My occasional series on Pearl Jam tour posters has proved pretty occasional, all things considered. So, to remedy this (somehow, but don’t ask for details), I’ve decided to start up a second occasional series. This second series has the working title of “Alt rock bands from the early 90s that weren’t strictly speaking grunge as such, but included similarities to the grunge bands, be that in sound or attitude”. ARBFTE90sTWSSGASBISTTGBBTISOA for short. Guaranteed winner.*
When I started this blog back in 2011, I included a Page pithily titled Grunge?. You can view it at the link. Go on, you know you’re curious. I’ll give you a moment to read it.
Back now? Great. So, my plan is to pen a series of vignettes on some of the bands who fell under the alt rock heading that I held in particular regard. (Unsurprisingly, I have a similar plan for some of the lesser-known bands falling under the grunge category; perhaps I should start there. One step at a time.) The list has evolved, but the basic criteria have remained that bands should be alt rock, from that era, and share something with grunge, in sound, temperament or both. ARBFTE90sTWSSGASBISTTGBBTISOA basically.
So, first up are Liquid Jesus.
Liquid who? I hear you cry.** Cast your mind back to the late 80s. Hairspray metal was at its zenith: Whitesnake in heavy rotation (oo-err) on MTV, Aerosmith reformed and relaunched as the new Spinal Tap as they explored the complex interlinking of love and elevator, and Mötley Crüe taking the occasional, reluctant break from a variety of vices to write the odd song and play the odd gig.***
Hairspray would soon be washed away, by the rapid ascent of Nirvana and the grunge movement. But alongside this, partially setting the foundations for grunge, there was a lively Californian alt rock scene, one that merrily cocked a snook at the Sunset Strip and flicked the Vs at the Viper Room. Its most successful graduates were the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More, as funk rock – and anything that could be bracketed with it – had its moment in the sun.****
Beyond these three bands, all of whom would go one to achieve both critical and commercial success, were a slew of other bands with something interesting to say, including the likes of Redd Kross, Celebrity Skin and Liquid Jesus. This emergent alt rock scene drew on a range of influences: punk, hardcore, funk, glam.
Liquid Jesus were unusual in that California scene for wearing their late 60s influences so proudly. Their psychedelic rock reeked of Haight Ashbury and the counterculture.*****
Tipped as one of the next big things, Liquid Jesus echoed Jane’s Addiction by releasing, their first, live album on Triple X in 1990; they were snapped up by MCA, who put out their studio debut , Pour in the Sky, the following year.
The live album isn’t bad, showcasing some talented musicians but lacking clarity in its songwriting. But Pour in the Sky is something else. I first picked up a cassette of it in Australia in early 1992, and fell in love with it instantly. The cassette tape broke long ago but a replacement CD was found (one of the plusses of the internet, alongside easy access to more cat videos than any sane person could ever want, has been that seemingly long forgotten music has actually been remembered by someone somewhere).
The tone is set by the intro. An female, operatic voice is joined by a digeridoo, an operatic male companion, backing vocals, a third, soulful voice, the band crashes in briefly to build the tension, and then the mother of all riffs easing in to a guitar melody that would have had Hendrix nodding his head in approval, before the full band comes back in with the stomping riff that kicks off ‘Finding My Way’. All that and we’re only three minutes in… ‘Where Have You Been’ fires up with more fluid guitar work and a vocal line over the bridge that would have seen Hendrix consulting his lawyers.
Pour in the Sky is remarkable for several reasons: the soulful depth and timbre of Buck Murphy’s vocal performance; the soaring, expressive guitar work from Todd Rigione, heavy – and often wah-soaked – but never crunchy; the thoughtful and emotionally grounded lyrics; the sheer vitality and creative exuberance of the music. This creativity is reflected in the ambitious and near-baffling range of eclectic musical influences – jazz, country, blues, soul, psychedelia, funk, punk, metal – and in the range of guest performers adding texture to the music: flute, piano, opera voice, digeridoo, saxophone, harmonica, mellotron, hammond organ, dobro.****** The only fault I would level at the album is that in places it tries too hard, and in throwing a bit too much at each song attempts to blend too many ideas and influences. That and it’s New Age philosophising, which might not be everyone’s cup of organic pu’erh tea. (Goddamn hippies.)
Liquid Jesus also turned up on the surprisingly strong soundtrack to Pump Up the Volume (1990) – a largely predictable but nonetheless quite enjoyable Christian Slater film about a high school student running a pirate radio station – covering the Sly and the Family Stone song, ‘Stand’.
You’ve been sitting down for too long
There’s a permanent crease
In your right and wrong
The soundtrack is well worth a listen, some choice bands playing some fine songs, many well-chosen covers: Concrete Blonde (‘Everybody Knows’), The Pixies (‘Wave of Mutilation’), Bad Brains with Henry Rollins (‘Kick Out the Jams’), Soundgarden (‘Heretic’), Sonic Youth (Titanium Exposé’), Cowboy Junkies (‘Me and the Devil Blues’).
Sadly, for me at least, that was that. After Pour in the Sky came out, the band vanished, in spite of glowing reviews. I’ve found some of their songs from Pour in the Sky on Youtube (interspersed above), but – with the caveat that I’ve not trawled the net obsessively – there’s not a great deal about them out there that comes readily to light, beyond a couple of EPs released in 1993 and 1994.******* When not calling friends up and playing new songs down the line, Todd Rigione released an album in 2003, V612 Project, that I’ve just ordered; one of the contributors to the album was a certain Ben Shepherd. It also transpires that drummer John Molo has built up quite an impressive cv. The below is a truly awful interview from the early 90s, a reminder of how bad music programmes could be and how many musicians should let their music do the talking.
Distressingly, I found out one final thing as I was finishing this post. According to reports in the Victorville Daily Press, a local Californian newspaper, in 2015 Buck Murphy was sentenced to two years following a plea bargain for child stealing and unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. It’s a sordid, unpleasant story and one feels desperately sorry for the girl who suffered at his hands. I have simply no idea how someone who can sing with such passion and soul (“A thinking man doesn’t take charge / he just whispers words of wisdom / and acknowledges love’s embrace” – irony only begins to describe how one reads those lyrics now) can become someone capable of such horrendous behaviour. Did he change over time or was he always like that? Am I simply naive in how I appreciate music?
It brought to mind an interesting documentary I saw about Herbert von Karajan a couple of years ago: a brilliant conductor but a vain, difficult man with an unpleasant political past; a person whose musical talents still require appreciation, albeit with caveats. How, if at all, does one separate the music from the musician? Should you only like music made by decent people? (A question that opens up several more questions…) I thought about scratching this post, but decided to publish it after all. The music made by Liquid Jesus still means a lot to me, in spite of the above, but the meaning is undergoing some degree of revaluation.
* Alternatively, it could just be called “Currently residing in the where are they now file”, or CRITWATNF. Much catchier.
** At least, the most heartily lunged – or simply the nearest – among you.
*** All fine and dandy if you’re Mick Shrimpton.
**** And there was the Bay Area thrash scene, of course.
***** They weren’t quite alone at the time, with the likes of Burning Tree, the 360’s and I Love You ploughing similar furrows.
****** The piano comes courtesy of Bruce Hornsby, whose big hit, ‘That’s just the way it is’, was used on Final Score in the late 80s. I can’t hear the chorus without wondering if this will be the year Coventry City finally get relegated.
******* But I now know there’s a Czech glam rock band about these days called Liquid Jesus. So there you go.