Teenage Underground: The Beginnings of The Red Rockers (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part Two

Between live dates in and around San Francisco, The Red Rockers pestered Howie Klein to give them a record deal. Klein and business partner Chris Knab had launched an indie label of their own, 415 Records; its growing roster showcased Bay Area punk and new wave. “It was probably a matter of finances more than anything that he was hesitating signing us,” says Hill. “Eventually, he got the money together and enlisted David Kahne to produce us.” Though he had limited experience at the time, Kahne would go on to a world-class and Grammy-winning career as a producer, working with The Bangles, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, New Order, Regina Spektor and many other artists.

The band began work with Kahne at the Automatt, a top-rated recording studio in San Francisco. “David’s expertise is knowing how to capture the sound of a band,” says Hill. He characterizes the sessions for what would become Condition Red as “just a matter of documenting our sound at that point.” The no-nonsense session were done quickly and efficiently. “The record was done in about five days,” recalls Griffith. “No longer than a week.”

Jello Biafra stopped by to add some “Yippie yi yay” vocals on the album’s sole cover, a reading of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Griffith says that it was Klein’s idea to have Jello guest. “Howie thought that would give us a little carte blanche clout, a little higher profile,” he says.

Singletary says that he wrote many of the chord progressions for the ten other songs on Condition Red. “Darren was very good at writing intelligent, clever words, so he picked a lot of the words to the songs. And without John being able to sing and be [competent] on the guitar, it wouldn’t have worked. We all had a job, so to speak.”

“I listen back to some of that Condition Red material, and I’m amazed,” Griffith says today. “I’ll try to play along: ‘Man, this is so fast!’”

Singletary – who would leave the group after release of 1983’s Good as Gold – looks back fondly upon the band’s debut record as well. “I think it was pretty accurate for the statement that we wanted to make,” he says. “Energy was our thing; we were just full on. We all loved being on stage, and we all loved performing.” He notes that the band’s live set of that period included additional songs that didn’t make it onto Condition Red.

A few years ago, Johnny Colla, guitarist with Huey Lewis and the News, attended an estate sale featuring the worldly possessions of late producer Sandy Pearlman. A lifetime friend and longtime associate of Klein, Pearlman had taken over ownership of 415 Records near the very end of its run. And along the way, he somehow ended up with the master tapes of some of its artists. Colla called Griffith to tell him he had found the original multi-tracks masters for Condition Red, long thought lost forever.

With those tapes in hand, the core trio of Griffith, Hill and Singletary re-entered the studio. The analog tapes required “baking” to restore the tapes for digital transfer. Once that was done, the trio took the opportunity to remix the album, with a goal of making it sound more like the group sounded onstage. “We took off that godawful reverb and echo that had been put all over everything,” says Hill. “Now it’s more representative of us. And it sounds bigger, too.”

The rescued master tape also included a number of songs left off the album, tracks the band had long forgotten. The first-ever CD release of Condition Red also features recordings made in the group’s earliest days back in New Orleans.

On its original release, Condition Red earned critical raves but sold minimally. By the early ‘80s, 415 Records had entered into a major label distribution deal with corporate giant Columbia/CBS. The Red Rockers were swept along into that new arrangement, leading to changes in their sound. The most notable shift would be a dialing back of the political content of the band’s lyrics.

Moving in a much more commercial direction would yield benefits, most notably in the form of albums and singles that charted. And those led to national tours, sharing bills with the likes of The Cars, The Kinks and U2. But the most enduring music from The Red Rockers arguably comes from their early days when they were a scruffy punk outfit.

Looking back on those early pre-fame years, Griffith says that The Red Rockers “never missed a beat. It really helped that we had three guys – the nucleus of the band – who were very focused and on the same page.”

Stay tuned for an exclusive excerpt from my book, Disturbing the Peace: 415 Records and the Rise of New Wave. The excerpt covers this same period of The Red Rockers’ story. — bk