The '80s begat New Wave and hip-hop. But the era also produced the Paisley Underground, a predecessor of sorts to Americana in that its jangle pop practitioners borrowed from ‘60s groups such as Love and the Byrds to produce a garage rock offshoot with a country bent.
Singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet, who brings his current group, the Mission Express, to town to play the Beachland at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, fondly recalls those halcyon days. At the time, he played with Green on Red, a grunge-y garage rock act that moved from Tucson to California in the '80s with the hopes of landing a major label deal.
“Well, when I joined Green on Red they had a rental van, and I think they had a gas card from the label,” Prophet says in a recent phone interview. “Maybe I’m imagining that. Either way, for the time, that was pretty bourgeois. The money hadn’t really come to town yet. I guess people call that the college rock days. There was a community of people out there playing. My current British manager loves to tell the story of how he booked [singer-guitarist] Alex Chilton in Eugene, Oregon for $150. We were booked by the same agent, and there was a kind of a circuit. It was a small world. We recorded several records under the radar. It was a great American joyride.”
Prophet admits he’s not sure if the term alt-country had yet been coined but says that the comparisons between Green on Red and Neil Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival were fair.
“We were pretty limited musically,” he says. “We knew a handful of cowboy chords and had a lot of attitude. By the time hardcore punk came around, it was hard for me to embrace Bad Brains, I had already heard Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and Bowie’s Hunky Dory
. It was hard for me to throw away my Jimi Hendrix albums.”
Shortly before Green on Red called it quits in 1992, Prophet embarked on a solo career. He also built his resume by working with artists such as Kelley Stoltz, Bob Neuwirth, Kelly Willis, Aimee Mann, Warren Zevon, Jonathan Richman, Lucinda Williams and Cake. All the while, he continued to release solo albums and collaborative efforts.
When we ask Prophet what it’s been like to sustain a successful solo career for the past 25 or so years, he simply laughs.
“Well, gosh, I don’t even know if I have a career,” he says. “I’m still trying to break into the music business. The thing that’s made me the most happy is writing songs and wrestling them to the ground and trying to get them to behave and making records. That’s what I’ve done from record to record. I can’t say there’s been any great plan. If I wake up and still like what I do, I consider that a blessing. I don’t want to come off as jaded. I still get excited about it. When we go on the road and go from town to town, people are generally happy to see me. After all the energy that goes into making a record, going on tour is like a vacation.”
For his latest effort, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins
, Prophet says he tried to create what he calls “California noir.” The title track that kicks off the album features Kinks-like vocals and twangy guitars as Prophet references the late rock musician's life and mysterious death in 1966.
“[The title track] just kind of wrote itself,” says Prophet. “I was with a friend of mine, and we were in my man cave, and we were listening to a Bobby Fuller record, and the record was filling up the room. I think I was the one who shouted out the lyrics. We connected the dots and threw the song in a pile. When we came back to it later, [Fuller] unlocked the record. In many ways, I relate to Bobby Fuller. He’s a guy who was totally out of time. I feel like I’ve always been out of time with what’s happening.”
Another album highlight, “Bad Year for Rock and Roll,” relies upon a Tom Petty-like chord progression as Prophet makes reference to the recent death of David Bowie, remarking that there's now "one more star in the heavens now."
"A lot of people take away that part about David Bowie and think the song is about the heroes we lost in 2016," he says. "I just tend to go along with that. Our course, we lost a lot of heroes with Merle Haggard, Muhammad Ali and Leonard Cohen. We lost a lot of heroes in 2016, but the song is also written in a year with the DNA of the presidential campaign or Brexit. The song grew out of all of those threads and became an anthem for anyone who’s had a bad year."
The bluesy “Coming Out in Code” has a hard rock edge that allows Prophet to show off his skills on the six-string.
"Well, the arrangement has a little bit of a nod to Charlie Musslewhite and those great ’60s white blues records," he says of the track. "I think it represents the Mission Express. It sounds like our band. Everyone is doing their own thing, and it all fits together like a good clock."
Prophet says a "good chunk" of the new album will find its way into the current tour's sets, which will also include a few surprises.
"We’ll mix the setlist up with old favorites," he says. "I like to tell people that you also never know what songs we might pick up at the dry cleaners on the way to the airport."
Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, Ray Flanagan & The Authorities, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15 ADV, $18 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.