This week’s recommendations are fitting for a cool evening in October: first we have a tribute to a late member of a punk band that never quite got its due followed by a trio of country-inspired picks: be they psychobilly, rockabilly, a traditional story-style song, or a haunting example of close harmony. Plus, a special treat at the end for you ’90s rockers. Enjoy, creeps!
NAKED RAYGUN, JETTISON
In the fall semester of 1998, I had my first-ever DJ shift at KJHK 90.7, the student-run radio station at the University of Kansas. It was Wednesday mornings from 3-6am, and at the time, the station was a mere 100 watts. This meant that the signal covered the entire town, and if the wind was blowing right, you could get it maybe for 10-15 miles outside of town. On really great days, it would maybe reach further, but for the most part, the folks listening were college students, townies in the know, and weird people.
Thankfully, because of those weird people, I got a lot of great requests. Those folks working overnight shifts would listen religiously, and thanks to me being fully in my punk phase at the time, I started to attract a small cadre of regular listeners who knew that I was up for playing music outside the usual college rock/indie music for which the station was known.
Sure, I had no problem playing Christie Front Drive or the eels, but given that my first-ever on-air song was “Method to This Madness” by the Voodoo Glow Skulls, I set a precedent early, and tended to stick to the Fat Wreck/Epitaph sounds which were my go-to at the time. Happily, there were some folks who wanted to hear something a little less commercial — and the fact that labels who usually sold less than 50,000 copies of any given release were considered “commercial” is very college radio.
One night, instead of the usual requests for Gwar and Minor Threat, someone liked what I was playing and asked if we had anything by a band called Naked Raygun. I said I’d check and asked what he wanted to hear, and the guy said, “Anything off Jettison.” Off to the stacks I went, digging among the CDs and the vinyl, and there on the LP shelves was Naked Raygun’s Jettison. Somebody’d marked their cover of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device” as an album highlight, so I spun that. It melted my brain. It was so furious, but melodic at the same time.
So, next week, I dug the album out again, and dropped the needle on the opening track, “Soldier’s Requiem.” Again: mind blown. After going through the various albums, one week, I came in, went into the production office, and taped off a copy, along with a stack of 7-inch singles I’d bought but hadn’t had any way to play in my dorm room. I still have that tape, which also features a bunch of songs from Kansas City oi punks the Main Street Saints, Boston’s Dropkick Murphys, and Atlanta’s Anti-Heroes, along with the aforementioned Naked Raygun LP, and it’s pretty well thrashed and muddy at this point, but brings back some serious memories.
All of this came flooding back when it was announced that Naked Raygun’s bassist, Pierre Kezdy, had passed earlier this month at the age of 58. It’s a damned shame when you realize that your heroes are gone, and that, despite Dave Grohl singing their praises a couple years back, they never got the respect lauded upon their peers such as Black Flag or Minor Threat. Thankfully, there’s a really solid discography still out there for folks to discover, and I can think of no better eulogy for the man than the final lines of that opening track to Jettison:
“And so it became – that time was not on their side. And yet it remains – until we breathe our last breath.
Like tears in rain – there is no shame in your death.”
KJHK just celebrated its 45th anniversary. I miss being on the air, but still listen regularly, and am proud to count it as part of my history. — Nick Spacek
RED SOVINE, “PHANTOM 309”
As a teen I hung out at a friend’s house often and his parents were always listening to country. We mostly hung out in the basement listening to stuff like Bring Me The Horizon’s Suicide Season, but occasionally we came upstairs to mock their musical taste. I remember his mother saying when we got older we’d listen to country too. Sometimes I wonder if she said that because we were growing up in a rural Midwestern town where everybody’s path involved being stuck in a job you hate while turning to Brad Paisley or Toby Keith because they agreed that things used to be so much simpler.
I listen to more country than I did as a teen, but it’s rare. It’s usually ancient country like George Jones, Dolly Parton, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty, and Johnny Cash. It’s never the current country format that only asks “what if we put teen heartthrobs in Wrangler jeans?” The most current country-related act I love is Orville Peck, and he’s so far removed from trendy country that many put him in the indie and alternative box before they would country. Orville’s not a guy whose album anybody would blind buy at Wal-Mart after Sunday service, so it’s oddly hard to label him country.
While digging through older country, I happily stumbled upon Red Sovine’s “Phantom 309.” Without giving too much away, the song’s a ghost story that’s influenced one of the more iconic moments in Tim Burton’s filmography. The song has also been used by the Trailer Park Boys, been covered by Tom Waits, and received a tribute from Johnny Cash with the song “Like The 309.”
Even with many cool corners of pop culture keeping its memory alive, the song still feels like a forgotten relic. It’s one of those things I hear and imagine it last being played on some 1970s Halloween radio show while teens dared themselves to step onto some old abandoned property with a legend stating that if you stepped onto the yard after midnight, you’ll see a blood moon in the sky and a grinning ghoul locking eyes with you from the attic window.
If you’re looking for the best backwoods chills this side of Slausen’s Lost Oasis, put “Phantom 309” on. — Emilio Amaro
THE CRAMPS, SONGS THE LORD TAUGHT US
Before the pandemic began, I used to see kids and millennials wearing Misfits t-shirts and I’d feel a pang of sadness. Please don’t misunderstand—I do enjoy Glenn Danzig-era Misfits, but there’s a band I feel doesn’t get its share of love or merchandise sales: The Cramps. They were a lively, bi-coastal punk rock band: though lead singer Lux Interior and his wife, guitarist Poison Ivy, were from California, they moved to New York and played CBGBs regularly, before moving to sunny Los Angeles, becoming an integral part of that city’s punk scene (and a good fit playing alongside X and The Blasters). Like The Misfits, The Cramps focused on a horror theme, but they also succeeded at merging rockabilly and punk, creating the so-called “psychobilly” sub-genre, which has inspired countless well-known bands like The Reverend Horton Heat and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and a multitude of mediocre bar bands. Their debut album, Songs The Lord Taught Us, is a treasure trove of blistering, tongue-in-cheek, frightful punk songs about dancing zombies, demented killers with a penchant for decapitation, philosophical garbagemen, distinctive covers of The Sonics’ “Strychnine” and Little Willie John’s “Fever,” and teenage werewolves. Like many classic punk bands, The Cramps aren’t the most proficient at playing their instruments, but they get by on a frisson of charm, oozing both style and rotting flesh imagery. I listened to this album on a nearly-daily basis for years, irritating roommates and ex-girlfriends alike, but hey, I worship at the Church of Punk (except for the Crusty Squeegee Punks—I’m too old to tolerate poor hygiene and a solitary diet of Pizza Pops). The album is a callback to the glory days of ‘50s greaser rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly with the sweaty sneer of punk—it’s the kind of album you want to play late at night after a few drinks. I enjoy a few contemporary psychobilly bands, but my heart will always belong to The Cramps. — Jay Alary
THE POPPY FAMILY, “WHERE EVIL GROWS”
When we think of “haunting” music, we may first go to horror movie scores: Gene Moore’s truly eerie main theme to Carnival of Souls, Krzysztof Komeda’s dreamy and falsely hopeful theme to Rosemary’s Baby, or even something penetrative and disturbing like Howard Shore’s work on Videodrome. And of course, there are those sometimes-idiosyncratic pop songs inserted into horror or thriller movies that set the mood for our characters, like “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in Zodiac and the iconic use of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in Halloween. These soundtrack choices are momentous, helping the scenes burn into our brains, and helping us recall the feelings they invoke at any time they’re mentioned.
A song I think really fits in here that’s ripe for use in a horror movie is The Poppy Family’s “Where Evil Grows.” The Poppy Family were a Canadian group most notably made up of songwriter Terry Jacks and his then-wife Susan. The group enjoyed a brief success with their 1969 single “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” which took the # 1 spot in Canada and topped off at # 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year. Susan Jacks has an unmistakable voice, and the close harmonies the pair put into their songs conjure the same goose-pimply emotions as, say, The Everly Brothers’ oddly haunting folk-inspired country album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (Coincidentally, later, Susan Jacks would move to Nashville and become close friends with Don Everly, studying the country close harmony technique and appearing as a backup singer on various country albums of the 1970s and ’80s).
(Now before I get too far into my Poppy Family revival, I need to address that “Where Evil Grows” was actually recently used in a movie. That movie is 2020’s Sonic The Hedgehog, in which I guess the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to have the song be the backing track for Jim Carrey’s villainous Dr. Robotnik’s bizarrely impotent dance sequence inside his lair. I am firmly going to state that this use of the song indeed does not count and should be stricken from the record for misuse due to simply containing the word “evil” in its title. And now it sucks because a bunch of children are going to grow up familiar with this unique song, knowing it for absolutely the wrong reason.)
But anyway, The Poppy Family is dear to me because of the country folk connection–it’s a genre that plays around with reverb and minor keys, giving even the more bubblegum aspects of their output an unforgettably spooky feel. Ties to the Everly Brothers aside, this kind of music harkens back to the early days of rockabilly, where country sadness was linked with tinny guitar (artists like guitartist and singer Jody Reynolds come to mind — hey, The Poppy Family even covered his sadly beautiful 1958 song “Endless Sleep” as the b-side to “Billy”). I would even venture to say all this played an important (but maybe overlooked) part in the emergence of shoegaze decades later.
The above clip is The Poppy Family performing “Where Evil Grows” on the Kris Kristofferson variety show Rollin’, airing appropriately on a Saturday in October 1971.
Speaking of reverb, I’m cheating a bit and adding a second recommendation to this list. It’s not really a musical artist in particular so much as a showcase of them, but in thinking about The Poppy Family and Jody Reynolds and that washed out, recorded-in-an-empty-airplane-hanger guitar sound amplified with reverb, an old, unused for years synapse fired up reminding me of the weekly HBO series from the late ’90s called Reverb. The show joined bands on tour, highlighting not only their concert footage but featuring candid interviews with no special staging or second takes. It was an authentic, unfiltered look at the artists and the music they made–something my teenaged, rock music-obsessed mind gobbled up. Artists featured ranged from Bjork to Primus to Talib Kweli to Robyn Hitchcock to Cheap Trick, but my little Reverb YouTube rabbit hole last night led me to almost being in tears over this episode with Dinosaur, Jr., reminiscing about how magical live music was for me back then. So now, I share with you and hope you also will enjoy the trip. — elbee