How ‘Pocket Full of Kryptonite’ Made Spin Doctors Unlikely Stars
With Pocket Full of Kryptonite, Spin Doctors tried to be a whole bunch of different things at once. What's amazing is how well it all clicked.
A guitar riff that evokes Keith Richards and John Frusciante? A rhythm section that snaps into place somewhere between Exile on Main St. and the disco boogie of “Funkytown”? A romantic narrative exploring how Jimmy Olsen hopes to lure Lois Lane away from Superman? Yep, and that's just the first single.
Pocket Full of Kryptonite opens with “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues.” The catchy arrangement mashes up southern rock, ’70s funk and taut Top 40 while the words feature a cheeky, nerdy outlook unlike just about anything in 1991 ("He's leapin' buildings in a single bound/And I'm reading Shakespeare at my place downtown”). The distinctive blend helped fire up a music revolution and make Spin Doctors a sensation for a brief time in the early ’90s
When Spin Doctors — singer Chris Barron, guitarist Eric Schenkman, bassist Mark White and drummer Aaron Comess — got together and started jamming in the mid-’80s, few bands had their goal: Take the Stones’ template then add more pop hooks, funk bottom and earnest wit. In the middle of the decade, rock ‘n’ roll had two major thrusts. You had bands in the spandex and shredder scene that ranged from safe (Bon Jovi) to scandalous (Motley Crue), but you also had a whole other camp looking to get deep and dark (R.E.M., the Cure, Jane’s Addiction). Spin Doctors represented the beginning of a third direction for rock, one that started small but steamrolled with tremendous momentum.
Watch Spin Doctors' 'Jimmy Olsen's Blues' Video
By the late ’80s, the jam-rock of the ’60s and ’70s had moved into the mainstream again. The most notable return came with the Grateful Dead releasing “Touch of Grey” in 1987 - the single became the band’s first and only Top 10 entry and helped introduce Jerry Garcia’s genius to a generation born after Woodstock. Around the Dead’s renaissance, many of the group’s peers reunited and found young fans — the Allman Brothers Band, Little Feat and the Doobie Brothers had all gotten back together by the close of the decade; Traffic and Steely Dan would give it another go a few years later.
But Generation Xers wanted their own bands to follow and freak-out to. The initial crash of the second-wave jam bands came with Phish, Widespread Panic and Blues Traveler (who shared a scene with Spin Doctors in New York City). These three bands in particular began to build fan bases based on marathon live shows and strong word-of-mouth. But nobody in the scene busted through to the mainstream until Spin Doctors and Pocket Full of Kryptonite.
Released on Aug. 20, 1991, the LP didn’t do much at first. Epic Records had signed the band based on its club chops and released the concert disc Up for Grabs ... Live in January 1991. Typical of the scene, the live set featured stretched-out songs with slow builds, towering guitar crescendos and trippy, jazzy sections. But it also featured tight numbers. Epic seemed to be announcing that its new band could do long explorations and finely crafted pop. It took some time, but music fans eventually fell for that finely crafted pop.
A year after the arrival of Pocket Full of Kryptonite, the record still hadn’t caught fire. The band seemed to be doing fine on the road with the first H.O.R.D.E. festival, rounding out a bill anchored by Phish, Widespread and old pals Blues Traveler. Then MTV began airing videos for the singles "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" and "Two Princes." Radio stations jumped on board. TV came calling, and the band landed performance spots on Saturday Night Live, David Letterman's show and others.
Watch Spin Doctors' 'Two Princes' Video
Pocket Full of Kryptonite found an audience through its hits. While it nicked the raw guitar sound from the Stones and the loose grooves (and sly lyrics) from Little Feat, fans came for the band’s ability to take those elements and crush them into pop. Lead single “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” was a tell-off song without the cruelty of the Stones. (Barron’s lyrics were silly and often self-deprecating, while the toughness of the guitar, bass and drums were held in check by the radio-ready hooks.) The big smash, “Two Princes,” followed the same blueprint with loud-but-melodic guitar out front and Barron preaching the values of love over money, heart over breeding (“I ain't got no future or a family tree/But I know what a prince and lover ought to be”).
Success on Billboard’s Hot 100 translated to massive sales, with the LP eventually going platinum five times over. But behind the hits hides a trailblazing album full of deep cuts.
The four compact tunes — “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” “Two Princes,” “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” and “More Than She Know” — gave the band room to experiment elsewhere. “Refrigerator Car” opens with a full minute of thunder as Schenkman, White and Comess look back to Led Zeppelin, sideways to Living Colour and forward to Blood Sugar Sex Magic. “Forty or Fifty” begins meditative, wounded and tender before the lyrics give way to a dreamy passage and an almost space-rock outro. “Shinbone Alley/Hard to Exist” tries to cram it all in: blues, funk, ’70s hard rock, ’60s psychedelia.
It is easy to see how 4 million people in the U.S. picked up Pocket Full of Kryptonite to listen to “Two Princes” 10 times in a row. It’s also not a stretch to say that another million fell in love with the LP for putting a rave-up like “Off My Line” beside ballad “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me?),” in which Barron drops references to Hamlet and runs through a taxonomy of angles in a set of soft and sincere lyrics. A good chunk of people also dug how the album ran from contemporary Top 40 to Axis: Bold as Love homages
Watch Spin Doctors' 'Little Miss Can't Be Wrong' Video
Pocket Full of Kryptonite had legs for months, but Spin Doctors would never top its success. The album’s follow-up, 1994’s Turn It Upside Down, included many of the same elements that drove its predecessor. But what it lacked was smash hits. "You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast” scored airplay but just missed the Top 40.
Still, Spin Doctors primed the pump for both jam-oriented music and a return to straight-up rock. It’s hard to imagine Blues Traveler breaking big with “Run-Around” in 1995 without “Two Princes.” It’s even harder to imagine Hootie & the Blowfish making it further than fraternity parties if Kryptonite hadn't proved there was a market for rock 'n' roll beyond grunge, punk and metal. From Dave Matthews Band dominating the end of the ’90s to Counting Crows selling 7 million copies of August and Everything After, Spin Doctors paved the road for a generation of bands that loved flirting with pop.