The Old 97's Ken Bethea is Still Blown Away By the Toadies' Rubberneck
Ken Bethea, pictured in 2013 during recording sessions for the Old 97's "Most Messed Up"
This weekend, the Old 97's take part in Dia De Los Toadies Festival at Panther Island Pavilion in Fort Worth as the Toadies wrap up their 20th-anniversary celebrations of Rubberneck. With the Old 97's preparing to reissue their first album later this fall, guitarist Ken Bethea reflects on his memories of the Toadies and their classic album.
When the Toadies' Rubberneck was released in the fall of 1993, it landed farther out of the periphery of the Old 97's than most other music fans in DFW. We were going on our first couple of tours and preparing for the release of our debut record, Hitchhike to Rhome. This was in a pre-internet world, mind you, where getting information about bands was fairly difficult, but we also only had AM radio in our van so we pretty much just listened to whatever came on that.
Not only that, but we had never even met any of the Toadies so we couldn't really attach a names to the faces, so to speak. So over the next six to eight months, while the rest of the Metroplex was running with the metaphorical open arms of the dude on the Rubberneck cover, we were fairly oblivious to their scene other than knowing they were getting some local airplay on KDGE and had been doing some heavy touring.
At some point during a break from the road in Dallas, I heard from a fellow musician that the Toadies' new album was the shit. Interestingly, that source was Funland's guitarist Clark Vogeler, who joined the Toadies in 1996. That was, by the way, the time when I learned the lesson that any time a musician says that a band who is more successful than theirs has a badass new album, you should listen. (Clark also made a terrific 23 minute Youtube documentary about the making of Rubberneck that I highly recommend you check out.)
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By the time Rubberneck went platinum in the fall of 1995, it felt like the whole USA was air-guitaring to "Mexican Hairless" and screaming, "Do you want to die?" The band was on an arena tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing to 18,000 people a night. Life was good being a Toadie.
A couple of years later, inside the sleek Manhattan offices of Elektra Records, the four corn cobs from the Old 97's sat in a room with high-tone record executives discussing how to market their new album, Too Far To Care. We kept stressing to them we wanted a long career with a slow build over the next year or so, similar to the Toadies. We kept getting puzzled looks from them and I remember after one of those meetings, our A&R guy Tom DeSavia told me, "I don't think they are getting the part about the Toadies thing. What the record industry does is sign bands, make records, push a single or two and move on to the next project."
Flash forward to 2011, and I was on tour in the mountains of West Virgina. The entire music industry had changed and I had a subscription to the awesome but thieving technology that is Spotify. To pass the time on the road, I began a little project where I would listen to a classic album that I had never heard in it's entirety, and then give my tour mates a review. I started with the Go-Go's The Beauty and the Beast (awesome garage guitars), continued with ELO's Out of the Blue (trippy and cool), and was shocked at how lame No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom was outside of the hits. At some point I ran out of superstar bands and decided to switch to Texas bands, and made Rubberneck my first listen. I was blown away.
Looking back, I should have seen this coming. Vaden Todd Lewis writes about things I like: the seedy side of small Texas towns. The conundrum of spirituality and religion. Crappy break ups. Hell, they even have a song named after my hometown of Tyler.
In a nutshell the album is conceptually about bad religion, bad people and bad relationships, all sold with howling vocals, crunchy guitars and monstrous drums. It's dark, but fun. Thoughtful, but thrashy. Loved by both stoners and beer drinkers.
Here's a little tip about how to tell a good album from a great one. Go to the last track. If it's meaningless, it's not a great album. The final track on Rubberneck, "I Burn," begins as an acoustic strum and a trashy, tribal vamp with Lewis snarling, "I BURN THE AIR YOU BREATHE". He even manages to get a pun in the middle with the line, "Feel the lick of Bad Religion."
Old bands know it's impossible to make a perfect album. But young bands have enough naivety to think they just might pull it off. The Toadies chased the dream on Rubberneck and ended up with the best pure rock record to ever be made by a DFW band.
DIA DE LOS TOADIES takes place at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 12 and 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 13 at Panther Island Pavilion, 395 Purcey St., Fort Worth, $35-$135
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