Book Excerpt: The Red Rockers’ ‘Condition Red’

As a companion to my previous post – a three-part feature on The Red Rockers’ debut album – here’s an excerpt from my second book, Disturbing the Peace: 415 Records and the Rise of New Wave. It covers the same subjects but draws upon different quotes from band members Darren Hill and John Thomas Griffith. The book also includes additional chapters covering the rest of the Red Rockers’ output, and a whole lot more besides. – bk

The band would work with 415’s house producer, David Kahne, to make Condition Red, their debut album. “We went into the Automatt with no pre-production or anything,” says Darren Hill. “We just banged the record out in a day and a half, I think it was. We’d been playing enough live at that point that I think it was just a matter of documenting our show. We had like 12 original songs, and that’s what we laid down.” Hill’s view on Kahne’s role is that he served more as an engineer than a producer. “I don’t know if he did much in the way of ‘production’ on that record,” he says.

Jello Biafra made a guest vocal appearance on Condition Red, helping out on a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” He admits that he had never heard the song before that day in the studio. “I didn’t have any Johnny Cash records at that point, so it was a new song to me,” he says. “And I gave it my best, but my name was a little too prominent [on the sleeve] for the lack of work I actually put in.” Four decades after its release, Biafra remains impressed with The Red Rockers’ debut long-player. “That album survives the David Kahne treatment pretty well,” he says. “It’s still a full-on rockin’ album.”

David Kahne pauses before offering his thoughts on Condition Red. “On the first record, they really… what’s the easiest way to say it… were quite influenced by The Clash,” he says. “That was weird.” But he believes that the record had its virtues. “‘Teenage Underground’ is a really cool song,” he says. “I loved that. I thought that was a good punk single, [but one] that could still get some FM airplay.”

In case anyone was in danger of missing the band’s Clash fixation, Peter Soe’s album sleeve artwork was designed to set them right. As the label’s artistic director, he worked on many of 415’s pre-Columbia era projects. “The first album by The Red Rockers was one that I was given more complete control over,” he says. He worked with San Francisco photographer Michael Jang to scout a location and shoot the front cover photo. “I’ll be the first to admit that the design was a bald-faced rip-off and mashup of the first albums by The Clash and The Ramones,” he says.

“The high-contrast effect in the cover photo was achieved by making a copy of the original photograph on a Xerox machine, then making a copy of the copy, and repeating until the desired level of contrast and graininess was reached,” Soe explains. He says that such a process was “a time-tested technique back in the days when Xerox Art was a thing, way before you could just apply a filter in Photoshop to instantly get whatever effect you want.” Soe emphasizes that his chosen approach on Condition Red was “honest packaging. The music inside was straight-up classic punk, very much influenced by the early work of those two bands.”

Darren Hill recalls that the band didn’t have a contract in hand until after their first album was completed. “I remember that was sent way, way after the fact,” he says. “We’d gone back to New Orleans to sort of recharge, and The Circle Jerks were playing there. I remember showing the contract to Keith Morris. He looked at it, just kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘You know, they all rip you off. Don’t worry about it. Just sign it!’” So using Morris’ back as a desk, the members of The Red Rockers signed their record contract with 415. “We were just kids,” Hill says. “We wanted to have a record out, so this was great!”

The band’s story is continued in Disturbing the Peace: 415 Records and the Rise of New Wave, available from HoZac Books.