Most rock history/record collector geeks could easily pass for science club presidents — just replace the pocket slide rule with a copy of some beat-up album price guide. But for John “Speedo” Reis, the skipper of San Diego’s Rocket From the Crypt (and Drive Like Jehu’s first mate), the pursuit of rock obscurity doesn’t translate into impenetrably cerebral wankery: Reis and his bandmates hit the boards as if wired from the ingestion of the collective essence of Iggy, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roky Erickson. Top that off with a tacit understanding of the importance of flash — the band takes the stage in spiffy matching threads and encourages its fans to obtain Rocket-logo tattoos — and you’ve got what might be the first great punk-rock show band.
Paint as a Fragrance (lodged in one of the era’s yuckiest sleeves) isn’t nearly as representative of the quintet’s capabilities as a bevy of concurrent singles. While the album does boast a surfeit of energy, the band often feints when it should jab, backing off intensely memorable riffs while dragging uneventful throbs to the point of tedium. Released after the band had built up an impressive head of steam on a half-dozen 7-inches (the best of which, a one-sided issue on Drunken Fish, finds them gamboling neck-deep in the frenzied riffage of an unreleased MC5 track, “Gold”), Circa: Now! resolves that problem tout de suite: Reis’ concise lyrics (almost soundbites, really) adhere to the gray matter instantly, while guitarist N.D. metes out crunching, repetitive riffs redolent of CBGB circa 1979. Highlights include the ridiculously catchy “Hippy Dippy Do” and “Sturdy Wrists,” not to mention the stein-waving beerhall singalong “Ditch Digger.”
After signing one of those increasingly common bank-busting deals — one which ensured both Rocket and the more esoteric Jehu the chance to be offered up for mass consumption — the band emptied its archive into the compilation All Systems Go!, a jam-packed collection (with some variation in its Japanese and American editions) of singles and rarities, including the goony “Pigeon Eater” (from a ’92 Merge 45) and the pointed “Where Are the Fuckers?” (a truly timeless question), from a ’92 Sub Pop 45. Two vinyl-only releases — The State of Art Is on Fire, a remarkably primitive 2-track recording that recalls contemporary Detroit (goo-goo) muckmasters the Gories, as well as prehistoric Cleveland punkers the Pagans, and Hot Charity helped flush the group’s system of a bilious backlog. The nine-song Hot Charity, a boozy, invective-laced triumph that fuses the band’s garage-rock sensibility with soul revue horns (a hybrid that’s most striking on the swaggering “Cloud Over Branson” and “Guilt Free,” wherein Reis repeatedly warns his subject that “we’ll be strong, you’ll be dead”), really cries out to be found and heard.
On Scream, Dracula, Scream!, the sextet (now augmented by trumpet player JC 2000) compresses blistering punk, swivel-hipped rockabilly and hot buttered soul like some unholy alliance of the Dictators and the E Street Band. But while the members’ defiant trashiness implies the only culture they know is the one that prompted that last free clinic visit, these fourteen songs betray a voracious knowledge of lowbrow iconography, from the Egypto-fuzz riffs that give “On a Rope” its Mancini-meets-MC5 swing to the sleighbell-sated Spector-sound rush of “Young Livers.” Reis’ raging river of vitriol splashes some unusually worthy targets this time around-see “Suit City” (which borrows from Wire more effectively than, say, Elastica) and the chugging “Ball Lightning,” which asks Gen X in toto the $64,000 question, “You want some cheese with your whine?”
Reis is “only” the guitarist in Drive Like Jehu — a more fractured prog-punk foursome with a propensity for extended, yammering jams — but that’s kind of like saying Diana Ross was only the lead singer of the Supremes. Although the band’s self-titled debut isn’t exactly fastidious, it gels when Reis’ above-the-fretboard plinking tails frenzied singer/guitarist Rick Froberg around in increasingly constricting circles on “Caress,” and even more when the two come to an uneasy standoff in the uptight “Good Luck in Jail.” The more viscerally fractious Yank Crime (CD on Interscope; vinyl on Headhunter) is a good deal more compelling: “Here Come the Rome Plows” and the disorienting “Luau” find Froberg sounding like a man pleading for help as the guitar undertow pulls him down for the third and final time. Even so, those crashing waves make the breakers look mighty inviting.
Back Off Cupids is John Reis’ minimalist solo project. Following two singles, a compilation track and a long wait, the self-titled album — a largely instrumental collection of tracks dating back to 1994 — finally appeared in 2000.