Man of Many Shades
by Pete Crigler
What you are about to read is an excerpt from my second book Majorlabelland and Assorted Oddities. The book is comprised of a lengthy essay that talks about rock bands from the late eighties to the early 2000's and their experiences with major labels. Some were good and some were truly awful. John Speck is a man who has been through the proverbial major label wringer twice: once in 1997 with his pop-punk band Hoarse and RCA Records and the other in 2000 with his other pop-punk band with the eloquently name The Fags.
This excerpt contains portions of an interview conducted with Mr. Speck in February of 2013. The book is currently available on amazon.com and its foreign subsidiaries. By the time you read this, the book should be available in bookstores. In the meantime, enjoy this piece!
The story of the Fags is a long and convoluted one and it all starts with another band called Hoarse. Formed by singer/songwriter John Speck in Detroit in 1993, he was eventually joined by bassist Robby Graham and former Sponge drummer Jimmy Paluzzi. They began playing around town and soon developed a reputation for pop with a large chunk of punk spiked into the mix. After releasing two seven inch singles, they hooked up with Sponge producer Tim Patalan and signed a deal with RCA Records and quickly hit the studio to begin work on their debut album. John Speck, talking in a 2013 interview with me, picks it up from here: “We signed in March '96. RCA told us one thing when they were wooing us ('we love you exactly the way you are!'), another once the ink was dry ('we want you to sound like Everclear!'). As a result, we butted heads with our A&R guy and management, and nobody was happy with the results. We did meet some great folks there, but it wasn't a great experience for the band.
“We signed after 6 months of back and forth negotiations between our management and label, delivered the record a month later; it was rejected until we remixed it four different times. It was supposed to come out late '96, then early '97, then finally was released in August of '97." Once the album, entitled Happens Twice, was released, critics latched on to the band's catchy hooks and jangly riffs. But unfortunately the rest of America didn't and the record stiffed commercially. John Speck sums up the experience best: “The label released 'Diamond' as the 1st single, which has already been all over Detroit radio in '95 from our 7" single, so it stalled straight out of the gate, nobody wanted to add an 'old' song. We had a lot of problems finding like-minded bands to tour with, so we ended up opening for Jackyl, Seven Mary Three, etc. Their audiences hated our music, we were really frustrated. When I refused to go on tour supporting Creed, we were dropped by our booking agent and manager, and the label basically ignored us until we were forced to disband to dissolve the contract. We played our last show New Year's Eve '97/'98." But Paluzzi and Speck decided to stay together and reconnecting with Tim Patalan, this time as a bass player. The new trio christened themselves the Fags and began playing across Michigan, trying to get their name back out there.
They signed with the small Dallas-based Idol label and released their self-titled EP in early 2002. After the EP's buzz reached the major labels, they became the subject of a fierce bidding war once again; this time however they decided to sign with Sire Records. Once the ink was dry, they began recording their full-length debut. But as John Speck said, “The Fags did everything right. But we never should have signed a record deal, because it killed all of our forward momentum." Then things just got worse as Speck said in a 2006 interview with metrotimes.com, “Our contract with Sire was for $50,000, $25,000 to be paid up front. Out of that we had to [do] everything--advances, record the record, everything. So we took $5,000 each and put $10,000 toward the record. We never saw the other $25,000 that we were contractually owed. And when we found out we were getting dropped, Sire did their accounting and said they didn't owe us a fucking dime."
Then not long afterward, the band learned that the label was dropping them. In an interesting twist, the band learned they were dropped after not seeing their name on the Sire website. Afterwards, they wrangled with the label for another year and a half before they were able to get the master tapes back and ended up re-signing with Idol, where they finally released the record, Light 'Em Up in 2006 to massive critical acclaim including write-ups in The Village Voice and Spin but the amount of time it had taken to get the record out led to some tension between the members.
After breaking up later in 2006 and releasing the Tour EP, the band split for good, with Speck explaining some of the reasons why in a 2007 interview with Yahoo!, “Jimmy Paluzzi is a very talented drummer and I respect him as a musician but in a band everyone has a role to play and he was not satisfied with his role. He wanted to do everything... we had a very turbulent working relationship. I was the songwriter, bassist Tim Patalan was the producer and Jimmy is a good arranger but he wanted to do it all in the band and that is not how it works. Some musicians can really thrive on that type of tension but I can't. Like I said, he is a great drummer and I respect him as a musician but I will never work with him in another band again." He continued in the 2013 interview, “We played our last show for the record release in fall 2006. I was really tired of butting heads with Jimmy. We played great together, but didn't see eye to eye on pretty much anything. Until last summer, I hadn't seen Jimmy or spoken a word to him, only saw Tim a couple times. I was back in Detroit for a wedding, ended up at a party where Jimmy and Tim were playing with Vinnie from Sponge's side band, and were basically blackmailed by our pal who put the party on to play a few songs. We were too drunk to remember any of the songs, and it was pretty terrible. A couple weeks later, I got a really big offer for a reunion show in Detroit, but the guys never responded to my email."
After the band split, Tim Patalan went back to producing and Paluzzi retreated back to Detroit. But Speck continued to persevere and less than four months after the Fags split, he'd formed another band called HiFi Handgrenades with Robby Graham and former Suicide Machines drummer Ryan Vanderberghe. The band released their debut album Carry On in the spring of 2008 and toured with the Foo Fighters and Bad Religion and scored more critical accolades before Speck decided to pull the plug on the project by the end of the year. He explained by saying,“We called it quits after a shitty European tour we couldn't afford to finish. We had such high hopes and were so beatdown by the experience, we ended up just fizzling out instead of playing a tour we had on the books for when we got back to the States. If we would have played The Fest in Gainesville that year, we would have put the record out on Paper & Plastick (Less Than Jake's label), and who knows what might have happened?Hopefully, someday the world will discover his back catalogue and amaze at how great a songwriter and musician he truly is.
“When the HiFi's ended, I immediately went to work as a guitar tech for bands. I worked for Dropkick Murphys, Silversun Pickups, Rancid. I hated being on the road but not playing. Took a shitty day job here in Austin (Texas). Got a call last November (2012) to fill in last-minute on guitar for the Street Dogs. Went to Europe with them from Thanksgiving til almost Xmas. I play bass in a local band called The Jade Idol, backing the tremendously talented Bob Bleed. It's fun just playing and not writing/fronting a band. Also, I'm just starting to put something else together to play Fags and maybe a HiFi's or Hoarse song or two."
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