When Scruffy the Cat leader Charlie Chesterman lost his battle with cancer in 2013, the music world came to realize two things: that the world had lost a wonderfully underrated musical talent, and that said talent was going to stay obscure as long as their albums remained out of print and selling at collector’s prices. It’s understandable why said records would be difficult to come by; after all, the band split twenty-three years previous, with two albums and two EP’s to its name. Two recent compilations, released last year, help to alleviate that void; Time Never Forgets: The Anthology ’86-88, a digital compilation of all of Scruffy’s commercially released material, and The Good Goodbye, a collection of unreleased material that pre-and-post-dates the band’s releases on Relativity.
Normally, one might balk at an anonymous repackaging of a band’s material, but in Scruffy The Cat’s case, their records came in quick succession, and save for their final album 1988’s excellent Moons of Jupiter, they never really deviated from their original style or sound. A lack of variety might be a point of contention, yet when a band does it this well, one doesn’t mind. Diversity of sound is a great thing to have, but it’s also great to find a style and hone it to perfection.
Scruffy The Cat traded in country-minded college rock. You’ll hear hints of the better bands of the era, such as R.E.M., Jason & The Scorchers, and even a little Camper Van Beethoven, but their sound is all their own—a friendly bar-rock sound that’s quite unpretentious in nature and a joy to listen to. Their debut release, a six-song EP entitled High Octane Revival, appeared in 1986, and it was a helluva fun ride, featuring several songs that would become Scruffy classics, such as “40 Days and 40 Nights,” “Life Is Fun,” and “Happiness To Go!”
Following quickly on the EP’s heels was debut album Tiny Days. Released in 1987, it kept the high octane party going, but introduced a few minor nuances. “Shadow Boy” is a lovely shuffling ditty that introduced a Bo Diddley-meets-Buddy Holly rhythm that is nothing short of addictive, while “Thomas Doubter” introduces a banjo and is a fun roots-rock number. Also worth noting is “When Your Ship Comes In,” a Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano rocker highlighted by one helluva guitar solo. 1987’s EP Boom Boom Boom Bingo features two tracks leftover from Tiny Days sessions; “You Dirty Rat” and “Blue Russian,” but those merely okay songs are enhanced by three scorching live recordings of “Shadow Boy” and “Happiness To Go!,” two album tracks that were already good, but are turned into monsters live. Also enjoyable is a cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”
Their swan-song, Moons of Jupiter, appeared a year later, and is easily the best of the lot. It’s the sound of a band that’s spent years on the road perfecting their trade, firing on all pistons, and using that experience as a base to grow into something much more powerful. The boogie-woogie got boogier-woogier, the guitars got heavier, and the country twang…it didn’t change, but Chesterman’s singing here doesn’t fall guilty of an overbearing twang that occasionally reared its head on earlier recordings. Straightforward rockers like “Betty Drops In” and “Places” sit nicely next to more reflective numbers like “I Do” and “Just Like Cathy’s Clown.” Moons of Jupiter was a cool-sounding record from a growing band, and this reissue reverts the album to its original running order, and adds a song that didn’t appear on it at the time, the telling “Keith’s Lament,” a tear-in-your-beer weeper with the telling line “I’ve never had a guitar break my heart.” It’s a fitting end to this collection, and one doesn’t necessarily believe Chesterman’s claim.
Omnivore’s compilation, The Good Goodbye: Unreleased Recordings 1984-1990, serves as a companion to the anthology. Split between recordings made before and after they signed to Relativity, it’s a fascinating portrait of the artistic growth of a band, taken as it is from the two points of its existence. The majority of the tracks found here date from 1984 and 1985, and capture the nascent Scruffy The Cat as a young, enthusiastic band that’s growing into its identity. Chesterman and longtime guitarist Stephen Fredette’s writing partnership was a fruitful one, as they explored what would become their country-rock hybrid on “Big Fat Monkey’s Hat,” “Oldest Fire In The Word,” and “Happiness to Go.” Covers of songs by Buddy Holly, Larry Williams, and Hank Williams illustrate the diversity of their inspiration. The band would later rerecord a number of these songs for their debut album, and while one might not necessarily these versions of “Mamma Killed Hate,” “Happiness to Go,” and “Tiger, Tiger” are superior to their finished counterparts, one can’t deny that the rawness adds an element not present in the slick-sounding final versions.
The final tracks were recorded in 1989 at the legendary Ardent studios, and Scruffy’s at the height of its power. By this time, they’re a tight band, with a sound that’s definitely rockin’, complete with horn sections, honky-tonk piano, and a driving rhythm that would surely be a scorcher to hear live in any saloon or hole-in-the-wall. It’s good-time rock and roll, especially “The Doctor Song,” “I Knew That You Would,” and the title track. “Love Song #9” was the only song on the compilation to see release, appearing on an excellent split single with Young Fresh Fellows. If Scruffy the Cat started off as a contemporary of bands like R.E.M. and Camper van Beethoven, it ended its run as equals to The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Georgia Satellites, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers. The best of the lot is “Porch Flambe” a mid-tempo country number that could have been a hit in 1990 in the hands of any number of then-contemporary country singers.
That the band disbanded after these sessions is a shame, but perhaps it was for the best. One wonders if Chesterman sensed the sea change that was soon to come, wherein his good-time barroom-band style of music would quickly be seen as passé. Bowing out isn’t necessarily an admission of defeat, and is sometimes the classiest thing to do. Scruffy the Cat’s ending may have been unceremonious, but it’s obvious they went out on a high note. It’s just a shame that it took Chesterman’s death to recognize that talent.
Categories: Album Reviews