In the never-ending fight for truth, justice and the American way, lead singer Chris Barron and the Spin Doctors finally have prevailed.
For two years, beginning in the summer of 1992, few bands were hotter than the New York-based rock quartet. Its debut Epic/Associated album, “Pocket Full of Kryptonite,” sold more than 6 million copies, stayed on Billboard’s pop chart for 115 straight weeks and yielded three hits (“Two Princes,” “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”).
“I used to walk into a mall and like 200 people would mob me,” Barron said recently. “It was nice to have that kind of adulation and appreciation, but at the same time it was difficult to buy sweat socks.”
On the surface, it appeared Barron and his band mates – guitarist Eric Schenkman, bassist Mark White and drummer Aaron Comess – had it all, but behind the scenes, it slowly began to unravel.
“You would think, hey, you’re selling records hand over fist and it’s probably the best time,” Barron said, “but in a lot of ways that period really sucked. We were selling all these records and selling out these huge places, then we were backstage screaming at each other and throwing fruit trays around. I hate to say this, because anybody would kill to be in that position, but I think we were all a little bit foolish. We were really young and didn’t know how to handle what was happening to us.
“There were elements in the band that were really difficult to work with, and I guess I’m just not Sigmund Freud. I wasn’t able to surmount those interpersonal difficulties and so we really didn’t have a very good time. And then, believe it or not, when Eric left the band (in 1994) and Epic was giving us the cold shoulder, that was all a drag, but we were having a ball. The music was really alive. We were playing tunes that no one in the band had ever played before, like spontaneously breaking into Otis Redding tunes and the Temptations. We were partying our brains out, but in a wholesome way. We were staying out late, jamming on the bus into the wee hours of the morning.”
The Spin Doctors’ follow-up album, “Turn It Upside Down,” did just that in 1994: It sold 2 million, but Epic considered it a commercial failure when the singles “You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast” and “Cleopatra’s Cat” didn’t burn up the charts. By then, Anthony Krizan replaced Schenkman. After the funked-up third LP, “You’ve Got to Believe in Something,” fared miserably in 1996, the band and Epic parted ways, leaving fans to wonder how the group fell from grace so quickly.
“Somehow the other albums didn’t reach as many people as the first record,” Barron said. “I don’t look at the records by how many they’ve sold. I’m not a businessman. I made plenty of money off ‘Pocket Full of Kryptonite,’ so I don’t even really worry about the money. I just look at them as whether they’re successful works of art. I think our music’s gotten better and better over time, and maybe at some point people will visit those other albums and get some pleasure out of them.”
More pleasure likely will be derived from the Spin Doctors’ upcoming DAS/Universal debut, “Here Comes the Bride” (out June 1). It’s a veritable grab bag of sounds and influences, from rap to jazz to pop. One minute, they resemble a ’90s version of The Police; the next, they break into a Latin groove.
The album introduces new guitarist Eran Tabib and, more impressively, the addition of keyboardist Ivan Neville. The son of singer Aaron Neville and formerly a member of Bonnie Raitt’s band, he has played and toured extensively with Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones, Robbie Robertson and Boz Scaggs. He also flirted with solo success in 1988 with the Polydor album “If My Ancestors Could See Me Now,” featuring the Top 30 hit “Not Just Another Girl.”
“Ivan Neville is like the funkiest guy in the world,” Barron said. “Being in a band with Ivan Neville is amazing. We just called him up. We wanted to get another musician, like preferably a keyboard player who can sing. Aaron was like, ‘What about Ivan Neville?’ We were like, ‘Wow, Ivan Neville, he’s super bad. Maybe Keith (Richards) has him booked for the next 50 years, but what the hell, let’s call him up.’ It turns out he’s a big fan. He said, ‘Sure, I’d love to do it.’ We got together with him and it clicked from the beginning.” From the title track to “Tomorrow Can Pay the Rent,” the Spin Doctors travel down familiar rock and funk terrain, with several surprising twists and turns along the way.
“When we made it, we didn’t have a record deal,” Barron said. “We didn’t have a producer. At times, we didn’t even have a guitar player, and we made it in Aaron Comess’ basement, so we were really free to do whatever we wanted to. There wasn’t anybody looking over our shoulder. When you’re working in a studio that costs $3,500 a day and you’re surrounded by $15 million worth of equipment, you feel like a jerk miking a speaker phone, trying something silly. But when you’re down in your drummer’s basement, the time is free and no one’s asking you where the next ‘Two Princes’ or ‘Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong’ is going to come from. You feel free to goof around, and you end up with a record that has a lot of influences.”
Barron is even more proud of his improving, always topical songwriting abilities.
” ‘Wow’ is about Mother Teresa and Princess Diana and the whole media circus that surrounded that,” he said. ” ‘Gone Mad’ is about Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac and the senseless death all around us. These are some of the best lyrics I’ve ever written, like on ‘Fisherman’s Delight,’ that line about ‘bombs and blessings, everybody’s guessing what will next fall from the sky.’ I think about the whole Yugoslavia thing. You know when you’re really writing stuff that is in touch, when you’re really in touch with yourself and the world and where you fit, you start to get kind of psychic. A while after you write stuff, it starts to come true and plug into current events.”
Will “Here Comes the Bride” return the Spin Doctors’ to the dizzying heights of 1992-93? Barron doesn’t care; he’s having the time of his life now.
“Selling millions of records isn’t everything,” he said. “I have a wonderful family, I have fantastic friends, Aaron Comess is a genius, and making this record with him over the last couple of years has been one of the great musical experiences of my life, going over to his house and the two of us eating Cuban food everyday and making music. It’s been great.
“The way I keep score is I still don’t have a day job. I’m just a lucky guy. I’m really glad to still be making music for a living. I’m glad to be here. I have no complaints.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds.’ I went into the Record Exchange in Princeton, N.J., and I was about 13 years old. There was this kid named Seth Frank, who was 15 and worked there for a long time. We went to school together and I thought he was really cool because he smoked cigarettes. I had my allowance in my pocket and I had like $3, and I asked him, ‘What’s a really good album that’s like cheap?’ He said, ‘Dude, The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds,’ a killer album.’ It was a used album for 99 cents. I had money left over for a slice (of pizza) and a Coke.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “John Denver in Sydney, Australia, in 1977. I lived in Sydney from the age of 8 to 12, from 1977 to 1981. Going back, John Denver rules, man. C’mon, ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ and ‘Grandma’s Feather Bed,’ those are great songs. And ‘Leaving On a Jet Plane,’ that tune makes me cry. I get that big lump in my throat. I’ve left on so many jet planes, that tune just kills me.”
BWF (before we forget): Take a whirl with the Spin Doctors on the Web @ www.spindoctors.com. … The Spin Doctors album discography – “Pocket Full of Kryptonite” (Epic/Associated, 1992); “Homebelly Groove … Live” (1993); “Turn It Upside Down” (Epic, 1994); “You’ve Got to Believe In Something” (1996); “Here Comes the Bride” (DAS/Universal, 1999).
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