Wanna' Meet the Scruffs?
by Jason Gross (May 1998)
The most gratifying part of the whole wave of CD reissues is seeing these obscure gems that you're positive no one else could possibly care about to go ahead and take the trouble to reissue actually come to life again. When I saw that the lone album by the Scruffs, Wanna Meet The Scruffs? (an impossible rarity until now), was actually out on CD, I gladly plunked my money down for this plastic-coated aluminum reissue. I hadn't listened to it until shortly before this and quickly remembered how good it was. Now, everyone had the chance to rediscover this beautiful little piece of history and I just have to tell the world about it.
Originally, the Scruffs album was unleashed upon humanity in '77 and promptly disappeared without much notice, without any second album or follow-up to show for it (just two singles and that was it). Power Play, the original company that put the record out, only printed up 2,500 copies of the album (making it an instant rarity) and despite some good write ups, most people missed the boat the first time out. The label was 'undercapitalized' and trying to sell off to a major while financing the band's touring. All these schemes came to zero though.
'Power pop' (kinda energized pop but not heavy or bluesy enough to be rock) was being picked up by bands everywhere at the time. So why not the Scruffs? Ah, life's just unfair, y'know. What's done is done so let's get to the matter of hand- praising this to the sky so that the same injustice doesn't happen to them this time around.
Start with the cover- what a hoot. The coy, goofy title and below it multiple pictures of each of the band (like A Hard Day's Night!) mugging for the camera with half the band looking like they're ready for a fancy boot camp and the other half ready to go out to a disco. With two brothers (who look it) no less! Back cover (the picture above) has the drummer looking like he's scratching fleas out of his hair, the bassist has his mouth open like drool's about to come out and the singer decked out with darkened glasses. I ask you- how could this NOT be great?
This one is full of energy, catchy, nice harmonies and girl problems. Sounds like a lot of bands from the early '60's, right? That's the idea and if you like that formula, you're in for a treat. The only possible complaint I could imagine about the whole thing is maybe that Stephen Burns voice is a little too high and cracked sometimes. But you what? That makes it just perfect for a bunch of songs about adolescent woes, so there.
I'd say that the band is tight but not so played out that they've squeezed the life out of the songs (or themselves). Guitarist Dave Branyan adds good jolts of ringing excitement all over the place, drummer Zeph Paulson adds the right amount of rolls and cymbal smashs to keep things rolling along nicely, Burns adds some nice pounding piano here and there and bassist Rick Branyan maintains a good groove along with them. Also, having all four members of the band singing (again like their heros, the Fab Four) certainly helps.
As I mentioned, Stephen Burn's songs are as agonzied as his voice. There's some self-pity and 'why me?' crapola but mostly it's just the usual pent-up growing-up screwed-up emotions. I'm a lousy judge of age but they're no way that he was in his teens when this was done. So what is he then? A perpetual adolescent? A guy who's maturity is stuck in that time in his life? A great pretender who plays an adolescent? A dude who's looking for a good time with no thought of geting hitched? None probably- just a solid songwriter who's taken up the usual rock subject matter and somehow makes it sound exciting, fresh, new and something you can buy into and believe in.
"Break the Ice" starts things off with some great guitar licks thrown out by Branyan at the end of each line of the chorus and Burns starting his come on to his cold babe with 'darling, love is a lost cause' and ends things off with a Gene Vincent tribute. With the pretty, sweet "My Mind" he turns around and decides that he doesn't want to get pushed into a relationship. By the next tune, he's telling his girl "You're No Fun" (complete with some nice twang decorations from Branyan)- does this guy need Dear Abby's help or what? He gets the chills in the rocking strut of "Frozen Girls" (ah, ice again like the first tune but not 'as cold as' like Foreigner), with Burns or bassist Branyan banging away on his keyboard as if Elton John remembered how to rock out again. They go up-tempo again for "I've Got A Way" with its howling chorus, showing that this adolescent Burns is (playing?) has some good swagger to him. "Tragedy" starts out with some bluesy-rock riffs before it gets to its sweet harmonies and the terrible realization that 'it's just a teenage dream then you're old / somebody says you're alone' (which may sum up Burns' outlook). The first side (now on CD, the first half) closes out with the fast moving, go-for-broke "This Thursday" with Branyan's solos making the dead-end terror of the song come to life. All of this alone would make these guys candidates for Bellvue and (in a saner world) the (c)rock hall of fame but they're just getting wamred up.
The second side/half starts out with a bang with "Revenge." A zooming synth and steely guitar begin the song as Burns calmly tries to explain that he wants to get his girl BADLY , and not just make it with her but make her over. The shout-a-long chours backs up his desperation and sick nature with talk of dreams wet and lewd. Figures that one of the catchiest things here is also the most twisted. From there, he plays it much nicer with the lush and sweet "She Said Yeah" (dig that groovy acoustic guitar) as the boys croon 'I don't want to change your mind / I love you as you are tonight' even though it's a desperate plea for her to go for him, saying how lost he is otherwise. "Tommy Gun" doesn't really rock out as much as the Clash song of the same title but it's a interesting take on violence and love kinda like Elvis Costello's Armed Forces (even if it's not quite as clever). Then again, maybe it's just a stupid metaphor for a dick though they're not so adolescent that they have to make this obvious thank God. "Sad Cafe" has David at the mike and has really strong guitar riffing surrounding the each chorus and verse- they moon about a dead end club where they saw freak shows like a 'guy with a gash in his head' performing. "I'm A Failure" stands with a bang and nice primal howl and nice echoed backup vocals as Burns tells the world how pathetic he is , mostly because (you guessed it!) he can't score. The last line almost sums up his whole outlook: 'I'm only 23 and it's the end of me.' The beautiful, wistful "Bedtime Stories" is a perfect capper, with the sing-a-long chorus, tastefully-used synth and repeated lullaby about having his girl only part of the time that you wish could go on and on. A damn brilliant ending to what should have been a long and prosperous career.
Again, I don't think Burns or the characters in his songs are THAT desperate as it seems (geez, I hope). Part of the up's-and-down's of this romantic love thing is making mountains from mole-hills as your brain reels. Anybody who's been there knows for sure that love makes you DO WEIRD THINGS. You don't think straight, for better or worse. These characters in these songs don't- they're confused, pissed, worried. You know, IN LOVE. It's the kind of slobbering obsession where you want a mate so bad you scare 'em off the wonder why they don't want any part of you (personal experience talking here now). This record certainly ain't one to snuggle up with your sweety and you may get a little too bowled over by all the desperation going on here. But. Great music is about strong emotions that have to get out. To me, the Stooges, Wagner and the Scruffs are like that- not at all rational and sometimes you really need that kinda abandon in your life or else YOU LOSE IT. Hear me now, believe me later.
If you're still not ready to peel yourself away to get this, let me tell you that the CD reissue has all the lyrics, some great liner notes from other adoring fans/writers which are a lot more articulate than me (which is pretty easy), nice pictures of the band in action and bonus tracks to boot (alternative takes of "Break the Ice" and "She Said Yeah"). This kind of throws off the nice way that "Bedtime Stories" ends things but it's welcome nevertheless.
NOTE: The band's early history is actually out now as Angst: The Early Recordings, coming from the few years just before the debut was recorded ('74-'76). Not surprisingly, this is a document of the band finding its voice and getting its act together. Burns was working with various friends until he settled on the Branyan's and Paulson, recording the songs just to have them down and not thinking of making it all into commercial product just yet. Despite the fact that this stuff was kept in the vaults until now, with most of the songs not used for Wanna, this is some prime grade pop. One telling difference is that Burns, in his lyrics and vocals, doesn't sound as possessed and psychotic as later, which certainly helped put the music over- 'very little material on ANGST was rehearsed; it wasjust developed in the studio' says Burns. Also, the production isn't as sharp and clear as the debut (where they had Ardent and John Fry, an engineer who'd worked with Big Star) and the band doesn't sound as frantic here. You could compare the version of "Revenge" here with the one on the debut to see this- the one on their first LP is much more powerful and in your face. "Tragedy" is also here and isn't as sharp as it would be later (though still a great song). Since their first album was produced by the band (just like the demos), you'd have to guess that they had found their way around the studio after a couple of years and learned how to use it well by the time of Wanna. Sure enough, as the CD goes along from '74 on, they get the right feel for their sound and things fall into place almost as spectecularly as Wanna, especially on the desperate "This Can't Go On." Once your bowled over by the other record as you should be, you'll still need to hear this nevertheless.
'Alright, enough already. You convinced me! So where do I find it?' Wanna and Angst are put available from the Scruffs website. The unreleased second Scruffs album, Teenage Gurls, and their final (also unreleased) album, Midtown (Steve- 'I got a call from Alex Chilton the other night saying he thought it was the best recordings I had ever done'), will be coming out soon, also on Northern Heights. I urge everyone and their mom to get ten copies of each.
Any facts that actually appear in this article come from Stephen Burns himself, who saw to the reissue of Wanna. Messenger 45, his latest project, is also out on Northern Heights now. Some final words from Steve-o: 'We are trying to build Northern Heights Music into a "real" Memphis pop label along the lines of the old Ardent label. To that end, we started with the Scruffs catalog to "jumpstart" the label along with a new recording I made entitled Signs & Symbols by Messenger 45. I made this recording last year with a new group of very talented Memphis musicians including Jim Dickinson (producer Big Star 3rd) and that's how the label idea got started. It's been very nice and heartwarming to have so many people stand behind the music and share it with other folks.'
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