says Regina Joskow, Redd Kross’ publicist at the time, now with Mercury’s parent company, PolyGram. According to Joskow, Atlantic shelled out approximately $200,00 for an album (1989’s heavily produced Third Eye), $80,000 for a video , and more than $100,000 on tour support-the kind of bucks usually reserved for more predictable moneymakers. When the record stiffed, selling about 40,000 copies, no one was more shocked than Joskow.”I couldn’t figure out what went wrong,” she says, concluding now that ”it was bad timing. Kross’ skewed pop sound was not what people wanted at that point.” Steve calls it the Redd Kross curse: ”We’ve always been ahead of our time. We make records, and five years later another band has success with the sound we’d already done.” What the public wanted in ’89 was the more abrasive edge of Nirvana, a band with whom, ironically, Redd Kross shared manager John Silva. ”That was the first time that I felt jealousy,” admits Jeff. ”We couldn’t get John on the phone, and it does mess up you head, the competition thing.” The chart-topping success of Nirvana’s Nevermind-and later that of Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten-irrevocably altered the rules for underground crossover.”Any alternative band that exists on a major label now has to compete with the Billboard top 10,” claims Sonic Youth’s Moore. ”That’s a scary thing for bands that come out of the real punk-rock underground.” For Redd Kross, that means that Phaseshifter-which Weiland calls ”the best album of the year”-must battle a fall release slate already clogged with massive records from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins. To sell this unconventional band (which now includes keyboardist Gere Fennelly, drummer Eddie Kudziel, and guitartist Brian Reitzell), Mercury is sticking with a traditional strategy: a video for the first single, ”Jimmy’s Fantasy,” on MTV;s 120 Minutes; radio play on college and commercial alternative stations; a current tour opening for the Lemonheads, to be followed by an aggressive push for album-rock play in 1994; and a possible summer tour with Stone Temple Pilots. In fact, the recent phenomenon of newer acts’ turning the spotlight on their forebears-Nirvana’s doing Unplugged with the Meat Puppets or Pearl Jam’s touring with Butthole Surfers-could be what gets Redd Kross over. ”They’re liked by so many bands who have started later on, and who are not reluctant to be vocal about that,” points out Bas Hartong,Mercury’s senior VP of international A&R. Sub Pop’s Poneman, though, thinks superstardom is unlikely. ”If people feel like they’ve heard about you, if you’re tainted by time, making the big breakout becomes harder,”he says. Even Mercury’s Hartong admits:”We definitely have to get beyond this ‘Kross is cool’ vibe.” That prospect doesn’t faze the eternally optimistic McDonalds.”I saw Kurt Cobain talking about how he was terrified of losing those 2,000 people in the world whom he considered to be his ‘cool’ audience,” says Jeff, ” and he came to the conclusion that he didn’t give a s — -.” Adds Steve, ”Any fan of ours is already cool.”*