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DESTINY (AND THE BEATLES) WAS HIS REDD KROSS TO BEAR


(Colour them badd - Jeff and Steven McDonald of Redd Kross. Photo by Wanda Martin)



POOR JEFF MCDONALD WAS destined/doomed from the start: accountancy was never going to happen, quantity surveying was at best a very, very long shot, and you could forget animal husbandry for this son of San Diego. It was always going to be music that swept him up, pleasured and tortured him and defined his working and non-working life.


We’re talking a man whose first two concerts were The Beatles and Elton John, the near 10 year gap between those shows being explained by the fact McDonald was not even three when he was taken to see The Beatles in 1965. But hey, it still counts!


“When I was in high school [in Hawthorne, home of the Beach Boys] I tried to think about what am I going to do for a living? And I would always try to envisage myself in certain situations, and I just couldn’t. I saw other people I was friends with able to make [music] a career and I thought maybe I could do it too,” says McDonald today. “Not until I got out of high school did I even think it was possible, but once we started we had so much invested there was no reason to quit. I never grew out of it.”


And lord knows he never did.


McDonald in his mid-teens formed a band with his not-yet-teen brother, Steven, mixing Beatles and Elton John with Kiss and Cheap Trick, and punk. And bubblegum and metal. And The Partridge Family, and punk. They eventually called it Redd Kross (the spelling of which might suggest teaching or journalism were other careers not likely to figure in their plans) and started playing around San Diego. Then beyond. And further still.


They made records. And more records. Including one with a cover of the Brady Bunch song, It’s A Sunshine Day – you remember, done on the talent show by the six kids, aka The Silver Platters, to earn money to buy their parents an anniversary present. Yeah, that one.



They did melodies (big), and harmonies (stacked), solos (flying) and energy (relentless). Then doubled everything, to the delight of pop fans from San Diego to Sans Souci. They flirted with fame in the revival of American guitar music in the ‘90s, and survived being on a major label.


Then they got through Covid and the five years since their last big tour – and even longer since coming to Australia – and the virtual disappearance of their 2019 album Beyond The Door in the flushing away of art in the early lockdown.


The McDonald brothers are attempting to make up for that long lull with a band memoir (Now You’re One Of Us) accompanying a documentary (Born Innocent: The Redd Kross Story) doing the film festival circuit, and a new, self-titled, record that in ye olden times, like when they started the band, would have been called a double album. Yes, a double. Or triple. There are a lot of songs on it. 100 or 200 at last count I suggest. Definitely a lot more than they’ve ever put out in one go.


“You know what, it’s exactly the same number as the Rolling Stones have on Exile On Main Street, 18” says McDonald with the grin of the pop nerd triumphant.


The relaxed timeframe between records, the high number of songs on the record, the touring or lack of touring, all reflect the fact that as they celebrate 45 years as a band, Redd Kross operate on their own schedule, not some company’s marketing plan. “Which is a big part of being an adult rock band,” McDonald explains. “It makes being in a functioning band now much more fun.”


Adult rock band – a concept that would have been bizarre even to the adults in the business when the McDonalds started. Not just bizarre, but possibly even an insult.


“Not for me,” McDonald senior says. “I’ve always respected my elders.”



Though not necessarily always respected the process, the system.


“I mean there were times if we’d had a hit single in the late ‘80s or something, when we were on Atlantic records, it could have killed us. We would have been thrown into the oldies circuit. So we’ve been able to explore, do our own thing over the years, reach out to new people, because we don’t have that baggage. It sounds bizarre to say that, but that certain type of success becomes baggage because you stop growing.”


One thing that shows the benefit of staying off the oldies circuit, that treadmill of “play your old hits hits plus more of your old hits and don’t you dare think of more than one new song per concert”, is the sheer, almost bounding out of the speakers, energy of this new Redd Kross album. It’s not just the number of songs or the tangible links to their past and their unabashed influences; it’s the enthusiasm and flair that feels like a baby band, not one driven by two men old enough to be grandfathers.


“It was just fun,” McDonald says. “I think another reason it was so fresh is normally the way we make records is we would be together as a band, write the songs and rehearse and rehearse, get all the arrangements down perfect, and then go in and record them. This time around we had the loosest outlines for our songs or very, very raw demos and it was just Steven, myself and Josh, our producer who was also the drummer, so we were able to keep a lot of our first ideas. We would learn the song, go through it a few times and then record it – so it was all very spontaneous.”



Spontaneous but reflective. An odd mixture.


“Steven and I were editing the book while we were driving to San Francisco to go to screenings of the movie and getting the album together: we’ve been inundated with ourselves,” McDonald says. “I don’t even know how you process that, looking back. I’m not one to look back or live in the past too much, I’m not that nostalgic, but I had no choice.”


He admits that sometimes the reminiscences got clouded by fiddly things like facts and alternative perspectives “and I don’t know if they are my memories or Steve’s memories or this or that”. So in the book, written in oral history fashion with each brother interviewed separately and telling their version, “truth” sometimes differed markedly.


“It’s like Rashomon,” laughs McDonald.


But there is one truth that can’t be denied, that Beatles concert, and he remembers the 1965 show more vividly than should be allowed for a three-year-old. Or does he?


“I remember the way it sounded, the way you couldn’t hear it, the way you couldn’t really see it. The screaming was upsetting, that’s all I remember. But who knows if I haven’t created this in my brain?,” McDonald says. “But I think the fact of seeing The Beatles, seeing them as a blurry image and them sounding awful and very distant [had an effect]. The first concert I went with my friends, after the Beatles concert, was my 11th birthday and I went to see Elton John in 1974. I remember the months leading up to that show being convinced it was going to sound awful: I had nothing else to compare it to.”


And did the Elton John concert hold up?


“Of course, it was incredible,” McDonald beams.


Yeah, he was doomed.



 

Redd Kross is out on Friday.


Now You’re One Of Us will be published in October.


Born Innocent: The Redd Kross Story may be available somewhere near you soon.

 



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