The Boston Phoenix
May 18 - 25, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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On the move

Bye-bye, Half Cocked; hello, Waltham

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Half Cocked You always seem to learn juicy details about people just when they're about to leave town. So here's one about Half Cocked singer Sarah Reitkopp: she got a tongue kiss from Poison singer Bret Michaels when she was just 14. "I snuck backstage at the [mid-'80s] Ratt/Poison tour with my friend from high school," she admits over drinks with two of her bandmates at the Linwood Grill. "In hindsight they were so coked-out, but then I was just thinking, 'Damn, they're skinny.' I was only 14 and I looked it -- I mean, I look that way now, but I really did then. But Bret kissed me and gave me the tongue; they invited us back to the hotel but my friend had to go home. Then I told my mother and she freaked out."

The irony here is just too perfect: at the time Poison were a red-hot, hard-rockin', hell-raising band from Los Angeles. And if everything goes as planned, that's exactly what Half Cocked are about to become. After three years together in Boston, they're hightailing it out of here next week after a final show set for this Saturday (May 27) at the Middle East.

Unlike many bands who try their luck in LA, Half Cocked are going with a first-class ticket. They're the first band signed to Automatic Records, a DreamWorks subsidiary label run by ex-Bostonian and Powerman 5000 singer Spider. The first release will be a reworking of Half Cocked's second Curve of the Earth album, Occupation: Rockstar, with a remix by star mixer Ulrich Wild and a few new songs. They've got high-powered management set up with Andy Gould, who works with Powerman, Monster Magnet, and Spider's brother Rob Zombie. They've got free plane tickets and a fancy hotel to stay in. Drummer Charlee Johnson has an endorsement deal already set up. Even Reitkopp's mom is happy. "She said, 'It's what you've always dreamed of -- go have fun.' "

Under the circumstances, they're about as sentimental about leaving Boston as one might expect. "Whoopee!" is bassist Jhen Kobran's first reaction to that topic. "Where's the plane? You guys need help flying it?" jokes Johnson. "I love Boston, but I'm looking forward to warm winters," says Reitkopp. "We'll never become an LA band, though, and I think that's a matter of attitude. I'm not getting collagen lips, and we're not getting breast implants. Especially not Charlee."

Pressed to get serious, Johnson admits he'll miss Boston just a little. "I've spent the last month being heartsick and seeing great bands, and I'll namecheck them -- Roadsaw, Quintaine Americana, Cheerleadr, RC Crimewave. But Boston is really music boot camp; you get your ass kicked out here. You haul your own gear, play to 10 people, and don't get paid. You learn what it's like to be in a band because the scene is so competitive. And really, we're skipping a level, which is weird. We're skipping the level of even shopping to a major label. Right now we're still used to calling the Middle East and asking them to book us."

If any outfit is ripe for a move to LA and a taste of rock stardom, Half Cocked are it. Like most of Boston's best loud bands (including the ones named by Johnson), they approach the music with a certain irony. They're aware that rock gets more ridiculous as it gets bigger and louder. But that doesn't stop them from buying into it wholeheartedly: they're in love with the noise, the decadence, the glamor. Few bands in town are so willing to flaunt their sex appeal -- at least, few bands who have any to flaunt. And it doesn't hurt that they write real songs, a skill Reitkopp honed in her previous band, Planet Jumper. Half Cocked have provoked some extreme reactions in their time: they made it to the final of last year's Rumble (as a wild card) but got blown off by one judge (namely Hits magazine's Karen Glauber) as "45 minutes of my life that I'll never get back." Some people just don't know how to have a good time.

Half Cocked's members have strong opinions about what rocks and what doesn't. At the Linwood, for example, cringes go around the table when a perfectly decent Cardigans track comes over the sound system. "This is Keebler music. I feel like I should be making cookies," Johnson offers. "She's got that little baby voice for the pedophile in you," adds Reitkopp. "To me, indie rock was never a genre in the first place," Johnson finishes. "And we've had an uphill struggle as long as we've been here, because we just play rock."

Operation: Rockstar comes across as a blustery, confident album. But the band were in disarray before the sessions for it began. Guitarist Tony O'Neil was leaving to be a father. He was replaced by John Heatley and Jamie Richter (he the former 6L6 guitarist; she a 20-year-old upstart plucked from the Museum School). Although the album was never circulated to industry bigwigs, an advance copy was sent to Reitkopp's friend Spider, who went wild for it. Even now that everything's going their way, the members have too many memories of their previous bands (which also include Johnson's spell in 3-1/2 Girls and Kobran's in Malachite) to take anything for granted.

"We're gonna be back before we know it," says Reitkopp in a fatalistic moment. "I used to go to the Paradise a lot, and I remember what they always said: 'Be nice to us, because we see you on the way up and on the way down.' " Adds Johnson, "We're going out there as underdog out-of-towners, so the fight is on."

Still, the band are running high on confidence -- or at least the prospect of a few good times along the way. "We know too much to think it will be easy," admits Reitkopp. "But look: either we go out and become a multiplatinum band or we get to tour for two years on somebody else's tab. Any other time in my rock career I would have fucked this up, but now I'm ready." Johnson concurs: "Right, the timing is perfect for me. If I'd gotten this contract back when I was 24, they would have found me in a bathtub with six Asian midgets and a mountain of cocaine." Somewhere, Bret Michaels is smiling.


No doubt that the final of this year's WBCN Rock 'n' Roll Rumble is going to be big fun, since the two semifinal winners are a retro-arena band (Waltham) whose crazed female fans like to scream and a punk band (Darkbuster) whose crazed male fans like to throw beer. They'll be joined in the final this Thursday by wild card Rocketscience, the semifinal runners-up with the best score. No telling who's going to win -- my guess is that Waltham will, if only for novelty value -- but it's the first year in memory when I can say that I like both semifinal victors and I really hope one of 'em wins.

Waltham Neither night in the semis was much of a contest; and whether through coincidence or smart planning, both obvious winners were allowed to close their nights. On Friday, Darkbuster were the only band who did more than go through the motions: they had a blast in old-school Boston punk style, leaving sing-along choruses and smashed beer cans in their wake. And they didn't even play their two local hits, "Lilith Fair" and "Amazing Royal Shaft" (the first is outdated, but the second really should have been done, if only for its reference to a previous Rumble winner: "My girlfriend fucked the singer of the Royal Crowns"). That left their closing number -- "I Hate the Unseen," about, well, hating the Unseen -- as the only song in their set that wasn't about alcohol.

Helicopter Helicopter were the best of the rest, retaining the pop sense from Julie Chadwick's previous band, the American Measles, but losing AM's cloying humor. And unlike AM, they had the sense not to play the Rumble semis in Kiss make-up. The Dubnicks did a Smash Mouth fun-punk thing with ska touches but didn't have the songs to back it up. And Rocketscience interrupted the Pearl Jam format only to rap in one song. (Get it straight, guys: metal bands rap, mope bands don't.) Both the Dubnicks and Rocketscience rank as the kind of commercially minded bands that some of us would never see if not for the Rumble, but Rocketscience nonetheless made it through to the final.

The race sounded closer to these ears on Saturday. I was underwhelmed by Colepitz -- who did the loud and doomy thing with few pretensions but also few memorable songs. Punk-rockers Random Road Mother, on the other hand, had what may be the best number of the entire semis, "You Suck Dot Com." And the Big Bad Bollocks were pretty brilliant, suggesting, as usual, what the Pogues would sound like with no existential angst and no guilt about their alcohol intake. But as the weekend's only semi-acoustic band, the Bollocks got undone by the sound mix. Their fate was sealed when they failed to generate a sing-along on the perfect pub anthem, "Night on the Tiles."

I was seeing Waltham for the first time, and my first reaction was to flash back to the 1994 Rumble, when a band called the Pods (including ex-Lemonhead Ben Deily) covered Journey's "Separate Ways" in the preliminaries and nobody ever spoke to them again. Maybe the time wasn't right back then for an arena-pop revival. And maybe now it is. Either way, I'd wager that Waltham have become a local buzz band for the same reason that Tony Bennett has become an MTV star: because it's the last thing that the pop-culture marketers would ever tell you is hip.

On stage Saturday, Waltham displayed the kind of songs that made Rick Springfield a star, and the looks as well -- for the screaming women up front, irony was probably the last thing on their minds. Same goes for the band: they already strut like arena stars, with the big guitar sounds and celestial harmonies to match. Since nobody's dared do this kind of thing in a long while, Waltham are more refreshing and fun than a roomful of trendy alterna-rock bands. But one can already picture them getting national success and making this kind of music legit again (and hey, REO Speedwagon are starting a reunion tour at this very moment), so the phrase "Be careful what you wish for" does come to mind.

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