Just as Califone arose the from the ashes of Red Red Meat, Red Red Meat was born from the disintegration of Friends of Betty, one of Chicago’s most passionately fucked-up rock bands during the late 80s, when few chose to be genuinely weird. That trio featured singer-guitarist Tim Rutili, drummer Ben Massarella—the two common members of all three bands—and bassist Glynis Johnson. At their peak, Rutili replaced Massarella with John Rowan, who would soon achieve greater fame and/or ignominy as Blackie Onassis of Urge Overkill. I didn’t like Friends of Betty much, because they seemed like a perpetual train wreck (the group’s sole album was called Blind Faith II, to give you some idea of their aspirations). To the best of my recollection, Rutili mostly played an acoustic guitar with a pickup, and the band’s music careened all over the place, with little discipline but plenty of volume. So when a new incarnation called Red Red Meat emerged, I was skeptical—but their first single, released in 1990, felt different.
Rowan was gone, replaced by a much better and more disciplined drummer named Brian Deck, and they were joined by second guitarist Glenn Girard, who stood close to seven feet tall (he’d spent a short time in the final FOB lineup). The group got an early boost from a tour with Smashing Pumpkins, but before they could drop their self-titled debut, the long romance between Rutili and Johnson came to and end; she died in September of 1992 from complications related to AIDS. The album, issued shortly after, contained everything Red Red Meat had recorded with her. (She was later memorialized in a Smashing Pumpkins song called “Glynis.”) The music was still sprawling, a la Friends of Betty, but it had a center of gravity: raunchy, bluesy, druggy, and soulful, with exciting guitar interplay and obliquely pretty melodies. Rutili was also finding his footing as a singer.
That 1993 album was recently released on vinyl for the first time by Oregon label Jealous Butcher, accompanied by four previously unissued tracks (including a wonderfully palsied take on the 10cc classic “I’m Not in Love”). It still sounds ragged and erratic, but at its best it’s glorious—you can feel the electric excitement of a great band finding themselves. The record’s exercises in noisy, scratchy guitar funk and occasional weird tape experiments (including “Idaho Durt,” with life lessons imparted by Evel Knievel) often feel misguided, but Red Red Meat performed a vital service by pushing against the grain of Chicago’s bland music scene. In some ways they cleared aesthetic space for the weirdness coming from Shrimp Boat at the time, and that was soon to be redoubled by Gastr del Sol, Tortoise, Rome, and others. Below you can check out one of today’s two 12 O’Clock Tracks, “Snowball,” which proved to be something of a template for the band’s next couple of albums: it combines irresistible post-primo Rolling Stones swing with knockout guitars that scream, recede, and surge with incredible beauty and feeling.