Green on Red

TrackAlbum
Time Ain't NothingNo Free Lunch
Honest ManNo Free Lunch
Keep On Movin'No Free Lunch
We Ain't FreeThe Killer Inside Me
That's What Dreams Were Made ForGas Food Lodging
Sixteen WaysGas Food Lodging
Cheap WineGravity Talks
Keith Can't ReadHere Come The Snakes
Morning BlueHere Come The Snakes
Little Things In LifeScapegoats

Green on Red photo

 

 

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Green on Red playlist

 

Contributor: Chris Dodge

If you happen to come across an article about Tucson’s Green on Red, chances are the phrases ‘Paisley Underground’ and ‘sloppy brilliance’ may both feature. In reality, despite being forerunners for alt-country / Americana, there is relatively little coverage online. Chuck Prophet, lead guitarist and co-writer, has become a much-respected artist in his own right with a fine back catalogue (check out his own Toppermost feature for the excellent playlist). On the other hand, Dan Stuart, frontman and lyricist, has had much more of a low-key presence since Green on Red last made a record. Although he has resurfaced of late with some records definitely worthy of further investigation. Keyboard player Chris Cacavas is also still recording and has been a member of The Dream Syndicate since 2017, who share a long association with Green on Red.

Unlike most UK-based Green on Red fans, my introduction to the band didn’t begin with Gas Food Lodging, their most universally acclaimed record. Instead, I happened to pick up a cassette of the follow-up mini LP No Free Lunch for a bargain price of £1.99 in Our Price Records. At that point I hadn’t heard of the group but was in the habit of picking up sale items on the off-chance I was going to discover my new favourite band. The decision to purchase or not was down to a couple of factors, namely whether a quick scan of the band line-up revealed there to be both acoustic and electric guitars played on the record. A Hammond organ was a bonus. The second criterion was the price. Occasionally I based my record buying on songs heard through influential radio shows but most of the time there was an element of luck. Surprisingly it has served me well and, almost without exception, has been the gateway to discovering some of my cherished artists during the mid to late eighties pre-internet.

No Free Lunch was recorded in London with engineers Stephen Street and Simon Humphries. Recently signed by Polygram/Mercury off the back of a successful European tour to promote Gas Food Lodging, the band’s star was in the ascension. Gas Food Lodging had entered the Top 20 in the UK Indie charts and was a staple of American college radio. But I shall return to this record later. No Free Lunch contained seven songs on the record but the cassette version also included a 13:36 minute version of Howlin’ Wolf’s blues classic Smokestack Lightning. It should be noted that the original only lasted 2:32 minutes although Clapton’s Yardbirds live version sometimes could last up to half an hour, testing even the most dedicated blues enthusiast. I have spared you this ordeal and opted not to include Green on Red’s version on my recommended playlist.

Instead, my first selection is Time Ain’t Nothing, a country rock number with a crisper more polished sound compared to the looser arrangements of the previous record. Lyrically the song refers to the seemingly carefree and endless days afforded to our younger selves:

Time ain’t nothing
When you’re young at heart
And your soul still burns
I’ve seen rainy days
Sunshine that never fades
All through the night

Next up is Honest Man from the same album. Again, this is a country song in the vein of Willie Nelson (the band do a pretty decent version of (Gee Ain’t It Funny How) Time Slips Away on the same record). This time the narrator is a struggling farmer at the end of his tether with mounting debts, “I’m just a lost soul on his last ride” asking for an honest man to “take care of my wife and family and 80 acres of land”. This affiliation with the mid-west farming community and musical nods to both Nelson and Neil Young resulted in the band playing Farm Aid in 1986.

My affection and bias for No Free Lunch leads to the final selection from the record Keep On Movin’, a road song with a driving propulsive rhythm detailing the endless and repetitive nature of touring state to state as the narrator questions his own sanity. The song climaxes in a stirring and feverish mix of guitars, country-style piano and frenzied drumming.

My next Green on Red purchase was the follow-up, The Killer Inside Me. This was going to be the big breakthrough album; recorded in Memphis and LA with Jim Dickinson and Joe Hardy, allocated a larger recording budget and complete with gospel backing singers, what could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot actually. The recording sessions were long, gruelling and at times chaotic. By the band’s own admission, performances were sometimes lacklustre and, for the first time, there was more pressure to come up with the goods. With its dark themes and often fraught vocals, the record certainly divides fans and received a lukewarm reception from critics. Personally, I love the album. It’s certainly not perfect, the music is much looser at times and lead singer Dan Stuart sounds jaded and fragile but it’s precisely this vulnerability and imperfection which makes the record appealing. Clarkesville, premiered at Farm Aid, is probably the stand-out but I have selected We Ain’t Free, mainly because I’m partial to narratives depicting characters ground down by everyday life with references to American culture and set against a musical accompaniment of uplifting choruses and gospel singers! And yet another title containing the word ‘ain’t’. As John Mellencamp would say, ‘Ain’t that America’!

Time to rewind and return to Gas Food Lodging, probably the band’s most seminal work released in 1985. The first record to feature Chuck Prophet who brought some further musicality to the band and more expertise in arrangement of the songs. Recorded “real fast, very easy” according to Stuart because “if we didn’t we somehow knew it wouldn’t turn out as good as it ultimately did”. Reviews of the record are largely positive although the aforementioned ‘sloppy brilliance’ features regularly with unsurprising references to Crazy Horse. In fact, there’s a wonderful TV clip where an enthusiastic Andy Kershaw shares the song The Drifter on his Sony Walkman with interviewee Neil Young who sportingly acknowledges the similarities to his own music, grins and nods along.

My first selection is the opener That’s What Dreams Were Made For which features a great guitar intro before the band kicks in and details Stuart’s emerging lyrical themes of downtrodden protagonists and dreamers, immersed in cinematic Americana imagery. There are a number of other highlights to choose from but I have settled on one more essential track – live favourite Sixteen Ways which, somewhat implausibly, tells the tale of the murder of 16 children in the same family; by whom and why is not revealed. The song was covered by American indie rock band The Vivian Girls in 2011.

The record which set the blueprint for the classic Green on Red sound was Gravity Talks released in 1983, a fan’s favourite, so it would be remiss of me not to include a song from this record hence the inclusion of Cheap Wine. The album displayed a transition from the band’s earlier 60s psychedelic influences to a more classic roots rock sound albeit still with melodies led by Cacavas’ swirling keyboard playing.

By late 1987, and following the muted response to The Killer Inside Me, the band had stopped enjoying themselves and life on the road certainly was taking its toll on Stuart in particular. The breakthrough had failed to materialise and, despite touring heavily throughout Europe and building a loyal audience, record sales remained poor. Green on Red took a break and, finding themselves without a record deal and no immediate plans for the future, an indefinite hiatus followed. However, a strong songwriting partnership between Stuart and Prophet had formed so it was no real surprise when they both resurfaced two years later with Here Come The Snakes on a new record label. It was more of a surprise to the other members of the band who had not heard from Stuart in the interim and that the name Green on Red had been retained. Stuart acknowledged his regret of how this was handled many years later in an excellent article by Fred Mills. The record again involved both Dickinson and Hardy, but this time it was a much tighter affair with a distinct Stones influence. The production is a little too direct and polished for my liking although there’s no doubt the songs were stronger and reviews were much more enthusiastic. Keith Can’t Read was the lead single and is an infectious ballsy rocker with a strong blues influence (think Stones circa Let It Bleed). Morning Blue displayed the more world-weary side of Green on Red and is a gentler, more country influenced tune.

This Time Around followed on quickly and was a rushed affair capitalising on the relative success of Here Come The Snakes. With the exception of a couple of songs, notably the title track – another catchy direct rocker in a similar vein to Keith Can’t Read, and the excellent You Couldn’t Get Arrested, much of the material was below par. Thus no inclusions on the playlist, admittedly as a result of the three tracks selected from No Free Lunch.

Scapegoats followed two years later and was a much stronger and consistent set of songs showcasing their blues, rock and country influences. I have included the instantly likeable Little Things In Life because for me Green on Red always excelled at this type of more mellow and plaintive songwriting approach.

There was to be one more Green on Red record, the ironically titled Too Much Fun. Once again, the result was patchy despite a couple of strong songs to satisfy the faithful.

However, the story doesn’t quite end there. Out of the blue in 2005, the band announced that they had reunited to play Labor Day weekend in Arizona and, most surprisingly, this included original members Cacavas and Jack Waterson in the line-up. It extended to a mini-tour of Europe the following year including some festival appearances. I was overjoyed to catch the band at Guilfest, playing a brilliant set from their vintage era as the sun went down. Inexplicably, I left their set before the end to catch Billy Idol and experience a nostalgic trip back to my early youth, and that was that. As a character from one of Green on Red songs might concur, “Regrets, I’ve had a few”.

 

 

 

 

Green on Red official website

Green on Red bandcamp

Dan Stuart website

Chuck Prophet website

Chris Cacavas bandcamp

Green On Red at Town & Country Club 1992 (YouTube)

Green on Red biography (AllMusic)

Chris Dodge currently resides in Singapore but will be returning to Kent and his much missed record collection in the summer of 2022. Having discovered ‘With the Beatles’ in his parents’ record collection at the tender age of 7, Chris become an avid music fan and his musical tastes are eclectic to say the least although a sizeable portion of his records are from the 1980s to mid-1990s when he didn’t have a family to spend his money on. Chris is on twitter @chjdod.

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