[25 October 2006]
The story of Dead Moon is as much about making a statement as the music itself. Throughout nearly 20 years of recording and touring, the three members have followed their own rules by making deliberately unpolished recordings (often in mono), using vintage equipment to press their own records, running their own label (Tombstone), and playing a no frills brand of rock ‘n’ roll that’s too technically adept to be called “garage punk” (let alone revivalist)—yet too primitive to be lumped in with contemporary hard rock or metal. Whether it’s a conscious statement or simply Dead Moon doing what suits them, one thing is indisputable: They’ve done it their way.
Much like the stylistic ambiguity, Dead Moon’s most distinct element, the voice of guitarist/lead vocalist Fred Cole, defies comparison. The quavering near-falsetto that Cole deploys most of the time borders on androgyny, but is too ballsy and masculine to be deemed as such. His vocals also have a spooky quality a la vintage country blues wailers, but that’s not to say they’re somehow weird or haunting—just impossible to pigeonhole. And to add to the mystery, Cole’s everyday speaking tone is the most normal (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) voice imaginable, one that could be at home in anyone from Bob Newhart to an archaeologist.
Call it inner drive, call it the spiritual verve that underlies all great music, but something inspires Cole to reach deep within himself and pull out the unique voice that’s graced every recording he’s made for the past 40-plus years. After a 1964 single with the Lords, Cole landed in the Weeds, who were renamed the Lollipop Shoppe by the time they inked to Uni Records (home of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the first couple Elton John albums) and recorded the now-renowned “You Must Be a Witch” single in 1968. While the song (included on Rhino’s first Nuggets box) has earned its reputation as a classic, it succeeds more on its distinctiveness—rooted mostly in (you guessed it) Cole’s vocals—than as a strong track. Perhaps that’s also why the Lollipop Shoppe’s lone album, Just Colour, might be described as a noble failure—high on individuality, but unfortunately lacking the songwriting to match its ambitions. (That said, a legit reissue would be nice.)
That would all change by the time of Cole’s next recordings with the band Zipper, whose self-titled 1975 album is arguably the finest effort of his career. With a hard rock sound owing more to the bastardized blues abandon of the late 1960s than the polished technicality of the mid-1970s, the band turns out one great original after another—rocking with wild abandon on “Bullets” and “Born Yesterday”, showing a sense of melody on “The Same Old Song”, and reaching back into the blues for the high drama of “Face of Stone”. Too, Cole’s voice shows a maturity that he’s displayed ever since, one that enhances already strong riffs deployed under the primitive recording techniques that Cole is still fond of. But in spite of how out of fashion the band may have been, it did apparently have one thing in common with contemporaries; when I asked Cole, after a 1999 Dead Moon show, what inspired his songwriting in Zipper, he smiled and replied, “Sex.” (Fortunately, this once-scarce private pressing got the reissue it deserved on Music Maniac’s Way Back subsidiary in 1994, and isn’t too tough to track down.)
The garage psych of the Lollipop Shoppe, the hard rock of Zipper, and the 1970s punk of the Rats (Cole’s next band) comprise the sound of Dead Moon, which formed in 1987 and released their first single, “Parchment Farm” b/w “Hey Joe”, the following year. While neither side made this double-CD compilation (somewhat surprising, considering the A-side is still a live favorite), it’s instructive if for nothing else than establishing the Dead Moon stance. Even in 1988, both songs were considered bar band fodder (read: not worth redoing), but Cole and company paid no mind, doing exactly what they wanted and even putting their own slant on both tunes. The reason it succeeded was simple: Chemistry. Rounded out by Cole’s wife, Toody, on bass and Andrew Loomis on drums (a mere three-piece set, actually), Dead Moon were on the same page from day one and it’s shown in the quality of the music. Not only are the three locked in instrumentally, but Toody’s backing vocals are also the perfect foil for Fred’s leads.
Echoes of the Past, then, confirms that while these Oregonians’ sound hasn’t changed much, if at all, they’re due a lot of credit for sticking to their guns all these years (and with justification; they can still write good songs). Through bad late 1980s music, to grunge (which Zipper was arguably a forerunner of), to the watered-down indie rock of the late 1990s, to whatever the hell is going on now (I’m not sure, honestly), one has always been able to count on Dead Moon to fly the flag for primal rock ‘n’ roll. Wisely excluding anything from their mostly forgettable 1997 live album, this comp basically provides all the highpoints (except “Parchment Farm”) of the band’s career, including such early burners as “Evil Eye”, “Walking on My Grave”, “54/40 or Fight”, and “Poor Born” (Fred’s autobiography?), plus more recent favorites like “40 Miles of Bad Road” (not the Duane Eddy song) and “Sabotage”.
There’s also 2001’s uncharacteristically melodic “These Times with You”, which might be described as Fred and Toody’s answer to “I Got You Babe”—although one must note that their four-decade marriage is far more successful than Sonny and Cher’s. Or maybe it’s a symbol of Dead Moon’s career: Not only surviving, but thriving in their unending love for rock ‘n’ roll.