Remembering ‘Soft Rock’s Seminal Band’ | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Remembering ‘soft rock’s seminal band’

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Although the Eagles were one of the bestselling bands of all time, as definitive of their era as the Beatles were of the one before, the recent passing of their key member Glenn Frey didn’t elicit nearly the emotional outpouring of, say, the death of David Bowie, which comes as no surprise to students of rock history.

More than any other group, the Eagles created the model of a superstar rock band as a ruthless, soulless corporation, thanks as much to their own blatant careerism as to the greed of their infamous manager, Irving Azoff, “the poison dwarf” from downstate Danville, IL. As amply demonstrated in the 2013 documentary History of the Eagles, as embarrassing and painful an authorized project as Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster, the musicians pretty much hated everyone and everything, starting with one another, and very much putting the lie to all those peaceful easy feelings they crooned about. True, some songs stand as undeniably brilliant—chief among them “Hotel California,” which intentionally or not conjures the sinister undertones lurking behind their own swaying-palms facade. But much of that multi-platinum canon just ranges from insipid, to vapid, to gratingly insincere.

Just try to name another band that made punk rock more necessary.

In any event, as much of any of those Eagles earworms (“Well I’m a-runnin’ down the road tryin’ to loosen my load/I’ve got seven women on my mind/Four that want to own me, two that want to stone me/One says she’s a friend of mine…” ugh!), the band I can’t get out of my head in recent days is the Blue Jean Committee, one of the most brilliant creations of comedians Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in their extraordinary first season of Documentary Now!, the IFC series satirizing the sometimes self-important craft of documentary filmmaking.

As evidenced by his work on Saturday Night Live and Portlandia, former Chicagoan and one-time punk-rock drummer Armisen always does music well, and the season-closing two-party mockumentary Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee is especially spot-on. The target is the laidback California soft-rock scene of the early ’70s in general—with echoes of Bread, America, Jackson Browne, and many other mellow avatars of those groovy times—but the biggest specific inspirations clearly are Frey & Co. and History of the Eagles.

The Blue Jean Committee’s driving forces, Clark Honus (Hader) and Gene Allen (Armisen), start out as buddies playing bad blues in Chicago at night while attending “sausage school” by day. They hop on the California bandwagon strictly for mercenary reasons, goaded and exploited by managerial mastermind “Alvin Izoff.” They cynically record “the quintessential California album,” Catalina Breeze, which spawns six consecutive hit singles—though they clearly never believe a word they sing or a note they play.

As with Frey, Don Henley, and all of the other Eagles except for the blissfully oblivious Joe Walsh, Honus and Allen come to despise one another. The big break happens with a fight onstage at the Hollywood Bowl during the “Animal Rights Now Benefit.” Allen, it seems, can no longer live with the hypocrisies of feigning the hippie vegetarian lifestyle and turning his back on Chicago sausage. He returns to the non-metaphorical meat grinder in his home town, while Honus walks around barefoot in white robes counting his millions in a mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The inevitable latter-day reunion hardly smooths things over, instead instantly recalling all the old animosities.

“Take it easy” always is much easier said than done, of course.

Released with little fanfare late last year and deserving of much more attention, Armisen turned to his old pals at Chicago’s Drag City Records to release a seven-song EP of the Blue Jean Committee’s best-loved tunes, along with an additional seven-inch single. Like the documentary, Catalina Breeze is perfect in tone and execution—a stone-cold hoot that evinces as much love as disdain for the subject of its parody, in the grand tradition of Spinal Tap or the Rutles. And “Hotel California” aside, I know whose songs I’d rather listen to.

The Blue Jean Committee, Catalina Breeze (Drag City)

Rating on the 4-star scale: 3.5 stars.

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