Mainstream audiences may only remember Concrete Blonde for their lone chart hit, “Joey” (which, it has been theorized, may have only been successful because it sounded so much like Heart). But they had released two albums prior to Bloodletting’s commercial triumph, and had been stars on the L.A. scene for a fair while before that.
Me, I’ll always remember them because they were part of the first promo package I ever received in the mail.
In 1987, the year of Bloodletting’s release, I was a senior in high school. I had attended a journalism conference in New York City and, while there, I sat in on a seminar about writing reviews for your school’s paper. The moderator went on and on about how all you had to do was write letters to labels with the latest issue of your rag, and the labels would send you free records. This sounded almost too good to be true, but perhaps inevitably the first thing I did when I returned home from the conference was to write a letter to I.R.S. Records, at the time known by all the cool kids in my class as R.E.M.’s label. I even sent the letter with the return address as my high school, for added credibility. You can well imagine that when I arrived one day to find a package from I.R.S. Records sitting on my desk, I was the star of my journalism class. The contents of the envelope consisted of vinyl copies of and press releases for the soundtrack to the documentary, Athens, GA: Inside/Out, featuring tracks from R.E.M., Pylon, Love Tractor, and the Flat Duo Jets… and, you guessed it, the self-titled debut from Concrete Blonde.
From that day forward, I never looked back. For I now knew that it was my destiny to receive free copies of albums from record companies for the rest of my life… more often than not, in lieu of actual cash payment from the publications to which I’d contribute my reviews of said albums.
But I digress. Let’s get back to Concrete Blonde.
According to the liner notes in Superfecta Recordings’ re-release of Concrete Blonde, prior to meeting each other at Leon Russell’s studio in Burbank, CA, the band’s frontwoman, Johnette Napolitano, was working as a receptionist at A&M Records, and guitarist/bassist Jim Mankey was on the staff of Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40”. Once they finally hooked up with each other, it took them forever to find a drummer who’d stick with their artistic vision. The band started as the Dreamers, then became Dream 6, then, after signing to I.R.S. Records, finally changed their name to Concrete Blonde after a request from label owner Miles Copeland and a suggestion from new labelmate Michael Stipe.
Concrete Blonde shows a band with dark, if not actually gothic, lyrical and musical directions. If anything, they’re closer to punk. Napolitano was composing odes to her city of residence, most of them seething, showing a woman on the verge of packing her shit and getting the hell out. The album opens with the lines, “Well, when I’ve had enough / I’ll get a pick-up truck / And I’ll drive away / I’ll take my last 10 bucks / Just as far as it will go”. Three songs later, during the chorus of “Still in Hollywood”, she cries, “Oh, wow, thought I’d be outta here by now”. By the time the album ends, with a semi-reprise of the same song — this time tellingly entitled “It’ll Chew You Up and Spit You Out” — she’s changing her phrase on occasion to ask, “Oh, why would I be out of here by now?” That the band also covers George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” only serves to expand on Napolitano’s cynical view of life in California. “True”, “Dance Along the Edge”, and “Still in Hollywood” all saw release as singles (though not “Over Your Shoulder”, sadly, which seemed like it would’ve been a natural choice), but momentum wouldn’t truly begin to build until the band’s sophomore effort.
When Free made it to stores two years later, the addition of second guitarist Alan Block to the line-up strengthened the band’s sound. Napolitano still wasn’t happy with the City of Angels, as evidenced by this and, more specifically, “Roses Grow”. (The irony is that, after touring the country with the likes of Journey, Cyndi Lauper, and Eddie Money, the “hometown” they’d so often disparaged in their lyrics welcomed them back with a warm embrace.) The Superfecta reissue of Free adds the album’s title track, heretofore only available as a B-side, and a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, originally the flip of “God Is a Bullet”. Speaking of “Bullet”, it became a college rock smash, scoring airtime on MTV’s seminal late-night video program 120 Minutes. The jangly “Happy Birthday”, another single, is deceptively upbeat, featuring a sing-along chorus even as it throws out lines like, “I’m laying out on the floor / Drunk and poor”, the narrator able to escape the strife of L.A. only with chemical assistance.
There’s a quote in Free’s liner notes from Napolitano where she declares that “music is the most important thing. There is no other reason. One hundred years from now, I’m not going to be here, you’re not going to be here, we’re not going to be here, but people are going to listen to that music, and it better be fucking good.” Though 1990’s Bloodletting is inevitably going to be Concrete Blonde’s best-remembered work, their self-titled debut and Free show how the band evolved to reach that commercial plateau on their own terms.
And, frankly, they’re pretty fucking good themselves.