by Ryan Settee
The Wildhearts' story is a long and storied one, much more than I can fully delve into without this becoming a multi-part novel, but ultimately it is a story of triumph and survival, and a really interesting one at that. The even more interesting thing is how the band has managed to keep the music first and foremost, when the story and legend that surrounds the band--ill advised career moves, band fights, admitted mental disorder, drug addiction problems and perennial label problems-- could easily usurp and overshadow the music.
The Wildhearts have been around since around 1989 or so, after singer, guitarist, primary writer Ginger (aka David Walls) had left or got kicked out of the London Quireboys, opting to form a band that was more along the lines of his vision, which was much heavier- a mixture of '80's hard rock, power pop, metal and, at times, more abrasive noise. If history bears any truth, then the possibility of Ginger developing (tolerating?) someone else's creative vehicle would indeed, be the understatement of the century. And such history has allowed Ginger to essentially be one of the last of the real lifers, a full-on rocker type. I'm not talking about the fake types that ride a trend, that get a few tattoos, a couple of addictions and make up a hard-life story after a few tours. I'm talking about Lemmy, Keith, Dickie Peterson, Johnny Thunders, all the old blues guys... People that manage to do it until they die (or should be dead by now) because it's all that they know how to do. If you think of most of the most revered rock god types that survive the industry and all the things that threaten to do bands and musicians in really, a lot of those guys just try to shape-shift and mutate into whatever sells.
How refreshing it is, then, to see someone actually get rewarded. Considering that Ginger recently has just waged one of the most successful PledgeMusic campaigns with his 555 campaign and Mutation and Hey! Hello! campaign in 2013 wherein most of the vinyl and limited edition goodies have the "sold out" tag next to them (and where deluxe versions of the 555 release are already going for insane money, due to their scarcity and finite nature), you may be wondering how exactly someone that you've likely never heard of has managed to carve out a career that exists far outside of the corporate reach. Although none of these three albums are technically Wildhearts albums, it must be noted that Ginger is the creative blood that is the Wildhearts, anyways- while he's ventured into other genres under his solo career and side projects (SilverGinger5, Supershit 666, etc), ultimately it's his creative stamp on the band and music.
Although the "classic" lineup of Ginger, guitarist/singer CJ (Chris Jagdhar), drummer Stidi and bassist Danny McCormack didn't materialize until 1992 or so after having various members throughout its early history, it's evident that Ginger had fully thought out the Wildhearts' sound and aim, beforehand. The Mondo- Akimbo A Go- Go and Don't Be Happy...Just Worry mini releases notwithstanding, four years to release a proper full length is an eternity in the industry. So it comes as no surprise that the Wildhearts' 1993 major label debut longplayer, Earth Vs The Wildhearts, still sounds great all these years later. Many bands end up disowning their earliest material, but the album is well regarded by both fans and band, as there's enough demand for a Japanese/UK tour of gigs that consist solely of playing the album in its entirety as of the time of writing this article in 2013. That album is really a mission statement, as Ginger and the band have used it as the basis of their sound since then (barring the Endless, Nameless album which i'll delve into later).
The band had released the aforementioned classic Earth Vs. The Wildhearts in 1993; its tattooed, leather clad biker pop metal not fitting in at all with the alternative guitar rock bands of the day. And the name of the album, itself implies that it's the band against the world, that the band realized what they were up against. Apparently, the actual release of Earth was really the original demos, but the band and label liked them so much that they ended up constituting the final release. But I think that the reason why it holds up so well after all these years, is because it really is completely its own thing; there's no band in 1993 (or now, for that matter) that has completely nailed the Wildhearts' formula because there's there's a complexity to the songs that belies the immediacy of most of the choruses. On the surface, perusing a few songs on YouTube or snippets online may yield a cursory knowledge about what the band is about. The truth of the matter really is that for every hooky song and for every moment of pop genius that Ginger has, there's always an ugly underside to the albums or songs that comes later on. And that's likely the reason why the band hasn't really caught on with mass audiences, simply because there's a menacing undercurrent within a lot of the material that puts people off.
Earth is very pop oriented, with melodies and vocal harmonies appearing everywhere throughout the album; maybe a Cheap Trick/Ramones pop/rock sensibility. But it's also got a Metallica/Slayer thing or '80's thrash thing going on. There's some of Motorhead's punk metal in there too. But I suppose in hindsight, the complex harmonies and pop sensibility may be too sugary for some rocker type audiences that prefer their rock to be more simplified, more primal, more dumbed down to what they've already heard. There's probably something that's just too refined, too articulate about the melodic execution for those people. I could also see this being just absolutely too metal/punk-oriented for '80's rockers, so there was probably an audience that was alienated. The pop appeal of these songs (which, to me, give the music its longevity) screams out guilty pleasure, yet the extended, chugging metallic riffs are about as anti-pop as you can get. In a lot of ways, the band's mix of pop and aggressive rock elements reminds me of what The Who were doing in the '60's--for some reason, most bands have either since had to choose between either brawn and brain.
Ginger probably owns more than a few Sounds Of The 70's guilty pleasures in ABBA, Bread and the Raspberries and stuff like that. The insistence on pre-choruses in most songs on Earth ("TV Tan," "Everlone," "The Miles Away Girl") establish a template in which the songs continue to always ascend; there's always another gear that the songs go to. Perhaps most telling is that most of the pre-choruses on this record are strong enough to be most other bands' best choruses, as if Ginger is always trying to cram as many creative ideas as possible into a song.
Even more baffling for the average new listener is that the band opted to eliminate guitar solos almost completely, preferring instrumental, almost prog-metal riff-a-thons in place of lead guitar excess (most notably in "News Of The World" and "Everlone," the latter of which intersperses acoustic guitars and mellower dynamics in amidst the heavy riffing). Ginger and CJ know how to play skilled leads, as they sometimes do break loose here and there for one over the course of the band's discography, but it must have been intentional to have the riff solos instead of traditional solos. One of the only solos on the record comes in the form of Mick Ronson on "My Baby Is A Headfuck." Also, the five-minute-plus nature of some of the songs make the songs more complex than most radio tracks, and I could imagine parent label Bronze/EastWest having nightmares about how to sell the music when radio likely wants brevity and to cut anything past the four or four minute mark to go exclusively for "verse/chorus/verse" type structure and cram in as many songs as they can on the airwaves. The length of some of the songs possibly being difficult to secure radio airplay would seem to be solidified as a hunch, considering that the next album consisted of songs that weren't as lengthy.
The official follow-up album was P.H.U.Q, released in 1995, this time without Stidi on drums and Ritch Battersby in his place. You could imagine what the record execs thought of the name, in terms of saleability. A much darker and moodier album than Earth, P.H.U.Q.is not without its poppier, upbeat moments ("I Wanna Go Where The People Go", "Just In Lust," "In Lilly's Garden," "Getting It"), but songs like "Whoa Shit, You Got Through" and "Cold Patootie Tango" are more consistently menacing than anything off of the debut. But overall, it feels like a logical progression in expanding on the less pop oriented moments on the debut, where the riff-a-thons bordered on noise worship but never actually took the full plunge. On certain days, I prefer P.H.U.Q. to the debut, just because P.H.U.Q. sounds like it's a bit less melodically structured, but with something mysterious that I can't really pin down. It's still my assertion that I haven't even really fully appreciated P.H.U.Q. yet, as a result. I remember a few years back, when Turbonegro came under a bit of fire for lifting the chorus of "Just In Lust" for their song "Drenched In Blood"; the band admitted that they must have unconsciously lifted it. Sure enough, the choruses are almost exactly alike.
The band was trying to break into the North American market with the help of label EastWest, and they had secured major touring dates opening in support of AC/DC, but EastWest had pulled the band's funding midway through the tour and (depending on various reports), the band were either in the process of being dropped, or had dragged their heels in trying to get dropped from the label. But it was clear that the band did not like their stay on EastWest. Regardless, whatever momentum that the band had generated from the AC/DC tour was in vain or non-existent; it wasn't until the 2003/ 2004 range that the band had any North American label support at all, in the form of Gearhead records (more on this later). Around the whole time of writing/recording/touring the album, Ginger fired various people (including CJ), and various people were in and out of the band for various reasons, including Devin Townshend (see the "Reading '94 Wildhearts" below). One thing was probably clear by this point, though--Ginger likes things his way, and members came and went because of it. Nobody was untouchable in this band. With Ginger's later admission of having bi-polarism, this affliction likely made it a case of having too many cooks in the kitchen. But in fairness to the members that either got sacked or had simply tired of the endless drama, if you want to go so far as the classic plot devices in basic storytelling, the "man versus himself" dilemma likely made it so that Ginger was not allowed in that kitchen, either.
What ensues in the time after after this is probably the "dark period" of the band's history. It's one that some fans have said that they almost don't really count as "real" Wildhearts material; some because they consider the Ginger/CJ/Stidi/Danny lineup to be the true lineup. The original Fishing For Luckies (longer, more experimental songs--including the +11 minute opus, "Sky Babies"--that were intended to be included with P.H.U.Q, if it were the original intended double album) actually came out prior to P.H.U.Q. (in late 1994 as a limited fan-club release), but EastWest had re-released the record as Fishing For More Luckies and the band wasn't impressed with this. Re-releasing it on the band's own Round Records imprint, they wisely included the single, "Sick Of Drugs", arguably one of the band's best tracks to never be on a proper Wildhearts album. Jumping one release ahead of the chronology is Landmines And Pantomimes, a release of odds and ends and unreleased material that the band did not authorize.
In 1997, the band released Endless, Nameless; the name taken from Nirvana's untitled noise collage at the end of Nevermind. Camps are divided between two groups--those that love it and feel that the record didn't get its due, and those that feel that the album is an unlistenable mess of distorted noise. In fairness to the latter camp, the production renders the album nearly unlistenable; the songs, themselves, are generally good, but there's a layer of clipping/saturation that's there that's almost Merzbow/Guitar Wolf type distorted. You know, not distortion recorded cleanly (if that makes sense); its faders pushed up into the stratosphere so that the needles are pinned in the red in the mastering stage/recording stage. I guess one could argue that in the '50's and '60's, tape saturation made a lot of those recordings harsh, tinny and lo-fi. Here, it's almost as though Wildhearts are going for some sort of industrial type distortion filtering that's along the lines of a permanently harsher Skinny Puppy or Nine Inch Nails. It's clear that Ginger and the band were going for something far different and more futuristic sounding, but it's uncertain how much input really came from the rest of the band at this point; undoubtedly anyone in the band since around '94 or so had to feel like a hired gun.
With longtime fans confused with the band's direction after Endless, Nameless, it's no surprise that the band broke up after fan indifference to lead off single "Anthem." Before they had called it a day, the band had put out one last release--Urge, a six song single/EP.
In the dormant time between 1997 and 2001, Ginger did the Silver Ginger 5 and Supershit 666 projects. The latter was a collaboration with the Hellacopters' guitarist/singer Nicke Andersson and guitarist Dregen--a raw, electrifying release that still temps many Wildhearts/Ginger fans as to what could happen if that project actually turned into a full fledged band.
In 2001, Ginger reformed the Wildhearts with the classic lineup of CJ, Stidi and Danny, and here's where the discography gets a bit tricky, depending on which continent in which you live. In the UK, the songs that constitute the Japanese only release of Riff After Riff After Motherfucking Riff (one of the best titled rock records that I can remember in quite some time) appeared across various singles in the UK. In Japan, it's a 7 song mini-album (or very long EP) and arguably the band's most consistent work. The pace and flow has non-stop breakneck tempos, and the band sounds positively energized, with two/three (four?) part vocal harmonizing almost everywhere. Many songs have no real clear lead singing from Ginger; instead, it's a bunch of voices locked into one seemingly huge singular voice. "Putting It On" is a highlight, as is the Slayer/death metal meets pop riffing of "Looking For The One." I remember buying this from the now defunct A&B Sound, having to pay a ridiculous import fee to bring it in from Japan (something like $40-50).
I should point out that the Wildhearts have always been huge in Japan. And they're pretty well known in the UK and Europe. Then their popularity trails off significantly after that. Nowhere else did they find this out with a better test than what happened in The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed/Riff After Riff period, in which they tried to--and failed--to have a significant impact on the U.S. market. The band had released The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed in Japan, which had also included "Vanilla Radio" from Riff After Riff After Motherfucking Riff and the UK singles, featuring guest musicians such as Andy Cairns (Therapy?) and Justin Hawkins of The Darkness. Then as the formerly little-known Darkness had hit the big time, they'd taken The Wildhearts on tour in the U.S. to open for them, to repay a favor to the Wildhearts for taking them on tour when no one had heard of them.
Things were looking up--the Wildhearts were starting to make inroads into the difficult-to-crack North American market in 2003. Adding to the band's run of good luck, the Sanctuary label picked up the new record (and added different artwork), giving the band a major North American distributor to get their CD's out there, since 1995 with P.H.U.Q.. Also, reputed underground rock n' roll label Gearhead and label head (and Wildhearts fan) Mike Lavella agreed to re-release Riff After Riff After Motherfucking Riff, and got it out there on a small, DIY, word of mouth level on the street.
The band must have known at this point, that this all seemed too good to be true. Reviews for ...Must Be Destroyed were middling, generally revolving around the band's more pop based approach, and lamenting the crazy palm muted metallic thunder of past records. There's some more metallic moments here and there, but generally, Ginger and the band are in an optimistic, upbeat mood, and the band, it seems, just couldn't win. Endless, Nameless was noisy and anti-commercial, but perhaps the band had swung the pendulum too far back around to the opposing direction with not enough bite. There are points where I think that ...Must Be Destroyed is too light and too friendly, but it also holds together pretty well in terms of overall mood, and also lyrically as well. Gearhead re-released Riff After Riff After Motherfucking Riff and re-titled it the comparatively more friendly Riff After Riff, and had added some additional songs and harder to find tracks to the release. The only problem with the release is that it doesn't sequence the songs like the Japanese release, making it sound disjointed and slapped together. One good thing comes of the release, though--"Bang!" is released in North America, though on a completely different album (why it was omitted from the Sanctuary version of ...Must Be Destroyed is perplexing). It's the best song on the Japanese version of the release and should have made it through.
Confused yet? I can see why. I've tried to keep the differences between regional releases at a minimum; here in this article, it's explained just to illustrate quality control issues from their various record labels, none of whom seem like they could really get a proper handle on things for continuity's sake. As fans, we often had to buy releases from other regions, if we wanted every song that was released. That's true of various bands, but any North American label, at that point, had to realize that the Wildhearts' fanbase differs from most others in North America, because that demographic pretty much only consisted of rabid fans that were already used to spending countless dollars on imports that were never available domestically. It's this type of thing that helped drive people to downloading these songs, just so that they didn't get consistently shaken down for incomplete releases, and then get shaken down for potential "deluxe" versions which append said rarities to "proper" releases. At least Gearhead tried to be comprehensive with Riff After Riff, though "Return To Zero" still suffers from inexplicably muddy sound that makes its compilation appearance notable only from the perspective of sheer inclusion.
The North American woes continued for the band, though. A New York City gig promoted by Bebe Buell went notoriously bad. From all reports (and from the band themselves), the promotion was terrible and the gig was completely mishandled. Also, a North American tour with Gearhead labelmates The Dragons had been a bust. In the UK and Japan, The Wildhearts are used to playing to huge groups of fans--stadiums, large festivals, etc-- so adjusting to playing to 30-50 people each night in crappy dive clubs was, to say the least, a sobering experience and one that Ginger, in particular, was not willing to adjust to. But the band had been away from the North American market for so long, both in terms of touring and having releases available, that a long, painful rebuild was inevitable just to create awareness that the band still existed. It was at this time that Ginger most likely had realized that the U.S. in particular just wasn't going to be profitable enough to tour with any frequency.
Then not too long later, Ginger made an announcement that he was going to join the Brides Of Destruction. Ginger's official statement at the time (courtesy of thewildhearts.com):
"I have been offered the job playing second guitar, as well as helping write the new album, for The Brides Of Destruction. This does not mean that The Wildhearts are over, it just means that I am going through a traumatic time of my life and need a break from being the frontman/chief in charge. My spirits are low and my performance as a lead singer would not be worth the admission fee, believe me. I cannot stop playing music, however, and the offer to join The Brides has come at a time where I desperately need to concentrate on something to help me cope, both mentally and emotionally. Tracii and the guys have been so kind to me, and I am more than grateful for their friendship and encouragement."
He'd later confirmed that he was going through drug addiction problems that had wreaked havoc with his family. In typical Ginger fashion, his stint in the Brides Of Destruction was ill-fated and lasted about two months in early 2005. I remember thinking that him joining that band was a bit odd, considering that he's always been the frontman in his own band, and would likely not take the backseat to Tracii Guns or anyone else in the band.
In 2006, Ginger re-formed the Wildhearts with the lineup of CJ, Ritch and Scott Sorry (ex-Amen, Brides Of Destruction), and they'd released a self titled effort in 2007. Unique in the band's catalogue for being a mix of pop-based elements merged with brutalizing near death metal (and what sounds like some NYC styled hardcore punk/metal) on an almost consistent basis, the band also took complex dynamics and progressive elements (not unlike "Sky Babies") to put out one of their most anti-commercial albums mixed with the most commercial elements that I can think of in quite some time. Take "Rooting For The Bad Guy" and "The Sweetest Song" as a one-two combo to start the album off--ugly, metallic choruses with shouted vocals from Ginger, with angelic, anthemic choruses. Not only that, but check out the change in dynamics and tempos between the verses and choruses, and the stop/start dynamics. It's a style of music that's incredibly difficult to pull off. Released on their own Round Records and freed from the constraints of having to deliver "hits" to the label, the band sound re-born. The middle section of "Rooting For The Bad Guy" and extended passages of "Destroy All Monsters" and "Slaughtered Authors" sound like they're the work of different bands within the same band, almost as if you're surfing stations on the radio or something. The album's true pedigree though lies in the fact that the most typical sounding Wildhearts sounding songs actually seem to arrive on side 2 in the trio of "Inner City Overture," "Bi-Polar Baby" and "She's All That," making side 1 the riskier side (save for "The Revolution Will Be Televised" and "The New Flesh").
In 2008, the band released the covers album Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before: Vol. 1, featuring songs by Helmet and Toadies. In 2009, the band released Chutzpah!, a more industrial, moody and gothic sounding record that suffers the unfortunate oft-modern fate of brickwall limiting sound, yielding zero dynamic on the record and in my opinion, not as strong songwriting compared to past efforts. Although the band isn't officially broken up and have even waged the aforementioned Earth Vs. The Wildhearts anniversary reunion shows, those shows are only for a fairly limited time. So what does the future bring for the band? Only one man really knows.
Or maybe not...
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