Teenage Underground: The Beginnings of The Red Rockers (Part 1 of 3)

New Orleans (by way of San Francisco) foursome The Red Rockers scored a hit in in 1983 with “China,” a single from the band’s second LP Good as Gold. Reflecting the zeitgeist of the time, “China” earned regular play on MTV and reached #19 on the U.S. Mainstream Rock singles chart. And while the tune was representative of the chiming new wave character of the music on Good as Gold and its followup, 1984’s Schizophrenic Circus, it was a far cry from the sound of Red Rockers’ early days. Instead, the band’s debut album Condition Red is a fiery slice of left-wing informed punk, and the music within led critics and fans to refer to the group as the “American Clash.”

Released in 1981, Condition Red has long been out of print. Now in 2023, the group’s three surviving founding members have reissued the LP, appending it with bonus tracks. John Thomas Griffith, Darren Hill and James Singletary spoke with me about those early punk days and the making of Condition Red. – bk

The group came together when LSU college student Griffith decided to start a band with an old classmate from his high school days, James Singletary. The two had reconnected and bonded over their love of the music and passion coming out of the burgeoning punk movement. Any shortcomings in their their musical skills were offset by enthusiasm and commitment. “Looking for a bass player took us all summer,” says Griffith. “For a long time, we didn’t hear from anybody.”

Eventually they found a like-minded musical comrade in Darren Hill. “I had a little setup in my dad’s garage,” Griffith recalls. “We started out playing all covers, anything from the Sex Pistols to the Clash to Stiff Little Fingers.” The new group called itself Rat Finks. “We had a few gigs under that name,” says Hill. “Initially we were just writing dumb songs, and learning how to play.”

“I was a beginner just trying to learn the easiest three-chord songs,” says Singletary. “Darren and I were both brand new on our instruments; John was the talent of the band. He could sing, he could play guitar and piano.” The group added more covers to work up a full set. “Buzzcocks, Wire, The Damned,” Singletary recalls. “We were fans of Generation X, but we could never really pull their songs off, so we didn’t do them.”

New Orleans in the late ‘70s wasn’t exactly a hotbed for punk. “You really didn’t get anywhere playing alternative music there,” says Griffith. Hill agrees: “New Orleans is probably the best musical town in the entire world, but not for what we were doing,” he says.

Reading magazines like New York Rocker, Singletary was keeping up with the thriving punk movements happening elsewhere. “I was looking at everything going on in New York and England,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m going to be part of it.’ And I told John, ‘Hey man, we can do this!’”

Inspired by late ‘70s California punk band The Dils, the band changed its name. “The Dils were a huge influence on us,” Hill says. “They had a song called ‘Red Rockers Rule,’ and that’s where I lifted the name from.”

They started focusing more on writing original songs. “We wanted to make a stand in social politics a little bit: peer pressure, growing up and all the things that you deal with in life as a young person,” Singletary explains. “Because we only had the perspective that we knew. We came up from middle class families. We weren’t poor or anything like that, so we couldn’t sing about being on the dole.” He says that he was inspired by lyrics of substance, “something other than stupid ‘70s rock bullshit.”

“We had written a lot of songs based on experience of having to go register for the draft, which was instituted by Reagan at that time,” Griffith recalls. “The three of us went down to the post office and all signed up together.” The rebellious nature and left-wing perspective of the band members would find expression in their songs.

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