The Gruesomes Back from the Grave
Published Jun 01, 2000The Gruesomes were watching Jeopardy when I called. It struck me as ridiculously commonplace - what else would they be doing? After all, sitting in basements, eating junk food and watching gooney daytime television were the creative impulses that inspired the primitive tyrants of teen trash a decade-and-a-half ago. So why, ten years after they broke up, should things be different now?
The easy answer would be that everything else is different. In 1990, Gorbachev was running the show in the Kremlin, Republicans were in the White House, Saddam was still a trusted U.S. client, and hair rock, synthesisers and spandex ruled the airwaves. A handful of music fans outside of Seattle had heard of Nirvana, and the Gruesomes were one of the top underground draws in the country. A year later, Gorby'd been given the boot, Saddam a righteous whuppin', everybody and their dog was bubbling about that crazy, far-out "grunge" thing out of Seattle, and the Gruesomes were dead and buried. By the time the Gruesomes broke up, they had acquired a solid cross-country fan base thanks to college radio stations, consistent touring and their snotty, tongue-in-cheek humour.
Ten years later, they've returned from the crypt. Their new effort, the 14-song Cave-In!, falls somewhere between the band's second record, Gruesomania and their third and final Hey! It's polished, but not squeaky clean; it's trashy, but there aren't any glaring mistakes; and it is definitely the most fuzzed-out piece the band has ever released.
"We're all really happy with the new record," says bassist and producer John Davis. "It's a hundred times better than any fourth album we would have put out. I didn't really like the power-pop direction we were going in by the time we broke up anyway."
Most fans agree that 1988's Hey! was the weakest of the three full-length albums the Gruesomes released on Montreal's Og Music (founded by Deja Voodoo's Gerard Van Herk and Tony Dewald). While the attitude was right, and the structure of the songs never strayed from anything more exotic than the lengthy (at five minutes, positively Wagnerian) "I Can Dig It," the primitive DIY flavour that characterised Tyrants of Teen Trash (their 1986 debut full-length) and Gruesomania (1987) was missing. On Cave-In! Davis and the rest of the band found it. It's fuzzy, it's mean, it's way out - in other words, your basic mid-60s garage snot-punk/surf music that has always characterised who and what the Gruesomes are.
Image and attitude have always been as important as their music. The long hair, the suits and the Beatle boots conveyed their mid-60s influence as much as their caterwauling and mangling of instruments. "The Gruesomes always had a very definite idea of what our image and direction was," says singer/guitarist (and former Kingpin) Bobby Beaton, "and we maintained it. We purposely narrowed our artistic direction to make sure that we fit into this well-defined, pre-arranged sound and look."
That all-important sound and look is taken as much from the post-British invasion music and fashion as it is from The Flintstones. (Episode P-123, "The Gruesomes," in which the family befriends the inhabitants of Tombstone Manor, first aired November 12, 1964. Writer unknown.) Springing from Montreal's burgeoning teenage mod scene in the mid-80s, high school pals Beaton and Davis were "the geeks of the school," insists Davis, "who were into D&D and never played sports." The pair listened to every obscure, long-forgotten band from the era they could find - songs by bands like the Sonics, the Shadows of Knight, ? and the Mysterians, Gonn and the Jury would work their way into shows and onto records.
"Our influences were the cheapest, crummiest musicians we could find," Beaton emphasises. "There was this real band explosion and all of them were doing this mid-60s Beatles stuff, and they were terrible! They couldn't play at all. And that's what the Gruesomes were. None of us had any musical background whatsoever, but within six months of getting guitars for Christmas we were onstage playing shows." All of them, except Davis's younger brother Eric, were 17 or 18.
At early shows in small, seedy, now-defunct Montreal dives like Station 10 and Le Steppe, the Gruesomes would quickly exhaust their repertoire, but they played long and played often. Word of mouth and flyers quickly drew a solid base of regular fans and curious, if puzzled onlookers. "People would come to see us knowing that the band sucked," says Beaton, "and would watch in amazement as these four kids who couldn't play at all hammered out these cheesy, primitive tunes, screaming and yelling about putting down girls."
The band's juvenile stage shtick, self-mockery, lousy jokes and obnoxious lyrics seemed to appeal to a wide range of music fans, especially college students. More and more people began to get their joke as they played larger shows across the country and the U.S., and not just the "bowl-headed geek 60s weirdoes," as Davis calls them.
"We didn't really operate in a scene," says Beaton. "We were totally influenced by it and took our cues from that scene, from the big American garage revival scene, bands like the Vipers and the Fuzztones. But in Canada, the consciousness of the Gruesomes was us as a band unit."
Their American contemporaries did not take kindly to a bunch of smart-ass punks mocking a band's entire identity ? an identity based largely on being either lovelorn losers or from reading too many trashy Tales From the Crypt comic books.
"Bands like the Fuzztones or the Chesterfield Kings were very serious bands, they took what they did very seriously," sneers Davis. "It might have frustrated them that we did so well playing with them. I mean, we were a bunch of talentless punk losers."
After a pause, Beaton adds, "We frustrated a lot of people, because a lot of serious musicians just couldn't hack it that these talentless, goofball kids who took nothing seriously, especially themselves, would achieve such a level of success."
The fact that they couldn't play all that well may have had something to do with it, but it probably also had a lot to with the Gruesomes as people. "Just in case it was never clear, we were jerks," Davis states. "We made fun of everything and everybody all the time, our sense of humour was totally negative and evil. We were just asses."
That sarcastic, malicious sense of humour glares out at you like a glass eye from their albums and live shows. Beaton estimates that about half their songs are in the "You left me baby, now I'm putting you down" vein. A quick look at their titles confirms this: "I Never Loved Her," "What's Your Problem?," "Get Outta My Hair," "I'm Glad For You," "Buzz Off," "Thanks for Nothing," "Don't Waste My Time," "Your Lies", and on Cave-In!, "You're Not the Boss of Me" and "Serves You Right."
"Thematically," Davis points out, "our music was pure fluff. The Gruesomes were never a message band. We never spoke about politics or about social problems or anything. Our whole thing was to party and have fun. We went out of our way to make sure we never, ever, ever took an opinion on anything."
When asked if they didn't take an opinion because they didn't just didn't want to put that kind of slant on their music or because they didn't have a social conscience, Davis shrugs and says unequivocally, "Both."
The only trouble the Gruesomes ever got into was touchy, ultra-earnest women's groups shrieking that they were perpetuating stereotypes of women. Davis has a clipping from Toronto's alternative weekly NOW with a photo of Beaton and a caption saying he has been accused of sexism.
"All we were doing was imitating music we thought was cool," Beaton says. "Our songs were conceptual - they were never based on life experience and had nothing to do with real life. We just wanted to speak the language of cool 60s music, and every second song just happened to be about attitude."
"I have to say that the Gruesomes had a very strong ethic," says Davis. "When we weren't touring, we were rehearsing from noon to six, five days a week. I'd say it took us about a year-and-a-half between first getting our instruments and becoming a pretty tight touring band."
Touring, of course, took its toll. Beaton hated it and would complain about it in his songs. Eventually, the physical effects of touring ended it, but it was guitarist/singer Gerry Alvarez's mother who forced him to quit and broke the band up.
"We'd go out on the road and we'd come back sick, sad, skinny, and depressed, and the people who cared about us felt sorry for us and wanted us to stop," says Beaton. "Gerry's mom didn't want him to do the new record either."
This time out, though, with a new record, a still-strong fan base, and a distinct sound and appeal, the Gruesomes won't be jumping into vans and playing every bar between Antigonish and Squamish anymore. For a band that never took itself or anyone else seriously, the Gruesomes now, after ten years of not having played together, are in the comfortable position of being able to pick and choose their shows. They will play a few select dates this summer to promote the album, but the days of playing for "a hundred bucks and a bowl of spaghetti" are over. Considering that the entire idea for the reunion came from a drunken New Year's phone call to Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern to see if the Gruesomes still had drawing potential, that says something.