Steve McDonald Remembers the Earliest Days of Redd Kross
Steve McDonald talks about the year that produced the first Redd Kross EP, an early eighth-grade graduation show with a then-unknown Black Flag, and a punk scene that welcomed and defined him.
26 June 2020
"My brother and I, we went from posing in front of our bedroom mirror with hairbrushes and broomsticks to begging our parents for actual guitars to writing songs that would eventually end up on our first record to playing shows all in a two-year span," says Steve McDonald remembering a period that is now 40 years past. That was the summer that he and his brother started playing shows with Redd Kross, befriended a still largely unknown band called Black Flag, recorded a six-song EP on the proceeds from McDonald's paper route, signed a recording contract, and got entangled with a woman twice his age.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Redd Kross defined a catchy, melodic, pop-culture referencing punk style that hitched the sunny exuberance of California surf rock with the aggressive tempos and ear-shattering volume of punk. Now, 40 years later, Merge is reissuing the EP that launched the McDonald brothers' career: a self-titled, six-song EP that predates the change in name (from Red Cross to Redd Kross, at the urging of a certain charity) and captures the band at its snotty, hooky, disdainful best. The new edition includes alternate versions of Redd Kross staples like "Cover Band" and "Clorox Girls" taken from a first-ever recording session funded by Steve McDonald's paper route. It also has a live recording from the abandoned Hermosa Beach church, where the boys hung out with Black Flag in the very earliest days of both acts' histories.
"I'm really proud of it," says McDonald when asked how the reissue sounds to him now, all these years later. "It really captured the moment. It's well documented, well preserved. It's a great document of a moment. And I think that this version of it is the best example that I could put out there. It really gives a feeling of what that moment was like."
The Youngest Punks
Jeff McDonald became obsessed with punk rock early on, reading Creem to follow emerging punk rock scenes in New York and London and making regular, teeth-rattling expeditions to Westwood Village, 15 miles from home, on a moped with a top speed of 30 mph. He shared those obsessions with his younger brother, Steve, who was hardly into double digits, age-wise, at the time.
"My first exposure to punk rock probably would have been the Sex Pistols because they got a little bit of coverage in American rock magazines like Creem," says McDonald. "Then seeing the Ramones on the Don Kirschner's Rock Concert ... that probably would have been 1977. That really kind of blew the doors down for my brother and me. I would have been ten years old. And then also exposure to the Runaways, I guess, was sort of like pre-punk. And those were the things that excited us about the idea of maybe we could also play music."
"Jeff's taste was sophisticated, but he was also very tenacious and just very committed," says McDonald. "In a lot of ways, he was very pushy with me, but you know, I was afraid of a lot of this stuff. Because I was very young. But nowadays, I'm grateful." Steve McDonald was 11, for instance, when his brother started plotting for the two of them to see the Damned in LA. "It was his idea to go to a punk rock show when I was 11 years old. He wanted him to go with him. He always wanted me to go with him, which was cool that he was inclusive, which is rare for an older sibling that's almost four years older. But at the same time, it was a lot of pressure. I was afraid."
"We went to an Angel concert instead. That felt safer to me. Because I remember thinking, you know, oh, they're going to hold us down. The punk rockers are going to see that we're not real punk rockers and cut our hair," McDonald recalls.
Directory Assistance for SST in Lawndale?
Yet in real life, punk rockers were extraordinarily welcoming to the McDonald brothers, as Steve McDonald makes clear in his story about Redd Kross's first-ever gig.
"Our first public performance was at an eighth-grade graduation party in Hawthorne, California, where we're from. I was graduating from sixth grade myself, so it was our drummer's class that was graduating," he recalls.
"We had met Black Flag just a little bit earlier. Also, another act of tenaciousness where we made a cold phone call to them. We had found out about their electronics company, SST, that they had on the back of their first single that they'd printed up. And, randomly, we had seen them at a Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach. They had opened. They had put together shows and opened for bands we knew and liked, and we saw that there was a Lawndale address on the back of their old 45s that they were selling, and that was the neighboring town to our town.
"So, Jeff opened up the yellow pages and called information. 'Lawndale, California, can I have the number for SST?' Long before it was a record company. It was Greg Ginn's little known electronics company he had started up," he explains. The boys became friends with Black Flag and went to shows at the abandoned church in Hermosa Beach, where Black Flag rehearsed and recorded.
"When June rolls around, June of 1979 and it was eighth-grade graduation party that our drummer told us about and the girl that was having the party asked our drummer -- she knew he had a band, she probably thought we were a Journey cover band -- because that's the kind of bands that were in suburban southern California at the time. They were just cover bands, and they were playing Top 40 rock covers, so it would have been like Journey and things like that. Foreigner.
"We said sure. We were excited. It was going to be our first performance, and then we asked if we could invite our friends to play, too. She said, sure. So, it was this early Redd Cross/Black Flag show."
Photo: Al Flipside / Courtesy of Merge Records
How did it go? "Not well. But you know, it didn't turn into a riot or anything," says McDonald. During the production of a Redd Kross documentary, the filmmakers tracked down the girl who had hosted the party and, surprisingly, she remembers it fondly. "I just assumed that it would have been like, a social catastrophe for her, but actually, she had these pleasant memories about it, which made me happy," he adds.
McDonald recalls a somewhat less friendly vibe, however. "What happened was that the kid s... we were little kids too. Eighth grade, the average age is 14 or 13, and then there were like some weird high schoolers that showed up like Dazed and Confused -- that element. And those people, they felt empowered to hassle us, so we got a lot of hecklers during our performance. So, it was sort of antagonistic, but we didn't back down. We didn't stop playing. We kind of gave it back to them," he says.
When the booing got loud, his brother Jeff announced that the band would play some unreleased Led Zeppelin covers, and everyone cheered. Redd Kross, whose members didn't know any unreleased Led Zeppelin covers, played some unhinged Teenage Jesus and the Jerks noise jams. The crowd caught on and started booing again. Jeff then announced some Black Sabbath covers, which his band also didn't play. "We pulled that trick on them twice, but both times duped them. We played a full set in my memory, and they didn't like us, but we didn't back down," says McDonald.
"When we were done, Black Flagg rolled in their gear, and they were all in their early to mid-20s at that point. They had lots of really loud gear. They were a very loud band. And my memory of it is that the kids didn't harass Black Flag, they just kind of evacuated. They were afraid of them. It was just an empty suburban tract home living room with Black Flag, the original line-up, playing. And of course, we stayed and watched them," McDonald remembers.
No audio remains from that eighth-grade graduation, but the reissue includes a recording of "Fun with Connie" from about the same time, recorded, McDonald believes, at the Church in Hermosa Beach. "That was from before we had ever actually played in a nightclub," says McDonald. "Doing the math, it had to have been recorded at the Church, which was this sort of abandoned church, like an Episcopal Church in Hermosa Beach, where we first met Black Flag and where they rehearsed. Now it's an infamous place of storied place of their birth. And that's where they rehearsed, and some of them lived there, and Greg ran SST, the electronics start-up, out of there, too. So, there were a few parties at the church during the first summer."
Everyday There's Someone New
The McDonald brothers' vivid punk experiences made real-life seem even more pointless and alienating than usual. Steve McDonald says he never had much interest in typical pre-teen experiences. "I got into punk rock in a real way during the summer between sixth and seventh grade," he explains. "So, when school started again in September, I was fully indoctrinated into this whole social world outside of school, which is really incredible and really neat and I'm grateful for it, but at the time, it was difficult in practice."
Both brothers had part-time jobs, Steve delivering newspapers, Jeff working at a fish and chips shop. But their friends were mostly much older and involved in an edgy, non-traditional scene that celebrated art, rebellion, and gender non-conformity. "It was also just an interesting community with some very tight-knit friends. I kind of caught the tail end of the birth of Southern California punk rock. Within the next year or two, that's when the spark ignited, becoming this youth culture thing of hardcore, southern California hardcore. Of course, we were so cool, we were too good for that, and we were actually kind of turned off when our peer group got involved," says McDonald.
"But prior to that, we had this interesting time when we were accepted by this weird fringe-y group of intellectuals and bohos, art students. That first group of bands from L.A. -- bands like the Weirdos and X -- a lot of these people had been art students, like Cal Arts and going to art college, or they were leftovers from the glitter scene. They were into things like gender fluidity, all these concepts that are hot topics now in the mainstream," he continues. "I was coming from a blue color working-class environment. I had an interest in David Bowie and Lou Reed at a young age, so I had an interest in weirdo boho culture and what rock and roll had to contribute to it. But it didn't have a deeper meaning, these things. I loved the sound of Patti Smith's poetry, but I had no idea about Rimbaud. At any rate, so I was a little out of my depth, to say the least."
"I got a girlfriend ... I got into this really inappropriate relationship with a woman about 24 years old around that same time. That went awry and got really messy. It was kind of a nightmare. And so, you know, that was one of the pitfalls of being too precocious," he remembers. "I was involved in this older, weirdo, boho, rock community in ways that I wouldn't want my kids to be involved in. But at the same time, it's one of the reasons I'm talking to you now."
Photo: Al Flipside / Courtesy of Merge Records
The First Recordings
The EP that's being reissued contains Redd Kross' earliest recordings, including outtakes from some 1979 sessions recorded at a Hermosa Beach studio favored by Black Flag. "We got put into the Black Flag machine, and we recorded at the same place that Black Flag recorded and the same people. Except for Joe Nolte, who was sort of our quote-unquote producers. He was also part of that scene. And we did those demos hoping that would become a record," says McDonald. The demo versions of "Cover Band", "Clorox Girls", and "Rich Brat" all come from these sessions.
Shortly after recording those songs, Redd Kross played one of its first shows at a nightclub in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Posh Boy Records' founder Robbie Fields was there and, on the spot, offered to release the band's record. McDonald says that ownership issues, rather than the quality of the original records, probably made Fields want to re-record their songs.
"He made the backing vocals a little higher, and we added 'Annette's Got the Hits' which doesn't exist on the demo, and that's gone on to be our most known song from this session. That had the sensibility that he was interested in. He liked the more poppy songs. The beach sound that we had," says McDonald of the second recording session. "But my guess is that it was probably ... he was probably thinking from a legal perspective that he wanted to own the recording."
"Annette's Got the Hits", which later became a favorite of KROQ disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer, is indeed, a punchy pop-punk anthem written about Annette Funicello, the ex-Mouseketeer whose teen beach movies became a staple of the McDonalds' after-school routine. "We used to watch beach party movies on television after school. A lot of time they'd be on local TV at four o'clock in the afternoon," says McDonald. "We just thought they were kind of campy and goofy and fun. And we kind of felt the connection with that stuff because we grew up about four miles inland from the beach and in the summertime, we would spend a lot of time at the beach. We grew up in the same town as the Beach Boys. Who famously didn't surf."
McDonald originally scoffed at the Beach Boys, hearing their music as campy, nostalgic, and not very punk. He came to appreciate them through the Ramones. "The Ramones were influenced by 1960s southern California music, like the Beach Boys," he says. "The Beach Boys had a huge resurgence in pop music and mainstream music in the 1970s with their Endless Summer record, which came out in 1976, but at that time, me and my brother thought of that as campy, nostalgia, very old fashioned music. I couldn't relate to it at that time. But via the Ramones, I got into it. When I heard them referencing it but with loud guitars and a faster pace. Without the barbershop harmonies. It just felt hipper."
The six songs were originally released as a compilation on Posh Boy with songs from two other bands. The McDonalds weren't thrilled with the bands they were pair with, and as their songs gained traction, Posh Boy put out a 12-inch with just Redd Kross songs without ever even telling the band. "I was at a nightclub, and someone was spinning it, and it didn't even have a real record cover. It just had this generic 12-inch dance music sleeve. It looked like new wave wallpaper with the center hole cut out," says McDonald, remembering his shock and disappointment. "I was 12 mind you. I became sadly cynical well before my years."
Unlike many teenaged bands, Redd Kross made the music its members wanted to make without interference, but they still experienced their share of music industry meddling. "We were very in charge of the music, but when it came time to market us and deal with the business, immediately we were faced with all the clichés," says McDonald. "I mean, it was disheartening. Just those two incidents that I just mentioned, putting the compilation out and these reissues and the sleeve we didn't like and without anyone asking us."
Photo: Al Flipside / Courtesy of Merge Records
Anything Can Happen in China Town
Being a pre-teen punk rocker may be exciting and interesting, but it's not always completely safe. McDonald muses on the riskier elements of those early years. "We would go to China Town to play. China Town was a really rough part of town in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Deep in the bowels of downtown Los Angeles which had not gone through any kind of revitalization efforts like it has now," he says. "I got mugged at knifepoint once in East Los Angeles."
McDonald also saw, firsthand, some instances of police brutality that color his view of Black Lives Matter protests to this day. Once early on, at a show his parents drove them to, the McDonald brothers got caught up in a massive riot in downtown Los Angeles. "With Black Lives Matters, obviously, I'm someone that supports these kinds of forward-thinking, progressive ideas, but I also take pause with people who feel that as a white male, I wouldn't understand what it's like to be marginalized by authorities," he says.
"Not to compare myself to a racial underclass in any way shape or form, but I did, early on, have experiences where I saw the LAPD for no reason other than ... I don't know what their reasoning was. Because no one was in danger. There was no problem being caused. But I saw a lot of police brutality early on. So, you know, we talk about did anything bad happen, and yeah, I got mugged once in East L.A., but the thing that we were really afraid of was the cops."
But for the most part, McDonald looks back at these early years with pride. The cover art for the reissued EP shows a pocket-sized address book that Jeff McDonald used in the late 1970s. "Opening it up and looking at these addresses, it was all these people from that first year of us going to shows written in my brother's handwriting when he was 15. It's all these signs of us and the bands we loved and how we were," she says.
"We were shy kids, but we forced ourselves to go up and talk to them, and to us, these people were superstars even though we were in close quarters with them. Only a few years earlier, we were going to Led Zeppelin concerts and worshiping them like wizards, and then here we are doing a gig with the Germs, and I felt the same way about Darby Crash and Pat Smear, but we had access to them. We took advantage of that access. We took advantage of it for our own opportunities, but we also found ourselves identifying with these people, and these people accepted us and encouraged us. I'm grateful for that, and I think this record documents all of that."