That sound you just heard was the hearts of a million power pop fans skipping a beat.
There probably isn’t anything that happened to Sugarbomb during their brief tenure with RCA Records that didn’t happen to a thousand other bands, but the fact that it did happen to Sugarbomb shows just how far down the boom-bust rabbit hole the label had gone. They signed a band that was armed to the teeth with smart pop songs, so catchy that they bordered on insidious…and told them to dumb it down.
Look at those last three words again: the label actually told them their music was too good. This left chief songwriters Les Farrington (lead vocals, keys) and Daniel Harville (guitar, vocals) scrambling to come up with new songs in the studio, songs that were more, shall we say, easily digestible (and just as easily forgotten). Farrington and Harville whipped up some songs that pleased their (moronic) overlords without compromising their integrity, and the band was ready to roll. Bully was officially on the schedule, set for release…
…on September 25, 2001.
The band was dropped from the label two weeks later.
Let’s summarize the damage: RCA had, at the very least, a cult classic on their hands, but directed the band to ditch some of their better songs in favor of a couple potential here-and-now unit shifters. They then released one of those underwritten songs, “Hello,” as the lead single Á¢€” despite the fact that Farrington only played it for them as a joke, after being instructed to dumb it down (he was fully expecting them to say, “Well, not that dumb”) Á¢€” opting for short-term sales at the expense of the band’s long-term prospects. Finally, they use the frigid post-9/11 radio climate as an excuse to throw the band under the bus. Well played, gentlemen.
In fairness to RCA, there was logic, however misguided, in their acts: they had just scored a #1 hit with Vertical Horizon using the same approach Á¢€” they even recruited Vertical Horizon bassist Sean Hurley to pinch-hit on Bully when Sugarbomb’s bassist came up short Á¢€” so they surely heard the safe, inoffensive “Hello” and went all Tex Avery dollar sign-eyed goofy. Still, they had to know that songs like “Hello” were not the band’s forte, not when it’s sharing space on the same album as the multiple personality “Motor Mouth,” the in-denial breakup song “Over,” and “After All,” which is one of the best Queen tributes ever put to tape. In fact, looking at the album with the benefit of the inside information that Farrington and Harville provided this writer with about the errant direction they received, it’s clear which songs the band came into the studio with, and which ones were made up on the spot. “Bully,” “Clover” and “Gone” were, as Farrington said, “plug-and-play” numbers. And as we mentioned, “Hello” was never supposed to happen. What’s left behind once those songs are stricken from the record?
The album’s best songs, that’s what. “Waiting” has to be the only pop rock song that makes mention of the Kama Sutra (one of you astute readers will surely throw that claim back in my face), and “What a Drag” takes a sobering look at relationships and the inevitable changes they encounter. The band only takes the time for one ballad, but it’s a doozy. (Farrington said he had no intentions of recording it, but the producer liked it so much he said, “If I can record this song, I’ll do the rest of the album.”) “Posterchild for Tragedy” has a certain Mellow Gold melancholy without sounding like self-loathing, even though the lyrics are pretty depressing. (“Maybe there’s a hope that I can live in the shell you left of me / Maybe I could last a while as the poster child for tragedy.”) It serves as a nice wind-down after the first eight songs, and gives the listener a chance to take a breath before knocking them over with “Waiting” and “After All.”
Farrington and Harville seemed intent to make the best of a bad situation when I spoke with them in early 2002. They talked about how they were going to do it their way next time, and they even said that RCA was being very helpful in finding them a new home, and telling prospective labels how easy they were to work with. However, that good will did not last long, as the band had broken up before my interview with them went live. Strangely, all members of the band have kept surprisingly low profiles since the band’s demise, which seems impossible in a post-MySpace world. Harville is in a band called Cobralush that sounds like Shiny Toy Guns (though their MySpace page hasn’t been checked in over a month), and the last I heard from Farrington, he was back in Texas playing piano bars. His web site, as it were, hasn’t changed in years. This is all sorts of wrong. Doesn’t he see all of the shit bands that scrape up a couple hundred bucks and make a bedroom pop record that lights the blogosphere on fire? He could do that with his eyes closed.
I had originally intended to post Bully in its entirety, until I saw that it was available for download on Amazon. Instead, I’m posting the band’s hard-to-find indie debut Tastes Like Sugar (currently going for $41.50 and up on the resale market), which features the first recorded versions of the Bully tracks posted above. I also included a few demo recordings I scored somewhere along the way. Enjoy these songs for free, but do yourself (and the band) a favor and pony up for Bully.