Don’t believe a single word of the liner notes in the gatefold of The It*Men’s new double-album.
The faux biography would have you believe the group single-handedly invented rock and roll as we know it—hot on the heels of The Beatles and Stones in ’65—then subvert the genre (with producer Brian Eno on the mix), effectively pioneering punk before Iggy & The Stooges or the MC-5 blipped on anyone’s radar. The hilarious hogwash has the It*Men repeatedly achieve outlandish cultural milestones over the next four decades, only to be mothballed on account of one member’s “experimental scrotal surgery.”
But the goofy history helps make the Greatest Its package so damn appealing and, well, fun. If one wasn’t already hip to the band’s true lineage or didn’t recognize the layout of The Beachland Tavern in the black-and-white photos inside the sleeve, he or she might be content absorbing the paragraphs at face value. Confusing matters further is the music itself: Upon dropping the needle on either of the two discs, listeners could very well place The It*Men from anywhere (or Nowhere) U.S.A. at just about any point this side of Jerry Lee Lewis.
But the It*Men are Cleveland boys, gosh darn it. Fronted by Beachland Ballroom promoter and “pool hustler” Ken Janssen in the ‘90s and ‘00s, the five-piece gigged sporadically, taking catharsis in loud, abrasive guitar music and scream-sung scatological lyrics until the whimsy well ran dry. They reunited as band mates and friends last year after Janssen was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The Beachland hosted a benefit concert and record release party to defray the singer’s mounting medical bills, raising some $21,000 from over 250 generous donors who cared enough to show up or click around online.
Pressed at Cleveland’s Gotta Groove Records and released on the band’s own Stow House label, Greatest Its is our heroes’ wonderful waxen debut. The anthology pulls material from earlier It*Men releases—particularly a batch of tapes remastered for CD in 2004—but also features six new songs (Side 3) tracked in Spring 2013 by the same (older, wiser) lineup.
The twin platters were produced by the band and mixed with Mike Cormier (The Volta Sound). Its Six Parts Seven guitarist / Mammoth Cave Studio guru Timothy Gerak handled mastering for vinyl on everything save the new stuff, which was tweaked by Chris Heffer. Credit for the double-LP’s layout and deliberately distressed sleeve goes to Cleveland Free Times art director Ron Kretsch. Greatest Its isn’t so much a case of too many cooks as it is a stellar example of “No such thing as too much cool.”
“Tell You The Truth” sounds so much like a Rolling Stones tune that it’s no stretch imagining Jagger psychoanalyzing an ex-girlfriend in the verses behind Keith Richards and Mick Taylor’s guitar onslaught: “How can you see with your head in the ground? If you think you can fly, then why don’t cha jump?” But thank God it ain’t Mick’s baby; Janssen’s rasp suits this sleazy, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” guitar rock to a T.
Surf rock and creature feature B-movie music congeal on “Come And Get Some,” an uproarious, cheeky number driven by Charlie Druesedow’s sibilant cymbals and Matt Cassidy’s and Ben Gmetro’s snarling, mongrel guitars. Janssen channels Tom Waits on the atmospheric, Link Wray-like “Baby I’m Your Man,” a Natural Born Killers-styled travelogue about a pair of drifting lovers who make time for each other while making for the border. The equally dirty, deranged “That’s Not the Way I Heard It” hopscotches to Druesdedow’s unrelenting cowbell-clanks.
“Doing Drugs for You” uses narcotics and hallucinogens as analogues for naturally-induced lust and infatuation (or maybe Janssen’s being literal and the song really is about amphetamines). “Altamonster” mashes Deep Purple riff-rock with Go-Go’s giddy pop into an energetic ode to a trust fund femme fatale. “(You Gotta) Pay the Man” is a jagged jangle for that ol’ debt collector and cosmic equalizer, Death. It’s anybody’s guess what the letters in the acronymic “W.I.P.G.A.S.” stand for, but the song itself is another Sticky Fingers / Exile On Main Street bastard child whereon Janssen distills Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” mentality into Wolfman Jack wails and Big Bopper bellowing” “I been working 35 / 45 / 55 hours…waaahhhh!!”
“Screw the Pooch” is the It*Men’s answer to Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever”—a hip-shakin’, feedback-screamin’ riff monster whose Doppler-effected guitars augment the sinister vibe. “Bowie Dick Test” is a gnarly—but fanstastic—voyage back to 1972 replete with quirky chord changes and stop-start progressions. Police sirens blare on “Lily The Deepthroat Killer,” another It*Men crime noir number with watery, reverberated guitars (and a kooky organ solo) in 12-bar blues format. Janssen growls on the Kama Sutra addendum “Modified Cobra Position,” whose wheezy theremin-like warbles accent the serpentine, “spine like twine” grooves laid by Druesedow and bassist Dave Molnar.
Comprising the whole of Side 3, the twenty-minute “Death Machine” is a pulp fiction yarn about a “jukebox legend, a small town king with a rattlesnake ring” who hooks up with a “greasy spoon killer” gal with a rose tattoo for some backwater misadventure. The acid-washed, mescaline-induced trip grinds over a grunge riff that eventually sputters out near the twelve-minute mark—only to be resuscitated by an entirely new leitmotif. The tandem guitars of Gmetro and Cassidy weave in and out of each other, the searing string bends and wah-wah strains giving the track an epic “Maggot Brain” / “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita” quality.
It’s The Doors meet Blue Oyster Cult, and it’s a gas.
The It*Men Greatest Its is available now on iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, Spotify, and Rhapsody—or may be ordered / downloaded via the band’s website (below).