Hardy perennial rockers Redd Kross have managed to stay one step ahead of mainstream fame for almost two decades, often introducing musical styles a few years before they become remarkably popular. Redd Kross is considered a “band’s band,” a pop rock group revered by critics, peers, and a loyal, hardcore cult following, but a musical gem of a band still largely undiscovered by the pop rock masses.
Redd Kross was founded in 1978 in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, by the McDonald brothers when Steven was eleven years old and Jeff was fifteen. Hawthorne was also the home town of the Beach Boys, which gave the McDonald brothers a sense of musical mission. While they appreciated the music of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, the McDonald brothers were also fans of punk music. The brothers recall being driven to Black Flag and X concerts by their parents long before they were old enough to receive their driving licenses, and they would recruit their schoolmates as band members. The duo was also influenced by 1970s glam-rock, theatrical rock, and punk rock
Band members include Eddie Kurdziel, guitar; Jeff McDonald (married to Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Gos fame, one daughter), guitar, vocals; Steven McDonald, bass, vocals; Brian Reitzell, drums. Former members include, Robert Hecker, guitar; and Gere Fennelly, keyboards.
The band was formed in 1978 in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, CA, by the McDonald brothers, when Steven was eleven years old and Jeff was fifteen; the brothers would recruit schoolmates as band members. Band was originally named Tourists; name changed to Red Cross; due to copyright infringement, band name changed from Red Cross to Redd Kross in 1981.
Released Red Cross in 1980 and Born Innocent in 1981, but their parents wouldn’t allow them to tour; released Teen Babes from Monsanto in 1984; released Neurotica in 1987; released Third Eye in 1990; released Phaseshifter in 1993, released Show World in 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Mercury/Polygram Records, 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019; phone (212) 333-8000.
bands such as Queen, Cheap Trick, Kiss, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, David Bowie, Aerosmith, and the New York Dolls. The Beatles, Rush, the Rolling Stones, and the Runaways also serve as musical inspiration for Redd Kross.
The brothers recruited schoolmates to play in their band, and played their first gig in 1979. Other founding band members included a drummer from Steve’s junior high orchestra and a guitarist from Jeff’s high school photography class, who was skeptical about being in a band with someone in junior high school. “I paid for our first demo with my paper route, Steve McDonald told Entertainment Weekly’s Nisid Hajari, “I was eleven.” As teens, the McDonald brothers originally called their band Red Cross. A fairly pleasant telephone call from someone at the Red Cross organization, who wanted to discuss the nuances of copyright infringement, prompted the McDonald brothers to alter the spelling of their band’s name.
In 1981 the band released a full-length album called Born Innocent without benefit of a major label. Born Innocent was given ample air play by Los Angeles radio disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer, but the brothers couldn’t gain momentum from its popularity because their parents wouldn’t allow them to tour at such a young age. They followed in 1984 with another album comprised of covers by bands such as the Stooges and the Stones, which was called Teen Babes from Monsanto.
When Redd Kross began touring in the mid 1980s, they donned bell bottoms, appropriated the general funki-ness and quirky glamour of the 1970s, sang Kiss songs, focused on silly, kitschy humor, and crooned about Linda Blair, an actress in the cult classic The Exorcist. Their style was out of synch with the explosion of jagged hardcore music at the time, which favored shaved heads, combat boots, angry lyrics, and thriving mosh pits—but their originality garnered a loyal, diehard group of followers who remained devoted throughout the decades. Most of the band’s most ardent fans are other musicians like Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and former Replacement, Paul Westerberg.
In 1987 Redd Kross released Neurotica, a psychedelic-flavored album that was streamlined and noticeably “packaged” in an era of no-frills alternative releases. The album Neurotica was the band’s first release to be distributed by a major label, RCA’s Big Time. Sub-Pop label cofounder Jonathan Poneman told Hajari, “Neurotica was a life changer for me and for a lot of people in the Seattle music community. For [a band] to embrace something so unapologetically crass and packaged—there was something really punk about doing that then.”
After the release of Neurotica, the Big Time label folded, unceremoniously dumping Redd Kross into a contractual void for two years, which hampered the band’s prospects at the time. To a band on the verge of breaking into mainstream music, this was a major setback. But, in 1989 their luck appeared to change—Atlantic Records stepped into the alternative music picture to explore the market, embracing Redd Kross in the process. The band was signed to a one-album deal for $200, 000, given $80,000 from the label for a video, and given more than $100, 000 for tour support. Redd Kross released Third Eye for Atlantic in 1990, and the record sold a meager 40,000 copies at a time when Nirvana’s grunge, anti-pop sound was dominating the musical realm. To explain the album’s poor reception, Steve McDonald told Hajari, “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.”
Redd Kross released Phaseshifter in 1993, competing as an alternative band on a major label with Billboard top ten bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins. The fact that the band was considered an “insider band” was also problematic for its mainstream crossover appeal.
Redd Kross toured with Stone Temple Pilots in 1994, and found that the tour altered their exciting, rock-myth perspective. Jeff McDonald told Dan Epstein of the Los Angeles Weekly, “I remember going to arena shows as a child … seeing the backstage entrance … and wondering what goes on back there. Well, during the tour with Stone Temple Pilots and the Meat Puppets … we would sit around and play Yahtzee.”
Redd Kross released Show World in 1997, which was their most conventional pop release to date; the album was described by Guitar World’s Tom Beaujour as “the aftermath of the Stooges plowing their tour bus into the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions.” The album reflects the band’s influences: the Beach Boys, the B-52s, Black Sabbath, Dusty Springfield, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. Epstein noted, “The juicy pop melodies of ‘ Vanity Mirror,’ Mess Around, ‘Sick Love,’ and the sublime, show-stopping ballad ‘Secret Life’ can be removed from your brain only with a surgeon’s help.”
Show World emphasized a shift in the band’s approach. The purposely silly lyrics and 1970s-inspired gimmicks of albums past were replaced with artfully-crafted, original pop songs. Steve McDonald worked on the album’s arrangement and harmonies, Jeff McDonald
wrote most of the songs. The band is sometimes criticized for being too “retro,” and Jeff McDonald told Epstein, “But that’s what rock and roll’s all about! I mean, what were the Beatles but a retro group?”
Red Cross, Posh Boy, 1980.
(With others) The Siren, Posh Boy, 1980.
Born Innocent, Reckless, 1981.
Teen Babes from Monsanto, Reckless, 1984.
Neurotica, Big Time/RCA, 1987.
Third Eye, Atlantic Records, 1990.
Phaseshifter, This Way Up/Mercury, 1993.
Show World, This Way Up/Mercury, 1997.
Aquarian, February 19, 1997.
AW, February 19, 1997.
Bam, February 21, 1997.
Billboard, January 11, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, December 3, 1993.
Guitar World, March 1997.
Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1997.
Los Angeles Weekly, February 21, 1997.
New York Times, February 22, 1994.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
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