UNDER APPRECIATED ROCK BAND OF THE MONTH FOR DECEMBER 2017: SS-20
The Under Appreciated Rock Band of the Month for December 2017 is SS-20, a psychedelic rock band dating from the mid-1980’s. The band recorded two albums, one EP with Sky Saxon, the frontman for the Seeds, and numerous other stray tracks. I don’t have a lot of information on the band other than what the various Bomp! Records sources have.
There are several rock bands that have this name, oddly enough. The SS-20 is what NATO called one of the Soviet Union’s intermediate-range nuclear missiles; why exactly this name became so popular in the punk rock world is hard to understand. Discogs lists a dozen bands named SS20, SS 20, or SS-20. One of these, which later took the name Dezerter, has a Wikipedia article that calls them one of the most popular punk rock bands in Poland.
The Wikipedia disambiguation page for SS-20 says that there are also punk rock bands with this name from Cincinnati, Ohio and from Mexico. Allmusic lists an album from the Cincinnati band SS-20 called Capital Class; Discogs calls both of them hardcore punk bands and shows 4 albums for each, noting that the band from Mexico is fronted by a woman.
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This is taken from the write-up by Greg Shaw in Destination: Bomp! for the SS-20 song “Arnold Layne”: “Once in a while I get enthusiasms that few others seem to share, and this was one of those. I was in awe of Bruce Wagner’s ability to squeeze original ideas out of the boneyard of rock guitar cliché, and I particularly love what he did with old songs. We cut stuff by people including the Seeds, the Stooges, Love, and the Doors, in each case adding something new to songs I thought had already been done to perfection. Against this, SS-20 had Madeleine Ridley’s morbid, gothic poetry, a blend I found intriguing.”
“Arnold Layne” b/w “Candy and a Currant Bun” is the first single by Pink Floyd (from 1967), with both sides being written by Syd Barrett. The SS-20 version of “Arnold Layne” was recorded especially for a Syd Barrett tribute album, Beyond the Wildwood (1987), and it also appears on the second album by SS-20, Son of Fantasy (1987), where the lead vocalist’s name is shown as Madeleine Ridgey.
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My introduction to SS-20 was on From L.A. with Love (1992) – probably the best compilation album of previous releases on Bomp! Records – which came out on Patrick Boissel’s label Marilyn Records. The song is actually by SS-20 and Sky Saxon and is a remake of the landmark Steppenwolf song “Born to be Wild”. This number certainly falls into the category of songs whose original version seemingly could hardly be improved upon. The most obvious change in the SS-20 version of “Born to be Wild” are the vocals (including many new lyrics) that are shared by Sky Saxon and Madeline Ridley, but the arrangement of the song has also been innovatively changed. If I had to choose, believe it or not, I would probably say that this is now my favorite rendition of “Born to be Wild”. However, most of the songs that SS-20 covers are not so prominent as this one.
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Another song by SS-20, “No Matter What” is included on one of the Battle of the Garages albums on Voxx Records, specifically Battle of the Garages, Vol. III (1984). I don’t have any of the original Battle of the Garages albums, but I do have a compilation album that collects songs from Vol. III and Vol. IV among these albums, Battle of the Garages, Part II (1993) that has a nearly identical cover to Battle of the Garages, Vol. III. SS-20 did not make the cut for Battle of the Garages, Part II, but the song does appear on SS-20 with Sky Saxon.
Yet another SS-20 song, “Still I’m Sad” (the Yardbirds song) is on a split 45 that was given away by an Italian magazine called Lost Trails, with the other side being a live performance of the Patti Smith Group song “Dancing Barefoot” by the Australian punk rock band Celibate Rifles. Discogs has several more of these free 45’s listed that feature other bands from the Bomp! Records roster, such as past UARB the Tell-Tale Hearts, Gravedigger V, the Fuzztones, the Steppes, and the Miracle Workers.
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The album by SS-20 that I have, Dream Life was released on Voxx Records in 1986. As given on the back cover, the cutesy listing of the bandmembers on this album are Madeline Ridley (voices, spiritual advisor), Bruce Wagner (normal Hawaiian guitars, 3-string bass), David Winogrond (drums along the Mohawk), and Greg Berryman (lost weekend bass). They also list the “current line-up” more normally (the same line-up is given for their second album,Son of Fantasy): Madeline Ridley (vocals), Bruce Wagner (guitar, bass), Gary Stern (bass), and Greg Berryman (drums). Gary Stern also was the engineer on Dream Life.
Dream Life provides a delightful ride (trip?) that could be described as psychedelic folk, with meandering melodies, unexpected instrumental mixes, and signature guitar pyrotechnics. The vocals that are both written and sung by Madeline Ridley are a particular treat (Bruce Wagner is the other songwriter listed on the album); here she sounds quite a bit different from the way she sang “Born to be Wild”. Standout cuts for me among the band’s original songs include the opening track “Parade”, “Breakaway”, “You Think it’s Me”, and “The Wake”, plus the two covers of course; but as usual with the UARB’s, the whole album sounds great, and I could easily list all of the songs.
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Two of the trademark covers by SS-20 are given on the Dream Life album. Side 2 opens with “My Eyes Have Seen You” that had appeared on the second album by the Doors, Strange Days, which incorporates the usual Doors flourishes; and the album closes with a fine, extended interpretation (running nearly 10 minutes) of “Penetration” that had appeared on the third album by the Stooges, Raw Power. Both songs are basically performed in the same style as the rest of the album, but the individual character of each of the two songs comes in quite clearly. I must say that I would have a hard time coming up with the name of another band who performs convincing covers of such a wide variety of rock songs.
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Sky Saxon is the former frontman for the Seeds, best known for their hit song “Pushin’ Too Hard”; while not among the biggest garage rock hit songs, peaking only at #36 on the Billboard Hot 100, it is likely one of the best known. “Pushin’ Too Hard” was included on the Nuggets compilation album and the Nuggets Box Set, and it is featured in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s exhibit showcasing “The 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”.
Wikipedia notes that the Seeds performed “Pushin’ Too Hard” live on an episode of The Mothers-in-Law that starred Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard. Like He & She, which came along in the same time period, The Mothers-in-Law is one of my very favorite sitcoms but did last two seasons.
From Wikipedia: “Allmusic’s Richie Unterberger wrote that ‘“Pushin’ Too Hard” [by the Seeds] is one of the songs most commonly cited when people are trying to celebrate or denigrate 1960s garage rock, and sometimes championed for precisely the same reasons as others put it down, though in time the critical balance tended toward praising the tune rather than dumping on it.'”
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At about the same time that Dream Life by SS-20 was released, Sky Saxon also had an album out on Voxx Records called Private Party / Live at the Cavern Club (1986). The band name is given as Purple Electricity, consisting of Sky “Sunlight” Saxon (vocals), Jeff McDonald (bass), Steve McDonald (guitar) – both of Redd Kross – and Brian Corrigan (drums) of the Primates.
SS-20 and Sky Saxon also collaborated on a 7” EP on Voxx Records called SS-20 with Sky Saxon (1986). Their cover of “Born to be Wild” mentioned above comes from this EP. Also on hand is Mars Bonfire, the songwriter for “Born to be Wild”; Sky Saxon and Mars Bonfire co-wrote the opening song on the EP, “Paradise” that was evidently created during the recording sessions.
The two songs on the B side of SS-20 with Sky Saxon are outtakes from the Dream Life LP (Sky Saxon is not involved in these recordings) and are two more cover songs by SS-20 of the Music Machine’s “Trouble” and “No Matter What” by Love (who had called the song “No Matter What You Do”). In their entry on this disc, the website www.skysaxonseeds.com/ notes: “This EP is a very rare post-Seeds instance of Sky [Saxon] not including ‘Sunlight’ in his name.”
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Before and after their involvement with SS-20, Bruce Wagner and David Winogrond were in a band called Skooshny. The Allmusic article on the band by Bryan Thomas says: “Skooshny is an L.A.-based psych-folk-pop trio who originally came together in 1971, a time that singer/guitarist Mark Breyer later said was ‘too late for the Byrds, too early for R.E.M.’” Skooshny released numerous songs beginning in the mid-1970’s but did not put out an album until Skooshny (1991), a retrospective album that collected their material from 1975 to 1981.
Mark Breyer and David Winogrond had been in a Chicago-area band called Brevity; when they relocated to Los Angeles, they connected with guitarist/keyboardist Bruce Wagner who answered an ad that they ran in a music magazine. David Winogrond also did some work outside SS-20 and Skooshny; he was the drummer for one of the earliest L.A. punk rock bands, the Germs, though not the original drummer.
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Madeline Ridley of SS-20 has a short performance called “Monitoring Madeline for Two Decades and Other Scenes” on a double-LP compilation album of alternative rock, spoken word, and poetry called English as a Second Language (1983) that has an amazing 84 cuts. Others represented on the album include Charles Bukowski, Dave Alvin of the Blasters, John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X, Henry Rollins and Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag, Tito Larriva of the Plugz, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club, record producer Craig Leon, prominent DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, and Kim Fowley.
Her work is also on two other similar compilation albums, Voices of the Angels (Spoken Words) and Neighborhood Rhythms (Patter Traffic) that feature many of the same artists and were released in the same time period.
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