Article by Michael Hann
From The Guardian, August 2015
The Lemonheads: 10 of the best
From an unpromising start trying to play hardcore, the Lemonheads developed into one of alt-rock’s most charming groups – and it wasn’t all about Evan Dando
1. Don’t Tell Yourself It’s OK
How did the Lemonheads get themselves so thoroughly written out of pop history? Sure, Evan Dando proved himself to be a drug-addled jerk of the first rank, but he’s not alone in that; yes, their career tailed off, like so many other bands. But that can’t be enough to explain why the Lemonheads are barely even a footnote these days, when in the early 1990s, they seemed like the group who could credibly bridge the gap between grunge and pop (“bubblegrunge” was one wag’s description of their style). Maybe it’s because Dando was a) seemingly independently wealthy, b) extremely good looking, and c) apparently not very interested in seeming tortured. Unfortunately, the Lemonheads’ peak coincided with seeming tortured being the principal qualifying factor for alt-rock success, whereas Dando was more interested in the sun, with a sound that joined the dots between Gram Parsons, Belinda Carlisle and Kiss. But that peak was several years in coming: the Lemonheads had formed in 1986, and their debut album, 1987’s Hate Your Friends, was a brittle, sometimes awkward punk-rock record whose main purpose was to remind you how good Hüsker Dü were – there were pointless punked-up covers (Amazing Grace) and unconvincing hardcore exercises (Rat Velvet). But amid the dross were moments where the Lemonheads showed there was something that might lift them beyond the indie ghetto. Chief among those was Dando’s ballad Don’t Tell Yourself. Though it had to be given a plodding drum pattern and fuzzed guitars to fit on the record, this song was obviously the work of someone who had the ability to move beyond the graffiti-covered toilet-circuit dressing room of the album’s back cover. Dando’s gift for the kind of melody that combines euphoria and melancholy was present and correct, with chord changes that are just unexpected enough to raise a smile rather than cause a start. But what would come next?
Hate Your Friends’ successor, Creator, was a bit of a mess. Two utterly pointless covers, of Charles Manson and Kiss, competed with some underwritten originals (Clang Bang Clang, the best of them, would be re-recorded for the fourth Lemonheads album as Left for Dead). The band split in its wake, only reuniting because they were offered a European tour, with Dando – whose relationship with co-founder Ben Deily was barely existent – switching to drums. They cobbled together a third album, Lick, from earlier recordings and a handful of new songs, and it proved to be their breakthrough, thanks largely to a bruised and battered cover of Suzanne Vega’s Luka. But rather than pick that, I’ve gone for a Ben Deily song. Deily is the forgotten man of the Lemonheads, despite sharing singing and songwriting duties with Dando across the first few albums. He left after Lick, and the Lemonheads became Dando’s personal fiefdom, but without Deily there wouldn’t have been a Lemonheads for Dando to take over. He wasn’t Dando’s equal as a writer, and his voice had a harsh, querulous tone that was harder to take than his bandmate’s, but sometimes he came good. Anyway, his best Lemonheads song had a chorus Dando would have been proud of, with a weary resignation that suggested that, given another album or two, he would have developed into a terrific songwriter. Let’s remember that he was a Lemonhead, too.
3. Different Drum
After Lick, Dando (from now on, the Lemonheads would pretty much be him plus whoever he fancied having in the band) found himself in possession of an unlikely major label contract, courtesy of Atlantic. The first fruits of the union came in the form of the Favourite Spanish Dishes EP, in June 1990, which was led by this cover of a song by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. Dando has always had an ear for a cover version, able to select songs that fitted his melodic and lyrical sensibility perfectly, and Different Drum was perfect for him. You can still hear that the Lemonheads had been a punk group, once upon a time, in the squalls of guitar that introduce the bridge, but you can tell Dando’s more interested in the lines that carry the melody, the countering of the riff rising upwards and lead line spiralling downwards.
A month after Favourite Spanish Dishes came the album Lovey, which didn’t include Different Drum, though it had gathered the Lemonheads a good bit of attention. Without the spikiness of Deily, Dando struck out in a new direction, upping the simplicity and sentiment (one of Lovey’s best moments is a beautiful cover of Gram Parsons’ Brass Buttons). On Stove, he later said, he found the voice that would dominate his writing on the next album – the one where he celebrates the quotidian and the mundane. For all the rush of the song – double-time snares and frantically strummed guitars – Dando is considering nothing more dramatic than removing his old stove from his kitchen, and his conversations with the fitter: “He walked back in, talked ’bout his boy at UVM / And we began to put the new stove in / But I miss my stove, she’s all alone / Call it love, she’s been replaced.”
5. Alison’s Starting to Happen
Between Lovey and its successor, 1992’s It’s a Shame About Ray, Dando went to spend time in Australia. Here, the instincts that had led him to write Stove were reinforced. He fell in with a group of musicians – bands such as Smudge and the Hummingbirds – whose approach was the same, and, besotted, he started incorporating them into the Lemonheads. Not merely inspired by them, he took members, songs, whatever took his fancy (there must be scores of people who think Dando wrote Divan and Into Your Arms, so perfectly did they fit with the way Dando was writing). Alison’s Starting to Happen was about Smudge’s drummer Alison Galloway. “She’d taken ecstasy and she had started to come on to the drug and she was like, ‘Whoah!’ And I was thinking, ‘Whoah! Alison’s starting to happen’. So I turned it into a sort of love song,” Dando said in 1992. But it was more than that: Alison’s Starting to Happen showcases Dando’s profound gift: the title is perfect, the instrumentation and arrangement unfussy but utterly alluring, and Dando’s melodic sense is simply unimpeachable. The way he changes key in the build to the final chorus as he sings “She’s the puzzle piece behind the couch that made the sky complete” is a thing of miniature wonder. Dando is one of the great melodists of guitar music of the past 30 years – they simply poured out of him, in the way they did out of Neil Finn of Crowded House.
6. My Drug Buddy
It’s a Shame About Ray is now seen as the highpoint of the band’s career, an album of such brevity and perfection that it could not be improved. Put it on and every song, bar the throwaway cover of Frank Mills from the musical Hair, sounds like an old hit single. It’s worth remembering that Atlantic weren’t taking that view when it was delivered. Lovey had failed to scratch its way into the charts on either side of the Atlantic, and when its follow-up came to be released in summer 1992, the company didn’t exactly put muscle behind it. In the UK, it was released straight to mid-price, pretty much the most damning thing a major could do to one of its bands. Then something odd happened. The group recorded a version of Mrs Robinson to accompany a video release of The Graduate, and Atlantic sneaked it out as a single. It became a hit. Ray was then re-released, with some added Simon and Garfunkel, and the Lemonheads were bona fide rock stars. The new track unbalanced the album, and paled in comparison with Dando’s own songs, expecially this one, possibly the best he’s ever written. Drugs and Dando would become an increasingly vexed issue in the very near future, but this song captures the beautiful of ennui of being young, free of responsibility and able to treat getting stoned as a way of passing the time: “She’s in the phone booth now / I’m looking in / There comes a smile on her face: / ‘There’s still some of the same stuff we got yesterday.’” But there were hints of darkness in there, too, as Dando worries that “I’m too much by myself / I wanna be someone else”. Musically, it’s a long, blissful sigh of delight: slow and fragrant, lifted by an organ line that sounds like its wandering off on its own conversational thread.
7. I’ll Do It Anyway
Their sixth album, Come On Feel the Lemonheads, was meant to be the big one, and it reached No 5 in the UK charts. But to follow up a perfect miniature, Dando put together a sprawling album that was often self-indulgent and messy (Rick James Style, The Jello Fund), which perhaps reflected his increasing use of ever-harder drugs. The band’s shows became sloppy and lackadaisical, and Dando became as well known for following Oasis around, off his face, as for his own music. But Come On … was also home to some of his best, sharpest writing – fabulous sunny powerpop (The Great Big No, Down About It) and beautiful ballads (Paid to Smile, Favorite T, Big Gay Heart) sat alongside each other, never rubbing each other up the wrong way. I’ll Do It Anyway was written with Belinda Carlisle in mind – at that time the reigning queen of big California pop – and it sounds like it’s just awaiting some preposterous additional production touches to send it to the top of the charts worldwide. But it’s better for being left as it is, surprisingly tough instrumentally, with guitars fuzzed and choppy. As with all the best powerpop, though, the verses serve principally as a delivery vehicle to get you to the chorus via the most efficient route possible. And if the lyrics aren’t up to much, who cares when the final line, delivered as if it’s the final word on relationships, is: “I’m still a girl, and it’s just a horse, and I got the reins.”
8. Into Your Arms
The Lemonheads’ biggest UK hit was another product of Dando’s Australian infatuation. It had originally been recorded in 1990 by Love Positions, the project of the Hummingbirds’ Robyn St Clare (who wrote it) and Nic Dalton (who was the Lemonheads’ bassist for Come On …, and co-founded the terrific Australian indie label Half a Cow), but you’d never guess it wasn’t a Dando original. The lyric, open-hearted and yearning (“I know a place that’s safe and warm from the crowd / Into your arms, into your arms, I can go”) is lovely in its simplicity. Dando turns the skeletal original, which is less a song than the outline of one, into something of beauty, using the two chords as the base from which to soar off into a brief, psychedelic country guitar solo. Nearly doubling the song’s original length only takes it up to just short of three minutes, but every second feels absolutely crucial.
9. If I Could Talk I’d Tell You
In 1995, you’d have bet against Dando ever recording anything worthwhile again. As Ted Kessler’s NME review of their seventh album, Car Button Cloth, in 1996 recalled: “It’s hard to credit, for instance, the scene a year ago in which Evan Dando is standing handcuffed, tripping on acid, and bleeding in Sydney airport, insisting the police release him so he can retrace his steps around the globe to find his mind. He’d lost it on the way in, you see, and knew it was still out there somewhere.” Yet the album was the work of a man whose gifts simply could not be killed, no matter how hard he tried. If I Could Talk I’d Tell You is a song that’s like the sweets the group took their name from: sweet and bright on the surface, but sour in the middle. Its lyric is drugged confusion – “Hold off, are we going soft / Flushed my Zoloft and we’re comin’ around again” – and Kessler suggested the chorus (“If I could talk I’d tell you / If I could smile I’d let you know”) came from an incident when Dando found himself unable to communicate during an interview because of the amount of crack he’d smoked.
10. The Outdoor Type
There were two further albums – a perfectly pleasant self-titled record in 2006 that never quite reached the heights of the first run of records, and a covers album, Varshons, in 2009 – but Car Button Cloth marked the end of the Lemonheads as a purposeful, current band. So it’s one more track from that to round off the list, one that highlights the Lemonheads’ maudlin, self-deprecating wit – though the lyrics come from Tom Morgan of Smudge, who’d collaborated with Dando since It’s a Shame About Ray. Over a loping country-rock backing, Dando admits to a girl he’s been courting that he lied about some stuff in order to make himself more attractive: “I can’t go away with you on a rock-climbing weekend / What if something’s on TV and it’s never shown again / It’s just as well I’m not invited, I’m afraid of heights / I lied about being the outdoor type.” The irony being that if you were to pick one early-90s alt-rock type whom you could imagine climbing, snowboarding, windsurfing, mountain biking, it would be the tanned, tall, muscular Dando, the man they called “alternahunk”. We’ll never know what caused the great dichotomy in Dando’s character: the man who could sing this sweet, melancholy, empathic song could also reveal himself to be an overprivileged, arrogant dick in interviews. So we’re left with Berry Gordy’s maxim: it’s what’s in the grooves that counts.