Red with desire
BAND BETS ON OWN IMAGE
Rick Shaffer could have made his Faustian deal. Three years ago, his band, The Reds®, had a contract with a major record company. The singer/songwriter was quietly pulled aside by the company's top brass. Come over to our side, they suggested. Why don't you get rid of your band, soften your image, your looks, and your lyrics? We'll make you a star, they whispered, waving dollar bills in front of Shaffer's face.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars, Rick, if you'd just serve yourself up, once and for all, to the star-making machinery. "I was tempted," says Shaffer from his Philadelphia home. "Until I thought, would I be happy doing that? It took two seconds to say no."
Financially, that "no" was costly. Morally, Shaffer figures he saved his soul. For The Reds® have gone on to become one of America's leading renegade rock bands.
American radio does not take kindly to those who buck the star-making machinery. The Reds® haven't had the exposure to create a large audience outside their widening circle of cult fans.
The Philadelphia band chose to continue on its own, touring and recording without compromises for the sake of airplay, marketing albums through small, independent labels. The band's third album, Fatal Slide, has just been released in Canada through Edmonton's Stony Plain Records.
Often compared to The Clash, Shaffer begs to differ with the radical English band on content. "The Reds are not outwardly political. I'm more interested in what is happening within — the inner madness. I think that has to be together before the political thing can happen."
In the song "Fatal Slide," Shaffer tells the story of a friend beaten to death in prison — a man whose life fell apart within a month.
The empty cheeriness — the sameness of radio rock — irritates Shaffer. "Pop music doesn't want to look at the other side of life. Everybody has that side within them. It's something that should be expressed in music." The Reds have made a commitment to musical intensity rather than financial security. "Intensity is an obsession with the band. It's what we have to do. If you do what's natural for you, you're going to have your greatest success."
The group commitment has made it a strong touring act. "Surprisingly, we're well accepted in the big rock clubs. People that see us accept us. It's just getting past radio that's a problem."
Touring through Western Canada in the late summer, The Reds® will be spreading the renegade word as they have for the past three years. "We have broad support — pockets of fans in Europe, Japan and Canada. It's not broad-based, but Reds fans are fierce about the band."
Will the wear and tear of touring, and living on peanut butter sandwiches, insidiously suck away the intensity the band so highly values? "I can't see it," say Shaffer. "Miles Davis is an intense musician. Muddy Waters still plays intensely. If you set yourself up like that from the word go, and don't get distracted by dollars, your career will last."
• GRAHAM HICKS, EDMONTON SUN, EDMONTON, ONTARIO, CANADA