Text and Photos by Andy Nystrom. originally posted in There’s Something Hard in There.
Redd Kross’ debut Self-titled EP will be reissued on Merge Records on June 26. (Courtesy of the Merge Records website)
It was fun, horrifying, exciting and nerve-racking.
With an infectious laugh, that’s how Jeff McDonald describes the feelings that permeated the air when Red Cross (later changed to Redd Kross) invaded a pair of recording studios for the first time in 1979. During those sessions, the foursome banged out a handful of songs that soon inhabited the grooves of the band’s debut EP and entered the punk-rock world nearly 40 years ago.
The musicians were young and bratty, and the tunes were killer.
Blazing into the studios’ tape decks from the mouths and hands of Jeff McDonald (16, vocals), Steven McDonald (12, bass/vocals), Greg Hetson (18, guitar) and Ron Reyes (19, drums), the songs garnered the attention of Los Angeles-area tastemaker and KROQ deejay Rodney Bingenheimer and Robbie Fields, who released the six-song 12-inch stunner — which clocks in at 6:22 — in 1980 on his Posh Boy Records imprint.
On June 26, Merge Records will reissue the 40th anniversary edition of that landmark EP in all its raging glory with an additional four demos and a live track from the band’s second gig at the infamous Black Flag Church in Hermosa Beach, CA. Along with the EP’s six songs (which were originally released via “The Siren” compilation on Posh Boy in 1980), the collection features demos of “Rich Brat,” “Cover Band,” “Clorox Girls” and “Standing in Front of Poseur” and the live “Fun with Connie.”
Within a roughly five-week span in the late summer to fall of 1979, the band changed its name from the Tourists to Red Cross, planted Reyes on the drummer’s stool (replacing original skinsman John Stielow, age 13), gigged with Black Flag at the Hong Kong Cafe in Chinatown and recorded at Media Art Studio in Hermosa and Shelter Studios in Hollywood. The Spot/Joe Nolte sessions at Media Art came first and are the bonus demos on the Merge reissue, and the Jim Mankey/Roger Harris recordings at Shelter were chosen by Fields to represent the band on “The Siren” and subsequently the EP. Fans know the Nolte-produced “Rich Brat” as the 36-second leadoff track from the “Life is Ugly So Why Not Kill Yourself” compilation from 1982 on New Underground Records, and the remaining demos are from that initial session as well.
“The EP is just super fun. All those songs are written like almost instantaneously. It’s almost as fast as it takes to listen to them,” Jeff said over the phone from his Los Feliz home on a recent day.
“You know what’s funny? Every once in a while, there’s always like these little kids from Rock School doing ‘Annette’s Got the Hits’ covers or stuff and it’s hilarious. Kids who were our age or younger,” he added.
Strangely and hilariously, it was the youngest guy in the band, Steven, who got the monetary ball rolling with the graveyard-hours Media Art session via his robust Daily Breeze paper route income. Steven recalls enduring a severe Sunday morning hangover — after a night out at the Hong Kong Cafe that resulted in some serious barfing — while folding papers with his dad in front of their Hawthorne home before heading out to deliver the news on his Strand Cruiser bike.
With the newsboy cash in hand, Jeff said they warily faced the huge mystique surrounding the recording studio back then, but they got their bearings and plowed through the sessions.
Jeff remembers everything whizzing by in one take and the studio guys going, “‘OK do it, OK it’s good,’ and I’m like, ‘Are you sure?’ It was like being on live television or something. Especially being a teenager, ’cause you’re so awkward and gawky and bizarre and self-conscious, so to have to kind of muster the courage to just kind of power through something like that was something you don’t forget.”
Steven’s high-pitched backups on “Cover Band” and “I Hate My School” and lead vocals on “Poseur” led the band to dub him the Jimmy Osmond of Redd Kross, Jeff noted with a hilarity-punctuated comment. Jeff wishes that his little brother had sung lead on more songs, and he’s amazed these days when Steven still sings in that original key when they unleash songs from the EP in a live setting.
Also via phone from his Los Feliz home recently, Steven added about his vocals: “I was going for it. I’m sure I probably had a little bit of insecurity, but also just was like empowered by my youth. Also I had my brother encouraging me, and Jeff was like, ‘Amazing! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!’ He loved my high screaming voice (laughs), and he’s always encouraged me to approach the nether realms of my capabilities. To reach far beyond what I should be reaching for, particularly in a high vocal range.”
Echoing Jeff’s earlier sentiments, Steven said they were having a blast in an intimidating environment. And they fucking nailed it.
“All in all when I listen to it now, I’m proud of that fact that we were so tenacious,” Steven said.
On a high note, Rodney was thrilled with the tunes and started blasting Redd Kross over the airwaves on his influential Rodney on the Roq show. Listeners dug the songs as well.
“So that was really exciting, and it wasn’t lost on us how cool it was to actually have a record out,” Jeff said.
With the Merge reissue of that eponymous EP, Steven has once again stepped up to the plate to put all the pieces into place with the help of Redd Kross webmaster and graphic designer Jon Krop. Jeff has been at the helm of the band’s other reissues over the last five years.
While digging through his archives, Steven grasped onto Jeff’s ancient address book, which is tiny in stature but massive in content. The red artifact contains phone numbers of musicians and club bookers from the band’s earliest days.
So, bang, the reissue’s front and back covers would feature that fortuitous find.
“You can thumb through it and it’s crazy because it’s all people who were our heroes or people that booked clubs,” Steven said with enthusiasm. “And Jeff had all these phone numbers. He had the booker from the Hong Kong Cafe, the booker from Raji’s, he had Belinda from the Go-Go’s phone number, he had Lee Ving’s phone number from FEAR, someone from the Avengers, someone from X probably, someone from the Dickies… all of our favorite bands.”
Redd Kross was bent on playing gigs and Jeff would sidle up to those folks at clubs and rattle off information about the emerging band.
Steven said that Jeff would shoot forth something along the lines of, “Hey we have a band, my brother’s in it, he’s 12 years old’ and then point to me. And then we’d be like, ‘Can we play with you?'” (laughter)
After a few tries recently, Jeff mirrored his freehand writing from 40 years ago to list the titles of the songs that sit beside some names and phone numbers from the address book on the back cover.
Perhaps Steven’s biggest accomplishment with the reissue was obtaining the rights to the record from Fields.
“That’s one of the most grown-up things I’ve ever done in my life,” said a chuckling Steven, who notes that he could have talked himself out of it, but pressed on to bring his idea to fruition and keep the music alive. Perhaps now owning that copyright can be worth some monetary value to pass on to his son in the future.
Speaking of the youth of Los Angeles, Steven frequented all-ages gigs about 15 years ago to scout bands to produce and witnessed musicians hammering out songs off the “Red Cross” EP. He was blown away and reacted with, “‘Whoa! OK, wait, so kids know about this? Kids still get into this?'”
He labels the EP as a gateway record for a lot of kids to delve into underground music.
“That record probably has that super power beyond any of our other records. It’s all the more reason why I’m really glad that we control it now,” he said.
Jeff and wife Charlotte Caffey’s daughter Astrid hits stages as the vocalist of the Side Eyes with bits and pieces surely inherited from the Redd Kross and Go-Go’s tunesmiths. While 10-year-old Alfie, which is Steven and wife Anna Waronker of That Dog’s son, is a sports kid — especially basketball — he can keep a tune way better than his father, the Redd Kross bassist noted.
“I don’t really shove (Redd Kross tunes) in his face because I know that I had such a unique, weirdo experience, and I don’t want it to be like, ‘OK look kid, look what I was doing at 11, OK what are you doing? Chop, chop! Chop, chop! Let’s get to it,'” Steven said while chuckling.
Steven added that perhaps Alfie could someday gravitate toward “I Hate My School” and encourage his friends to play that song with him.
On whether the EP songs still hold up today, Hetson said in an email: “I suppose they do, people are still interested in them after all these years, which is strange considering we were all in high school or junior high when we recorded these. Well, Ron was the exception being an old man of 19 years of age.”
Hetson added that the band was having fun making music and meeting people during that formative time.
“Our goal was to get out of the garage, which was actually Jeff and Steve’s parents living room and into a club and play a show somewhere,” he said.
Reyes reached deep into his memory bank and said in a Messenger note: “Joining Red Cross was a trip. I just bought a drum set and didn’t even touch it except to drive people out of my home (the Church) by playing the ‘My Sharona’ beat when it got late and I wanted to sleep.”
Since Reyes possessed a kit, the band assumed that he must know how to play it, the drummer joked. Rehearsing at the Church for free was also on their minds, Reyes added.
A few weeks later, the band was gigging and recording the two sessions.
“Trouble was that I still was not a good drummer and the (EP) producer was some big shot who recorded all these classic rock bands. He did not like my drumming, so he came in the studio and took away, I think, my hi-hat and some other cymbals and some toms so all I had left was kick, snare, ride and floor tom. Then I proceeded to play the songs with variations of the only beat I knew, the ‘My Sharona’ beat,” Reyes said.
Reyes dug the songs and the musicianship of the McDonalds and Hetson, who received exactly what they asked for from the man behind the kit.
“I think the songs hold up ’cause they are like punk rock ‘American Graffiti,’ Reyes said. “Best band I was ever in. It was all downhill from there.”
** FROM HAWTHORNE TO HERMOSA AND BEYOND
Punk rock blistered its way onto Jeff’s radar when the Ramones performed on Don Kirshners Rock Concert TV show in 1977 and via Rodney’s radio show.
“I was always into kind of rock and roll that other kids in my neighborhood didn’t listen to. I loved Slade and we liked David Bowie and weird shit like that. That was all very culty underground, so the next step from most of those bands was punk rock,” he said.
So Jeff grabbed a guitar at age 14 and tried to get a handle on Ramones and Runaways tunes, but found it easier to just write his own songs. About a year later, 11-year-old Steven brought his bass out of the Dana Middle School jazz orchestra room and into the punk-rock realm.
“We started writing songs and then once we got a few songs together, I was out to try to find other musicians. It was hard. I found Greg Hetson. We were in (Hawthorne High) photography class together and he had taken pictures of the Dickies at the Whisky. He was the only other person I knew at school at the time who even knew about those bands,” said Jeff, adding that Hetson balked at joining the band at first because of the little-kid factor (drummer Stielow had also made the move from the Dana jazz orchestra).
With some prodding, Jeff got Hetson over to their house and he was impressed with the songs they had on tap. Hetson was in and the Tourists were a go.
“Once we were able to rehearse with the four of us in one of our garages, it was just a classic garage band situation. I’d say eight out of 10 times, the police would be called, and the garage door would open and there would be cops telling us we had to stop,” Jeff laughed. “It was difficult to rehearse. We really got the most of it when we were actually able to get together. It was fun.”
The quartet soon befriended other punks in the South Bay and caught a raging Black Flag gig in Redondo Beach. Jeff contacted Greg Ginn via the address on the back of the band’s “Nervous Breakdown” EP and the Tourists were eventually invited to hang out at the infamous Church in Hermosa Beach.
With about 10 other “punk-rock sympathizers” on hand, Jeff remembers, “We performed our set for everyone in the little scene there and everyone was really into it, so it was kind of confirmation that we actually had something that was kind of cool.”
After being welcomed into the Church scene, the Tourists began rehearsing there and soon met future drummer Reyes.
Speaking of the Church in connection with the Merge reissue, the irreverent song “Fun With Connie” about Connie Francis was remastered from a cassette that Steven unearthed from an early live show at the Black Flag gritty abode. The tape incorrectly noted that it was the band’s first gig, but Steven clarifies that their foray into the live realm was at an eighth-grade graduation party with Black Flag in Hawthorne. They tugged no fans into their fold on that occasion.
“It was not that show (the mislabeled tape). It was because we got booed the entire time by the eighth-graders. They were really not having us and the didn’t like us,” he said. “The reaction on this cassette was people clapping. It was like a smattering of applause, which made me realize that the only place this could have been from would have been at one of the parties at the Church.”
Another nugget of punk history was revealed while listening to that live tape: Steven noted that the Circle Jerks heisted one of his riffs for themselves and never gave him credit. He laughed and jokingly said to cue the violins.
Perhaps the most discussed early Tourists gig was the raucous Polliwog Park affair in Manhattan Beach while manning the opening slot for Black Flag. From Jeff’s standpoint, the boys held their own pretty well before things became unhinged when Black Flag hit the stage in front of copious unwelcoming families out for a pleasant afternoon lunch and some supposedly mellow tunes.
“I remember being terrified and there was a lot of people there. Some of our friends had shown up, a small group of punk rockers were there. We went on first, so it was just families and people who were watching us. (They) were just kind of looking at us with a strange look on their face, but they were polite. No one was throwing anything at us, not until Black Flag played, and then all the families started throwing watermelon rinds, beer cans, everything at them,” Jeff recalled.
Scary, sure, but the McDonalds and their cohorts couldn’t get enough of the punk scene. They embraced every moment, from the Church to the Hong Kong Cafe to the Whisky in Hollywood and beyond. The McDonald parents were fine with their sons’ activities, said Jeff, and they even drove the boys to and from their first punk gig featuring X and the Avengers at the Whisky. There was much begging involved to get the parents and kids into the car for that Whisky excursion, Jeff laughed.
“We were very serious about (the band), and they were OK, they were reasonably supportive. We didn’t have these aspirations of a career in music, we just were doing things in the moment,” said Jeff, adding that when they rehearsed at home, they plugged in when their dad was at work since they didn’t want to bother him. “They were cool, but we didn’t really want them coming to any of our shows, ’cause we were horrified if they saw some of the conditions that we were playing in that it would be shut down, and rightfully so. We had a few friends that were older like Keith Morris and my friend Ella who drove, so they were OK with those people being kind of chaperones, but what would they know? (laughs)”
The McDonalds always loved music and started going to concerts in the 1970s at the nearby Forum in Inglewood, where they saw the likes of Elton John, KISS, Led Zeppelin, the Faces and much more. Much like the Whisky gig, their parents ushered them to the shows and retrieved them at the House of Pies across the street from the Forum afterward. Technically, Jeff’s first concert was the Beatles in San Diego when the 3-year-old accompanied his mom, aunt and grandmother to the show. He remembers an abundance of screaming and chaos within the massive crowd.
Approximately 12 years after that Paul, John, George and Ringo show, Jeff began his own musical journey with his brother by his side.
Looking back on the “Red Cross” EP nowadays, “Annette’s Got the Hits” is a standout track for Jeff because it’s the first riff-based song the band penned. It’s a McDonald brothers collaboration and features a riff that Steven came up with after digesting Henry Mancini orchestral songs like “Pink Panther” and “Peter Gunn” in middle school. It’s sort of Pink and Peter punkified, if you will.
“That one still really holds up. People really seem to dig it,” said Jeff, adding that it’s cool to have those initial songs at the ready during current gigs. “It’s weird, for so many years we just didn’t play those songs because we just couldn’t relate to them on any level (laughs). In recent years, we always add them to our set. They’ve just become these strange, psychedelic, weird, time-machine moments for us. They’re really fun to play now.”