The Mooney Suzuki: Substitute

How the mighty have fallenThe Mooney Suzuki at St. Andrew’s Hall

Detroit, July 8, 2004

Sammy James looked uncomfortable. Robbed of his trademark sunglasses, goosed up in an ascot and hippie paisley, and saddled with selling unheard songs to a halfhearted crowd, James was about as far from an electric sweat as a cool guy from New York could get. He was a prisoner inside his own muttonchops, and it was only the first song.

Something was damaged from the moment the Mooney Suzuki took the St. Andrews stage Thursday night. Their backline was impeccably vintage – Vox, Orange, Ampeg – but even in the raucous riffs of “Right About Now,” the visceral electricity that had once defined live Mooney was thoroughly and painfully absent. Painful for the faithful gathered, certainly. But, more distressingly, the combo seemed stunted, stripped of their vitality. Where once there was leather was now covered in pinwheels and orange; great swaths of pink and brown cloth made the quartet look like “Hullabaloo” hopefuls dressed by clueless network executives. The opening medley of rockers from People Get Ready and Electric Sweat seemed scarily forced, as if guns were trained on their groupies just offstage. “Play the show or she gets it, see?” The only comfort during what should have been amazing was that old black Mooney banner with its four upraised number ones. It was a relic now, but a heartening reminder all the same. Was there still hope for one of the greatest live acts of the past few years?

Though their acquisition by Columbia caused a needlessly pink reissue of Sweat, last July’s discovery of the Mooney’s work with the Matrix was weird and a little shocking. OF COURSE the band deserved major label recognition – they’d been road dogs for over two years, and it’s not like Estrus and Gammon are known for spectacular health care plans. But flirting with the Matrix seemed so foreign, so…complicated. It was one thing for the production team to tackle and reshape Liz Phair – she seemed to be enjoying her makeover. But as basic and revivalist as it was, the Mooney Suzuki’s garage revolution of Nuggets reference and old Who adherence was striking in its purity. It didn’t need the Matrix’ pop reload.

Still, benefit of the doubt, right? The creation of a grand album is a move right out of the rock and roll handbook that’s been the Mooney Suzuki’s career template anyway. And there’s a great concept lurking in the smog, full of Phil Spector overtones and Robert Evans decadence. Cool New York band bamboozles big label into giving them a huge budget. They hire outrageously expensive, famously controversial producer(s), known for a wildly successful signature sound. Fuckery follows. Bowls of pills, hotel room bills, and towering piles of incredible gear. Benmont Tench overdubs. Trips to The Grotto and four months of backup singer auditions, all playing out on the sinful cocaine streets of LA. When the album’s finished, it’s a misunderstood gatefold epic, a Village Green Preservation Society for the ages. But all anyone wants is something else, by the band they used to love.

Alive & Amplified, due August 10, certainly seems like that grand album. Every single song bursts with arrangements and ideas. Cuts like “Legal High,” “Primitive Condition,” and “Loose ‘N’ Juicy” blow the Mooney Suzuki shtick sky high – “Gonna blow my speakers and my mind!” – with a raft of digitally fuzzy effects and hard drive revivalism. And, it must be noted, “New York Girls” rips off The Go shamelessly. But even if the Matrix’ sonic expansion and proven knack for hook tweaking eventually scores the Mooney a ride on the cash and free pussy express, on Thursday night at St. Andrews it wasn’t helping. As hokey as the band’s overdone bravado used to be, it was a still an endearing piece of their furious live show. Now, clad awkwardly in Lenny Kravitz’ hand-me-downs, their timed leg kicks and to-the-letter Jaggerisms were stilted components in a glaring new context. The Mooney’s act had been an organic thing, built from influence but fueled by irrefutable rock power. But whether by Columbia directive or the band’s own doing, they’d become mawkish stand-ins. Who switched on Zoo TV in the garage?

The set continued, with occasional flashes of the old fury. But the smallish crowd could barely muster a few “Fuck Yeah!”s in response, and by mid-set the whole thing just seemed like the motions-going for all involved. James tried to explain how shitty playing unknown material can be, both for bands and fans. And to their credit, the Mooney only did Amplified‘s strongest songs. But new material or old, the quartet was just flat. A strange mixture of disorientation and anger had set in by the end of the set, and the infamous, now seemingly-branded amplifier climbing routine. As a result the act seemed rote, like the cabinet gymnastics were only to fulfill a subsection of their contract that demanded amp-jumping, hand-clapping, and the drummer doing the worm. The bad idea obligatory encore included a run through “School of Rock,” but on Thursday night at least, the kids from that movie had a million more watts of heart than the Mooney.

Those that can’t teach teach gym.


24 thoughts on “The Mooney Suzuki: Substitute”

  1. I saw them a couple of years ago and they tore the place down. Sammy made playing while sitting on someone else’s shoulders look effortless. They even brought out the cobra that night. What would Damo say? Say it ain’t so!

  2. They had already at least some of their mojo last summer when I saw them at the Double Door. It seemed as if they had bought into thier own myth and lost thier drive to sell their maximum R&B once they had been convinced that it had already been bought. They’ll be at the Metro soon- and I’ll be able to see them for the 4th time, second time at the Metro, where, frankly they half-assed thier set for the Hives. I hope its not as bad as it sounds, but if it is, I’ll have my Empty Bottle memories.

  3. Yeah, after hearing all the hype a couple of years ago, I was thoroughly disappointed with their set opening for the Hives. I was thinking I just caught them on an off-night, but I’m not so sure…

  4. I caught them opening up for the Strokes in Atlanta a year and a half ago or so. I thought they completely sucked, as their whole act got old really quick. I think every song sounded the same and they kept running around the stage all fucked up with this big plaster model of a thumb, doing the thumb’s up. They talked on and on about how they were going to “save rock and roll.” (yawn…heard that one before)

    Maybe i caught them on a bad night as well….but to me they seem like a bunch of dumbasses.

  5. What the fuck is wrong with my overdubs? I’m the overdub king, pudknocker! How about I overdub you! Dee boo boo dee, dee deedooleedee! In conclusion, my ballbag in your mouth as I overdub to my heart’s content.

  6. What are you guys talking about? The Mooney Suzuki claimed “we cant save rock n roll, because mooney suzuki never knew rock n roll left” now if thats not fucking rock n roll………As for the bad show, They must be going through there Oasis Be here now phase, too many drugs

  7. Now that I reread the article, and note Sammy James in paisley, I can figure out what was nagging at me about that image. Mooney Suzuki is now The Cult!

    That’s not so bad – early Cult mid-80’s is a cool thing. But it ain’t Mooney Suzuki…

  8. the only thing I have to go off of is Electric Sweat. That disc fucking sucks, and I can’t believe I allowed myself to buy into the hype. I sold that golden turd fairly quickly. The rock is generic, the live show is contrived and tired, and they suck hard.

  9. yeah, isn’t wearing black leather jackets and talking about how “rock n’ roll” you are, kind of like wearing an american flag jacket and talking about what a patriot you are? or slapping a christian fish on your bumper and showing the world what a believer you are? what kind of a man takes pains to convince the world that he is ROCK AND ROLL, MOTHERFUCKER?

    Mooney Suzuki are the Robert Tiltons of Rock and Roll.

  10. You haters can say what you want, but the one and a half Mooney Suzuki shows I saw a couple years ago were the real fucking deal. They had me believing that that was as close to an MC5 show as I’m ever going to get. They were fucking great.

  11. Right on, Jake.

    I’ve watched this comment field hate patrol develop over the last week, and it’s the lamest. The bunch of douche bag fucks that responded to this piece missed the entire point. Maybe I’m a shitty writer, but I was trying to illustrate what the Mooney Suzuki has LOST, NOT what they Never Had. Take your ass wind to the hills, dingbats. We all need reminding that rock ‘n’ roll is alive, and if you think we don’t then you’re already dead. The Mooney might have lost their way with the new album, but there’s no getting around the rock power that once was. Fuck you.


    Johnny Loftus

  12. “Take your ass wind to the hills, dingbats.”

    — Looks like “Take a flying fuck at a rolling donut” just got bumped out of the top spot! You’re a fine writer and your point was made clearly enough that I’ll closely guard my good memories of the Mooneys from exposure to the new stylee lest they get corrupted.

  13. Well, like I said, I must have caught them on a bad night….because they were awful. There was even some booing after a few of their songs. Shit was out of tune, the lead singer sounded like a screeching little girl. And seriously, telling the world that you’re going to ‘save rock and roll’ is the oldest fuckin cliche in the book.

    Maybe they were good at one point…but I saw a bunch of drugged up asswipes who played the same 3 power chords over and over.

  14. I hope this is only a temporary sidetrack for the Mooney. I’ve seen them about three times here in Toronto (at The El Mocambo and The Horseshoe) and they were the best rock ‘n’ roll band I’d ever seen. Each time, the crowd could only surrender to the experience and submit to the Mooney’s electricity. They annexed our souls, and we went willingly. In fact, there was no choice. No room for indifference. To not be drawn in was to be spiritually dead.

    Jake, your MC5 comment is dead on.

    Thing is, the last time I saw them was at a slightly larger venue (Lee’s Palace) about two years ago, and they just didn’t quite conquer the larger room as they had in the smaller venues. Still a good show, but not a dominating performance. Then again, it was a weeknight, and I wasn’t up close to the stage either, as I had been at the earlier shows, drawn to the energy like a vampire to an open vein. Maybe they just don’t translate well in the larger rooms? You gotta feel that energy up close. Gotta smell the electric sweat.

    Question is: Can the Mooney get their mojo back?

  15. You haters are a bunch of fucking idiots!! the mooney suzuki are fantastic on record and even better live. I saw them in toronto. They opened up for “the suicide girls burlesque show”. I didn’t know it was possible for a band to make me cheer so hard for an encore, while conciously knowing that hot naked women would be taking the stage soon after.

    the mooney suzuki are one of the best bands around today.

  16. So, I’m going to chime in a little late…

    When I saw these mother fuckers open up for the Donnas, it was a joke to even think that the Donnas should even come out and play.

    They were all over the place, playing in the crowd, playing on the upper level, sweating on our faces, and getting everyone there to shake the wild asses. I immediately bought their first album at the merch table and I still rock it today.

    That was the one and only time I caught them and I do have to say, Electric Sweat is like an odd charicature of People Get Ready.

    It felt like they took the best bits off the first record and tried to do it for every song. I’m not even going to bother with the new one, even if someone gave me a copy, I doubt that I’d give it half a chance.

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