Echoes and Reverberations: The Bad Sleep Good or Not At All.
And they got away with it all because they were the best band in town.
When the Buck Pets' eponymous debut album was released on Island Records in 1987, your girl started making some plans of her own. She saw that album cover and decided she wanted a piece of that action for herself.
Men my age put that record on the turntable and practically jumped out of our skin, wondering how these four kids from north of I-635 could shred shit so poetic.
But before the band had ever set foot in a recording studio, it piled into a rented van and set out to play anywhere but here.
Lead guitarist Chris Savage remembers driving back and forth across Canada and the Northeast, literally begging for gigs anywhere they could find them.
"We didn't have a record deal or anything like that yet," Savage recalls. "We stayed in cheap hotels with hookers and drug dealers everywhere; we were young and fearless. It was an insane experience, but it was totally worth it. This guy (who has since been the tour manager for Foo Fighters for the last 12 years) hooked us up with a bunch of dates on the fly. We would just show up and play without any promotion or guarantee. It sounds crazy in retrospect, but we made so many connections and met so many people that it inevitably worked out to our advantage."
Savage wrote most of the material on the Buck Pets' first album when he was still a teenager.
"I can remember writing 'Hammer Valentine', 'More and More' and 'A Little Murder' when I was still living at home with my parents in Plano," he said. "I was in high school and I had gone to Theatre Gallery that night and just couldn't go to sleep. I just climbed out of bed and knew I had to write them before I would ever finally get any rest."
"More and More" was one of those songs that just send chills up your spine. Two minutes of sheer rock upheaval. A wave of chaos, lead singer Andy Thompson above the fray, asking, "What's the price for your slice of life?" This shit was heavy--both massive and introspective at the same time. Savage's guitar solo was a writhing atonal wall of noise, the black Gibson Les Paul screaming through an old Marshall half-stack like a damaged F16 scorching the desert sky. His simple, repetitive, melodic figure during the bridge wavers on a teetering high wire above the rest of the band; the wall of sonic anarchy that follows perfectly simulates the effect of biting down on tin foil. When Thompson comes back to finish the lyrics for the third verse, Savage's harmonic squall line of feedback just swims around oblivious to the other instruments.
It's fucking beautiful.
So little rock 'n' roll manages to articulate revelation or personal discovery in a way that is anything other than blatantly emo. But this shit is different. The song is pure genius. After hearing it, you realize that you've been holding your breath the whole time. It's that dramatic and concise; brutal, yet beautiful. That's what life is all about, isn't it? How you'll make your dreams come true?
Kim Buie (Island Records VP of A&R at the time): "The first time I saw the Buck Pets play at the Theatre Gallery, I remember there was this lightening bolt of energy flying off the stage--guitars, hair, and snarky youth in its full glory. After seeing them live, I knew I wanted them to be on the Sound of Deep Ellum compilation I was making for Island Records. It was during the process of making this project that I knew I wanted to sign them. I just had this sense that they were on the cutting edge of something that sat between punk rock sensibilities, college radio garage days and what was to become the apathetic disenfranchised rock bands of the '90s. They preceded Nirvana, but were every bit as good and could have just as easily been the band to spark that revolution."
Marci Mangham: "In 1986, I was at the Love and Rockets show at the Longhorn Ballroom and felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Chris Savage. He handed me a small flyer for a Buck Pets show at Theater Gallery. 'All the way from Mars', it said. My friend Jill and I had heard of them, but had not seen them play. Their sound was too big for Theatre Gallery, but yet it fit perfectly. They exuded teenage angst and possessed the kind of power and fury that appealed to young punk rock sensibilities, yet they could play their instruments, and Andy could really sing."
Scott Johnson (bassist, Cosmic Chimp): "The Buck Pets were the very first band I saw that seemed like normal guys until they got onstage, at which point they suddenly became rock 'n' roll legends. They were definitely great without having to 'dress up'. It made you feel as if they really meant it; full blast music and no particular concern with fashion. What would later be distilled into grunge and become anti- fashion had already been a natural look for years with them. It's hard to say, but if they didn't pre-date the actual genesis of Grunge, they were very close to it. In the mid '80s at least, they were the freshest and most honest rock band around."
Josh Robertson: "Growing up in Fort Worth in the late '80s, the Dallas rock scene cast an intimidating shadow. The iconic Dallas bands had so much more at their disposal when it came to the number of clubs to play, the number of record labels and A&R reps, and the number of cool record stores. The 817 offered maybe one club, no labels and no cool record stores (unless you count the Sound Warehouse on Camp Bowie where the Toadies and I used to work.) I felt like a trip to Deep Ellum was a much bigger deal for us than for people who lived in Dallas. I remember when Mercurotones came out and MTV's 120 Minutes featured them as their final video of the night. The host, Dave Kendall, extolled them as one of the best American rock bands around. Those were the days when kids would video tape 120 Minutes because it was all we had--and here were these four guys from a town 45 minutes away, opening for Neil Young, getting their videos played and making it big."
Mike Rudnicki (Baboon): "Going to school in Denton and not getting to Dallas much during their heyday, I only saw The Buck Pets a few times. I remember they opened for the Butthole Surfers at the Arcadia. A friend of mine put 'Pearls' on a mixtape for me in 1990 and it became the one that I listened to a million times. It's such a great song. The main power chord progression that opens it is so memorable. Luckily, it was the first song on the tape and so it was easy to find. Remember how hard it could be to find a song in the middle of a tape back then?"
Kerry Crafton (producer/engineer of Scratch Acid): "They were really a raw, huge wall of sound. The most memorable show I saw was in Austin at Cave Club. They were the juggernaut behemoth! After they were signed to Island, I was asked by Kim Buie to produce their debut recording. However, someone up above Kim got a call from producer Ron St. Germain (Bad Brains' I Against I album), who was looking for a gig at the time, and was told 'Well, we just signed some band in Texas, want to do them?' So The Buck Pets went to Compass Point with him instead of me. Damn it."
Marci Mangham: "We were all excited when they got signed to Island Records. Finally, someone from here had 'made it.' Their drummer, Tony Alba called us from the studio in the Bahamas where they were recording the first album. I remember he told us that Mick Jagger was recording a solo album there; he did sit-ups out on the lawn and gave the young lads the brush-off."
Kim Buie: "We decided to send them to work at Island's Compass Point studios. In the first week of recording, there was a total meltdown--the artists were refusing to work until certain recreational materials could be provided. The producer and I put the kibosh on that quickly and the band equally got to work and created a brilliant debut album. Dynamic and punchy, the record lived up to their potential."
There was also another problem. St. Germain didn't like Alba's style of drumming and let him know it.
"Both the management and the record label were telling us we needed to get rid of Tony because he couldn't keep to time or whatever, and I wasn't having that," Savage remembered this past Tuesday night. It was the beginning of the end of Alba's involvement with the band. "They basically said, 'Get rid of him or we're gonna drop you.' It started with St. Germain damaging Tony's confidence when we were making the record, and after that Tony just started over-thinking it from a technical aspect. It was weird to see his confidence deteriorate after having these industry people telling him he wasn't good enough. It sucked. It was painful."
After defending Alba for as long as he possibly could, Savage and the band eventually relented and allowed former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons on board to play drums on a few of the recordings. Still, Alba remained a member of the band. After the release of the album, it was time to hit the road again.
If there was ever a "can't miss" act from Dallas, it was the Buck Pets. They were kickin' ripped up jeans and hiking boots back when geriatric '80s rock goblins were still wearing all that shiny shit. This band was more into wearing clothes they could sleep in, if need be.
Big Steve Shein (road manager): "Being on the road the road with the Buck Pets was always an adventure. Getting tossed out of casinos and motels; playing gigs wherever we could find them, floating around the Haight/Asbury area in San Francisco for a couple of days. In 1989, we had a six-week-long odyssey with Jane's Addiction. Great shows, all of them were sellouts. Problem was, we were only getting like 100 bucks for some of these gigs. We were totally scraping by. At the end of the tour, we did two nights at the Ford Theatre in L.A., and we still walked away with barely enough money for gas to get home."
At an appearance in Philadelphia, the Buck Pets had just finished its opening set when the guys in Jane's Addiction got into a fight with each other backstage and abruptly canceled the rest of the show. As a furious audience spilled out into the street, it began throwing stuff and pounding on the hoods of cars. Riot police were called in and the Buck Pets got stuck in traffic right in front of the venue, trapped inside their RV while hundreds of angry fans surrounded their vehicle. They were lucky to make it out of there alive.
Lead singer Andy Thompson has a hard time wrapping his head around that time period.
"God, so much of that part of my life is a just a blur," he says now. "Every now and then somebody will say something that reminds me of a certain night, and it's just like, 'Oh yeah, I had forgotten all about that.'"
I reminded him of the night that he and I wandered around the back streets of Tijuana, Mexico after a gig at a place called Iguana's.
"Man, there were so many nights like that, where we stayed up all night wandering around, doing God knows what. I do remember that we played a band called The Big F that night."
Savage recalls that a lack of tour support from Island kept them off of a European tour that might have put the band on the map, at least over there.
"We were supposed to do a Buck Pets/Nirvana tour right after Bleach' had just come out," he remembers. "We were slotted to go to the U.K., and we were supposed to alternate opening up and headlining each night. Island wouldn't sign off on tour support and we had to pass up that opportunity. It didn't seem like that big of a deal at the time, but in retrospect it would have been amazing."
Still, the band kept grinding it out on an endless string of tour dates, leaving a trail of broken hearts and beer bottles seemingly everywhere it went. There is little rest for the wicked when the road is your home.
Big Steve Shein: "One night in particular stands out. We were opening for Smashing Pumpkins at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago. After the gig, the guys were given drink tickets to a club below the Metro called the Smart Bar. Naturally, trouble ensued: The band was apparently mixing it up with some skinheads. I managed to coax them back out to the van, and the skinners followed us out. Bodies went flying everywhere. Some other people from Dallas were also at the gig and they jumped in with pool cues. I didn't want any of our guys to get hurt, so I took the biggest skinhead by his throat and his nuts and started slamming him into a brick wall. I soon felt someone poking my ribs. When I turned around it was a mounted police officer and seven of her friends. It looked like the Alamo. Bodies, blood, horses... It was insane."
The band returned home from the tour broke, hungry and tired. The members had been awake for days. Before they had even made it back to their respective houses, I ran into them at the Taco Cabana on Lower Greenville Avenue.
We sat there for hours that night, talking about their adventures on the road. They weren't that happy to be back home; they would have been just as content to climb back in the van and hit the road. They had made lots of friends out there; people like The Pixies and Dave Grohl and Chris Cornell. A lot of these bands couldn't wait to party with the Buck Pets when they rolled through town. To this day, Grohl still literally bows to Savage whenever they happen to cross paths.
Then things got ugly and took a turn for the worse. Drummer Jack Irons was brought in to play on most of Mecurotones, and after a short tour, the band permanently parted ways with drummer Tony Alba.
Six months later, they were dropped from the Island Records roster. After a brief period of thoughtful reconsideration, Ricky Pearson was brought in as the new drummer, and the group then quickly recorded a cover of the song "Bargain" for a compilation of songs by The Who. Pearson also played on the band's final album, To The Quick.
Ricky Pearson (drummer): "I first met The Buck Pets in 1989. I had seen them on the Jane's Addiction tour for Nothing's Shocking. I was instantly a fan. My sister was dating Ian Beach at the time, so I pretty much became friends with them after that show. Seeing them changed my attitude towards music. I couldn't believe it when I ended up joining the band. The tours were all blood, sweat and tears. Laughing and fighting like brothers, and then playing ferocious gigs. So many nights, right before we would go on, someone would let you know who was in the crowd. 'Oh shit, Fugazi is here tonight. Looks like my tempo is going to triple. Rage Against the Machine is here... I better play extra heavy. Urge Overkill is backstage, I better grab my 'Night time sunglasses and scarf'. Man, I really hope to get the chance to play a Buck Pets reunion some time because there are so many people who missed out on that band."
Marci Mangham: "They recorded one last album on Restless Records. Soon after the album's release, Andy left the band. Mainstream success was not meant to be for the Buck Pets, and looking back now, that makes perfect sense. To everything there is a season and a reason. They did their job. They burned out, did not fade away and left a beautiful corpse."
These days, bassist Ian Beach is full-time corporate chef for Nordstrom. He recently relocated to San Diego, California. Andy Thompson owns and operates a restaurant in Virginia. His 12 year-old kid knows how to play all of his Dad's songs on guitar. Savage still lives in Dallas and plays in a band called Mic The Tiger and dabbles with a couple of other side projects. Ricky Pearson has now taken up photography.
"After Andy left the band, we didn't speak for years," said Savage, his voice weary with emotion. "But when our friend Chip died we finally got back in touch and started speaking again. It felt good to reconnect with him. I mean, we had been through so much together, you know? Then one night I was doing a Mic The Tiger gig, and Ricky came up and brought us shots during the set. Ian was there too and we sat there afterwards and sort of worked it all out. It was really cool."
Original drummer Tony Alba is still MIA.
"I haven't been able to get ahold of him in years. After all that time that I wanted to keep him in the band, I was the one he held the most responsible for what happened to him. He won't even talk to me now. I think he's managing a titty bar now. I still talk to Andy and Ricky and Ian, but Tony just doesn't wanna talk to me."
Savage says, at the very least, he has a stockpile of old recordings he'd like to share with the public.
"I still have about 30 or 40 demo versions of songs that I wanna get out there. Some of the stuff sounds really good."
The Buck Pets were easily my favorite band in town at the time. To this day, there have only been a handful of records that are as abrupt and beautiful to me as their first record. It was a record that Dallas could be proud of, even if the band wasn't exactly altogether proud of being from here.
On the night when they opened for Neil Young and Crazy Horse--one of the band's heroes, no less--in front of 20,000 people at The Forum in Los Angeles, Andy Thompson and I stood by the side of the stage and watched the headliner do his thing. For a second there, I was sort of overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment.
"Dude, you just opened up for Neil fucking Young!"
Andy thought about it for a second. Then, without the slightest trace of ego or self-importance, smiled and said, "Wow, I guess we just did, didn't we?"