Straight Outta the Buzz Bin, #1: Superdrag - Sucked Out

SPECIAL NOTE: "Straight Outta the Buzz Bin" posts will be reserved for hit rock singles that were huge on Modern Rock radio and especially MTV, but may not have achieved the Top 40 or Top 100 status that might normally be required to make them a one-hit wonder. Future installments may include (but are not limited to) Wax, The Refreshments, and others.

Superdrag have a similar story to many other alternative rock bands in the mid-90s. It's so similar that--sadly--it became something of a cliche: After some initial success as an indie band, band gets noticed by a major label during the post-Nirvana indie boom. They soon sign to a major label, release an album and have one major (or minor) hit on radio and MTV. But when second single/album comes around and fails to hit, band gets its funding cut and/or get dropped. I'd guess a lot of bands got cut from the label rosters when alternative/indie rock gave way to nu-metal and rap/rock in about 1997-1998.

Some bands collapsed from the fallout--unable to continue--but Superdrag managed to persevere.

Superdrag were formed in 1992 in Knoxville, TN when the band The Used (not the emo band) started playing songs demoed by their teenaged former drummer, John Davis (Davis played all the instruments himself on the demos). Because Davis' songs were stronger than their own material, The Used fell to the wayside in favor of Superdrag.

By 1995, the band had released three vinyl singles and an EP, The Fabulous 8-track Sound of Superdrag o the Darla Records label (historical fact for the kiddies: people in the '90s loved absolutely anything having to do with the '70s, much like people enjoy '80s kitsch and fashion in the '00s, hence the 8-track reference).

Thanks to rave reviews in various publications, the EP started a major label bidding war. Elektra Records eventually won out and the band recorded and released Regretfully Yours in 1996. The sound was a perfect combination of Weezer-esque power pop (hard guitars mixed with catchy melodies) and classic rock (a strong emphasis on riffage and solos; Davis' throaty vocals).

"Sucked Out" was the first released single. While not quite a novelty song in the sense that label mates' Nada Surf's "Popular" was, the song's chorus in which Davis screams, "Who sucked out the feeling?" made it into something of a slacker anthem; something the always cynical youth of America could relate to. Problem was, Superdrag weren't grungy slackers. Davis wrote what were essentially pop songs. "Sucked Out" may have struck a chord with the slackers, but it was far different than the grunge clones (Collective Soul, Bush) that had become the sound du jour of alternative rock; there was more far more Husker Du in their songs than the sludgy Seattle sound started by bands like Mudhoney and Soundgarden.

The tightly constructed single is built around a killer chorus where everything drops out but the bass and Davis' scream. And yes, like so many '90s rock hits, the chorus utilizes the Pixies' soft-loud-soft dynamic, but the verses are straight out of a hit single by a '60s British Invasion band. Because labels and sometimes fans seemed to miss the pop influences inherent in Nirvana (the barometer by which all alternative rock bands were gauged), the pop-centric Superdrag would not be long for the Hollywood music world. Incidentally, the song's lyrics seem to be a cynical take on the music industry. When Davis sings, "This is my dream - playing out rocking routine/Who sucked out the feeling?" you wonder if he even wants the success. Still, the track is a knock-out, and clearly hit single material.

"Sucked Out" only reached #17 on the Modern Rock Charts, but its placement in MTV's "Buzz Bin"--a status designated to videos deemed "cutting edge" by the network--helped put the Chris Applebaum-directed video in heavy rotation. The "Buzz Bin" status--along with an extended tour in which the band played hundreds of dates--helped push 300,000 units of the album. With all the play on MTV, radio was practically an afterthought.

Sidenote: Just how '90s is this video? On a scale from 1-10, I give it a high 8. We've got the retro '70s diner/coffeeshop--made chic by Seattle, Starbucks and iconic '90s films like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Swingers--the young slacker working his minimum wage job (shades of Clerks) and dreaming about quitting and fulfilling his lifelong dream of rocking out (Singles, anyone?). While it may seem fairly generic at first glance, you can soon tell why it couldn't have been made in any other decade.

Their second single, "Destination Ursa Major" failed miserably on the charts. Ironically, it's probably the song on the album that best defines the band's sound. Led by a building riff consisting of a series of bent notes that give way to jangly bridges and sing along verses, the song is a marvel of song construction and undeniably catchy, but the song's appeal is far closer to something by lo-fi stadium rockers Guided By Voices than anything that might appeal to the MTV crowd. It's still a hell of a song, and is regarded as one of the band's classics.

Still, thanks to the success of Regretfully Yours, Elektra allowed the group a shot at another album. Silly record labels--when will they learn you never give a second record to a songwriter who is both talented and ambitious? Head Trip in Every Key was the follow-up, an ambitious semi-concept album featuring a broader sonic pallet--besides guitar and piano, Davis plays theremin, organ and a freaking sitar--longer songs and fewer radio-friendly singles. The album was well receieved by critics, but the label was unhappy with Superdrag's direction and cut their funding, leaving them unable to make a video for the single "Do the Vampire" and without any support for a full-fledged tour.

Upset about what was happening with their label, the group decided to release their odds and sods compilation Stereo 360 Sound independently, and experienced a minor success. After signing a two album extension deal with Elektra, the band headed to Woodland Studios in Nashville to begin work on their third album, but were bothered by the label's insistence that they write "hit songs" (yes, this happens in real life, not just That Thing You Do!) and soon demanded the label drop them. This was a most unusual move, especially for a group who had been relegated to "one-hit wonder" status, but, as the kids say, Superdrag didn't give a care, and the group continued on independently, recording and releasing their third album, In the Valley of the Dying Stars in 2000 on Arena Rock Recording Co. Ironically, the album was a combination of the radio-friendly hits of Regretfully Yours and the experimentation of Head Trip.

By the time Superdrag began recording their fourth album, Last Call for Vitriol, John Davis had become an alcoholic, later remarking that he had a "charter membership in the Bon Scott Club," referring to the original AC/DC frontman who drank himself to death in 1980.

However, Davis claims that, while driving in his car one night, he had an experience that he described as "a combination of being struck by lightening, getting hit by a cannonball and having a piano dropped on your head." The feeling was overwhelming, and Davis took it as a sign from God that his life could not be filled with alcohol, but rather by "the power of the Lord." Davis soon gave up alcohol and became a Christian. Davis finished recording the album and completed a tour with Guided By Voices, but soon after decided to leave the band, saying his "heart wasn't in it anymore." The group disbanded in 2003. (read Davis' thoughts about his conversion here)

In 2005, David released a self-titled Christian-oriented album. Playing all of the instruments himself, Davis broadened his palette even more with this release, displaying a range of influences from country and folk to gospel and R&B--not to mention a heaping glob of '60s rock. The heaviest influence is Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds in particular--for instance, "Salvation" does what R.E.M.'s recent Beach Boys tributes could only attempt. (Honestly, if you've ever wanted to know if Christian themed music can be any good, pick this one up. It's great, and doesn't preach or beat you over the head with any message--ed.) In 2007, Davis released a follow up, Arigato! and joined the Christian rock band My Red Hot Nightmare as guitarist, back up vocalist and part-time drummer.

Since then, Davis and the other guys in Superdrag have served as studio musicians in Nashville, Knoxville and L.A. not to mention some production work and a few side projects. But in 2007, the original lineup reuinited for a few shows, followed by a full-fledged tour in 2008. The band even has a new album recorded called Industry Giants that will be released this Tuesday (March 17, 2009). Yet again, the guys are self-releasing and you know they wouldn't have it any other way (read more about it here).


Download: Superdrag - Sucked Out
Download: Superdrag - Destination Ursa Major

Download: Superdrag - Do the Vampire
Download: John Davis - Salvation

Go see Superdrag on tour!
Go buy their albums!

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Anonymous said...

The new album is streaming here BTW


Keep up the good work

G. Shepherd said...

I just found your blog. Nice! I had forgotten about Superdrag - Sucked Out. Definitely a "classic" 90's era defining song/video, rating it 8 out of 10 may be a little low. I was surprised that Superdrag was not more successful seeing how their sound was slightly on the "popish" side; Todd Davis has clearly got talent.

G. Shepherd said...

Sorry, I meant "John Davis"

Starfish422 said...

Dear heck, the chord progression on "Sucked Out". If the video consisted of nothing but a test pattern, you could still identify it as a 90s song from the chord progression alone.

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