25 Years Ago: The Black Crowes Release Their Debut Album
"They're nasty little birds, black and shiny. You see 'em by the side of the road, eating dead carcasses."
That's how Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson explained his affinity for his band's name -- and although most rock bands of the era used Spandex, high harmonies and Jack Daniel's as proof of their alleged nastiness, the Crowes stripped away all that '80s polish and took things back to basics, relying on an amped-up swagger swiped directly from the Faces and the Rolling Stones.
"We're in mourning for the death of rock 'n' roll," lamented the singer during a 1991 interview with Vox. "Take a look around you. Trust what you feel inside, for once. What makes you go tingly? What makes you wanna f---? Think about that instead of what's in the charts and all the demographic bulls---."
"We've made an investment in the long haul. Music isn't special anymore," agreed his brother and guitarist Rich Robinson. "We may seem unnecessarily abrasive, but only because we care. We could also dig a grave because of it, but it'd be worth it."
That abrasiveness would eventually cause its own set of problems, but when they arrived in stores with their debut LP, 'Shake Your Money Maker,' in January 1990, the band seemed poised for nothing but success. Greeted with mostly positive reviews, the album met with little resistance on its way up the charts, where it ultimately peaked at No. 4 while racking up an eyebrow-raising five million copies sold -- all the more impressive, considering that their sound was thoroughly out of step with the times.
The Crowes' brand of roots rock with a Southern twist wasn't entirely absent from the airwaves in the late '80s and early '90s -- the "unplugged" craze had started to enter full bloom, and the Georgia Satellites had briefly struck gold with their own boozy blues rock revival a few years previous -- but it was exceedingly rare for it to gain so much chart traction in the era of synths, MTV and fog machines.
Perhaps it helped that as much as they might have seemed like dyed-in-the-wool young Faces or Stones clones, the Crowes were working from a broader palette of influences than some may have suspected; in fact, when they started out in 1984 as Mr. Crowe's Garden, they had a very different sound. "We were really into the Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade, Green on Red -- all those Paisley Underground bands, so we wanted a psychedelic name," Chris later recalled. "When we changed, we kept the Crowes because that's what people called us anyway."
But don't mistake the Crowes' early dabbling in other styles as an indication that they were latecomers to classic rock. As Chris later told it, he always felt like a bit of a musical outcast as a young Southerner in the '80s. "Out in the suburbs, the kids were into the MTV bands of the time -- Loverboy, Night Ranger, Van Halen and Quiet Riot, music I don't even know about except I don't like it much," he said. "I never liked the Southern stuff like Lynyrd Skynyrd. I wasn't even into the Allman Brothers until a couple of years ago. ... We've tried to stay away from Southern connotations. It's bulls--- -- I've never had a Confederate flag."
Produced by American Recordings A&R exec George Drakoulias, who signed the band after recognizing their potential at a 1988 show in New York, 'Shake Your Money Maker' served up a canny blend of solid originals and one judiciously chosen cover (Otis Redding's 'Hard to Handle,' which gave the Crowes their breakout single) that swung from rave-up rockers like 'Handle' and 'Jealous Again' to radio-ready ballads like the No. 30 hit 'She Talks to Angels.' And as refreshing as the Crowes' sound was, their shaggy, hairspray-deficient look also stood out -- for a group of Georgia kids in their 20s, they looked a lot like old hippies.
"I know what year it is," Chris assured Q in 1991. "We're not dressing up like we're in a play or a movie. We're like rocker hippies, and we'd like to see the music getting back to the grass roots. I don't see the Black Crowes as wanting to change the world or being part of a movement, I just see us as being the kind of band you can wrap yourselves up in like a blanket."
'Money Maker' restored rootsy, good-time rock 'n' roll to the charts during a time when it was in decidedly short supply, but beneath the record's amplified hooks lurked the scrappy, uncompromising posture that fans would soon come to know all too well. Even before they tracked the LP, the Robinsons had torn through multiple bassists and drummers, hinting at the heavy turnover that would later impede their momentum -- and just after hitting the road with ZZ Top on their first big tour, they got themselves kicked off the bill.
As Rich later explained, it wasn't due to any conflict with their tourmates, but because of a pissing match they lost with the sponsor, Miller. "Chris would say every night, 'This is brought to you commercial-free.' Miller said, 'You don't say that, and if you do, we'll throw you off the tour,'" claimed Robinson. "We said, 'Hey, we don't have a contract with you; we thought we were going on tour with ZZ. If you wanna throw us off, throw us off.' And they did."
Losing a plum spot on one of the year's bigger tours may have given the Crowes' label executives fits, but it didn't have much of a negative impact on the group's fortunes; by the time they returned in 1992 with their second effort, 'The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,' their star had only risen further, and the album peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard chart while spinning off four consecutive chart-topping singles at the Mainstream Rock format.
In the long run, however, the Robinsons' knack for finding trouble and courting controversy didn't do them many favors, and following 'Southern Harmony,' they tended to get more attention for infighting or album artwork than their actual music. When Rich Robinson announced the band's breakup in January 2015, it was just one more reminder of the turmoil they've all too often chosen over continued mainstream success.
Not that they'd do it any differently even if they had the choice. "It's a lifestyle now. We don't live by other people's etiquette or rules," mused Chris in the wake of the Crowes' first flush of success. "There's too many things to taste and feel and see."
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