John “Speedo” Reis has had a busy year. Besides launching his new band The Night Marchers and their debut album See You in Magic, he’s also overseen two Rocket From the Crypt releases. That’s a lot of activity for a band that played its last show in 2005. February’s R.I.P. CD/DVD combo featured extensive liner notes from Reis, and his scrawl is also all over All Systems Go III, discussing each track and writing about the rehearsal space where these songs were recorded. The first two All Systems Go albums were compilations of Rocket From the Crypt songs that appeared on 7” and hard-to-find compilation discs. This one, in contrast, is a collection of songs recorded live between 1997-2000 to an eight-track tape machine at the band’s rehearsal space.
Reis says in the liner notes that he originally never would have considered putting this stuff out, but listening to the tapes from about a decade of distance has changed his mind. Which is good news for RFTC fans, because there is a lot of good material here, most of it previously unreleased. The sound is predictably raw and some of the songs are pretty rough, sure. But considering the band’s punk-with-horns, ‘60s biker gang aesthetic, raw and rough sounds just about right.
These 20 songs show a bunch of different sides of the band. The instrumental “The Whip” borders on hardcore, with swirling guitar riffs and pounding drums that don’t let up. “Tiger Mask”, the disc’s other instrumental, is similarly hard-edged, but mellowed out by a melodic horn chorus that gives the song a dose of catchiness. “Chariots on Fire”, which later showed up on the UK release of Group Sounds, sounds like a traditional RFTC song, with Speedo’s sung-shouted lyrics over a memorable horn line, and some gang vocals thrown in for good measure. The pairing of “When in Rome (Do the Jerk)” and “Dick on a Dog” are demos for songs that made it onto the RFTC album, and there’s something to be said for the raw energy of these versions. Especially considering the overproduced, slightly too polished nature of that album. And then there’s “Little Shaver”, which despite some silly lyrics is the closest to a straight pop song here. Not only is it midtempo, it features fully fleshed-out horn parts, Reis singing melodically, and even a harmonica. It’s so catchy that after hearing it once, I temporarily convinced myself I had heard it somewhere before. But this is the song’s first appearance.
The liner notes reveal an interesting bit about the song “Pictures of Lenny”. Reis wrote the lyrics after finishing the Phil Spector bio He’s a Rebel, and the chorus to the song is “Phil, don’t whip it out / you’re gonna hurt someone / your prints are on the gun”. As Reis says, a song that somewhat predicted the future. The lyrics for the rest of the tracks range from amusing to dumb. “Summer Survivor” imagines a trip to the beach where the beach is filled with aggravating Arizonans. “No Way at All” falls into the “dumb” category, with the refrain “My head has no feeling / I’m numb to the feeling… / There’s no way of dealing”. But when you’re going through raw demos, insightful lyrics are never a guarantee.
As a time capsule of Rocket From the Crypt circa the late ‘90s, All Systems Go III is a fun listen. There’s plenty to like here, but naturally, not all of the songs are winners. Some of them lack the hooks that made RFTC such a fun band, others feel unfinished, and some actually sound like they would’ve benefited from a bit of polish. This may not be the way for new listeners to get into the band, but it’s a great release for established fans. I’m not sure if it was the intention of the members of RFTC or Vagrant Records, but All Systems Go III works very well as a companion piece to R.I.P. With the latter, you got to see the band in their live element, working hard in oppressive heat, playing their favorite/best songs for the fans. With the former, you get to hear them equally live, but playing unfamiliar material mostly for themselves. It makes for a pretty nice sendoff to a band that went underappreciated outside of its core audience.