Blue Meanies: Nothing But A Ska Time

The lights dimmed, and Wesley Willis’ voice boomed through the speakers, introducing the Blue Meanies. On December 23, 2004, the Meanies took the stage of the Metro in Chicago, reuniting for the first time in almost four years. The spotlights flashed on the stage, evoking the energy of the restless crowd, as seven men dressed in suits picked up their instruments. Like soldiers waiting for their cue, weapons pointed, the Blue Meanies turned, faced the crowd and blew them away.

Three days before the show, I got to see the band rehearse. As they started to play, it was hard to believe that they have been on a four-year hiatus.

The Blue Meanies originally came together in 1989. They sold their first single, “Grandma Shampoo,” under the label No Record Company, a label that the band made up just so venues would book them.

“There was nothing like putting out your first record. Getting it on your turn table and just watching it spin around,” lead singer Billy Spunke said.

Next came an EP, Pave the World, and then their live album Peace, Love Groove. The Blue Meanies’ second full-length album, Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, was recorded in 1994.
But it was in 1996 that the band recorded its most groundbreaking record, Full Throttle, which is the album the Meanies will re-release in February 2005.

Working under the frustration of tours, not getting paid and being on the verge of breaking-up led to the creation of the 13 hard-hitting songs on Full Throttle. Spunke said that it was the influence of this anger not only within the band but also in his own life that led him to write these songs. He wanted to change minds and try to do something with the lyrics he created. Born were songs like “Noise of Democracy.”

Also, the band was feeling the aggravation of watching more poppy-sounding ska bands get ahead while the Meanies struggled to get by. “Ska was really beginning to pick up and go, and we were lumped into that genre. Here we released this record that was really a big ‘fuck you’ to the cookie-cutter ska,” Spunke said. Saxophonist John Paul Camp III added that other bands were not challenging themselves and their audiences in the way that the Blue Meanies were.

But then again, “Art don’t pay,” Spunke said.

They were creating albums like Full Throttle, which had sounds intricately interwoven with something different going on in each measure. They started selling out shows in Chicago. And yet, they weren’t making any money with their record label, Thick. “We had to sign a deal and get paid to do it,” Spunke said.

The Blue Meanies’ manager asked the band if it felt comfortable signing with a major record label, and with the situation they were in at the time, the Meanies couldn’t afford to turn down the offer. “The real world had caught up with us,” guitarist Sean Dolan said. So the Meanies signed with MCA, and in 2000 released The Post Wave.

The transition from Thick to MCA seemed to have two sides to how things were going. On the one hand, there were limitations to the type of music the band could make. The music had to be made simpler. When their producer walked into a recording session, his advice was to “turn down and slow down.” Unlike Full Throttle, the songs on The Post Wave had to be cleared out.

But on the other hand, while the band agreed that this was one of the hardest things to do, it said that it learned more about writing music. The Meanies were forced to pay attention to melody and rhythm.

Unfortunately, The Post Wave didn’t sell well. MCA gave the Blue Meanies four months before it pulled out all help and support. On top of that, trumpeter Jimmy Flame wanted to leave the band, and Spunke was about to have a baby. In February of 2001, the band broke up.

When I asked the band, “Why now?” – why, after almost four years of not playing together, have the Meanies decided to do these two shows in Chicago – Spunke said that he thought it would be a fun get-together. He also said that there is a rush, a kinetic energy that the band experiences on stage. Flame added that when he is on stage with the Meanies, everything else disappears.

I stood in the sold-out crowd at the Metro and stared at that stage as seven men picked up their instruments and played as if they had never put them down.