Only Southern California (Hawthorne, actually) could have bred kitsch-pop brothers Steven (bass/vocals) and Jeffrey (vocals/guitar) McDonald, who drove onto the LA punk scene as adolescents in 1980 singing merry jingles about culture icons and local clothing stores. Moving through a series of lineups (the first had future Black Flag member Ron Reyes and future Circle Jerk Greg Hetson), Red Cross (renamed Redd Kross after Born Innocent to mollify a certain unamused charitable organization) released only a handful of albums; none completely captures the McDonalds’ giddy and informed dedication to ’70s schlock, although each contains some chewy delights.
Red Cross’ recorded debut (later reissued as a stand-alone 12-inch EP) was on The Siren, a three-band sampler LP. Although bassist Steven was barely 13 at the time, they sound sound surprisingly self-assured on six culturally resonant snot-punk-rock-pop selections, including “Annette’s Got the Hits” (which became an LA radio staple), “I Hate My School” and the B-52’s-ish “Standing in Front of Poseur,” about a local store.
After Hetson and Reyes left, the McDonalds formed a new band and released 1982’s Born Innocent, subsequently re-released under their post-legal-intervention name. The LP celebrates such wonderful pop anti-idols as “Linda Blair,” “Charlie” (Manson) and Patty Hearst; although unmentioned on the sleeve and label (for fear he would come after them for royalties) the album actually includes a cover of Manson’s “Cease to Exist.” The muddy sound and sloppy, uninspired playing make Born Innocent dull in spots, but guitarist Jeff’s wild-eyed singing and the overall junk-is-good aesthetic make it a fine record of — and for — its time.
Ex-Black Flag singer Dez Cadena had already come and gone through Redd Kross by the time Geza X produced the seven-song Teen Babes From Monsanto. Running strictly on wicked irreverence, the McDonalds and drummer Dave Peterson turn the spotlight on various musical victims, and the Redd Kross living jukebox bangs out loud and convincing covers of Kiss (“Deuce”), the Stones (“Citadel”), Stooges (“Ann”), Bowie (“Savior Machine”) and others, leaving “Linda Blair 1984” the sole original. A record of the ultimate bratty garage band in its element.
With Redd Kross providing most of the music, the McDonalds appeared in Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, a no-budget Super-8 psychotronic Z-movie made by LA scenesters. The soundtrack album — tracks by Black Flag and a few minor bands, as well as various interlocking permutations of Redd Kross and White Flag — is well-produced and, for the most part, a real offhand treat. With Redd Kross backing their then-manager, Joanna Spockolla McDonald (we’re all McDonalds in this life), “Legend” is typical of the rocking pop that keeps the record hopping. Redd Kross offered the same service for the soundtrack album of the sequel, Lovedolls Superstar, which includes a brilliant rendition of the Brady Bunch chestnut “Sunshine Day.”
Drummer Roy McDonald (no relation) and guitarist Robert Hecker fill out the lineup card on Neurotica, the band’s national underground breakout record. The LP reclaims “Ballad of a Love Doll” from the first film’s score and adds such fuzzed-out folk-pop acid trips as “Peach Kelli Pop,” “Janus, Jeanie, and George Harrison,” “Frosted Flake” and “Ghandi Is Dead (I’m the Cartoon Man).” With harmony-heavy arrangements that occasionally suggest Shoes, Redd Kross has never sounded better — a full-fledged, mind-boggling outing that confirms their potential and makes the next record something to anticipate. (The CD appends “Tatum O’Tot,” a hint of things to come. The 2002 reissue adds two more tunes, “Pink Piece of Peace” and “It’s the Little Things.”)
Following the messy failure of Big Time Records, Redd Kross didn’t make another album under its own name for three years. But the McDonalds stayed busy. Joined by various collaborators — including special guest Tater Danny Bonaduce (David Cassidy’s obno kid brother on The Partridge Family; more recently a successful disc jockey and T-V host) and such accessory Tots as Michael Quercio of the Three O’Clock — Steve and Jeff launched the ridiculously parodic Tater Totz with Alien Sleestacks From Brazil. Besides perpetrating such Beatle-baiting atrocities as “Give Peace a Chance,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Sing This All Together,” “We Will Rock You” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the record offers a vicious, seemingly endless version of Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry Kyoko.”
The second Tater Totz album — a much more accomplished effort — again focuses on the Fab Four family, beginning with covers of “Rain” (sung by Shonen Knife) and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but spiraling off into Lennon’s “The Luck of the Irish” and “Instant Karma!,” McCartney’s “Lovely Linda” and a batch of Ono compositions. In an audacious bit of genetic engineering, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” gets jammed together with Ono’s “Who Has Seen the Rain,” proving that the line between tribute and satire can sometimes be imperceptible. Ex-Runaway Cherie Currie, ex-Germ Pat RuthenSmear, members of Frightwig, the Pandoras, Celebrity Skin and others contribute to the madness. (The CD, LP and cassette all have slightly different track lists.)
In another side project, the McDonalds and several associates run punk through an ironic blender as Anarchy 6 on Hardcore Lives!, a fast’n’sloppy guitar-rock onslaught — starring Steven but “executive produced” by Jeff — that sounds like a cross between Suicidal Tendencies and Black Flag but lampoons the form and its followers in such lyrics as “Skate and Destroy,” “Unite & Fight,” “Drugs Aren’t Great” and “Old Punks.” It’s hard to gauge the hoped-for audience: those inclined to buy a record that looks and sounds so punk are unlikely to enjoy (or even get) the joke, and vice versa. Maybe that’s the point.
With Hecker still abetting the brothers, Third Eye, Redd Kross’ major-label debut — and the long-awaited follow-up to Neurotica — is a partially successful attempt to go straight (or at least as straight as an album with mock-Keane back-cover portraits could be) for mass-market consumption. Much of the band’s trademark wackiness is gone — channeled into the Tater Totz, perhaps? — replaced by disciplined musicianship, streamlined songwriting and radio-savvy production. Strangely, Third Eye‘s accessible pop-rock songs (“The Faith Healer,” “Bubblegum Factory,” “I Don’t Know How to Be Your Friend,” “Love Is Not Love”) are pretty good, while scattered attempts to fuse the new slicked-up sound with the humor of earlier efforts — like “Elephant Flares” and “1976” (which revisits the dreaded decade with incisive tributes to Kiss, Cheap Trick and Elton John) — sound forced. (“1976” also appears on the mostly oldies soundtrack of The Spirit of 76, a 1991 cinematic kitschfest which features the McDonalds in a cast headed by David Cassidy.) Whether the world needs another accessible pop-rock band more than it needs iconoclastic pop-culture satirists is certainly open to question, but there’s no denying that Redd Kross has made the transition to big-league recordmaking with more skill than most.
Introducing a brash five-piece band that can rock way loud without obscuring the catchy melodies, the self-produced Phaseshifter consolidates Third Eye‘s progress towards a serious pop-rock amalgam somewhere between late Beatles (credit Jeffrey’s Lennon-like singing and the harmonies) and early Cheap Trick (blame it on the roaring guitars and flattened melodies). With the comic relief in the songs kept out of the spotlight — a passing Axl Rose lyrical reference, a few whimsical topics (“Jimmy’s Fantasy,” “After School Special,” “Saragon”), a brief Hollies paraphrase in “Monolith” — it’s possible to overlook the McDonalds’ colorful personalities in the lighthearted songs, hearing only the catchy tunes, the Big Noise and the skilled musicianship. Keyboardist Gere Fennelly gets an especially prominent role, detailing many of the arrangements and lending the album a theatrical tone in spots; new guitarist Edward Kurdziel (who died in 1999) and drummer Brian Reitzell galvanize the energetic attack. For all the evident Redd Kross sound and spirit in Phaseshifter, the album shifts those distinctive attributes into music others could have made.
2500 Redd Kross Fans Can’t Be Wrong contains a new song (“Any Hour, Every Day”) and a handful of overseas tracks from ’91 and ’92.