Lizard Kings

You never know. To some the circus is raw-sawdust, peanut-shell memories of great hilarity and pure awe. To others it is an inexcusable example of how animals are tortured and individuals humiliated for the sake of entertainment. That's the subjective. Objectively, a circus is chaotic, three rings of activity, acrobats flying, clowns tumbling, monkeys and elephants out of their element, none of it making any logical sense, all of it making perfect sense if you sort it out.

Screaming Iguanas of Love front man Greg Reinel is not talking about that kind of circus, though. "We're leery of a major-label deal," he says. "People call it a business, we call it a circus. We wanted a major-label deal and everything, but the more I hear and the more I see, the less enthused I am about it." That's okay, because the American music machine could use bands like Reinel's more than the Iguanas need fat financing in order to do what they do so well.

Reinel and his cohorts, David (drums) and J.T. (bass) Burley, have been scaling the ladder to sonic bliss since early 1987, disregarding almost everything except their music. "We'd like to make a living at this," Reinel says. "But we're not looking for stardom. We're looking for respect, more than anything else, from the musical community. It's a cliche, I know, but music is the important thing. We don't hype ourselves a lot, except maybe for the name we chose. We just worry about what we're going to play."

The Iguanas play an intentionally derivative, often compelling, sometimes funny brand of rock and roll that oozes melodies, sharp and deep hooks, and shimmering harmonies. Particularly in pieces such as "Hole in My Sole/ Girlstuff," Reinel outWesterbergs Paul Westerberg, and the group achieves instrumental mayhem of a logical, sensible type (once you sort it out). Not to compare them, but it's a fact that the Iguanas are heirs to the cool-underground sounds of royal acts such as Mary My Hope, the Buck Pets, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and similar benchmark outfits of the Eighties. They also are a credit to rockabilly and other styles, including oldies, as in the soul-stirring "Stuck to You," parts of which, to my ear anyway, borrow from Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me." Of course, the band is probably not aware of this. "We were going for a kind of `Revolution' feel," David Burley says. "We wanted that grungy guitar. I don't know. It's possible Greg heard some Lesley Gore. Everything goes around, and you can compare anything." The motive is all, and as Reinel points out, "Music is in a sad state when the schlock from then sounds better than the good stuff out now. I mean, `Yummy Yummy Yummy' blows away anything on the radio right now." He's right, you know.

That's half the fun of the Iguanas - pretending you know where they get some of this stuff they deliver so forcefully. "We admit we steal ideas," Reinel notes. "Just like everybody steals ideas. Except we admit it."

"Stuck to You," whatever its inspiration, kills restively, the savage roar of rock's abandon unbound in a deftly musical way, pure fury that makes as much sense as necessary. If I had to choose a single Screaming song to submit as evidence that this is one hell of band, though, it would be "Madison," an instrumental case. The guitar harmonics are supreme, the cymbal colorings a rainbow, the purring bass masterful. "It's the jazziest thing we did," says drummer David Burley. "It was written for Greg's daughter - her name is Madison - as a lullaby. It has a nice, easy, jazzy feel, and we like instrumentals. My brother and I come from a jazz background, we started with that, so we put that in when we can."

I've been listening to these and other tunes from the Wild, Wild, Wild on CD through Koss headphones, and I can tell you the whole thing sounds great. Note that, God bless 'em, the Iguanas and their label, Naked Language, a subsidiary of Ichiban Records, also issued Wild in cassette and vinyl - yes, vinyl - configurations. "The label wanted to do it that way, too," Burley says. "They went with vinyl for European distribution, but you can get it here. Greg is a big vinyl nut, he doesn't want to let go of the vintage vinyl stuff. I like the size and the art, it shows you off so much better, but for sound quality you can't beat the CD, it's so much cleaner."

The format is significant in that sonic perfection is every musician's dream; some get close, some don't even bother trying. Give these guys their Grammy, or whatever it is one uses to measure a recording's sound quality, and while you're at it, give something, like credit, to Bob Greenlee.

Greenlee has already achieved admiration and respect for his work as a producer, mostly in the blues realm. The Iguanas, who are based in Melbourne, Florida, were prepared to release Wild on their own. They decided to record it at Greenlee's King Snake studio, and during a phone chat, Reinel says he and Greenlee hit it off. "He said, `I'm going to put you in here, and we're going to shop it.' He let us be ourselves, offered good criticism without trying to change us. That was important. And he's in our own back yard, which is nice, too." It worked out so well - both on the personal level and in the recorded results - that the Screamers and Greenlee decided to cut a second album together, one which, Reinel says, "is louder. It goes all the way to eleven."

The first album did well enough, obviously, to facilitate a follow-up, which, Reinel promises, "will feature a cover that was shot at a strip club" and may be available as soon as late May or early June. Titled Glad You Weren't There, the long player's first single will be on green vinyl, and is called "Nitro Burning Funny Cars," backed with two non-LP rockabilly tunes cut live in the studio.

Meanwhile the band continues to divert itself and its fans with Reinel's series of comic books (he possesses a natural ability to draw, but dislikes painting and other forms due to the patience required), the group's newsletters (Reinel says the propaganda is slapstick, not in a Dead Milkmen sense, but more like Letterman, with the idea being, "If you don't like us, we don't care"), and constant touring (they've been rambling since day one, but have recently moved up to an Aerostar van, a sure sign of success).

Still, all the branching out remains secondary to the Iguanas' essential purpose. Maybe their secret lies in the song "Our Gang," a sort of band anthem that avoids the self-indulgence of, say, Infectious Grooves' "Infectious Grooves" and the trite specificness of, say, Too Much Joy's "Theme Song." The Iguanas' "Our Gang" could be the band's bio-as-anthem, or it could be something more. That's up to you.

What's up to the band is how they live within the context of their art. Success is measured many ways. "It's all such a gamble, the best thing is not to worry about it," Reinel says. "Bands worry about success instead of music. I say music first; they'll come to you. Our fan mail keeps increasing. I am as happy as one could be at this stage of the circus.

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Greg Baker