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Redd Kross’ ‘Neurotica,’ a Lost ’80s Power-Pop Classic, Finally Gets Its Due: Album Review

Redd Kross
Courtesy Merge Records

Absence can make the heart grow fonder, and one of the ironies of the power-pop revival of the mid-1980s was how hard it was to find records by some of its main archetypes, even if those earlier groups had genuine hits: The brace of great early-‘70s albums and singles by Beatles-obsessed bands like Badfinger, Big Star and the Raspberries had been out of print for years and could only be found at specialty shops for exorbitant prices or as random junkshop jackpots.

Even more ironically, one of the greatest albums of that ‘80s wave — Redd Kross’ “Neurotica” — suffered the same fate. It was released in 1987 on the short-lived U.S. division of a small Australian label called Big Time that had a cool roster (Love and Rockets, Alex Chilton, Hoodoo Gurus, Dream Syndicate) but did not fare well in the brawny U.S. market, a circumstance that was not aided by the original album’s muddled production: Redd Kross’ effervescent harmonies and sharp hooks were buried in a thuddy mix with a horrifically dated ‘80s drum sound. (Not to speak ill of the album’s producer, late founding Ramones drummer Tom Erdelyi, but he did a similar number on the Replacement’s 1985 should-have-been breakthrough “Tim.”)

But this week, thanks to Merge Records and a crisp, drastically improved remastering job, 35 years later, “Neurotica” finally sounds the way it always should have.

Though only in their early 20s at the time of the album’s release, Redd Kross took a long time to get to “Neurotica.” Formed in 1979 as a punk rock band by Jeff and Steve McDonald (who were 15 and 11 at the time), the group poked relentless fun at pop culture in a half-worshipping/ half-mocking manner that wouldn’t become mainstream until the grunge era several years later — and for a pair of literally adolescent punks raised in 1970s Los Angeles, there was no shortage of pop culture to mock. Early songs contained references to “Exorcist” star Linda Blair, Annette Funicello, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and included a cover of Charles Manson’s “Cease to Exist.” Within a few years they’d finished high school, grew their hair and began sporting bell bottoms, fringe vests and paisley. After a 1984 EP featuring covers of relatively obscure songs by David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, the Shangri-Las and even themselves, the group recorded “Neurotica.”

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Redd Kross 1987: Steve McDonald, Jeff McDonald, Roy McDonald (no relation), Robert Hecker Courtesy Merge Records

To say they doubled down on the references is a major understatement: Recorded during the peak of the Hollywood hair-metal scene, the album’s lyrics mention everything from hippies to ‘70s TV shows like “The Partridge Family” and “One Day at a Time” to “metal sluts” and “the assholes at the Rainbow” — many of which are obscure now (anyone who gets the “chartreuse microbus” reference is… old). But the music is a combination of ‘60s-inflected power pop, punk, psychedelia, metal guitar solos and Steve’s zooming, McCartneyesque bass, which is basically the band’s lead instrument. You can’t tell if they’re loving or making fun of it all, and of course they’re doing both.

That sound is a vibrant confluence of the scenes that Redd Kross intersected with: The Black Flag-centered punk cohort the brothers grew up in, the “Paisley Underground” of ‘80s psychedelia, the ‘60s-style pop of the Bangles and the Go-Go’s (Jeff and Go-Go’s guitarist Charlotte Caffey have been married for decades), and the hard-riffing metal bands they made fun of on the Strip. While not all of the songs are great, about half of them are: The raucous title track with its tongue in cheek “whoo!”s, the snarling “Ghandi Is Dead,” the poppy “Play My Song,” and the lilting “Ballad of a Love Doll,” which squeezes two verses and the album’s best chorus — complete with a key change at the end — into less than two minutes.  Surprisingly, the song that Erdelyi got most right is the girl-group homage, their cover of Sonny & Cher’s early single “It’s the Little Things,” where the instruments are mashed together in a Spectoresque rush. (This reissue appends a dozen demos, including two unreleased songs.)

The entirety of the Redd Kross experience was hard to get across on an album, but in concert the group was among the funniest and most entertaining of the era, with different running jokes and covers each time they came around: On one tour it was the Beatles, on another it was Kiss, on the next it was “Jesus Christ Superstar,” when they’d open with the 1970 rock opera’s overture and later in the set play “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” which Jeff opened the most hilariously offensive thing this writer has ever heard a bandmember say onstage: “I’d like to dedicate this song to my boyfriend, Jesus Christ.”

Redd Kross would stay in this lane for the next few years, despite more lineup and label changes, before finally stabilizing with 1993’s alternative hit “Phaseshifter.” They split for a while but reunited in the ‘00s and released their most recent album “Beyond the Door,” in 2019. But the 2002 project Ze Malibu Kids, which saw the brothers collaborating with Steve’s wife (That Dog singer Anna Waronker) and Jeff and Charlotte’s 6-year-old daughter Astrid, may have been their ultimate accomplishment: becoming a real-life Partridge Family.