FOREWORD: Reigning Sound leader, Greg Cartwright, helped keep garage rock simmering in the early ‘90s (with Memphis-based bands the Oblivians and Compulsive Gamblers) before the whole Detroit scene, led by the White Stripes, took hold. During ’04, I spoke to Cartwright via the phone before seeing his band tear up Maxwells in Hoboken a month hence. Good to see he’s still at it, releasing ‘05s Home For Orphans, several live discs, and ‘09s as-yet unheard Love & Curses under the Reigning Sound moniker. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Oft times the most respected artists don’t get the incipient credibility truly deserved, but stick around living hand-to-mouth tryingly awaiting appropriate recognition. Though cordial garage rock titan Greg Cartwright found cult-like success leading Memphis-based Gospel-induced punks the Oblivians, the singer-guitarist broke up the band following a decade of unjust obscurity. Obsessed with the early punk mayhem of the Ramones, Saints, and DMZ as well as scruffy ‘60s one-hit-wonders, the Oblivians unwittingly helped revitalize subterraneous interest in primitive roots-rock rumbling.
By the late ‘90s, when compromised nu-garage stylists watered down the manic energy his mentors propagated, Cartwright decided time was right to throw a curveball, cooling his engines enough to unload 2001’s ballad-packed turnabout, Breakup Breakdown, under the guise of Reigning Sound. After that low-key debut re-invigorated the noble Tennessean, mixing Byrds-ian Country-rock with Lee Hazelwood’s rural Western slack, Sir Douglas Quintet’s Tex Mex psychedelia leanings, and Skip Spence’s obtuse lamentations, Reigning Sound then concentrated on re-focusing attention towards the loud rudimentary tumult the Oblivians once thrived upon.
The result, ‘02’s High School Time Bomb, pitted scrappy axe-wielding scrums against thoughtful toned down respites. Jazz standard “Stormy Weather” underwent a spastic reconstruction hearkening to shouted Beatles workouts and the engine-riffed “Straight Shooter” summoned blues-y Rolling Stones fare, countering the earnest sentimentality of organ-droned “Wait And See” and impulsive slow-grooved “I Don’t Know How To Tell You.”
Now living in the laid-back mountainous community of Asheville, North Carolina, with wife, Esther Oliver, and three kids, Cartwright continues to explore vintage Anglophile territory. Touring twice with raucous Swedish magnates, the Hives, who’ve become quick friends, Reigning Sound found acceptance amongst a larger fan base readied for ‘04s astonishing accomplishment, Too Much Guitar.
Getting an authentic analog studio resonance from a friends’ digital recorder, Too Much Guitar neatly captures all the distortion and saturation essential to primal white trash rock. Again backed by nimble bassist Jeremy Scott and savage drummer Greg Roberson, Cartwright incessantly spews defiant grit.
On the steamy screamer “We Repel Each Other,” Cartwright brings chaotic lo-fi looseness to a desperate ramshackle love-spurned declaration ‘60s denizens such as the Mojo Men and Seeds would relish. He swoons through the Carpetbaggers lost ‘60s classic, “Let Yourself Go,” adding explosive psychedelic sonics reminiscent of the Electric Prunes. The catchy, quick-paced “Your Love Is A Fine Thing” revives R & B-infatuated Brit-rock tenacity and “The Twist” composer Hank Ballard’s soulful scamper “Get It” receives an early Fab Four slash ‘n’ burn treatment. A sturdy “You Really Got Me” guitar lock-groove cuts across Isaac Hayes-David Porter’s Stax-waxed “You Got Me Hummin’.” Famed producer-composer-pianist Jim Dickinson’s “Uptight Tonight” procures a resolute honky tonk masquerade. And “Excedrin Headache #265,” with its brain-draining strain, fits right next to the Rolling Stones mind-bending tremolo-powered spellbinder “19th Nervous Breakdown.” So take your fast acting “Medication” pronto and get hip to Reigning Sound now!
As a sidebar, before forming the Oblivians, Cartwright teamed with band mate Jack Yarber for three bombastic singles as the Compulsive Gamblers. He also owned a cool Memphis record store during the ‘90s. During downtime, Cartwright strums guitar for local doo-wop group, the Dorchesters.
Interestingly, Reigning Sound’s debut relied on poignant ballads instead of ballistic scramblers.
GREG CARTWRIGHT: The band I had before, the Oblivians, were mainly punk. I just got burned out doing lots of rockers – high-octane stuff. I wanted to do something more moodier that way everything fits. You don’t have to worry about the dynamic if this ballad’s gonna go with this rocker. It worked well. Mostly originals.
How ‘bout the Compulsive Gamblers?
GREG: They pre-dated the Oblivians. Jack and I had the Gamblers in the late ‘80s, releasing a few singles. That was a more R & B organ, fiddle, saxophone-filled Stones-y bar band with weird elements. After the breakup someone offered to put out unreleased tracks, Gambling Days Are Over. Then, when the Oblivians broke up, Jack and I did two Gamblers albums.
Living in Memphis must’ve been inspiring. Soul and Country legends dot that renowned Mississippi River hotbed.
GREG: You pick up things quick. You hear bands play when you’re younger and emulate them.
Jim Dickinson told me there’s something in the Memphis air.
GREG: (laughter) Yellow fever! Maybe mosquitoes.
How’d you initially get musically inspired?
GREG: My dad was a record collector who grew up listening to a broad spectrum of ‘50s/’60s rock, bluegrass, Country – mostly good white music – rockabilly, British Invasion, Harry Nilsson. That mixed with the stuff I heard on oldies stations influenced me. Then, I spent time with my grandmother, who was a heavy-duty yardsaler. So every weekend the first five waking hours I worked hard buying records. I’ve sold stuff I regret over the years.
How has the garage scene changed?
GREG: The Lyres and Romantics, by the ‘90s, went way underground. In the early ‘90s, Monomen were doing Lyres gigs. But it was a different scene from the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s first wave of neuvo-garage with Chesterfield Kings and Fleshtones happening. That stuff lost its momentum. In the early ‘90s, a whole different generation popped up with a similar synthesis, but different group of people. There was more of a receptive audience. CD’s came along and every type of music became available to everybody. In the early ‘80s, you were dealing with a handful of guys. We did everything for a small amount of fans. Memphis had Tav Falco, but outside of a limited group of people, the audience wasn’t big. Down the road, people began digging original ‘50s/’60s rock. Common sense says there’s gonna be more people knowing what’s going on. The Gories, Subsonic, Thee Headcoats, and Woggles – gobs of bands we played with were running the same circuit as us. Everyone did something a little different. But by the late ‘90s, that’d gotten homogenized. We weren’t strictly a retro band and neither were the bands we played with. Then lots of people got dressed up. The music isn’t 100% dead-on, but they’re more into image. It became a cartoon of itself. That’s when we stopped the Oblivians and wanted to do something else.
As Greg Oblivian and the Tip-Tops, you made one recording with side 1 featuring the prolonged “Self-Indulgent Asshole.”
GREG: That was a live show recording, a noise freak-out with screaming and a drum machine, as homage to Suicide. At the time, people hated it. The flip is li’l rock songs I wrote. The band included my wife Esther (drums) and anyone else. She had New York City’s Lamplighter label and released Prissteens and Mick Collins singles. We played ‘round town, then folded.
You’ve pulled off many great cover versions over the years.
GREG: I’m a record geek, so I love sitting around listening to music. But only 10% of the records you play you could really pull off or add something worthy to. I don’t want to mimic the original, but instead bring something new to it.
I’ve read how the Drifters’ prime vocalist Clyde Mc Phatter intrigued you. But who’s Nolan Strong?
GREG: He led the Diablos from Detroit in the ‘60s. He’s a strong influence. One of the greatest tenors I ever heard, in range with Smokey Robinson. When he sings, he sends shivers down your spine.
Who were the Carpetbaggers? You cover them on Too Much Guitar.
GREG: I found my first copy of their song, “Let Yourself Go,” a long time ago on the defunct LTD label from Atlanta. I traded it to a friend, then looked for years for a copy. I found one at a yardsale and got another at my record store. It was probably a regional ’66 Memphis hit. (Novelty singer) Ray Stevens produced.
“Medication” seems influenced by pre-punk legends the New York Dolls and Stiff Little Fingers.
GREG: Sure. Those first wave snotty punks were into ‘60s stuff as well – “Substitute” by The Who. The reason I liked punk right off the bat was because it reminded me of the stuff I listened to on the radio as a kid and connected with. But I never got into hardcore. It didn’t seem redeemable and was just fast and obnoxious. However, the Misfits sounded like ‘50s rock, only more aggressive. Their hooks I could relate to.
What are some of your favorite British Invasion recordings?
GREG: The Rolling Stones’ “Parachute Woman” from Beggars Banquet; the Kinks Something Else; Beatles “Don’t Bother Me,” written by George Harrison for Meet the Beatles; and The Who single “Pictures Of Lily.”