Redd Kross’s Neurotica at 35: Still Playing Their Songs

Looking back at the album where the teen babes from Monsanto became men

Redd Kross 1987 (Image: Merge Records)

Jeff and Steven McDonald of Redd Kross started out in 1978 as young, loud, and snotty Southern California punks.

The Tourists, their original incarnation, were one of dozens of spiky-haired combos sprouting like mushrooms in fertile soil, except they were younger than all and more clever than most.

On their self-titled 1980 EP, before the name change from Red Cross to Red Kross, the brothers railed against school and the suburbs in the proud tradition of garage rock bands since the 1950s. 

The band was led, then and now, by guitarist and vocalist Jeff (then 17) and bassist and backing vocalist Steven (13). Though the lineup would change over the years, the initial configuration included Greg Hetson of the Circle Jerks on guitar and Ron Reyes, Black Flag’s second vocalist, on drums. 

 

 

The band would break away from hardcore early on. If they bashed out the tunes with as much vim and vigor as their punk-rock peers, a macho-free approach set them apart from many. If anything, they took more inspiration from female entertainment figures than male, like Exorcist star Linda Blair and Lita Ford of the Runaways, both of whom inspired songs on their 1982 full-length debut Born Innocent, which takes its title from a hard-hitting 1974 TV movie in which Blair plays a victim of the juvenile justice system. Their affection for the actress would continue with “Linda Blair ‘84” on the Teen Babes from Monsanto EP.  

In a sign of a different time, they were also fascinated by Charles Manson to the extent that they wrote a song about the cult leader (“Charlie”) and covered his infamous song “Cease to Exist” on Born Innocent.

Though punk-rock references to Manson ran rampant in the 1980s, I can’t completely blame the McDonalds for giving in to the temptation, not when gifted filmmakers, like Mary Harron (Charlie Says) and Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood), would revisit the site of his crimes in more recent years (and I’m hardly blameless, since, like millions of other readers, I devoured Vincent Bugliosi’s bestseller Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders when I was in high school).  

Though only four years separate the two EPs, Redd Kross had shifted into psych-punk territory–with lashings of glam, bubblegum, and power pop–a development reflected in their cover songs, like “Citadel” from the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the greatly-expanded length of their hair.  

Neurotica would arrive three years later, and the transformation was complete. Comparisons to Tommy James and the Shondells, Sweet and Cheap Trick would not be misplaced–Jeff’s ever-youthful voice recalls Robin Zander—though the punk energy remains. On June 24, 2022, their record label, Merge, released a remastered version of the album on LP and CD, including 12 demo tracks from 1986.   

Redd Kross Neurotica, Merge 1987/2022

It marked my introduction to the band, and remains my favorite of their seven-album discography. I wouldn’t get the chance to see them live until 2012, circa Researching the Blues, their very strong comeback album–and Merge debut–after a whopping 15-year break. It was worth the wait as they bashed out all the songs fans could hope to hear with as much fervor as players half their age. 

Jeff and Steven addressed the hiatus when a Los Angeles Times reporter asked them about it in 2012. As Todd Martens wrote, “Talk to the brothers and numerous reasons will be offered as to why the new songs sat in the vaults for a number of years. Gigs with other bands, production work, and children are cited as at one point or another taking precedence.” By that time, Jeff had married guitarist Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s and Steven had married singer-songwriter Anna Waronker of That Dog. 

For Neurotica, which would lead to a major-label contract with Atlantic Records, the band turned to musician and producer Tommy Erdelyi, aka Tommy Ramone, who produced, engineered and mixed the album. The lineup represented one of their best as the McDonald brothers welcomed Robert Hecker on lead guitar and non-relative Roy McDonald of the Muffs on drums. Though this formation wouldn’t last past their second full-length, I was thrilled when Hecker returned to the fold for Researching the Blues.

Alas, like many alt-rock acts that emerged in the 1980s, Redd Kross didn’t have the best of luck when it comes to labels. Big Time, an Australian imprint with an RCA distribution deal, originally released Neurotica–and then folded the next year. For contractual reasons, the band was unable to record under the name Redd Kross for three years. Five Foot Two Records, a label formed by Charlotte and Anna, would reissue the album with tracks remixed by Steven and Jon Auer of the Posies in 2002, but the label appears to have gone dark since then. Merge’s new release now stands as the definitive one.

On the 14-track album, they celebrate the pop culture figures of their youth, like George Harrison (“Janus, Jeanie, and George Harrison”) and One Day at a Time’s Mackenzie Phillips (the misspelled “McKenzie”), while casting a cynical eye on Hollywood hipsters in “Frosted Flake” and “Peach Kelli Pop.” As Jeff sings in the latter, “Laughing at all the assholes at the Rainbow / Flying so high on coke / What a joke!” 

On reissued versions of the album, including the new one, they also cover Sonny & Cher’s girl-group homage “It’s the Little Things” with the Bangles’ guitarist (and Jeff’s then girlfriend) Vicki Peterson.

 

AUDIO: Redd Kross “Neurotica (Demo)”

Other songs reference Sigmund Freud and Jesus Christ Superstar (“Neurotica”), Cindy Brady (“Tatum O’Tot and the Fried Vegetables”), and Buffy St. Marie (“Ghandi Is Dead (I’m the Cartoon Man)”). Neurotica even includes a lilting love song, “Love Is You,” an anomaly for the band, which Robert Hecker sings in an Arthur Lee-like falsetto. Hecker also wrote “What They Say,” which sounds like nothing so much as a thrash-metal cover of Pere Ubu’s classic 1978 art-punk single “Non-Alignment Pact.”

Redd Kross’s love for punk and pop culture continues in the Special Thanks, in which they list KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, Cher, Spock, Adam Nimoy (Leonard’s son), Traci Lords and Patti Smith.  

If there are no throwaway tracks, standouts “Peach Kelli Pop” and “Play My Song” might have been hits in an earlier era–or if Big Time had stuck around long enough to promote them–but Neurotica’s commercial impact was minimal. Redd Kross would enjoy their highest chart position with 1990’s Third Eye, their Atlantic debut, when the single “Annie’s Gone” peaked at #16 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart. They would continue to enjoy modest singles success throughout the 1990s–in the UK and Australia.  

As for the demos, they were only recently uncovered, so it’s almost like getting new music from the band in 2022. Though they certainly make for an enjoyable listen, there are no stunning revelations. The one newly-unearthed song, a cover of the Partridge Family’s “All of the Things” (written by Monkees associate Ric Klein) is a mid-tempo, organ-driven rocker that might have slowed down Neurotica’s pace, whereas the other 11 offer stripped-down versions of songs that would end up on the finished album. If anything, they confirm Erdelyi’s board skills, since he gives the selections the added depth and punch they need.  

If anything, it’s too bad the band didn’t tap Erdelyi for Third Eye, their slickest album by far. It wasn’t until I saw the band live 22 years after its release that I heard how much better that material could have sounded if producer Michael Vail Blum (Roger Daltrey, A.J. Croce) hadn’t sanded off so many of their rough edges. Fortunately, 1993’s Phaseshifter would represent a satisfying return to scrappier form.  

In the 1990s, Neurotica provided a template for bands that joined pop harmonies with crunchy guitars, like Nirvana and Superchunk. In fact, their current incarnation includes one-time Nirvana drummer Dale Crover–not exactly a coincidence, since Steven has played with Crover in the Melvins since 2015. Other Neurotica fans include Paul Westerberg of the Replacements and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.  

As Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman told Entertainment Weekly in 1993, “Neurotica was a life changer for me and for a lot of people in the Seattle music community.” At one point, Sub Pop even planned to reissue Neurotica; this is the remixed version Five Foot Two Records released in 2002.   

Steven McDonald ’87 (Image: Facebook)

Atlantic wouldn’t pick up Redd Kross’s option after Third Eye, but it hardly put a dent in their stride as they would go on to release four more studio albums, from Phaseshifter to 2019’s Beyond the Door.

In the meantime, their children have joined the family business. In 2016, Jeff and Charlotte’s daughter, Side Eyes front woman Astrid McDonald, even covered one of her mother’s pre-Go-Go’s punk tracks, the Eyes’ “Don’t Talk To Me,” for a split single on In the Red Records with her father’s band.  

Considering that most every group mentioned above has at least one documentary to their name, it only stands to reason that Redd Kross would get one, too, and since 2019, Andrew Reich has been working on Born Innocent: The Redd Kross Story. That year, he met his Kickstarter goal. To backers, he recently reported that he’s working on editing, clearing music rights, and putting the finishing touches on the film.  

Though Redd Kross is currently taking a break after cancelling their 2022 European tour, their website includes a promising message: “We hope to see all of your beautiful faces on our triumphant return to the stage in 2023!” Against all odds, the kids behind “Rich Brat” and “I Hate My School”—which don’t even break the one-minute mark—will have managed to stick around for 45 years since they began.

As Steven, then 52, told James McMahon of the NME in 2019, “I could happily be in Redd Kross for the rest of my life. I need to perform. That’s a big part of me. If I don’t perform I get weird.”

 

Kathy Fennessy

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Kathy Fennessy

Kathy Fennessy is a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society, an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, and a regular contributor to Seattle Film Blog. She has also written about film for Amazon, City Pages, Northwest Film Forum, Seattle International Film Festival, and The Stranger.

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