Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Ugly Kid Joe, "Menace to Sobriety" (1995)
Ugly Kid Joe - MENACE TO SOBRIETY (Mercury Records, 1995)
Ugly Kid Joe was one of those lucky bands that struck gold right out of the box. Just when it seemed like the Hair Metal craze had reached its peak, this humorous, snot-nosed hard rock quintet from Southern California went from playing local keg parties to the top of the charts thanks to a catchy, sarcastic single called "Everything About You," which crashed into the top ten in the U.S. and vaulted Ugly Kid Joe's debut six-song EP, As Ugly As They Wanna Be, to multi-platinum status virtually overnight. "Everything About You" quickly became an MTV and radio staple, appeared in the hit film Wayne's World, and soon the band was touring the world opening for hard rock luminaries like Ozzy Osbourne and Def Leppard. The band's 1992 full length debut, America's Least Wanted, followed its predecessor into the top 40 and scored another hit single with a cover of Harry Chapin's "Cats In the Cradle." Ugly Kid Joe had it all...for about a year. Then suddenly and without warning, the entire hard rock scene turned on a dime. Seattle was "in," Southern California was "out," and when Ugly Kid Joe returned three years later with their second full length release, Menace To Sobriety, in 1995, hardly anyone was listening... which is an absolute tragedy because dammit, it turned out to be their best album!!
When Ugly Kid Joe hit the studio to record Menace to Sobriety in 1994, they had two secret weapons in their arsenal: first, they'd replaced drummer Mark Davis with Shannon Larkin, a skilled skinsman who had cut several solid, but underappreciated, albums with the Maryland based thrash act Wrathchild America (later known as Souls At Zero). His superior talents on the kit went a long way towards giving the new material a harder edge. Second, the band tapped Garth Richardson (aka "GGGarth") to produce the album. Richardson had made a name for himself working with modern hard rock acts like the all-female punk band L7, the Melvins, and Rage Against the Machine, and he wisely scraped off the radio-friendly sheen that had marked most of Ugly Kid Joe's earlier works. Menace to Sobriety bears an edgier, more organic sound which proved that these skateboarding booger-flickers were actually a pretty damn HEAVY metal band under their goofball exterior.
Menace to Sobriety kicks off with a two-minute instrumental "Intro" which lures you in with its riffy goodness, then smacks you upside the head with the first proper track "God," a chugging number which showcases vocalist Whitfield Crane at his snarly best. The moody "Tomorrow's World" follows, building around a snaky, lumbering bass foundation by Cordell Crockett. (Cordell is the unsung hero of Menace to Sobriety, by the way... his punchy, crunchy bass work provides unexpected highlights all over this album!!) "Clover" and "C.U.S.T" (the initials stand for "Can't U See Them") are faster paced tracks full of swagger, with slammin' drums by Larkin and Crane screaming for all he's worth on the choruses. Things slow down briefly on the ballsy semi-ballad "Milkman's Son," which almost feels like an original sequel to UKJ's cover of "Cats in the Cradle" with its themes of loss and loneliness. Once again, Whit Crane shines and shows what a versatile vocalist he really is, and the song's chorus sticks in your head like glue. "Suckerpath" is another slow-n-moody metal cut that's bookended by another ballad, the mellow "Cloudy Skies." Before you start getting the idea that Ugly Kid Joe has gone and became some kind of sensitive new-age metal act, the band throws us back to their humorous earlier days on the irresistible, hilarious "Jesus Rode A Harley" and the scathing "V.I.P.," an ode to music-industry phonies that drips with venom and sarcasm. "10/10" and "Oompa Song" are the only two throwaways on the album - the former is a standard but not terribly exciting thrash cut and the latter is an irritating joke song with Crane bellowing nursery-rhyme nonsense at the top of his lungs while the band rages behind him. The closing track "Candle Song" is another ballad and it ends things on a stylish and highly satisfying note.
What Went Wrong?
So why didn't Menace to Sobriety catch on, despite its status as Ugly Kid Joe's arguably strongest and (dare I say it?) most mature album? Well, duh... it came out in 1995, silly. The band and album were totally out of step with the then-current musical climate at the time of its release. "Milkman's Son" and "Tomorrow's World" were released as singles, though neither had much impact, and the album only notched a lowly #178 on the U.S. Billboard charts before disappearing. In short, Menace to Sobriety sank faster than JFK Junior, which is a shame because the album signaled an amazing amount of growth for a band that had previously been considered a "joke" or a "one-hit wonder." If only more people had been listening!!
The album fared slightly better overseas, where the scribes at England's Kerrang! magazine championed it as one of the finest hard-rock releases of the year, but it was pretty clear that Ugly Kid Joe's fifteen minutes of fame were just about up. Dropped from Mercury Records when Menace failed to move enough units, the band managed to limp along for a few more years and released one more album, Motel California, in 1996 on Castle Records before quietly calling it a day.
"Slower than Nowhere" (non-U.S. bonus track)
Where Are They Now?
The members of Ugly Kid Joe remained active in the music biz after the band dissolved. Whit Crane briefly fronted New York aggro-metallers Life Of Agony in the late '90s before moving on to other short lived projects like Medication (with former Machine Head guitarist Logan Mader) and Another Animal. He also made cameo appearances on songs by Motorhead ("Born to Raise Hell" from the Airheads movie soundtrack) and on Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton's solo album Baptizm of Fire. Shannon Larkin became an in-demand session drummer best known for his work with Godsmack and Amen, whilst guitarist Dave Fortman went into studio engineering and produced albums by Superjoint Ritual, EyeHateGod, Anthrax, and Mudvayne.
Happily, the Ugly Kid Joe story isn't completely finished yet. In 2010 the band announced that they were getting back together to write new material, which finally resurfaced in 2012 as a self released six-track EP titled, in typical UKJ fashion, Stairway to Hell. Ugly Kid Joe spent that summer gigging the European festival circuit and opening shows for Guns N' Roses in Israel. A music video for the track "Devil's Paradise" showed that Ugly Kid Joe hadn't lost their edge.
A new full length album, Uglier Than They Used Ta Be, was released on the band's own UKJ Records label in October 2015. The recording was financed through a successful crowd funding campaign on pledgemusic.com. The album features nine original tracks and two cover songs - the Motörhead classic "Ace of Spades" and Rare Earth's "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." Motörhead guitarist Phil Campbell makes guest appearances on "Ace of Spades" and on two other tracks, "My Old Man" and "Under the Bottom."
It's great to have Ugly Kid Joe back, and I hope they tour the U.S. sometime soon so I might get the chance to hear the new stuff -- and maybe some of Menace to Sobriety -- live and in person!!
"Devil's Paradise" (2012)
UGLY KID JOE discography...
As Ugly As They Wanna Be (EP) - Stardog/Mercury, 1991
America's Least Wanted - Mercury, 1992
Menace To Sobriety - Mercury, 1995
Motel California - Evilution/Castle, 1996
As Ugly As It Gets: The Best of Ugly Kid Joe - Mercury, 1998
Stairway To Hell (EP) - UKJ, 2012
Uglier Than They Used Ta Be - UKJ, 2015