One-hit wonders are charming. One-album wonders, for some reason, are not.
That’s the fate of the Spin Doctors. Type “spin doctors wor” into Google, and it’ll start suggesting “-st band ever.” They finished eighth in a Rolling Stone poll of the worst bands of the 90s, one ahead of Ace of Base. LA Weekly was kinder — only the 20th worst of all time.
They’re so hated that there’s now a backlash to the backlash, best exemplified in the headline “Stop the Spin Doctors Hate, You Hipster-Douches.” Paste magazine put it this way: “The decline of hippie-pop three-hit wonders the Spin Doctors from Top 10 to snorting punchline was swift, brutal and not entirely just.”
Let’s back up a bit …
In 1991, the Spin Doctors were an obscure New York band that had an album called Pocket Full of Kryptonite, but they were better known for their ties to Blues Traveler and the rest of the jam-band circuit. The next year, radio programmers suddenly realized that Pocket Full of Kryptonite was a Playlist Full of Hit Rock Songs.
It was a strong debut. Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong and Jimmy Olsen’s Blues were fun, clever singles. Eric Schenkman shifted seamlessly from fluid rhythm guitar to quirky solos that skipped over the fretboard. The rhythm section, Mark White and Aaron Comess, spun tight grooves with ease. Singer Chris Barron knew his limits and was an amiable frontman.
Aside from the hits, the band knocked out experimental fare like the oddly timed Refrigerator Car and the 12-minute jam Shinbone Alley/Hard to Exist, all showing off a few guys who could really play. They contributed a blazing cover of Spanish Castle Magic to the Jimi Hendrix tribute album Stone Free.
By the time radio and MTV were done with the album, atypical Top 40 fare like the slogan-shouting What Time Is It? and the melancholy How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me?) had been on the airwaves. And some other song. What was it?
Oh, right. Four Chords, I mean, Two Princes.
Sadly, this is the biggest hit from a wonderful album. It’s a killer hook guaranteed to be an earworm. And it goes on about two minutes too long.
It sounds like a throwaway. It’s such a lazy song that the middle eight is actually a middle five. (Seriously — count it starting from “Marry him, marry me …”) Aside from that, it’s one chord progression throughout: D-Bm-A-G. That’s right. D-BAG.
You could hear Two Princes once and still say it’s overplayed. It was, of course, played much, much more than that.
So by the time the Spin Doctors faced the ever-dangerous sophomore album, they were poised for a backlash. As Barron said years later, “I think there was a moment where the grass-smoking, tripping college hippies turned and saw 10-year-olds who’d seen us on MTV with their moms and dads and were like, ‘This isn’t my scene anymore.'”
Then the opening single from that new album, Turn It Upside Down, was guaranteed to please neither camp.
On Cleopatra’s Cat, Schenkman, White and Comess once again put together a solid groove. Then Barron, in the words of George Costanza, starts beboppin’ and scattin’ all over it.
The band never recovered. A follow-up single, You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast, was closer to the band’s pop-rock sweet spot, but it was too late. For some reason, the band also released a video for the tune Mary Jane, an ode to weed with all the subtlety of Spinal Tap’s Sex Farm.
Schenkman wasn’t even around for that video, and the band shuffled through guitarists through two more albums that made little impact despite the presence of keyboardist Ivan Neville, who wound up on lead vocals for a few shows when Barron suffered voice problems.
Over time, the original members gravitated back toward each other, first for a few shows, then an album that sank. Then, years later, the Spin Doctors released an actual blues album, the well-received If The River Was Whiskey.
So the Spin Doctors today are a blues-jam band with a few good pop-rock songs in their back catalog. Maybe one or two of those songs was flogged to death when MTV played music. But that was a long time ago. What have the Spin Doctors done to earn your hatred recently?