Cake band
Photo: The Orchard

Cake’s Motorcade of Generosity Previewed the Mid-’90s Alt-Rock Explosion

Cake were perfectly positioned for mid-’90s success. Artists willing to experiment and incorporate different genres were about to ascend briefly in popular music.

Motorcade of Generosity
7 February 1994

It’s Christmas break of my first year of college, either late December 1994 or early January 1995. I’m driving around in the Detroit area, listening to the radio, and a striking song comes on. It’s got a laid-back groove with country-rock guitar flourishes and a guy talking about hipsters. He wants to know, “How do you afford your rock ‘n roll lifestyle?” and by the end of the song, he is admonishing his target: “Excess ain’t rebellion / You’re drinking what they’re selling / Your self-destruction doesn’t hurt them / Your chaos won’t convert them.” I heard this song once, but it stuck with me. The DJ didn’t come on and name the track, and in the early days of the Internet, there was no easy way to look it up, so it just became a lost song.

Less than two years later, Cake had a breakout hit with “The Distance”. After purchasing the album Fashion Nugget and realizing it was their second, I went back to their debut, Motorcade of Generosity. Sitting near the end of the album was “Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle”. That lost song had been found! It made a lot of sense after hearing it in context with the rest of Cake’s material. Frontman John McCrea is equal parts earnest and withering, and a closer listen to the track reveals plenty of vibraslap, the rattlesnake-like percussion instrument that became one of the band’s trademarks.

Motorcade of Generosity was self-recorded and self-produced by the band in their hometown of Sacramento, California. It was also initially self-released on 7 February 1994. Capricorn Records, however, liked what they heard, signed Cake, and re-released the record to a broader audience. It turns out “Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle” was pushed as a single by Capricorn and appeared on Billboard’s US Modern Rock Chart, reaching #31.

Besides that minor chart appearance, the album had almost no pop-cultural impact then. However, upon revisiting it for its 30th anniversary, it becomes clear that Cake were perfectly positioned for mid-1990s success. By the beginning of 1995, grunge was giving way to a wider array of styles, all under the umbrella of “alternative rock.” Artists willing to experiment with and incorporate different genres were about to ascend briefly in popular music.

A closer listen to McCrea’s laconic spoken vocals reveals that they are definitively rapped. He follows a rhythm and pays attention to the beat of the song. This contrasts with the Streets‘ Mike Skinner, who, a few years later, would gain critical acclaim as a rapper despite not doing either of those things as a spoken word vocalist. It’s also distinct from Baz Luhrmann’s surprise 1999 hit, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”, which featured a literal graduation speech with music and beats placed underneath it. That said, hearing rapping from a white guy was a novelty in 1994 for anyone not named Beastie Boys. At least until a few months after Motorcade was initially released, Beck hit it big doing exactly that on “Loser”. This starts to paint a picture of why Cake were picked up by a record label later in the year.

Yet other than “Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle” and the delightfully bizarre “Mr. Mastodon Farm”, there isn’t much of McCrea’s rapping on the album. Most of the vocals here are McCrea’s baritone croon as Cake swerve from country to funk to rock to pop. Motorcade of Generosity follows McCrea’s muse, with no particular agenda or expectations of mainstream success. It’s sonically unique and very, very weird.

This is evident right from the start. “Comanche” is breezy with hints of Caribbean guitar featuring a chorus where McCrea insists, “If you want to have cities / You’ve got to build roads.” Vince DiFiore’s trumpet softly accompanies the vocals while McCrea strums along brightly on his distorted acoustic guitar. Greg Brown adds quietly picked electric guitar notes while the rhythm section of Victor Damiani on bass and Todd Roper on drums mostly just keeps the song clicking.

“Ruby Sees All” and “Up So Close” follow similarly. “Ruby” is a terrifically catchy, upbeat song with a bit more chug in the guitars. “Up So Close” is a love ballad with uncomfortably close lyrics, as McCrea describes various body parts. Musically, though, it’s very much in line with “Comanche.”

This changes with track four, “Pentagram”, where Cake go classic country. Brown plays spot-on guitar leads, Roper plays giddyup snare drum, and Damiani thumps his bass along on quarter notes. Meanwhile, McCrea gleefully sings about participating in a satanic ritual, where “Your feet are dry with the ashes of dead babies.” Its contrast between down-home country music and demonic lyrics is equally unsettling and hilarious. “Jesus Wrote a Blank Check” also uses the country template to great effect, with McCrea reflecting on how much he can get away with before cashing in Jesus’ promise of forgiveness.

“Is This Love?” shows off a different side of the band, with Damiani and Brown trading an irresistible funk riff back and forth throughout the song. McCrea snarls and moans through the song, showing off his prowess with the “Woman done me wrong” type of track. It’s hard to overstate how deep the groove is on “Is This Love?”, and it proves to be an effective preview for the pair of songs (“The Distance” and “I Will Survive”) that went on to be hits on their next record.

As a frontman, McCrea also has a bit of a bluesman in him. Cake is not a bluesy band at all, but at various times throughout Motorcade of Generosity, he can be heard, a little off the mic, exhorting his bandmates. This is most evident on “Jolene”, which begins with McCrea counting off “1-2-3-4” and starting the guitar riff. The song is dark mid-tempo rock with a heavy groove between the guitars and bass. The chorus features gang vocals where the band shout along to particular words, another soon-to-be Cake staple.

The song finishes with a jam that only lasts about 90 seconds, but it’s striking. McCrea calls out, “Guitar!” as Brown starts his solo, and he exclaims throughout, mostly “Ho!” and “Hah!” As the rest of the band joins the jam, McCrea continues to shout, getting further away from the microphone. By the final 30 seconds, he’s yelling “GET DOWN!” at the top of his lungs, eventually pleading “PLEASE GET DOWN” and then backing off a little to “That’s great! That’s great!” as the fadeout begins. This jam has a raw energy that isn’t expected from the vibe initially, but McCrea’s enthusiasm goes a long way.

Following “Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle”, Motorcade finishes strongly with three distinct but memorable tracks. “I Bombed Korea” is easygoing and upbeat musically, with a fun, catchy melody. Brown adds some jaunty organ backing in addition to his usual electric guitar, and DeFiore’s muted trumpet adds a bit of atmosphere. The lyrics, though, are full of regret and maybe a touch of PTSD, as McCrea’s Korean War veteran character tells the story. “Red flowers bursting down below us / Those people didn’t even know us / We didn’t know if it was live or die / We didn’t know if we were wrong or right / I bombed Korea every night.” It’s a simple song but very effective.

“Mr. Mastodon Farm” is a densely arranged track with a single verse that repeats. McCrea raps about birds falling in front of the window of his apartment and the compulsion that causes him to get up to see them flying away to confirm they aren’t just crashing into the street below. This is presented on top of an active bass groove, shaker percussion, and an offhandedly catchy guitar riff. Cryptically, the chorus has McCrea singing, “Mr. Mastodon Farm / Mr. Mastodon Farm / Cut swatches out of all material.” It’s fascinating, odd, and compelling.

Finally, Motorcade of Generosity wraps with “Ain’t No Good”, a song that may be among the catchiest the band has ever written. Over bright but distorted (always distorted) acoustic guitar chords, McCrea sings about all of the decadent, exciting experiences a couple will have, including the moment they fall in love. Then, over a simple but joyful trumpet riff, the chorus admonishes, “But watch out / She ain’t no good for you.” Brown gets to pop off one more excellent country guitar solo, which passes over to DeFiore, who plays a soft-toned harmonized trumpet solo. Eventually, McCrea closes out the song by warning, “She’d like to put you in her zoo / Right between the canaries and the cockatoos,” but the song is so joyous it gives the impression that it might be worth it anyway.

Cake were doing all of this just as elements of their sound were coming into the zeitgeist. The Folk Implosion‘s “Natural One” hit in late 1995 shares much of the same funk DNA with “Is This Love?” Their prominent trumpet use would be echoed in No Doubt‘s “Spiderwebs”, a hit in early 1996 and a precursor to ska’s brief time in the spotlight in 1997 and 1998. On the other hand, it wasn’t until Bubba Sparxxx‘s single “Ugly” in 2001 that the combination of country and hip-hop really took off in popular music.

Cake are still together and performing regularly, although they haven’t released a record since 2011’s Showroom of Compassion. John McCrea and trumpeter Vince DiFiore have been in the band consistently, while drummer Todd Roper left for many years but is currently back in the lineup. Xan McCurdy joined as lead guitarist after Greg Brown’s departure in 1997, and Daniel McCallum is the latest of several bassists to play with the group.

Interestingly, Cake haven’t really changed with time. They already started from such an anything-goes place that McCrea and company haven’t tried to explore much more stylistically. Sometimes, Cake go darker, as with Fashion Nugget, which feels like a stormy, cathartic breakup album. There are lighter records, too, like Prolonging the Magic, although that LP’s big single, “Never There”, is plenty dark. Mostly, though, it’s McCrea and company riffing on their unique combination of rock, country, hip-hop, and the occasional funk groove while McCrea balances earnestness and sarcasm in his lyrics and delivery. All of that was already in place on Motorcade of Generosity, a record that sounds like much of mid-1990s rock music together in one place.