Last week, I rekindled a love affair that had lain dormant for the best part of two decades; that with my joint favourite band circa 1992, Ugly Kid Joe.
I had two cassettes that I wore away to nothing that year: one being UKJ’s America’s Least Wanted, and the other being the less fun but more feted Nevermind by Nirvana. Picture me aged 17 if you will, cocky but clueless, typically clad in a London Monarchs shirt, brightly coloured baggy shorts, Converse sneakers and a baseball cap turned back to front. I had an electric guitar I could hardly play, but loved to strum it along with those two tapes.
But then the musical landscape changed, and as I broadened my horizons I retrospectively discovered Pixies, witnessed the dawning of Britpop, and saw Green Day take American hard rock in an even catchier direction, whilst by night I was in clubs grooving to N-Trance, Faithless, and The Prodigy. I didn’t hate everything about UKJ, but with all this other music around me I no longer had time for them, and they were soon completely forgotten, save for a cursory listen to their follow-up album Menace To Sobriety. Nevermind was similarly discarded to be honest, but the major difference was that the songs from that album were everywhere: played on the TV, the radio, at the alternative clubs and discos, at house parties or in people’s cars – you didn’t need to put it in and press play to hear it. UKJ meanwhile, seemed to have been as neglected by the rest of the world as they were by me: I don’t recall ever once hearing them through the media, only at all through a friend of a friend’s covers band who included Everything About You in their set (complete with the stanza omitted from the single release).
Thankfully, before my fandom waned, I passed it on to my dad and brother. They continued to follow the band well enough to invite me to UKJ’s comeback tour gig at a tiny alternative nightclub in Bournemouth, which in turn gave me the impetus to listen to them once again and get reacquainted with the songs.
I surprised myself.
You see, I’d grown to recall my affection for UKJ as a guilty pleasure; a rare lapse in my otherwise impeccable taste. Although I knew that I liked the band, and the songs, what I hadn’t really registered is that that they were So. Damn. Good. Like, seminal moment in music history good.
To properly gauge how good, and how important UKJ were, we need to look at them in context of the rock music scene at the time. On the alternative side, Nirvana had broken big, with a plethora of lesser grunge bands waiting to follow in their footsteps, while their chief inspirators Bob Mould and Frank Black had run their course with Husker Du and Pixies, and were looking to launch new band Sugar and a solo career respectively. On the commercial/stadium side, Def Leppard had regressed into a cartoonish parody of themselves, whereas Guns ‘n’ Roses had reached a creative zenith with the towering epic November Rain, but this was not a song to fill a mosh pit, and felt like a swansong to mark the end of an era. Meanwhile, a young band named Green Day were big in Berkley with their naïve, clean-cut surfy pop-rock which I would grow to love, but wasn’t the sound that would make them famous.
Another question is how to categorise UKJ. I’d taken to them at around the same time I adopted Nirvana, and they grew in my affections together, but I never considered them part of a shared movement. Casey Kasem likened UKJ to Nirvana when he gave Everything About You its UK TV debut, and although I was attracted to the similarities at first, the sounds were really quite different, moreover; their ethos worlds apart. Nevertheless, to this day Wikipedia includes grunge amongst its descriptions of UKJ.
Nor would you associate them entirely with the old metal though; and certainly not the privilege and pomposity that came along with it. UKJ and their fans didn’t want to be angst-ridden or grandiose, they didn’t want a polystyrene Stonehenge or to bite the head off bats; they just wanted to go to a show, get sweaty and have a good time.
But that over-simplification does UKJ a disservice: their music could be diverse, such as the funky beat of Same Side, or unorthodox, as in the complex structure of Panhandlin’ Prince, from which I’d remembered the various different hooks, but forgotten that they all came from the same song. Crucially though, these innovations never came at the expense of Rocking the Fuck Out.
There’s a case for describing UKJ as something of all of the above, and a bit more besides; they were made multi-dimensional by the talents of their members. In Klaus Eichstadt they had a god damn virtuoso lead guitarist, with solos even Slash might envy, whilst Whitfield Crane’s clipped, nasal delivery, and bulging eyes, gnashing teeth, in your face intensity was reminiscent of Johnny Rotten. Given that this attitude seemed to epitomise the band, I find it strange that nobody has attached the punk tag to them.
In fact, I would contend that America’s Least Wanted was the first of the modern pop-punk albums, not that I’ve seen them on Kerrang TV or the Teenage Dirtbags compilations, even though the bands who are there probably owe them a debt. Instead, by the time UKJ had released Menace to Sobriety – more mature, arguably more accomplished (Milkman’s Son remains my favourite of theirs), but sadly less successful – Green Day had borrowed a lot of UKJ’s sass to break big with Dookie. Yes, that had angst too, but even when they advocated suicide bombing, it was angst about being bored and unable to get laid: much easier for the average teenager to identify with than having crippling back pain and a heroin addiction. They found success with a sound and style more similar to America’s Least Wanted than their own earlier work, while UKJ… well, they barely entered my thoughts until last week, I’m sorry to say.
Still, I shouldn’t portray them too much as unlucky losers who didn’t make it: America’s Least Wanted went double platinum, and UKJ did indeed sell a lot of records, tour round the world, make a lot of money and meet lots of girls. Furthermore, I’m glad they’re playing Sound City, Bournemouth rather than the Milton Keynes Bowl, how else could I have seen them at two days’ notice and stood within spitting distance?
You might also want to know if they can still cut it live – hell, yeah! Some bands are good live because they play so well, as good as on the record. Others have great stage presence, and the charisma to whip the crowd into a fervour. UKJ do both in spades, creating an epic all-encompassing experience that be enjoyed from the bar or in the heart of the mosh pit.
I’m sure they’ve picked up a fair few new or returning fans on this tour, but whether they’ll get the full credit they deserve is more doubtful. One thing is certain though: even if history continues to forget Ugly Kid Joe, I never will again.