Rock 'N Roll Case Study: TOO MUCH JOY
But they like to make fun of people who do. If you don't think that's a clever and witty thing for a rock band to do, then maybe you shouldn't read this article. Or maybe you should, it usually takes more than one try to "get" Too Much Joy. Because you will be a happy person if you allow Too Much Joy into your life. They are a band for "everyman", if everyman likes to drink a lot of ice cold, Budweiser. (I would really like to know who drank more Bud, Too Much Joy or Gang Green but I guess the New England Journal Of Medicine won't be conducting a study anytime soon.)
When my good friend Tony first played me Too Much Joy's Cereal Killers, I thought it kind of sucked. The singer had about as much melodic sense as a garbage can. The music seemed OK, although I thought it was odd that their drummer was also a NYC cop. But then I gave it a second listen and it all started to sink in. That was the point-dummy. I also saw the video for "Long Haired Guys From England" and it all made sense. I'm man enough to admit it now. I made a terrible mistake. Please forgive me. I have erred before- I once thought The Smiths were the worst band in the world. That is until my other musical buddy Colin played "Unhappy Birthday" and "Girlfriend In A Coma" 100 times a night in high school.
Too Much Joy often seems to garner the "urban legend" factor a lot of times with their image and their history. But since these famous "stories" sometimes overshadow the music; let's get them out of the way. Some music fans may have heard these and have not even heard a lick of their music-which is pretty sad. But recent events have rectified some of this situation. There's the story that Bozo The Clown sued them for using a sample of him speaking on one of their records. The actual quote was "And then I found something in one of my pockets. It was about as big as your shoe, but it was shaped like a rocket." Somehow this is funny and oddly disturbing at the same time. Or the time that they received signed letters from Newt Gingrich saying he was a fan. Or probably the most well-known is when they went down to Florida to play 2 Live Crew songs to protest the recent arrest of Luke Campbell for obscenity charges. All the band members (except Tommy-who didn't sing) were promptly arrested after the set. But Too Much Joy felt that they had to do this-to fight the chilling effects that censorship has on the arts and entertainment industry. (These stories can be read in much more detail on the excellent fan site-The Joybuzzer).
But I have my own Too Much Joy story. One that has remained in the vaults-until now. July 11, 1993. A local alternative radio station was sponsoring an all day concert. It was out in a big field in Maryland, so my friend Tony and I decided to attend since I had also heisted the essential "backstage passes". The line-up featured The Soup Dragons, The Charlatans UK, They Might Be Giants, The Ocean Blue, Catherine Wheel, The Wolfgang Press, Manifesto, Graham Parker, and of course Too Much Joy. (I bet you haven't heard some of those names in awhile).
We got their early-around 10:30 AM. We immediately started in on the keg because, it was really hot out, OK? We basically talked to almost all of the musicians on the bill. They Might Be Giants, Ocean Blue and Wolfgang Press-all nice guys. Charlatans and Soup Dragons-snotty, aloof English guys. Rob Dickinson of Catherine Wheel was gracious enough to talk to us about music for quite awhile. Until he literally had to say (put English accent here) "It was very nice talking to you, but I really MUST go now."
But the coolest guy we met that day was Sandy Smallens-bassist of Too Much Joy. Even though by this time we had had quite a few cold beverages, we still had an excellent conversation. We talked about touring, their records, how to "make it" in music (we were both in a band together at that time) etc. But suddenly someone else in backstage tent area casually mentioned that the keg was kicked. Sandy politely said-"Guys, I'll be right back." After conferring with a few important parties-he was off. Sandy quickly commandeered a stray golf cart that someone had stupidly left backstage with the keys in it. He proceeded to drive it across the field to a large truck. He gingerly hoisted a fresh keg into the cart and drove it back into the backstage tent area. Then, in what seemed like only a few seconds, he had expertly tapped the new keg (rock stars have skills too) and the crowd was again at ease. Sandy casually came back to where we standing, and said "So anyway…" We were speechless. I had never seen such a brilliant display of keeping your buzz alive. A few minutes later, we said our goodbyes and wished him well with his set later that day. Tony then turned to me and said-"now that's how a bassist in a rock band should act!" I humbly agreed and vowed to wear more black shirts with black shorts and to drink more Budweiser. Of course, they were great live that day. It was also great when they dedicated "Long Haired Guys From England" to some of the aloof UK bands that were playing on the bill that day. Truly classic.
"There's a band in the studio right next to us/we think that their brains are filled with pus/we wish that they'd go home on a bus/and take their drum machine"-"Drum Machine"
But besides all the great stories, there was also great music. Too Much Joy have a lot of great songs. Sometimes they make you laugh, sometimes they make you think. These random musings may even occur within the same song. Once you realize that this is the point of life as well, then things should proceed quite nicely from there.
The band started around 1986 in Scarsdale, NY. Jay Blumenfield (guitar), Tommy Vinton (drums), and Sandy Smallens got together in high school to play Clash covers. Tim Quirk kept coming by rehearsals so he was made into the "lead singer". "Singing" here applied very loosely-there was a lot more "speaking" then 'singing" when they first started out. Their first record was recorded during breaks from college. Green Eggs and Crack was put out by the band in 1987. With songs like "Grandma Went To Athens, Once", "Someone Else's Jacket" and "The Otter Song", you knew you were in for something different. "Don Quixote" is probably also the only song to name-check Al Pachino and Jesus Christ in the same tune. But the songs took some of their influences like The Clash and Lou Reed and threw them in the mix. But the end result was still Too Much Joy-and a great debut that came out of nowhere. The record was initially released in only a 1000 press run by the band. It was recently re-issued by Sugar Fix Recordings in 1997 on CD.
Son Of Sam I Am was released by Alias Records in 1989. It featured odes to two of their favorite bands-"Hugo!" about the drummer from Gang Of Four and "If I Was A Mekon." The Mekons were a band with quite a few members, as I recall. A year later Giant Records (a subsidiary of big, bad Warner Bros.) re-released the record with some additional tracks including a cover of Terry Jacks' "A Season In the Sun". But this record is most renowned for having the TMJ crowd pleasers-"Making Fun Of Bums" and "That's A Lie". "That A Lie" was always fun live. I saw a couple Too Much Joy shows in the mid to late 1990's (after my first one) - at the long gone Bayou in Washington D.C. DC was a stronghold for the band and this song was always featured in the audience participation section of the show.
"I am invincible/I have no fear/I am benevolent/I am the King Of Beers"-King Of Beers
1991 saw the release of what may have been Too Much Joy's most commercial record, but it still carried their smart ass attitude with it. Cereal Killers was produced by Paul Fox (XTC), and featured some of the band's most popular songs. "Long Haired Guys From England", "Crush Story", and "Theme Song". But who else would also add a song about a native American Indian-("Gramatan") onto the record? I mean, would Celine Dion tackle this subject? I don't think so. This record also featured a couple videos that sometimes got played really late at night. If I had to guess, I would say that Cereal Killers was Too Much Joy's best seller. But don't quote me on that.
Mutiny swabbed our decks in 1992. It featured a really kick ass cover-and some good songs too. "Donna Everywhere" and "What It Is" were some of the highlights, but the whole record rocked. It was produced by William Wittman, who had previously added a shiny veneer to records from Cyndi Lauper and The Hooters. Too Much Joy would somehow convince William to give up his cushy gig playing with Cyndi and play bass for them beginning in 1994. Original bassist Sandy Smallens had decided to retire. (Where are you now Sandy?)
Too Much Joy offered up …Finally in 1996. They were back on another Warner Bros offshoot-Discovery Music. The first to feature William on bass and backing vocals (Tim always appreciates extra backing vocals), it had songs like "I Will", 'The Kids Don't Understand" and even a cover of Billy Bragg's "A New England" to boot. A solid release that is sometimes overlooked by certain fans.
"I took out my own stitches/and I think I did it right/that's $45 more dollars/ I can go out and drink tonight"-Things I Hate About You
Usually a B-sides compilation is a shoddy mix of throwaways slapped together to make a quick buck. Gods & Sods is that, but there are also some slick songs on this one. Some of them are better than their regular album tracks. Except "Let Me Out" which features some really cheesy '80's style synths and drums. This CD was put out in 1999 by Sugar Fix Recordings. There are more songs about bands they like ("Hello Love Tractor") but they're also a really cool shout-out to old time magician Merlin entitled "Hey Merlin". But the stand-out track, and one of the most melodic songs the band has ever attempted-(well, and pulled off) is Tim Quirk's ditty about everyone's favorite political advisor- Mary Matalin. I bet even James Carville would dig this if he got a chance to hear "Mary Matalin".
But after all that Too Much Joy has given to their fans and alternative music in general, they have recently decided to take a well deserved break. Tim is currently in California, while the other band members are on the East Coast. Although they have been on hiatus since 1997, they did give us a live album in 2001. Live At Least was recorded at The Bayou in Washington, D.C. on 9/18/97. I may have been at this gig, but a lot of Buds were passed around, so who knows? It features covers of "Happy Jack" and "The Mighty Quinn" and killer live versions of the rest of the hits from the Too Much Joy canon.
So the band has not ruled out a reunion or a new tour at this point. But maybe they are looking for a groundswell from the music world to get them off the couch. So go out and buy some of their records and maybe they will decide to give us a few more shows before George Bush gets kicked out of the White House (i.e.-soon guys!).
"To create/you must destroy/smash a glass and cry/Too Much Joy"-"Theme Song"
A bit of a post-script. For new fans, it may be difficult for you to get your mitts on the best records Too Much Joy has to offer. To be honest, the fact that those soul-less bastards at Warner Bros refuse to keep their back catalog in print is a pure abomination. So please feel free to email the record company with pleas to re-release them with bonus tracks and remastering. Anything less is really just criminal. However, a few of their releases can be purchased from the band directly. For now, completists will simply have to hunt for cutouts in used record bins. A real tragedy that needs to be rectified.