73 Years of Royal Trux

[Reprinted in full as it seems to have disappeared.]
“Theirs is a rock that doesn’t merely cross-breed or bend genre: it obliterates it.”

Gregory S. Moss on 73 years of Royal Trux

by gregory moss

1998 marks the seventy-third year of tireless operation for the rock and roll entity known as ROYAL TRUX. A virtual Zelig of Rock Music, Royal Trux has successfully insinuated themselves through previously unsuspected time rifts, moving up and down through voices and bodies, pulling a field holler moan into RATT style arrangements, channeling Janis Joplin and Marc Bolan into Bow Wow Wow contexts, stabbing needles of white noise transmission from Sun Ra’s ghost into the aesthetic dimension occupied by Prince. Anyone who has followed their career with any persistence (and I don’t know anyone who likes ALL of their albums – a tribute to their ability to completely change their mode and means of expression) knows that Royal Trux EMBODIES rock and roll: spirit made flesh. They are an anomaly and their nonesuchness increases with each passing year. They are rock pantheists – denominations of indie, aor, underground, top forty pop, alternative, classic – all these terms revert to the meaningless dust they are in the hands of Trux. So vast is their accomplishment is that it can only be appreciated from an aerial view: to fully get Royal Trux (and you can’t) you’d have to listen to their entire discography SIMULTANEOUSLY. Theirs is a rock that doesn’t merely cross-breed or bend genre: it obliterates it.

Neil and Jenny Trux found each other as teens in a rock and roll dub in Washington, D.C. The story goes thus: Neil Hagerty, his long lean figure decked out in a phat “Members Only” nylon jacket, a wool sweater vest and tight red Reebok sneakers spotted fourteen year old Jennifer Herrema – her eyes lined raccoon like with black eyeliner, her face swathed in a mop of reddish-brownish-blondish hair with a feathered roach clip securely fastened therein. She was smoking. He strolled up to her and uttered the now famous line, “Uh, do you sing?” And one reached for the others’ hand, and in the background “Little Doll” started to play…

Who can forget their first now-classic LP THANK YOU (Virgin Records, 1967)? Remember 1923’s ROYAL TRUX featuring the dance hall sensation “Gold Dust” (also one of Henry Millet~s favorite Trux songs, he was known to, after a few drinks, beat out a tinny, terrible version on the piano for anyone who would listen.) Best Songs of 1985 (Rolling Stone Reader’s Poll, October 1985): #1 “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen; #2 “Fortress Around Your Heart” by Sting; #3 “Juicy Juicy Juice” by the Royal Trux this tune originally charted in ‘68 when The Archies first performed it.) A live version of “The Banana Question” taken from their 1988 tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, also charted. What about the “intentional disaster” of ’73s drug addled SWEET SIXTEEN? “It was ruined in the mixing,” says Hagerty. “But I still like that one.” And it’s no secret that Bo Diddley included “Sometimes” in his set during his late ’60’s appearances. CATS AND DOGS was the first record of the nineties, and provided first contact with the band for many of today’s young 90210 and X-Files viewers.

When, you might ask, was the mysterious TWIN INFINITIVES recorded? No one knows for sure. The prevailing sentiment (among those in the know) is that it was produced either prior to the birth or after the death of the players. Herrema and Hagerty refused to comment.

What is a Drag City? Part 1
After practicing for what might have been about thirty minutes, Royal Trux was born – and proceeded directly into the studio. The first song (to my knowledge) that we can confirm as authentic Royal Trux music appears on the Pussy Galore album RIGHT NOW!
It is entitled “Fix It” and sounds like a field recording of what eventually became known as “Hot and Cold Skulls” from CATS AND DOGS. Which brings us to an important aspect of the mysterious process by which Royal Trux makes music.

I’ve been listening, of late, to Lou Reed’s LIVE – TAKE NO PRISONERS, a double disk set recorded during a week-long residency at The Bottom Line in New York. Lou plays the “hits” – or so one would think from the track-listing on the outside of the package. But what actually transpired on those rainy spring evenings in May of’78? What Lou did was wreck his own songs by covering them: breaking them open in performance, reducing the parts for which they are famous (chorus of “Sweet Jane” for example) to mere inconsequential apostrophes and inserting streams of free association in the gulf, channeling the compulsively verbal spirit of Lenny Bruce( both in style and in diction), punctuating the recorded lyrics with Tourettes-style epithets, fighting with the audience… Lou basically TALKS through the whole record, intentionally Stopping and fucking< up songs, he's wasted, he unpacks "Sweet Jane" and "Take A Walk On The Wild Side" - telling who the characters are, the circumstances under which the songs got written, talking to people who aren't there - also there are two songs (an unrecognizable "Waiting For My Man" and the creepy urban romance/tragedy of “Street Hassle”) which are good MUSIC as well as degenerate stoned comedy. His voice is all fucked-up... In such a performance, the musician as musician is the subject of the act. His role as a musician becomes a life (living, incarnate) solo on the notions of song, rock and roll, audience expectation, celebrity and stardom. "Watch me turn into Lou Reed before you very eyes," he says, "I do Lou Reed better'n anybody." Lou Reed in Lou Reed drag: "live in concert" becomes a conceptual act, in which the audiences' expectations are constantly, intentionally foiled, where the songs are perpetually interrupted, and elements that are either unfamiliar or blatantly hostile are interposed. The effect of such a display is to destroy the traditional artist/audience relationship, a formula which goes something like this: you (the performer) stay up there and play the songs I (the spectator) paid to hear. I stay down here and hoot anonymously, drink beer, walk to the bathroom, try to get laid and applaud when you have played the songs I paid to hear. What do we, as audience, get when they don't play our favorites? Something that has less to do with traditional calcified forms of "entertainment' - something that has more to do with changing your life. Something that denies habit and demands fresh attention. A working definition of art, if you’re not a total pussy. As Lou says, "I sing when you shut up." Alternately: "We're just here to make out. I’ll just put the head in. If you don't like it, we can talk about it." He's lying. This auto-covering, these intrusions collectively form a single gesture that takes us away from the song-cheer-song equation and places Lou (and those who've taken his lesson to heart, 1 mean, we're still talkin' about Royal Trux, right?) into pure Urinal-In-The-Louvre territory. It's Will Oldham performing in North Carolina with a drum machine and a pitch shifter on his voice. It's Bill Callahan throwing an offhand joke into his most poignant songs. The distance that takes you closer. It's the Drag City definition and RTX is the rock on which that church is built. Autobiography AS SOCIOLOGY: What is a Drag City? Part 2 Who is the audience for this Drag City music? I'll take a guess: white, middle-class, college-educated boys and girls (certainly a demographic with more than it's share of self-loathing (making them prime targets for a music that thrives on foiled audience expectation)). They used to listen to Black Flag, and Psychocandy. They used to listen to the Cure, to Adam and the Ants when they were little, they used to listen to Dinosaur Jr. and Die Kreuzen and the Butthole Surfers. They used to listen to Big Black and Mudhoney and Daydream Nation. They took drugs and got loose. They read FORCED EXPOSURE and not ROLLING STONE. (I am of course describing my own past listening/living habits and assuming they're not entirely atypical. What the fuck, I'm no sociologist. Who knows?) These are the signifiers they (Let’s say "I", ok?) responded to, before angry dumb rock music went pop: howling, loud guitars, no hippy noodling, no yodeling, no fey art tactics, no country, no pop and NO. CLASSIC. ROCK. FUGAZI being maybe the median for this subset of American youth. But the kids who listened to Black Sabbath, the kids in the Led Zeppelin t-shirts, with "AC/DC" carved into their desks - those are the kids who'd throw shit at you on the playground, who'd hurl epithets atcha on the way home from school. (Yeah, and ten years later they're playing "Eruption" at Guitar Center and trying to sell you hot amps with "sweet" tones.) Drag City provides this (THIS) dedicated listener with music to bathe, abuse myself with, and ultimately love. "You were always on my mind," Oldham sings. And I think, "Now he's ruined a perfectly fucking good song by making me think of this Willie Nelson bullshit." A month later: I'm belting it out with him driving down Route 1 through the marshes at night. So fuck me. The important thing, in anay case, is to protect the music. From the audience, from the instruments, from the musicians themselves. DOING LOU REED What were we talking about? Covers. Yeah. Royal Trux has internalized and updated this Lou Reed style auto-covering mechanism. Starting with CATS AND DOGS they began naming their songs after other people's songs. Maybe they did this before, on certain singles but I don't know when "Steal Your Face" or "Gett Off" came out and chronology is about as relevant to me now as what kind of guitar Neil plays (I'm sure, however, what kind of guitar he plays is VERY SIGNIFICANT to him, and he thought LONG AND HARD about it before picking it out- really.) Quick decoding session: "Thank You" and "Friends" are Zeppelin songs; "Let's Get Lost” is a Chet Baker allusion; "Steal Yr Face" (any potsmoker'll tell ya) is a Grateful Dead ref.; "Gett Off" Prince; etc. (This decoding is in NO WAY meant to detract the mystery of the music - rather it just makes the fog thicker round'em). The RTX songs that are named thus ARE NOT, of course, real covers; that is, they're not playing the song that they're calling. But neither was Lou Reed. What Royal TRUX does is impersonate the history of rock and roll, quoting specific styles and sonic elements, stitching together elements of the Stones, Can and Flipper, enjambing Arthur Lee and Red Transistor...but that's not really what the stolen song titles are about..it's not about pastiche or recontextualizing...I mean it is, but what we're really talking about is music about THE ARCHEOLOGY of rock and roll. Not the songs as tablature but songs as now-historical psychic nexi of resonation. Ok? They've even extended this process to their own oeuvre, reinterpreting "Strawberry Soda Pop" and "The Flag" in the Thank You -style, stripping down the misfiring abstractions into intentionally stream-lined, almost radio-ready rock. Which reveals two things: 1) the song exists outside of the style, line-up, instrumentation that invokes it, it can be played with endless variations and still remain itself; 2) their press-kit bullshit (describing their sound as "...a field recording of a contemporary pop song..." - quoting from memory) isn't all lies. The notion of covering for RTX exists outside the song itself. The song is a ghost which hangs over the proceedings, a measured and more or less structured unit of matched sound and intention; it is mercurial and infinitely mutable in performance. So the notion of covering exists in what remains when the song has been removed: the machines and sounds that invoked the song in the moment it was recorded or performed. Time-coded sound effects: Steve Miller Band synth washes, the Sun Studios reverb on Scottie Moore's guitar, Bobby Dylan's nasal ravings, Van Halen chorused solos, the mythical "talk-box" of "Show Me The Way", etc. It is in this realm that Neil and Jennifer allow themselves a freedom no other contemporary ROCK band does: to move among these time coded soundeffects with aplomb. They push state-of-the-art effects up against blooping analogue synths, avail themselves of "very fake" sounding handclaps, a bad drum kit, a Paul Reed Smith guitar. It's non dialectic musical thinking; non binary but not not digital. To use every and any available sound or machine (no matter how uncool) to make their music. It seems so simple, but no other rock band has, until now, been able to escape the "now" of their technological! sonic surroundings. And that goes for the underground as well as those above: Sonic Youth made humming dissonance a household bird in indie rock just as much as Def Leppard made delayed-chorused guitars the norm in the arenas (and at roughly the same time). Speaking of Sonic Youth, Thurston and Lee (back round Daydream Nation) were often quoted as having said, "There's no such thing as an unmusical sound," a phrase they probably ripped off from some jazzbo or John Cage or somebody. It means, I figure, there is no sound that cannot be used to make music Or: all sounds are music. Right! Sonic Youth, shortly thereafter, made Goo and Dirty and only within the last six months have shown anything resembling a sign of life this decade. Royal Trux, however, took that theoretical promise to the FUCKING bank and CASHED it. In Royal Trux music, there IS no such thing as an unmusical sound. Digression, accident and interruption as viable functional M.O. And unlike Lou, they have been able to frustrate audience expectation and STILL DELIVER THE GOODS, rendering in their way as satisfying a "straight" rock experience as, uh, Led Zeppelin or Fugazi. Their strangest, most out-of-the-blue digressions all point in the same direction - out of the speakers, into your rock receivers (ear, head, heart - whatever you got!). Royal Trux, in 1998, does Lou Reed better than Lou Reed. NOSTALGIA (is a terrible thing) Neil was in a band before Royal Trux, and on that band's last LP, he sang (on a track called "Revolution Summer'') the words "Nostalgia is a terrible thing." Neil refuses to discuss that band now; he's put it behind him. Nostalgia, at least a certain present-tense relevant nostalgia is an inevitable by-product of the consideration of time and history in Royal Trux music. Or, perhaps, they are merely reflecting a culture constantly looking over it's shoulder, constantly recycling and recontextualizing it's own biography. There's a simultaneity, a transparent overlapping of eras, and we have the residue and trappings of the sixties, seventies, eighties ail impacted into our own immediate present. Cramming half a century of whatsis into the last years before the millennium. So maybe it's more fair to RTX to say they are reiterating, in three and four minute songs, a shadow of the pre-millennial (whatever that means to you) zeitgeist. Compound nostalgia - look at "The Yellow Kid" from Accelerator : an in-their-prime‘80s Butthole Surfers styled Bobby Dylan impersonation, with outtatune guitar strum and shrieking harmonica, the title concerning a turn of the century cartoon character: The Yellow Kid, regarded by some as the FIRST comic strip, a bald, mono-toothed creepy and quasi-retarded looking "kid" wearing always a proto-Zippy trademark yellow mu-mu, his sole means of communication a sandwich-board on which he has written some wise-ass commentary on the depicted action...uh...compounded nostalgia: turn-of-the-century-'60s-golden age of the underground ‘80s - NOW NOW NOW...! They Got No Hang-Ups About Nothin'! All this time-travelling: it's not to say Royal Trux is "outtatime" - like anybody else they gotta deal with the weather. But they manage to foster a strange and inexplicable relationship with what's-goin'-on at any given time in pop/rock music with their own personal definition of music. The magic, the point at which words fail me - is how RTX is able to stay in the game and STILL do exactly as they please. INTENTIONAL DISASTER: Sweet Suxteen It seems to me (though others have told me I'm full of shit) that Sweet 16 was a premeditated disaster -just look at the cover: of shit, used tampons, piss, semen, blood and FROSTING. This album that cries out for rejection, that begs for the bargain bins particularly when released for show-biz scum on a major label. songs suck, they're over-played and over-produced as befits a'7[ investigation, and if you thought Twin Infinitives was the RTX answer to Metal Machine Music think again - Sweet 16 bears closer resemblance to that famous contract-breaker. You want mo Unlike Thank You , Drag City declined to release the vinyl for S 16. Because why? Because you don't shit where you eat, that's The whole "Virgin Era" seems, in retrospect, like an elaborate practical joke, played, for once, at last, on the CORPORATE end of the equation. Royal Trux signed to Virgin reasons OTHER than, and they walked away smelling like roses. Never has larceny been so beautiful. Never has sell-out been so...beautiful.1 INTERLUDE I had a dream last night about walking around in a city with Neil Hagerty. I was supposed to interview him. We were walkin' around talking, and we went down into the subway - there was a legless, armless mall in a wheelchair with his buddies. They were trying to get him to go down the escalator without his wheelchair. Neil said, “I'd like to hear a tape of that.” He schmoozed for a minute with this red-haired beauty- then he comes up to me and says, "I like to talk to the Jewish waitresses.” We got on the train - I asked him real questions: "For ACCELERATOR, did you listen to a lot of 80's records or was it j general impression, your memory of that music?" And every tim asked a question, he'd blow on my face and smile. He started getting a little spit on my face, from blowing so hard. It was like a Zen master reply. And he, very kindly, wiped the spit off of my face with his hand..." The Great Lost ZZ TOP Record Accelerator is Royal Trux's seventh LP and it's as impossibly great as any of their past triumphs. It redeems all the conceptual and musical promises they've made in the past ten years, and completes the '60s-'70s-'80's trilogy beginning with Thank You and Sweet 16. Taking the bubble-gum flavor of eighties synthetic rock, mixing elements of that era's hair-metal bombast and quasi-goth loneliness, pouring in boiling hair spray (fluorocarbons, natch) and white Brit soul ballads, finally rendering up a loose, aggressive yet odd)y catchy thirty or so minutes of music. It is the certainly the most pop record they've created - maybe Thank You had a better shot at REALLY going pop (ya coulda been the BLACK CROWES!) - but Accelerator is way more shiny and fun. Trux manages to convey a general impression of a decade of sound without ever sounding like a retro outfit. There's nothing slavish in the imitation, but there's also no winking, no obvious ironic distance from the material. The music is theirs, it always has been, but they've arranged for it's transmission through a distinctly eighties colored filter. It's Royal Trux as '80s synth rock/ soft metal/white funk band covering the songs of Royal Trux (qua Royal Trux). Or vice versa. It's been mixed (and compressed beyond compression) in such a way that all the wrong noises are at the forefront: the shrill blasts of harmonica and metal pipe chiming in "The Yellow Kid"; the disorienting panned guit?drums? at the beginning of "I'm Ready"; the dubbed-out babbling of Neil during "New Bones"; etc. Guitars stick out in a cubist version of the arena rock sound - the grit in the distortion distended till it sounds like the clicking of a roulette wheel or maybe a very slow circular saw. Neil and Jenny's paired voices have returned as well to guide the baffled listener through the tunes. And the words are as good as any they've crooned. There's something profound inthe fact that Neil sings "Why run a race that's already run / when getting there is NOoohoh fun" while Jenny sings, "...getting there IS no fun." They're capable of serving up utterly mindless shit like "Juicy Juicy Juice" (repeated over and over) and then turn around with a razor-sharp pretension-evicerator: "Nobody cares that you're up on the shelf / I hope that you can convince yourself." I mean, like, GOSH. Enough about the Rolling Stones, about dancing with Mr. Brownstone, about "She can't sing" - I mean WHO FUCKING CARES: the Royal Trux remain THE greatest rock and roll band ever to tread pavement. And if you want it, they’re on your side. Come and get it. 1 This is the only part of this article I feel needs correction. In the past two years I have listened to SWEET SIXTEEN over and over again and I have come to the conclusion that I was a fucking idiot. It’s ranks among the best RTX records ever, and thus among the best rock music ever made. Ah, youth...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.