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Tuscadero is an indie rock band from Washington, DC, one of the most prominent on the Washington-based Teen-Beat roster. The band, which took its name from the Happy Days character Leather Tuscadero, crafted a blissful pop punk influenced by girl groups and the pop culture of its members' 1970s childhoods. Formed in late 1993, Tuscadero released several 7" singles, an album, and an EP on Teen-Beat before signing to Elektra Records in 1995.
DAME FATE (Melissa)
HOT PURSUIT (Margaret)
THE LONG GOODBYE (Melissa)
THE PROJECT (Melissa)
SPOILS OF N.W. (Phil)
Phil, Melissa, Jack, Margaret [L to R]
Photo by [unknown]
Margaret, Jack, Melissa, Phil
Photo by Will Weems
Jack, Phil, Margaret, Melissa
Photo by ?
skull and cross bones sticker
[there was also a embroidered patch with the same design]
MOUNT PLEASANT (Live)
Performed live at the 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., 1994?
Performed live on the Slumber Party television program, Arlington, Virginia, 1995?
Tuscadero was one of a legion of cutesy punk-pop bands to emerge in the mid-'90s. Taking their inspiration from '70s junk culture and sugar-coated childhoods, the Washington DC-based quartet crafted punk-pop paens to television (they took their name from Suzi Quatro's Happy Days character Leather Tuscadero), teenage crushes and problems with parents. Led by Meilssa Farris (vocals, guitar) and Margaret McCartney (vocals, guitar), Tuscadero built up a cult following in the indie-rock underground with their first two albums -- The Pink Album (1994) and Step Into My Wiggle Room (1995) -- for the DC-based TeenBeat Records. Elektra Records signed the band in 1996, and the group's major label debut was a remixed and partially re-recorded version of The Pink Album which appeared later that summer. Tuscadero's first album recorded specifically for Elektra, My Way or the Highway, was released in the spring of 1998.
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music
INTERVIEW ON THE PINK ALBUM
Tuscadero were one of D.C's most shamelessly grin-inducing groups, specializing in stupid-smart major-chord bangers and hopelessly catchy guitar pop confections. Nicking their name from Suzi Quatro's lovable delinquent Happy Days character, Leather Tuscadero, the quartet (guitarists/vocalists Melissa Farris and Margaret McCartney, bassist Phil Satlof, and drummer Jack Hornady) trafficked in a sound steeped in pop culture references and snarky sexuality, drenched in razor-sharp hooks and a yen for the girl-group vibe. Part of the area's venerable Teenbeat roster before moving to major label Elektra, Tuscadero were a crucial fixture on the District's Clinton-era musical landscape.
Tuscadero's style and approach grew from a number of disparate influences. "I personally listened to the Breeders, Black Sabbath, Matthew Sweet, Luna, and yes, Bread," Hornady told DCist. "I get a lot of grief about that. When we were on tour I listened to Bread so much that Phil Satlof took it upon himself to toss my Bread tape out the window while I was napping in the back of the van. He later fessed up when I couldn't find it. I'm sure it's still sitting there in some field in Iowa."
"We had pretty disparate musical tastes, which led to a good deal more cassette-tossing-out-of-van-windows than just Jack's Best of Bread," recalled Farris. "We all fell in love at some point with an old record we bought on tour called Countrypolitan, and used to play it in the van and sing along like an off-tune Partridge Family. Margaret and I both had a fondness for the Hair soundtrack, and there was a brief period where we had the soundtrack for a '70s Bollywood spy flick called Johny Mera Naam on constant repeat."
"I loved Unrest and Air Miami and Versus," said Satlof. "In the van we would play Pavement, Isaac Hayes, some British punk stuff like X-Ray Spex and Wire and Joy Division. Meat Puppets, Jefferson Airplane, and Love were big for us, too. And Dylan, especially Desire. We were living with parts of Chisel and Velocity Girl on Irving Street [in Mount Pleasant], so we would hear them... a lot."
Regardless of any outside influences or preferences, the Tuscadero sound ultimately boiled down to a handful of key elements, according to Farris: "Cheap, poorly tuned instruments, a dearth of earplugs, a fair number of shitty ex-boyfriends, and a combination of naivete and hubris." Despite D.C.' reputation for straight-faced, nose-to-the-grindstone post-hardcore, the playful and arch Tuscadero were able, in fairly short order, to charm their way into the hearts of many. Says Hornady, "Pretty much right off the bat we were welcomed. Shudder to Think, Edsel, and Velocity Girl had us open for them, and I remember seeing a lot of bobbing heads out there in the audience. Tuscadero was poppy but cool, and I think people in the audience dug it. The first show we ever had, Mark Robinson from Teenbeat was in the audience and I believe he asked us if we'd like to be on Teenbeat."
"Tuscadero was meant primarily as a sort of ongoing experiment to entertain the four of us rather than anything else," said Satlof, "and I think that approach allowed us to be bad and goofy and not get too serious about our position in the 'scene.' In the early days we were a great opening band. [We] played for about 30 minutes, and we would wear matching costumes and in no way impinge on the headlining act's musicianship."
"If you think of the '90s D.C. scene in terms of modern television programming," observed Farris wryly, "the rest of the bands were making the equivalent of The Wire, or Deadwood, or Mad Men, or the HBO documentaries, whereas we fell somewhere between Gossip Girl and, factoring in the costumes, Project Runway."
After releasing Tuscadero';s Mt. Pleasant and Angel in a Half Shirt 7-inches in the spring and summer of 1994, Teenbeat put out the band's first LP, The Pink Album, in the fall. A winning slab of bubblegum guitar racket, the debut LP is pure charm dressed up in singalong verses and shoutalong choruses. From first track to last, The Pink Album is bursting at the seams with trebly guitar crunch, insistent vocal melodies, and punchy rhythmic push, the band's energy and good vibes shining through time and again. This is an album of highlights: the chugging neighborhood anthem "Mt. Pleasant" ("Everybody's living like they should/ I wouldn't leave it even if I could!"); "Nancy Drew," a wounded, bittersweet ode to the putting away of childish things; the thrilling surge of "Heat Lightning," the breezy kink of "Latex Dominatrix," the swaggering, sorta-sinister "Love Sick." Throughout, Farris's and McCartney's voices cajole and seduce and mock, as the guitars and drums and bass mix together with just the right amount of give and take.
In fact, The Pink Album was so nice it was recorded thrice: twice for Teenbeat in 1994, and again for Elektra in 1996.
The initial Teenbeat recording session yielded less-than-stellar results, recalled Satlof. "We went into the studio in the basement of a house in Arlington called Evil Genius with Rob Christiansen from Eggs doing the engineering. Mark [Robinson], Rob, and we 'produced,' but it was really just laying down songs and looking for affirmation that we did our best or could do better. Then we mixed it and pressed it. And hated it. I know Mark pressed a few thousand CDs and a few hundred LPs, and we basically begged him to junk them, which he did."
After re-working most of the songs at Inner Ear with Geoff Turner, the band felt better about the material. "We released the album with an unauthorized photo of Jason Priestly - Beverly Hills 90210 was a big party night for us at the time. It seemed like all of Mount Pleasant would crowd around Melissa's TV for it," remembers Satlof.
But it wasn't long before the major labels began showing interest in Tuscadero. In fact, according to Satlof, the majors came calling almost immediately, a symptom of the post-Nevermind 1990s when many a small band was seen as a potential Next Big Thing. Of course, the songs also had something to do with it.
"Shudder to Think more than anyone was how we got major label interest," Satlof said. "They promoted us to their A&R guy Michael Goldstone, and we didn't even have so much as a cassette tape of a practice session at that point! We sent him exactly that, recorded on a boombox. Apparently he heard something, so he took the train down and watched us practice in Steve Raskin's basement on Lanier Place.... He then got us a gig at CBGB and my brother, who is a publicist, got the fact that he set up the show (our seventh show ever) printed in a record industry magazine, and from that moment on the phone kept ringing until we were signed. This is literally about 7 months after our first practice."
By 1996, Elektra was ready to add the band to its roster. And once again, the band headed into the studio with The Pink Album.
"They wanted to release something right away, but we had just done our Step Into My Wiggle Room EP for Teenbeat and didn't have enough new stuff to do a full length," explained Satlof. "Plus we felt that we could do still more justice to the songs on The Pink Album. So in early '96 we re-recorded about half the songs with a guy named Mark Waterman who had just produced Elastica's [eponymous debut] album. This was done in NYC at Sears Sound, which was an amazing experience. We also did some tracking and mixing at Electric Lady Land and bunch of tracking at Omega in Rockville. This ended up being the final version of The Pink Album, minus the unauthorized Jason Priestly pic, which had been replaced by [a photograph of] our friend Bronson Picket, who later went on to be on [the soap opera] Another World."
"I remember having to record the 'Heat Lightning' drum tracks like 45 times until I got it right," Hornady said about the New York sessions. "Mostly, though, there was a lot of sitting around in the studio."
Despite any difficulties, Farris looks back at The Pink Album recording sessions fondly. "Recording The Pink Album was great, every single time we did it. Our approach to the studio was to play first, ask questions later. And later. And later still."
"I have the Elektra and the Teenbeat version of the albums. When I put it on for friends or family I usually play the Elektra version and it sounds good," says Satlof. "I especially like 'Game Song,' which we did like 50 takes of, and 'Latex Dominatrix,' which has Barbie keyboards and theremin." As for the original Teenbeat recording, "I actually have come to appreciate the rawness and innocence of it. It does give some of the songs a little more breathing room and elasticity that perhaps they did deserve," he said.
Tuscadero were a welcome dose of levity in what could occasionally be a pretty heavy local scene, bringing an infectious humor and joy into their shows and records. Fearlessly unselfconscious, the four-piece turned amateurism to their advantage, translating shaky chops into a sense of live-wire, anything-can-happen spontaneity. The Pink Album is a fitting testament to the band's undeniable charms.
And to Farris, at least, Tuscadero's legacy is clear. "Well, not to take too much credit here, but I have to think that we lowered the bar a little, not just for songwriting, but for live performance, showmanship, and recording, as well. Future generations of pop-punk stylists with little to no training or ability: You're welcome."
- Brandon Gentry, DCist