Green On Red’s third album is named after a 1952 novel by Jim Thompson. The plot concerns a seemingly ordinary policeman, called Lou Ford, who underneath his unremarkable façade, is a cunning , depraved and sadistic sociopath. The book was turned into a film twice; once in 1976, starring Stacey Keach and again in 2010 with Casey Affleck.
Dan Stuart, the lead singer with Green On Red, identified with this Jekyll and Hyde personality and, for many years, struggled with substance abuse. The brilliance of Green On Red’s seven albums, released between 1983 and 1992, owes a lot to his struggle with the darker side of his personality.
I don’t think I am cunning, depraved or sadistic and the only substance I abuse is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but the idea of a difficult person lurking beneath an otherwise ordinary exterior is something I can identify with, especially over the last couple of months. Having had a hip replacement operation five weeks ago, I am struggling to come to terms with my reduced mobility and the slow progress that I making. Attempting the physiotherapy, I have been tempted to overdo things and I am now paying the price. I thought that the pain in my hamstring was something that I could work through, only to find that what I should have done is stop any exercise which led to sharp pain. I’ve discovered that there is a difference between, one hand, a dull pain which is my body telling me to stretch gently and exercise sensibly and, on the other hand, a sharp pain which is my body telling me to stop immediately. I think my inability to distinguish between these two types of pain has made me extremely grumpy and even more curmudgeonly than normal. At the moment, I can’t imagine ever walking again without crutches. Coupled with all that, I have made extensive arrangements to allow me to go to the home match at Brighton tomorrow, only to find that doing something pleasurable and normal is frowned upon by my wife. She is being cautious and offering sensible advice but the darker side of me that lurks inside thinks that’s just unreasonable and I have reacted accordingly. By which I mean, bad tempered, crotchety, irritable, cantankerous, irascible and any other synonym for grumpy that Google can find for me. I don’t actually think that I have a killer inside me – I think my equivalent album would be called “The Pessimist Inside Me.”
After “Gravity Talks” (1983) and “Gas, Food Lodging” (1985) Green On Red decided to ask Jim Dickinson to produce “The Killer Inside Me”. He was a musician and producer who had worked in the Memphis music scene in the 1960s but after producing Big Star had gone into semi-retirement. He was never going to be a calming influence on the band. Chuck Prophet, lead guitarist with Green On Red, recalls that when things got out of hand in the studio, Jim Dickinson would say “Go ahead boys, get it out of your system. I’m not going to tell you to stop.” At one point, Dan Stuart came into the studio to record some vocals and asked for all the lights to be turned off. Jim Dickinson recalled “I started playing him the take through the headphones and we don’t hear anything for a long time. Then I start seeing flashes of light. I go out there to see what’s going on and he’s laying on the carpet in a fetal position, striking matches and staring at them.” Dan Stuart said that he was “living through a walking blackout existence. I think I went through a nervous breakdown.” He does not think that “The Killer Inside Me” is a good record. “It does have this kind of manic depressive energy, but nothing’s in time”. Robert Christgau, who is a well respected music critic, writing for Village Voice”, “Billboard” and “Rolling Stone” dismissed the album like this: “In which yet another pseudoauthentic unlocks the cellar door of the American psyche, revealing–gasp! horror!–the violence that dwells within each and every one of us. What horse manure. C+” Whisper it quietly, but I think it’s a great record.
The first song is “Clarkesville” which is a classic Green On Red song. It has a killer guitar riff from Chuck Prophet and if Dan Stuart’s vocals are histrionic, well, that’s why I like it. The song starts with a description of a rainy night (in Georgia!) and a buried body under the barbeque pit of a Klansman. Chuck Prophet’s guitar solos are always immense, punchy and thrilling and the climax of the song is Dan Stuart repeating “I live in Clarkesville”. I don’t think he’ wants us to believe that this is a good thing.
The theme continues with “Mighty Gun” which explains that the way that the West was really won was by “plenty of cheap labour and the mighty gun.” The last verse tells the story of Dan Stuart’s uncle, who was a doctor but was shot because he was thought to be a communist.
Side Two starts with “No Man’s Land” which is a brooding, menacing song describing impending doom. The second verse is “They came in big jet planes roaring through the sky. With briefcases full of death, deception and assorted lies. They’re hear to convince you that you’re wrong that you don’t know what’s right” and, yes, Dan Stuart sounds out of control and possibly out of tune but the unrestrained anguish and darkness turns this song into a classic. Obviously, Chuck Prophet offers a wonderfully exciting guitar solo but then he always does. Was there ever a better rock guitarist than Chuck Prophet? Was there ever a better rock singer than Dan Stuart? This album might be out of tune, it might sound deranged, it might come from a dark place but listening to this album again reassures me that my depressed state of mind is nothing, nothing, compared to the horror lurking beneath the surface of the greatest live band I ever saw.