Note: This post comes from John’s weekly newsletter, The Daly Grind:
A couple weeks ago I watched a documentary called “Underground Inc: The Rise & Fall of Alternative Rock.” The film examined one of my favorite times in music: the grunge and alternative rock surge of the early-to-mid 1990s.
That era began with the runaway success of heavy Seattle bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam (during my last year of high school), and ended — rather abruptly — just a few years later (not long after I graduated college). Though the ride was relatively short, it produced a ton of great, innovative music. Some of it came from bands that went on to become pretty well-recognized in our pop-culture (and still enjoy a good amount of airplay). In other cases, the bands and their music are barely (if at all) remembered by mainstream audiences.
Underground Inc. focuses on the latter, delving into rock groups who should have made it big, but didn’t… often due to the impatience or poor marketing efforts of major record labels who were hoping for lightning in a bottle from what one interviewee referred to as the “post-Nirvana feeding frenzy of noisy bands.”
One of the bands featured in the documentary was — and really still is — near and dear to me. They were called Sugartooth, and were out of California. They first came onto my radar in 1994 with their single, Sold My Fortune.
The song got decent play on at least one of Denver’s rock stations, and it struck a serious chord with me. There was just something about their hard-hitting sound and lead singer Marc Hutner’s unique, soulful vocals that set them aside from other bands. I ran out and bought their self-titled debut album, and fell in love with it. It was packed with great songs, and as my college roommates could attest to, I listened to it all the time.
As is turned out, Sugartooth also caught the ear of a rather famous television duo: Beavis and Butt-Head. Winning the approval of MTV’s animated couch potatoes was actually a pretty big deal at the time, especially for bands that hadn’t previously enjoyed a lot of mainstream exposure. White Zombie was probably the show’s biggest beneficiary, but Sugartooth capitalized as well, and the album became a modest success.
Around this time, I was taking some computer programming courses in college, and learned about this thing called the World Wide Web (you may have heard of it). I spent lots of extra hours exploring it from computer labs, using a program called Netscape (you may have heard of it as well). I was pretty enthralled with this “web browsing” and “web surfing” stuff, and taught myself how to program in HTML (the almost sole language of websites at the time).
A couple years later, from my tiny little off-campus apartment with a dial-up connection, I created my own website. It was a fun little thing, but nothing terribly special. I created pages where I wrote about movies, music, and other interests. The homepage featured my face super-imposed over a superhero’s body, with a big “R” on my muscled-up chest. It stood for “Rocket” a nickname of mine that dated back several years (for a reason I won’t get into today), and the page included a comic book “origin” of how I got my “super powers” and whatnot. It was ridiculous by design.
Anyway, I dedicated a page to Sugartooth, where I emphasized my affection for the band and shared my favorite songs. At the time, there was almost nothing else online about them, including from their record label, Geffen.
One day, I got an email through my website from a guy named Josh, telling me I had excellent taste in music. In the next sentence, he divulged that he was Sugartooth’s bassist, Josh Blum. A friend was sitting next to me as I read it outloud, and a second later, we basically morphed into… well, Beavis and Butt-Head:
It kind of blew my mind since I never expected to meet anyone I’d written about. He thanked me for being a fan, and was very gracious. He also told me about a new album of theirs that was in the works.
I can’t remember what else we talked about in our back and forth emails, but it struck me after the exchange that Sugartooth really did deserve a bigger and better online presence than what I’d furnished (and what their label had neglected to create)… especially with a new album on the way, and tour dates to follow. So… I took it upon myself to create one.
I added pages to the site, spruced up the graphics, got my hands on additional band photos, posted insider information that I got from Josh, and registered the homepage with multiple search engines. It looked pretty decent (at least for that time), and before long other Sugartooth fans were checking in and sending me emails, in search of news. The band adopted the spot as their official website, and gave out the URL in interviews. When the guys would participate in online forums, I’d make an appearance in the comment section to further hype the site.
A fellow fan even sent me a leaked, partial audio file he’d managed to get of Sugartooth’s first single off the upcoming album, “The Sounds of Solid.” It was called “Booty Street.” I uploaded the tune to give other fans a taste.
The band had gone through a member change (Josh and Marc remained, becoming a trio with a new drummer), and their new stuff was a bit of a departure from the first album. Some retro funk, sampling, and mic distortion had been added to the mix, and I thought it really complimented the band’s sound. The material was cool, edgy, and much of it seemed prime for alternative-rock radio. I was sure lots of listeners would agree.
My favorite track was “Club Foot,” a fantastic, rockin’ song that paid some homage to 70’s-era comedian Rudy Ray Moore. Moore (who was recently portrayed by Eddie Murphy in a Netflix film) was best known for the (often unintentionally) hilarious cult flick, Dolemite (which incidentally featured some of the greatest fight scenes in film history).
When the band went on the road to promote the album, I posted the concert dates online and was excited to see that they would be making a stop in Denver as part of a two-day event put on by a local radio station. The only problem for me was that because it was such a big event, and involved several bands, the tickets were pretty darned expensive. Being that I had just recently graduated from college (which meant a less than ideal financial situation), and being that Sugartooth was really the only band in the entire two-day event that I was interested in seeing, I grappled a bit with the decision.
“No problem,” wrote Josh in an email. He said he’d leave my name with the box office, so that I (and two of my friends!) could get in for free. How cool was that?
I wasn’t entirely confident that the logistics would go smoothly. The venue was very busy that night, and Josh’s gesture could have easily slipped his mind — especially with how chaotic tour schedules can be. But sure enough, my name quickly got us waved on through. Other than an inexplicably intense security pat-down — the intimate details of which I still remember to this day — it was a breeze.
Shortly after we squeezed into the lobby, I heard someone shout, “Rocket!”
I turned to see Josh walking up with a big smile on his face, and it suddenly occurred to me that he’d recognized my photo from the “super-hero” picture on my website… which was kind of an embarrassing revelation.
Anyway, he couldn’t have been nicer, and introduced me to the rest of the band. I, however, couldn’t have been more awkward.
These days, I’m pretty comfortable talking to public figures; I’m friends with a number of national television personalities and New York Times best-selling authors. But back then — in my youth — it didn’t take much for me to become star-struck. Josh and the others probably would have rejected the notion that they were “stars,” but in my book, as a huge fan of the nationally-recognized band’s sweet-ass music, Sugartooth may as well have walked on water.
So yeah, I stumbled over my words, kissed a little too much ass, and even managed to forget the lead singer’s name at one point (along with one of my friend’s names, which was especially pathetic). It was mess, but no one called over a security guard for another pat-down, so at least I had that going for me. The band later put on a great set that rocked the house, I picked up a cool shirt of theirs from the merch stand, and Josh snagged me a poster of the band before my friends and I left. All in all, it was a good night.
As their touring continued, the band occasionally sent me postcards from the road requesting additions to the website. These days, that sort of thing would be handled with a quick text or email. But back then, when few people had cellphones, Wi-Fi wasn’t a thing, and long-distance calls were neither free nor terribly easy to place (especially when traveling), dropping a postcard in a mailbox made quite a bit of sense.
I actually came across one of them just a few months ago, when digging through my closet looking for something.
Of course, I posted the call to action, and phoned some radio stations myself, but the message illustrated a key theme from the Underground Inc. documentary — one that applied to several bands. Sugartooth had a major record label — one that was quick to sign them in the heat of the alternative-rock moment. But when it came to the issue of return on investment, the label sure didn’t seem to offer a lot of support (or patience) to set the band up for success.
I fully concede that I don’t know a whole lot about the music industry (nor did I then), so maybe I’m speaking a bit out of turn here, but it seems to me that if a label genuinely wants a record to succeed, it wouldn’t leave the entirety of the online promotional work up to some random dude coding in basic HTML from a dial-up connection in a rural-Colorado basement. Sure, the Internet was still young back then, but other bands of the era (and genre) had professional, corporate-sponsored online presences. In the case of Sugartooth, it was just me… volunteering my time. I was happy to do it, of course, but my means and talent were pretty limited. The band deserved better.
Also, the notion of a record company pulling one of its bands midway through their summer tour, while they’re out on the road actively promoting their album, struck me as absurd and self-defeating.
Unfortunately, The Sounds of Solid never did get much attention, and was considered a commercial failure. The band split up later that year, and pursued different paths in and out of music. I lost touch with the guys and eventually let the website go when my Internet provider was purchased by Comcast and the file system changed. But I never stopped being a fan.
In fact, I still listen to both of their albums with some regularity… not out of any sense of nostalgia or loyalty, but because they really are that damned good.
Give them a listen yourself if you don’t believe me:
Though the level of success the band had surely hoped for didn’t come, the guys should be immensely proud of the work and art they created. It was (and is) truly something special, and I hope they know that. I was excited just to be a tiny little part of it.
Over the past year or so, I’ve caught up with Josh and Marc a little bit on social media. Both have lovely families now, continue to have a passion for music, and seem to still have a tight friendship. From an industry notorious for ruining close friendships, it’s a cool thing to see.
Something else I’d like to see is a Sugartooth reunion… some day… in some way, shape, or form. I realize it’s highly unlikely, but if it happens, I’ll definitely put down money for the tickets this time (including airline tickets), and also happily return to my old role of promoting the event online.
These days, I’d have social media to help me out!
Is there a great band that you think never got their due? Let me know about them in the comment section below, or send me an email.
Update to Last Week’s Newsletter
Got me one! Thanks, Laurent!
Obligatory Dog Shot
They’re distracted easily.
I decided to go with one of my childhood favorites this week, in no small part because my wife and I recently watched the Tina Turner documentary on HBO (which we both enjoyed).
Pretty much everyone who was into pop or rock in the mid 80s owned the Private Dancer album. I liked it for the melodic grit in Turner’s voice, especially on the song “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” I also appreciated that audio cassettes had been popularized by then, so that I could more easily conceal the racy cover-art from my parents (who were still uncomfortable over the Flashdance soundtrack I’d purchased on 12-inch vinyl a year earlier).
But when I got back into vinyl a few decades later, I picked this one up for $2 at a record store. It really is a solid album, and Tina was of course super-cool in her first mainstream success as a solo artist.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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