Music critics generally agreed that the first BoDeans album, Love & Hope & Sex & Dread was a fine piece of work. There was little consensus on what to call the group’s unique brand of rock, however: it was variously referred to as cowpunk, rockabilly, roots-rock, revivalist rock, and as a synthesis of the Rolling Stones and the Everly Brothers. Band member Sammy Lianas made more modest claims for the group, telling Cosmopolitan columnist Michael Segell, “I’d describe us as a band that writes a lot of good songs in different styles and plays most of them pretty well… . Our biggest influence was midsixties radio when it was wide open—you’d hear everything from Sonny and Cher to the Beatles, Stones, Motown, Petula Clark, and all the junk singles that came and went real fast. I loved that diversity. It all worked together because they were all good songs. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Although they’re frequently referred to as a “Tex-Mex” group, their sound evolved in their hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Front men Kurt Newmann and Sammy Lianas met in high school there during 1977. Newmann taught Lianas to play guitar, while Lianas—
Band formed in 1984, in Waukesha, Wis. Original members include Kurt Newmann , electric guitar; Sammy Lianas , acoustic guitar; Bob Griffin , bass; Guy Hoffman , drums (Hoffman has left the group).
Addresses: Record company —c/o Slash/Warner Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
who has “one of the wildest vocal tones in the business … like a Munchkin on a dirt bike,” according to Time’s Jay Cocks—gave Newmann tips on singing. They worked together in several local bands before deciding to strike out as a rocking guitar duo, featuring Newmann on electric and Liana on acoustics. In this format, they developed what Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis called “their distinctively skewed harmonies, which evolved from Newmann’s warm Midwestern drawl and Llanas’s eccentric treble rasp.”
The guitarists eventually made it to the big time of nearby Milwaukee, where they met drummer Guy Hoffman. They liked what he added to their sound in jam sessions, and decided to create a new group including Hoffman and bassist Bob Griffin, a friend from high school. BoDeans—named after the Jethro Bodine character in The Beverly Hillbillies —were born. Newmann became “Beau BoDean” for stage purposes, and the other band members also adopted the BoDean surname. The new band didn’t have much of a following at first, even in Waukesha. Lianas described L. T. Lyles, a local bar where many of the band’s early gigs were played, to Cocks: “There was a bar in one room and a connecting room with a couple of pool tables… . Sometimes there’d be a couple of guys shooting a game, but usually we played to nobody.” Lianas said he didn’t feel stifled by the sleepy, small-town atmosphere, however. He told Segell: “You’ve got to be from somewhere… . I’m just as happy it’s Waukesha. In the Midwest, there weren’t a lot of crazy music trends going on like on the coasts. So we had a lot of time and freedom to develop our own style.”
Newmann expressed a different point of view. “I think the only advantage to a small town,” he told DeCurtis, “is that it’s so boring that you have to do something dramatic if you’re going to get out.” The BoDeans’ bid to get out of Waukesha began when they cut some demo tapes of their material and sent them to record companies. One found its way to veteran producer T-Bone Burnett, who had helped launch Los Lobos on the national scene. He liked what he heard. Besides arranging a contract for BoDeans with Slash Records, he produced Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, which Segell called “an incandescent debut” for the group. Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams wasn’t a runaway hit, but it sold a respectable 100, 000 copies. More importantly, it drew glowing reviews from national music critics, who found it richly textured and full of innovative musical references. Stereo Review called the album a subtle, savvy, and intelligent interweaving of country, folk, and root-level rock-and-roll, wrapped in a cloak of cool.” The reviewer noted that the band’s music resonated with echoes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles, but emphasized, “the important thing is that BoDeans don’t just surgically graft this stuff together; it all comes out of some higher sensibility and synthesis of style.”
Rolling Stone’s Jimmy Guterman concurred that BoDeans are a highly creative group. “[Lianas and Newmann] write tight, snappy pop songs that acknowledge tradition and then expand on it—this is no mere revivalism or wistful nostalgia.” Guterman pessimistically concluded that putting out creative music would not assure BoDeans of popular success, however, for “despite the reams written about getting back to basics, most radio music is constructed around a synthesizer and a drum machine… . This album’s strongest tracks … are so stark and unfussy that they’d seem out of place between synth moaners in vapid radio formats.” Indeed, the band’s follow-up album, Outside Looking In, received little airplay, although Segell declared that it “brims with real life: songs of innocence and experience, exhilaration and melancholy, given flight by exquisite harmonies.” BoDeans themselves seem philosophical about falling short of superstardom, at least for now. Lianas told Segell: “We started the band with the idea of taking small steps… . We just want to keep growing musically. We don’t want it to move too fast or to get weird. We don’t want anybody freaking out. The bottom line of this band is friendship.”
Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, Slash, 1986.
Outside Looking In, Slash, 1988.
Home, Slash, 1989.
Cosmopolitan, December, 1987.
High Fidelity, September, 1986.
People, June 16, 1986.
Rolling Stone, July 3, 1986; September 11, 1986.
Stereo Review, August, 1986.
Time, June 9, 1986.
In the cutthroat, commercial world of rock and roll, the BoDeans themselves have admitted that they’re something of an anomaly: a band that managed to secure a major label record deal despite spending the first ten years of its career without a hit single. The vocal harmony and guitar-driven rock band—made up of core singer-songwriter-guitarists Sammy Lianas and Kurt Neumann, along with bass player Bob Griffin and a revolving line-up of drummers, beginning with Guy Hoffman—formed in Waukesha, Wl, in 1983. Despite being touted as the “next big thing” when they released their debut album in 1986, the BoDeans would spend a decade in relative obscurity, winning fans mostly through word-of-mouth about the band’s rousing live shows, until a popular youth-oriented television show would introduce the BoDeans to a mass audience and gain new legions of listeners.
The band can trace its beginnings to the friendship, as well as the musical kinship, forged in a high school study hall in Waukesha between Lianas and Neumann. “It was immediate,” Neumann once said of the pair’s musical bond. “The first time we ever played together, we fit together so naturally. I just knew at that first gig that we were going to be working together for a very long time.” After graduating from high school, Neumann made ends meet by stuffing envelopes for a mass-mailing company. During this time, he taught himself how to play guitar by listening to Chuck Berry records at home. After a short stint in college, Lianas returned to Waukesha and also took odd jobs as the pair attempted to get their music out to the public. In a 1986 interview in Time magazine, Lianas recalled playing for drinks one night a week in the window of a hometown bar. “There was a bar in one room and a connecting room with a couple of pool tables,” Lianas told reporter Jay Cocks. “Sometimes there’d be a couple of guys shooting a game, but usually we played to nobody.”
The band members got their first big break when Slash Records offered them a contract in 1985. Taking their name from the Jethro Bodine character from the television show The Beverly Hillbillies, the BoDeans won over reviewers with their stripped-down, T-Bone Burnett-produced 1986 debut, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams (an allusion to the Rolling Stones’ song “Shattered”). Hailed by critics like People magazine’s David Hilt-brand for their “distinctive harmonies and comingling of electric and acoustic guitars,” the album earned the Midwestern band a roots-rock tag it has yet to completely shake.
For the BoDeans’ first album, the band members followed in the footsteps of the Ramones when each adopted stage names with BoDean as a surname. Neumann went a step further by altering his moniker to “Beau BoDean.”
Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams paved the way for the band to land the opening slot on six weeks of U2’s Joshua Tree tour in 1987, a “best new band” nod in Rolling Stone in 1987, and coveted MTV air play. However, this release failed to establish the BoDeans as a commercial powerhouse, a theme that would be repeated throughout most of the band’s career.
For the follow-up, 1987’s Outside Looking In, the BoDeans teamed with producer and former Talking Heads keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison. The collaboration turned the band’s sound into something more slick and packaged, which ultimately left Lianas, Neumann, and company dissatisfied. Consequently, they took a different approach on 1989’s Home. Recruiting producer Jim Scott, who had met Lianas and Neumann while they worked on former Band member Robbie Robertson’s 1987 solo record, the band (which by then consisted of Lianas, Neumann, bassist Griffin, keyboardist Michael Ramos, and John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff) recorded takes live in their Milwaukee warehouse rehearsal space. The track “Beautiful Rain,” Llanas’s emotional recounting of the Midwestern drought of 1988, got particularly favorable notice. Reviewing the album for People, Elizabeth Wurt-zel called Home a “return to basics” for the band, and “a joy to listen to despite its flaws.”
Members include Bob Griffin (born December 4, 1959, in Waukesha, WI; joined band c1985), bass; Nick Kitsos (joined band c. 1996), drums; Sam Lianas (born February 8, 1961, in Waukesha, WI), vocals, guitar; Kurt Neumann (born October 9, 1961, in Waukesha, WI), guitar, vocals, mandolin. Former members include Rafael “Danny” Gayol, drums (from c1991 to 1993); Guy Hoffman (born May 20, 1954, left band c1988), drums.
Formed in 1983, in Waukesha, WI; released debut album Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams on Slash/Reprise label in 1986; single “Closer to Free” from 1993 album Go Slow Down was picked up as the theme song for Fox network television series Party of Five c. 1996.
Addresses: Record company —Reprise Records, 3300 Warner Boulevard, Burbank, CA 91506-4694. Website —www.RepriseRec.com/BoDeans.
“We were determined to capture the real BoDeans on the new record,” Lianas told Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “The essence of our sound is playing together, playing live. We knew the first two records didn’t have that.” A number of rock writers agreed, including suburban Detroit’s Eccentric writer Larry O’Connor, who observed thatthe “sparse location served the band well. Some of the tracks contain the rawness the group has had difficulty capturing on previous albums.”
All the same, Home failed to make the BoDeans household names, and the band enlisted a more commercial producer, David Z. Rivkin (“David Z”), for 1991’s Black and White. Better known for his work with Fine Young Cannibals, Jody Watley, and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, David Z brought more adult pop sheen to the band’s sound. Bringing in drummer Danny Gayol of California, Black and White was recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park studios in Minneapolis on a sound stage, with the band recording material together live as it had during sessions for Home.
“We thought, well, maybe we’re doing something completely wrong,” Lianas told Joe Brown of the Washington Post in 1991. “We thought maybe David could help us interpret our music; maybe people just didn’t get it.” With its mix of love songs and social commentary, including “Black, White and Blood Red,” the band scored a modest success with Black and White, but did not ascend to the heights they had hoped for. Hence, the band decided to halt its pursuit of the elusive hit. The 1993 album Go Slow Down, which teamed the BoDeans once more with producer Burnett and drummer Aronoff, was the result of that retrenching.
As Lianas said, “After Black and White, we thought, well, we didn’t really make any progress that way either, so let’s go back and ask ourselves, what do we really want to be doing here? And that’s how Go Slow Down came about. We just wanted to make some music that we felt good about. So we got back to what we do best, which is pretty much keeping it simple and straightforward and concentrating on a good song.”
Go Slow Down promised to repeat the commercial performance of its predecessors. But then the popular Fox network television series Party of Five elected to use the single “Closer to Free” as its theme song. Two-and-a-half years after the album’s release, the BoDeans had a hit single on their hands as “Closer” raced up the charts and boosted sales of Go Slow Down and Joe Dirt Car, a live double-album of old and more recent material that the band issued in 1995.
Resisting the pressure to duplicate the surprise success of “Closer to Free,” the BoDeans focused on making a new album they could take pride in. “We knew that we sort of had a foot in the door at radio with ’Closer to Free.’ So we just wanted to make a good record,” Lianas told Mark Brown of the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service in 1996. “We didn’t want to make ’Closer to Free II.’ But we wanted to make a very strong record, very to the point.”
Adding new drummer Nick Kitsos and accordion player Danny Federici (of E Street Band fame), the BoDeans recorded 1996’s Blendover a two-year period, heading for the studio between shows. The band also hired legendary producer Bob Clearmountain to mix two tracks: the album-opener, “The Understanding,” and “Hurt by Love,” a haunting song Neumann wrote for his parents, who divorced after 35 years of marriage. Praised by Herald writer Craig Colgan for its “subtle arrangements,” “rumbling, dynamic guitar-jangle,” and “compelling singing,” Blend seemed a fitting follow-up. And with “Closer” and the national emergence of the album adult alternative (AAA) radio format, the BoDeans had finally found a place for themselves on the airwaves.
While “Closer to Free” may have given the band the radio play it sought for so long, band members acknowledged that they have learned from past experience not to consciously strive for hit singles or records. As Neumann said in a 1996 interview in Entertainment Today, “When you make a record, you release it with no expectations. You have to just go in the studio and make the best record you can.”
Though Lianas was collecting songs in 1996 for a solo album he planned to release one day, he insisted that the band had no intention of breaking up. “This partnership [with Neumann] has always been based on a strong friendship,” Lianas told Brown. “Trust, respect, and a lot of tolerance. We have our ups and downs, but I truly believe we get off on each other’s work.”
Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, Slash/Reprise, 1986.
Outside Looking In, Slash/Reprise, 1987.
Home, Slash/Reprise, 1989.
Black and White, Slash/Reprise, 1991.
Go Slow Down, Slash/Reprise, 1993.
Joe Dirt Car, Slash/Reprise, 1995.
Blend, Slash/Reprise, 1996.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Stockton Press, 1995.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside/Rolling Stone Press, 1995.
Athens Daily News/Athens Banner-Herald, March 9, 1997.
Billboard, March 2, 1996.
Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1989.
Eccentric, October 10, 1989.
Entertainment Today (Los Angeles), November 22, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, August 11, 1995; March 15, 1996; March 29, 1996; May 10, 1996; November 8, 1996.
Gavin, February 2, 1996; November 8, 1996.
Herald, March 14, 1996.
Hits, December 9, 1996.
Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, November 1996.
People, June 16, 1986; September 18, 1989.
Time, June 9, 1986.
Washington Post, May 17, 1991.
Additional information was provided by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 18, 1996, and Slash/Reprise publicity materials, 1997.
—K. Michelle Moran