Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Rocket from the Crypt: Lipstick Traces (1998)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer)

In 1995, the MTV VJ--and card-carrying Republican--Kennedy turned up as a guest on the radio talk show of the Watergate burglar--and former CIA hitman--G. Gordon Liddy. What, asked one caller, was Kennedy's favorite band? "Rocket from the Crypt!" she replied. "They're this great band from San Diego!"

According to Rocket from the Crypt's John "Speedo" Reiss, however, the unusual circumstances of the endorsement have a perfectly logical explanation. "On the surface, yeah, it's pretty surreal, but it's actually innocent. We're not great friends or anything, but we know her, and she's always championed our music."

Kennedy's not alone. During the last seven years, hordes of tattooed youth have embraced Rocket from the Crypt, packing the band's shows, buying its many and varied releases, and e-mailing its www.rftc.com website with "war stories," i.e., encounters with the band that changed the fans' lives forever. Or at least for one night. "I watched Speedo quite a bit because he kept putting his microphone stand right in front of me," writes Melissa from Albuquerque. "I'd look up, and there was Speedo, spitting and sweating all over me."

Rocket from the Crypt is currently spitting and sweating in support of its new Interscope album, RFTC. It's the band's fifth album--seventh if you count the 1995 EPs The State of Art Is on Fire (Sympathy For The Record Industry) and Hot Charity (Perfect Sound)--and fourth for Interscope. Like the band's 1995 LP Scream, Dracula, Scream, RFTC is distinguished primarily by the two-man horn section of JC 2000 (trumpet) and Apollo Nine (saxophone) and the colossal call-and-response choruses that have caused more than one observer to note the influence of glitter and glam on the band's music.

According to Speedo, however, drawing on such disparate influences has its drawbacks. "You'd think that the new wave of ska--which really doesn't resemble ska that much at all, to tell you the truth--would help a band like us. 'Oh! Finally a rock 'n' roll band with horns! That might make some sense.' But it's actually made the situation worse for us because now people think that we're something we're not. People think that we're associated with a ska movement that, to tell you the truth, is going to go away in another year or so." (That having been said, one should note that "Dick on a Dog," RFTC's least family-oriented track, while not ska per se, will go over like gangbusters with the typical new-wave-of-ska fan.)

As for why the call-and-response choruses don't always get the band's fans singing along, Speedo has an interesting theory. "We're a band that's associated with having integrity. We don't choose to exploit or change what we do or change our attitude or personality just to have it make sense to everybody else in the world, you know? We're very happy just doing what we do even if we remain in obscurity forever. And you wouldn't think that 'having integrity' would ever be something that would hold us back. But it does in a sense because when you have that association, that this is 'the real thing,' you attract people who sometimes overanalyze the situation, and sometimes those kind of people have trouble letting go and having a great time. So we're on a bit of a crusade, really, to bring the dance culture back into rock 'n' roll.

"Punk rock," he continues, "was all about destroying the pompous rock icon. You know, 'Kill these rock stars who are so eager to put themselves on a pedestal.' You go to their shows, and you're encouraged basically to bow and clap in all the right places. We're definitely from the punk school. At the same time, though, we're also from the vaudeville-type school, which says, 'The show must go on' and 'You must entertain' and 'You must give all that you have every night' and 'You must give people their money's worth because they're paying their hard-earned money to come see you play, and you should really value the fact that you're in a position in life to do what you want to do in order to put food on your plate.' That dichotomy makes Rocket from the Crypt hard for some people to understand."

So far in 1998 the band has taken its dichotomous show on the road to such far-flung hotbeds of Rocket from the Crypt enthusiasm as Denmark, Germany, France, and the U.K. "There was one day," Speedo recalls, "when we woke up in Denmark, flew to Paris to play an early show, flew to Germany to do a TV show, and then flew back to London, where we slept at night. I pretty much need a new passport because it got filled up in one day." Before Europe the band (which in addition to Speedo, JC, and Apollo, includes N.D. on guitar, Petey X on bass, and Atom on drums) toured the U.S. opening for Foo Fighters. Now its back, with plans to retour the U.S. on its own for the next few months. The band has also found time to tape performances for the HBO show Reverb and the Comedy Central show Viva Variety.

"Being a kick-ass live band is the most important part of this band," Speedo says, stating the obvious. "Anyone who does anything less than give it their all every night and who doesn't do 350 shows in a year we don't even consider a real band."

As if Rocket from the Crypt's hardest-working-band-in-show-business level of activity weren't enough to assure the band's fans of its sincerity, there's the famous Rocket from the Crypt tattoo, a tattoo that guarantees anyone adorned with it free admission to the band's shows. According to Speedo, the tattoo policy, contrary to rumors that began circulating at the time of the Foo Fighters tour, is still in effect.

"What happened is, because of the size of the venues, it was really hard to stay in touch with people who might've come to see us. In the larger places it's hard to overcome those boundaries. Also, when it's not our own show, it's hard to turn in a fifty-person guest list. But, ninety percent of the time, the policy still stands. If someone gets denied, it's usually because they haven't written in and let us know about it."

The tattoo doesn't guarantee fans a free copy of RFTC, but the pleasure of absorbing its thirteen raucously catchy songs is well worth the cost. From the surfin'-and-spyin' "Eye on You" (featuring a cameo from Holly Golightly) and the Gary Glitter-esque "Break It Up" (for which the band has almost finished shooting a video) to the percussion-enriched "You Gotta Move" (featuring the Letterman band's Anton Fig on congas) and practically every other song (on which the legendary Jim Dickinson plays piano and organ), the album stomps all over the competition with platform heels and leaves it gasping for air. Best of all is "Lipstick," the album's first single and as soulful a blend of soul horns, rah-rah hooks, and punky power chords as you'll find. It's the kind of song the New York Dolls would've ended up performing if they'd stuck around for album number three.

For all the group's strengths, though, it's the very concept of Rocket from the Crypt that sets it apart. Unlike most bands, who cultivate their mystique with carefully controlled discographies and an air of unapproachability, Rocket from the Crypt both inundates its fans with singles, EPs, and bootlegs and freely fraternizes with them before and after shows. "We love being a band," says Speedo, "and part of being a band is writing songs and recording them. We don't release everything we record because not everything we do is something that we want everyone to hear, but I'm a music fan. I love records, and I think that as a band you put out records with that mentality. I love trying to keep up with bands that I love and trying to find all their stuff.

"But," he continues, "I do not like the record-collector mentality of small pressings. They're for sale for too much money, and the quality is usually not all that great. So the problem with doing too many seven-inches, singles, and EPs is that sometimes, if you do a limited number, you're basically ripping off the people who are helping you kind of do this thing that you want to do. I'm definitely not into that at all."

That announcement should come as good news to Rocket from the Crypt's fans, who already get more bang for their tattoo buck than any other segment of the rock 'n' roll audience. It should also persuade the untattooed to go under the needle while the going's good.

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