Elvis Costello once said that, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s really a stupid thing to want to do.” Yet, somehow music journalists have always found the wherewithal to scrawl volumes of Tolstoy-length pieces on almost anyone with a microphone or guitar. Thus, it absolutely boggled my mind that so little had been written about rockabilly virtuoso James “The Reverend Horton Heat” Heath and his merry men. You, dear reader, know darned well that I enjoy doing my homework and digging deep into the subject matter behind each post. How else can one wring meaning from a topic like blood from a stone? This due diligence not only reflects my commitment to intellectual honesty, but often leads to the blogger’s delight of the posts virtually writing themselves. Thus, I was confused, befuddled and kind of appalled to see that no one had given The Reverend Horton Heat’s 1994 masterpiece, Liquor in the Front, sufficient consideration, much less a proper analysis. Even the All Music Guide’s snippet of an entry led me to believe that their reviewer just didn’t get it.
Needless to say, this post certainly did not write itself, and I was forced to utilize the Charles Bukowski method of getting drunk and listening to the album whilst writing. Fortunately, this technique cured my writer’s block, and all things considered, I’ve certainly had worse evenings. Regardless, the criminal under-appreciation of Liquor In The Front and dearth of thoughtful examination seemed even more egregious due to the weighty amount of personal significance that I placed on this album. Yes, this was personal. For The Reverend Horton Heat’s Liquor in the Front was the first album that metaphorically grabbed me by the lapels and hollered in my face, its’ breath pungent with the juniper-and-lime-infused stench of one thousand gin and tonics, “YOU HAVE MISSED AN INCREDIBLE AND VERY SUBSTANTIAL PORTION OF THE HISTORY OF ROCK AND ROLL! REPENT, MOTHER****ER, FOR THE END IS NIGH!”
- “Big Sky”
- “Baddest of the Bad”
- “One Time for Me”
- “Five-O Ford”
- “In Your Wildest Dreams”
- “Yeah, Right”
- “Crusin’ for a Bruisin'”
- “I Could Get Used to It”
- “Liquor, Beer & Wine”
- “I Can’t Surf”
- “Rockin’ Dog”
- “The Entertainer”
Liquor In The Front (surreptitiously subtitled… Poker In The Rear) was jointly released by both Sub Pop and Interscope Records, as the band was transitioning between contracts and labels. This was a very interesting juxtaposition, as Sub Pop was an independent label verging on major label status, and Interscope (which I covered earlier with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) was a major label posing as an independent. In the early 90s, Seattle-based Sub Pop was known as THE grunge label, having signed and introduced the world to the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, long before they were considered cool. Sub Pop also released the first two Reverend Horton Heat albums, Smoke ‘em If You Got ‘em and The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat in 1990 and 1993, respectively. Interscope heard something they liked, and added The Reverend Horton Heat to their ample stable of potential next big things.
The sudden injection of major label dollars to the album enabled both prettier production and packaging than the Rev’s previous projects, which was entirely expected from any de facto major label debut. The production was handled by Al Jourgensen of Ministry fame. Prior to Liquor In The Front, modern rockabilly, psychobilly and surf rock albums were intentionally lo-fi, either due to budget constraints or an artistic decision to pay homage to the recording technology of earlier decades. Jourgensen was renowned for pioneering what at the time were considered avant-garde and cutting edge engineering techniques used mostly, if not only, within the industrial genre. However, rather than trying to make Liquor In The Front sound like The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, Jourgensen simply produced a fantastic sounding album, by bringing Jim Heath’s raging Gretsch guitar front and center, and then surrounding it with crystal clear drums and bright upright bass. If one concentrated, one could hear every note played by each musician on every song. This is one of the primary reasons why Liquor In The Front appealed to fans of alternative rock, grunge, metal and hardcore. Instead of making the 90s equivalent of an old, worn out, scratchy LP, he made one that sounded every bit as good and clear as any other record of the era.
Liquor In The Front started off with what in my opinion was the greatest opening one-two punch in the history rock and roll; “Big Sky” and “Baddest of the Bad”. One could easily argue that they were one epic song, with “Big Sky” serving as an extended introduction then transitioning seamlessly into “Baddest of the Bad”. (To lend further credence to this assertion, the band always played both songs back to back during live sets.) Musically, “Big Sky” was a western-tinged psychobilly instrumental played with the velocity, intensity and technical proficiency of speed metal. The minor-chord progressions and riffs were similar to those found in western swing and countless spaghetti western soundtracks, complete with copious reverb twang. Somehow the songs managed to incorporate metallic double kick drum, blast beats and blistering guitar solos without losing even a hint of that cowboy/greaser aesthetic. While Elvis Costello was right, and it’s exceedingly difficult… and stupid… to even attempt to describe the feelings music elicits, I’m too dumb to know when I’m beaten. Thus, “Big Sky” evoked emotions associated with magnificent multicolored sunsets over desert canyons, herds of wild mustangs running at top speed whilst kicking up clouds of dust, mysterious and tragically beautiful women whom you’ll never even know, and moments in time that are gone forever. Whether or not you believed in Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, “Big Sky” seemed to capture the archetypal sense of regret found in the dark recesses of the American psyche. “Have we strayed too far from our roots? Have we lost something vital? Is it too late to get it back? Such is the fundamental essence of the siren call of all things retro. Oh, and you could totally mosh to it. “Baddest of the Bad” carried on with the basic sonic structure laid down by “Big Sky”, only altering itself slightly to accommodate the Reverend’s lyrics about love gone rotten. At first listen, it seemed impossible to believe that something so melancholy could kick so much ass? Yet, verily, it did.
“One Time For Me” started off moody, slow and sexy, thus providing the perfect background to the Rev’s lyrical plea for some special girl to do something especially naughty. The song’s momentum built and eventually climaxed at punk rock warp speed. Unfortunately, “One Time For Me” was only released as a CD single in Australia. As for the reason, I can only surmise that the bastard public had better taste down under? “5.0 Ford” was crafted around a riff that sounded like “Hot Rod Lincoln” on a heavy dose of steroids and amphetamines. The lyrical content revolved around the most conspicuously rockabilly of all topics; drag racing one’s hot rod.
At this point, Liquor In The Front downshifted dramatically with the exotic and lounge-worthy “In Your Wildest Dreams”. The right Reverend’s romantic crooning along with the bossa nova rhythm would not have been out of place on a Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra record. A recurring theme of all things retro in the 90s was “initiation through ironic distance”, and this song was a perfect example. At the time I first heard this album, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to jazz, Latin or otherwise, but eventually I became acclimated to the intentionally schmaltzy “In Your Wildest Dreams”. After I stopped chuckling, sat down and listened, it wasn’t long before I was buying up Ultra-Lounge compilations like there was no tomorrow.
“Yeah, Right” upshifted into sludgy, mid-tempo I-IV-V blues progression backed by a hybrid industrial/surf beat and lyrics about a wannabe model who done the Reverend wrong. In all fairness, “Yeah, Right”, with its slightly distorted vocals and mechanical drum sound was the only track on Liquor In The Front bearing any of the hallmarks of producer Al Jourgensen’s beloved industrial genre. Regardless, no one would have ever mistaken it for a Nine Inch Nails outtake.
“Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’” shifted the album back into high gear, with a psychobilly barn burner which centered around defending one’s girl, car and guitar in no particular order. Lyrically, in an era that was renowned for alt rock wimps, it was refreshing to hear a band other than Pantera threaten to kick someone’s ass. “I Could Get Used To It” was a very traditional and raucous rockabilly tune about a fine, fine woman. “Just one taste and that’s all it took. I’m like a big bass on your fishin’ hook.” It should go without saying that popular grunge bands of the early 90s like Alice In Chains didn’t make many bass fishing references.
The album switched gears yet again, with the unapologetically country “Liquor, Beer & Wine”. Much like the lounge-influenced “In Your Wildest Dreams”, “Liquor, Beer & Wine” again strategically implemented “initiation through ironic distance”. At the time I first heard this album, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to country or western, but there was no turning back after being confronted with sheer brilliance such as this, “The doctor says I’m livin’ on precious borrowed time, with all the time I’m givin’ to liquor, beer and wine. The x-rays of my liver look like molded old Swiss cheese, my heart pumps blood and alcohol through hardened arteries.” Soundgarden only dreamt of such eloquence. After I stopped laughing, sat down and listened, it wasn’t long before I started checking out all those old Johnny Cash albums that my Grammy always insisted I’d like.
Aside from a couple of chanted gang choruses, “I Can’t Surf” was an instrumental tour de force of everything that was wonderful about surf rock; speed, intensity, minor key riffs, crawling bass lines, middle-eastern-sounding scales, and reverb galore. I hadn’t been so floored by a guitar solo since the first time I heard “Battery” off of Metallica’s Master of Puppets. Aside from the virtuosity, “I Can’t Surf” was a track that made many an aspiring musician ask themselves, “Where the hell did these guys learn to play like that?!? What phenomenal influences have I overlooked? If I really wanted to write a song like that, could I even do it?” Listening to this track was simultaneously inspiring and humbling.
“Jezebel” was an amped up version of Frankie Laine’s 1951 hit, which had been covered by everyone from Desi Arnaz and The Everly Brothers to Herman’s Hermits and Sade. The melody, though both moody and vaguely exotic, lent itself readily to the band’s muscular musical style. Obviously, this was the most authentically retro track on the album, hearkening back to a tale of man’s ruin from the Old Testament. “Rockin’ Dog” was another traditionally crafted mid-tempo rockabilly tune about the Rev battling his reputation as a womanizer whilst attempting to overcome his date’s last minute resistance. The entire song is riddled with enough antiquated Happy Days slang and righteous rockabilly guitar work to make both The Fonz and Bill Haley green with envy. The self-assured and good-natured humor of the song stood in stark contrast to the mopey alternative rock that pervaded the airwaves of the day. If one lyrically compared The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage” with The Reverend Horton Heat’s “I’ve got to stop sittin’ like a bump on a log, I’ve got a reputation as a rockin’ dog”, it was immediately clear to the listener with which band one would rather split a bar tab. The album closed with sixty-six seconds of Scott Joplin’s classic piano rag “The Entertainer”, and the band acting like drunken jackasses in the studio. It was one thing to finish an album with a smile on your face, but quite another to finish an album laughing like an idiot.
In conclusion, The Reverend Horton Heat’s Liquor In The Front purveyed a variety of retro musical styles including rockabilly, country, surf and lounge. Al Jourgensen’s stellar engineering and production made the album eminently listenable to a generation raised on cassettes and CDs. These factors combined with the band’s outstanding musicianship and novel sense of humor made for an extremely potent and enjoyable gateway drug. From that gateway, the listener could travel freely through a virtual universe of previously undiscovered audio retro delights. Subjectively, one could make an argument that Liquor In The Front may not have been the best neo-rockabilly album of the 90s, or even the best Reverend Horton Heat album of the 90s. Yet, attempting to quantify such a statement would be “like dancing about architecture”. I think it’s sufficient to say that in the 90s there were many available gateways into retro forms of music. But after walking through this particular gateway, I never looked back.