It's a scenario perfectly suited to Celebrity Deathmatch, MTV's blood-and-clay tribute to the war between the stars. In one corner would stand the men of REO Speedwagon, an arena-rock act that made the Eighties sound even worse than they would have otherwise with gruesome hits like "Keep on Loving You." And on the other side of the ring? REO Speedealer, a Texas quartet with a fondness for trucker caps, guitar noise and names that make fun of arena-rock acts.
Had such a battle of the bands actually taken place, the Speedealer roughnecks undoubtedly would have made the twerps behind "Can't Fight the Feeling" realize that they shouldn't have tried to fight anything else, either. But unfortunately, the confrontation took place in real life--and REO Speedealer wound up the loser.
In the beginning, REO Speedealer bassist Hot Rod Skelton was confident that Kevin Cronin and the others riding REO Speedwagon would never even notice the existence of his group. "I figured that if we were just a shmuck punk-rock band, they wouldn't care," he says. But something unexpected happened: Both REO Speedealer's audience and its pile of press clippings began to grow. Then, last June, the hammer came down. Just as Royalty Records was in the process of shipping REO Speedealer, the act's second full-length, to stores around the country, representatives of the label received a cease-and-desist letter from REO Speedwagon's attorneys. According to Skelton, "If we didn't change our name, they were going to make us eat 5,000 CDs, which an indie label is not prepared to do."
As a result, REO Speedealer is simply Speedealer now--and that's not the only transition the group has undergone. Over the years, Skelton and guitarist/frontman Jeff Hirsberg have gone through an incredible number of drummers and second guitarists. "Everybody thinks our stuff is easy to play," Skelton says, "but when you get down to it, there is a physicality to it, and Jeff and I are pretty particular." Fortunately, two new Speedealers--guitarist Eric Schmidt and drummer Harden Harrison--are on board, and Skelton feels that they're far better than any of the previous models. "They bring a lot more to the table. We just have more hands--a couple of more cooks in the kitchen."
Anyone hooked on Speedealer will be thrilled by this news: After all, the band sounded great even when Skelton and Hirsberg weren't satisfied with their collaborators. Imagine Lemmy playing guitar in the back of a monster truck driven by Angus Young to a crowd fueled by crystal meth and Budweiser and you'll have a sense of the vibe emitted by Speedealer's latest album. On it, the group bludgeons listeners with fifteen speed-metal tracks that clock in at slightly under twenty minutes total. "If you can make the point in a certain amount of time, it really doesn't matter," Skelton says. "Like Neil Diamond: A whole bunch of his hits are, like, two minutes long."
Of course, Diamond doesn't have a song called "Double Clutchin' Finger Fuckin'"--a highlight of the album now known as Speedealer. Skelton believes such monikers are as responsible for stores like Musicland pulling the band's records from its shelves as is the Speedealer moniker itself. "I mean, when you've got song titles like 'Pig Fucker'--well, people don't want little kids seeing it." Still, the success of Nashville Pussy, a Westword profile subject ("Pussy Whipped," May 21, 1998) that wound up as a nominee at this year's Grammy Awards, makes Skelton think that lascivious guitar rock is making a comeback.
"The kind of press that this music is getting wouldn't have happened two years ago," he insists. "And the idea of a band like us getting nominated for a Grammy would have been ridiculous. I mean, it's actually kind of cool."
The outfit got its start in 1992, when Skelton and Hirsberg were both students at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Four years later, Speedealer issued its debut album on Spanish Fly, an imprint run by Babes in Toyland drumer Lori Barbero. The disc turned heads, as did live shows sparked by what Skelton says is the Speedealer approach: "Get in, pound 'em and knock 'em down before they have a chance to get bored."
Because fans often get as amped-up as the musicians, the unexpected occurs regularly at Speedealer gigs. A prime example was a nightmarish show at Austin's aptly named Bates Motel.
"This goat-roper girl comes up, and she's kind of heckling us because our old guitarist had a Hank Williams Jr. shirt on," Skelton recalls. "She jumped on stage and punched him, so he grabs her. Then her boyfriend, big cowboy Tex, comes up, and our guitarist goes, 'You better get your mom off the stage.' And then our other old guitarist, James, who looks like a midget El Duce [of the Mentors], sees this chick yakking and says, 'Y'all need to get out of here right now, because we got a lot of people right here.' She says, 'Fuck you, I paid five dollars,' and he says, 'Well, I just paid five dollars to get into your mom.' And then, of course, it got ugly." The police eventually arrived and shooed the woman and her boyfriend away--but before the evening was done, the cowboy returned. "I'll tell you how crazy this motherfucker was," Skelton goes on. "We were loading our gear, and we're backing out of the alley, and this son of a bitch came back by himself, looking for us. Obviously he was either real loaded or he was packing. Luckily, he didn't see us, and we ended up getting out of there."
Because other road escapades have been just as dicey, Skelton has no sympathy for upstart bands whose members whine about getting dropped from major labels even though they never had to pay their dues. "They have no idea what it takes because they haven't done it," he says. "We just got back from a tour in Canada, and we were laying in the snow, three feet of snow, working on the van. And when we finally got it going, we were driving on the freeway on ice, knowing we could die any second. And we had no heat in the van; it was fifteen below zero. We slid into the show about 12:45--but luckily, the place was packed when we got there, and the people went nuts.
"We want to play for a living," he adds. "I like touring and staying gone all the time. It's strange when you get to the point where you go to a city and it's like going home. You see a lot of the same people, you go to the same pawnshops. The surroundings are familiar to you."
That may not be the case for much longer: As Speedealer's profile has risen, the quality of its gigs has improved. (The band is set to tour with Zeke and L7 in the coming months and will play several festival dates in Europe.) But no matter how good things get, Skelton doesn't see his motivation changing. "This is what I do. It's what I enjoy, and it's my job--and I'll be dipped in shit if anyone's going to keep me from doing it."
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That includes REO Speedwagon. Skelton and company did get a small measure of revenge against their nemesis at a recent show in Los Angeles. There, a friend of Kevin Cronin's son saw the band's shirts, emblazoned with a not-exactly-subtle satire of REO Speedwagon's logo, and fell instantly in love. "He bought one for Cronin's son," Skelton says with a laugh.
Maybe his dad would like one, too--but probably not.
Zeke, Speedealer and Fast Action Revolver. 9 p.m. Friday, March 26, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $10, 303-572-0822.