Denver Westworld: Redd Kross: The 39-Year-Old Band You’ve Never Heard That Inspired Nirvana
Redd Kross is playing Denver for the first time in twenty years.
The influential proto-alternative band started in 1978, when bassist Steve McDonald and his older brother, Jeff, were eleven and fourteen, respectively. They had grown up in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, where they, led by Jeff, discovered underground music from magazines like Creem and Rock Scene. They’d already experienced stadium rock at a young age. By the time they started their own act, they had discovered a punk band whose members lived and practiced nearby: Black Flag.
The Flag, a fairly new band at the time, took these kids under its wings. And Redd Kross’s first show, as “Red Cross” – the band’s name before it was legally forced to change its name by the medical organization – was at an eighth-grade graduation party in someone’s living room.
“If you’ve seen the first ten minutes of the movie Boogie Nights, where they show Dirk Diggler’s humble beginnings in suburban Torrance and suburban L.A., imagine that living room and imagine a rock band playing in it, and that was the scene,” says Steve McDonald.
From those humble beginnings, Redd Kross took its glam-rock influences and infused them with a wide variety of musical styles and a punk attitude defined by irreverent humor and a skepticism about fitting in; the result was one of the most secretly influential bands of the era. You can hear the impact of Redd Kross in generations of musicians, including Sonic Youth, the Melvins and Nirvana.
“My brother has never been interested in joining any kind of community and has been into his own trip and is a little too shy to be that social,” says McDonald. “So he never wanted to be pinned to any kind of community. That said, if you look back at the history of the band, any time the band seemed to be part of any kind of movement, we would throw a wrench in it and not benefit from being part of any kind of bandwagon. I don’t know that it was because we had the forethought to think that once that bandwagon starts to fall apart you go with it, or if it was just that we were way too anti-social or punk in our attitude to let anyone else speak for us.”
That willingness to change gears and follow instinct over trends made an impact on a young musician from Washington and all of his peers. Dale Crover, perhaps best known as the drummer for the Melvins, caught a show in 1987 at the Crystal Ballroom in Tacoma, when Redd Kross toured in support of its Neuroticaalbum, which Crover feels was massively influential on the grunge movement. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic were in the audience, too, as Crover remembers, acting unimpressed with the band’s “good vibes and their happiness.” But the seeds of fusing punk with pop in the heart of the band that would become Nirvana were obviously firmly planted that night.
Although it was influencing underground musicians and impressing music critics, Redd Kross only flirted with mainstream and commercial success its entire career before going on hiatus from 1997 until 2006, when the band was convinced to play some festival dates. Around the same time, the Melvinsrelocated to Los Angeles, and Crover and McDonald became friends. Crover would go on to occasionally gig with McDonald’s hardcore band OFF! when Mario Rubacalba wasn’t available, and McDonald played on the 2016 Melvinsalbum Basses Loaded and then on 109 dates of a tour promoting that project. McDonald also recently played on the new Melvins album due out in summer 2017.
“Those guys came from a punk-rock world but fell into their own thing,” says Crover. “I always thought they were into the same kind of music I was getting into. They could be into Kiss and the Germs at the same time. The Melvins guys had the same vibe. We can listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and MC5, Black Flag and Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater and Discharge. Punk rockers were dumbfounded by that stuff. A lot of that music I grew up on, and from that I found this. So I feel like I understood where they were coming from very well. [Steven’s] the punk-rock-Paul McCartney bass player.”
Crover always appreciated what he calls the “weirdness factor” of the band as well as Jeff’s strange but compelling pop songs. “Those guys are both weirdos, and I love them for it and wouldn’t want it [any other] way.”
Long-term, that weirdness factor has meant that Redd Kross can still have a career precisely because it avoided trends.
“We saw to it that we were awkward in all worlds. We inhabited many worlds but fit into none of them,” says McDonald.
Redd Kross, with The Omens and The Lollygags, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 15, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, 303-291-1007, $17-20, 16+.