The Boston Phoenix
October 14 - 21, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Scoring points

Skeggie's soundtrack; Cleo's tunes for tots

by Carly Carioli

Greg "Skeggie" Kendall -- formerly of Tacklebox, most recently of the Toughskins, and most famous for being one of the original crew who turned the Middle East into a rock club -- has been dropping hints about his movie deal for more than a year now. But even when the press release came a couple weeks ago informing us that Kendall had indeed composed the music for Drive Me Crazy -- a new vehicle for the chick who plays Sabrina the Teenage Witch -- and had produced the Donnas' version of REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Lovin' You," which appears prominently in the film, we were a bit skeptical. There was only one thing to do -- take Skeggie to the movies and, in the spirit of teenage moviegoing, converse through the whole picture.

Kendall, we find out, is somewhat amorphously credited with "Music" -- not as "Music Director," or with "Score."

"A movie like this, I would say I did the underscore," he says over popcorn at a Wednesday matinee. "I wouldn't say I scored this film, because the film doesn't really have a score. I did the music -- the music that isn't songs. I have no illusions about the work I did on the film, but it was a great gig. It's fun and creative and I don't have to write any words, sing, or worry about how my hair looks. Once you get used to the fact that you could spend days or months or hours working on something that no one's gonna hear because it gets cut out of the movie or just buried, then you're okay."

We missed Skeg's name rolling by in the opening credits, but we caught his brief on-screen cameo late in the film. He's one of the alumni attending the movie's climactic event, a formal dance celebrating the centennial of Melissa Joan Hart's high school. "There I am in the middle," he points as his fleeting image flickers past. "I stood around for three hours for that, with -- indignity of indignities -- a fake martini in my hand."

More important, we caught every note of Skeggie's music in the film, from the opening theme ("See, we went for a Katrina and the Waves kind of thing") to the final credits, which feature two numbers that ended up on the cutting-room floor: a jingle for Meteor Burger, a diner the kids frequent in the movie; and the high school's alma mater. The film, adapted from a teen novel called How I Created My Perfect Prom Date, concerns Nicole (Melissa Joan Hart) and her next-door neighbor Chase (Adrian Grenier) and how, since they've both been dumped, they decide to feign a romance to make their exes jealous. The Donnas, credited as their real-life metal-band alter ego, the Electrocutes, play the coolest band in town. And it's directed by John Schultz, whose previous indie effort, Bandwagon, went to Sundance in 1996 and featured music by Skeggie Kendall.

As Skeggie details, "Schultz got this gig with Twentieth Century Fox directing a Melissa Joan Hart vehicle -- it was called Next to You then. It became Drive Me Crazy when Britney Spears became attached to the film this summer and her song "(You Drive Me) Crazy" got prominent placement, which ended up being smart for the film. The film really found its audience that way.

"Even though I was auditioning to score the film all along, my first job was to write one song for a band that's in the middle of the movie. The Donnas are in the movie, but there's another band that plays in a club. We never even gave them a name, strangely enough. So I was first hired to write that -- and also to produce the Donnas' version of `Keep On Lovin' You' -- and, because they have these club scenes in the film, to be a `music consultant.' They flew me out to Salt Lake City twice to make sure that the club really looked like a club. When I got there, the amps weren't right, so I said, `We've gotta rent new amps.' Or, `This drum kit's too small.' All kinds of stuff like that. Plus the band that was gonna play my song wasn't really a band. So I had to actually show them how to look like they were playing -- I even had to show one guy how to hold a guitar. It was hilarious. I actually got to yell `Wardrobe!' once. They sent the band up in these glam-rock clothes, because that's originally what the script said. But eventually I wrote more of a Hüsker Dü kind of song, so I had to be like, `Get 'em back up there in T-shirts!' "

That song eventually led to Kendall's being hired to write and record most of the incidental music. It was all recorded at Zippah studios with a band of locals -- Mike Leahy and Jake Guralnick (son of Elvis biographer and former Phoenix critic Peter Guralnick) on guitars, Jeff Allison on keyboards, and Dave Schlitching on bass, with uncredited vocals by the Gigolo Aunts' Dave Gibbs and Kendall's brother Bob. "It felt like we were kids getting away with something," Skeggie recalls. "Like, `Holy shit, we just talked them into letting us do a movie!' But somewhere along the line we came to the realization that we weren't just kids getting away with doing this -- that we could actually, legitimately, do it."

By the same token, to have the Donnas covering REO Speedwagon in a Melissa Joan Hart/Britney Spears vehicle probably qualifies as getting away with something. Kendall gives a lot of credit to Schultz, whose musical tastes jibed with his own, and who was enough of a music fan to give a bit part to the Connells' Doug MacMillan. "My relationship with the film is different in that the director and I are good friends," Skeggie explains. "It's easier, because he tells me what he wants and I give it to him, as opposed to me guessing what he wants and him saying no.

During a scene in which Chase phones his ex-girlfriend, Skeggie points out that "Schultz is a big fan of the Velvet Underground's third album -- `I'm Set Free' and `Jesus' and `Candy Says,' songs with that wiggly Sterling Morrison guitar line. So I got to sneak these Velvetsy parts in here and there." Schultz also chose to end the film to the strains of Sweet's "Wig Wam Bam"; and before they'd scored the scene where Chase is introduced, he had temporarily pasted in the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." (Kendall echoed the nasty tone of the Stooges tune in the music he wrote and recorded for the scene.) Even the high school's marching-band songs had some fairly punkish inspiration. "I never really envisioned that I'd be writing songs for marching bands," Skeggie says, "but it's a lot like writing a Lyres song; it's like garage rock. Really! It's the same chord blocks. Especially `Go, Fight, Win,' which is sort of the film's über-marching-band song. It's real Kinksy."

Of course, you can't score a teen-pop soundtrack using proto-punk alone. The soundtrack CD, which includes the Backstreet Boys, Less Than Jake, and Barenaked Ladies in addition to the Donnas and Britney Spears, was still being assembled this summer, well after Kendall's contribution had been completed. And then, at the last minute, those songs had to be crammed into the film itself. In fact, Skeggie didn't even hear most of the songs until the premiere in New York City a few weeks ago.

"Were any of my songs replaced? Yeah, sure. But it goes both ways. There's places where they have songs temped in and decide that they aren't gonna pay whatever licensing fees for that song. So I would have to write music that sounded somewhat similar -- at least the beats would be the same." Listen closely and you'll hear Kendall-penned knockoffs of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees," Offspring's "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy," and some Semisonic song he can't remember the name of.

While Letters to Cleo were in Los Angeles last year working on the teen flick Ten Things I Hate About You, they were approached by the producers of an in-development animated children's TV show called Molly O that follows the adventures of an eight-year-old rock star -- a Josie and the Pussycats for post-Hanson adolescents. The band were excited about the project but didn't hear back about it until this past May. "At that point I was eight months pregnant," says Letters frontwoman Kay Hanley, who gave birth to a daughter, Zoe, this past July. "They called on Friday and said they needed a song by the following Thursday. We wrote it on Saturday and Sunday, recorded it at Q Division on Monday, mixed it on Tuesday, sent it out on Wednesday, and it got there on Thursday. They were really happy with it, and that sort of solidified our place in the project."

The timing turned out to be perfect for Hanley and husband/LTC guitarist Michael Eisenstein, who, needless to say, aren't planning on touring anytime soon. "It's a neat little project we can do at home," says Hanley. "Since we're pretty good at the three-minute pop song -- that's sort of our specialty -- this isn't such a stretch. And since we're not performing the songs on the show, we don't have anything major riding on this, which is a freeing kind of thing. The scriptwriters write lyrics for about 75 percent of the songs, so it's not like we had to write 26 funny songs. We write the music and the melodies, and we can have our way with the lyrics if we want, but usually they're right on the money. Obviously, we wouldn't play stuff like this out, but there have been times -- maybe one of the last songs we wrote, `One Me to a Customer' -- where I'd think, `Hmmm . . . I'd rather save this melody for myself.' "

The producers of Molly O are in the middle of negotiations with the networks. Hanley reports that "the first season is totally done, so we're all just waiting to see what happens. And with that comes the fear that this whole thing could fall through any second now -- being familiar with the music business, you just assume something will always gets fucked up. It's a really cool show, though, and all the characters are really funny. It would be a shame if it never saw the light of day."

Although there were no Molly O tunes on tap, Hanley and Eisenstein did break out a couple of new Letters to Cleo numbers last week on the first night of their month-long Tuesday-night acoustic residency at the Kendall Café, including "Galapagos," "Happy To Be Here," and a cover of Paul Simon's "American Tune." The full band return to the stage with a November 19 show at the Paradise, and they're hoping to have a new record out by next spring.

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