In a sense, the Black Crowes have gone back to the beginning. With the pending rerelease of their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, they not only have cause for reflection, but also an opportunity to reexamine their legacy.
A sumptuous four LP and three CD box set, the remake, set for release on March 19, includes the newly remastered original album, three never-before-heard studio recordings, a pair of unreleased demos from the band’s early incarnation as Mr. Crowe’s Garden, various B-sides, an unreleased concert recorded in their then-hometown of Atlanta, as well as assorted paraphernalia and memorabilia.
“My parents hated the idea of me making music,” Crowes co-founder Chris Robinson recalls. “My father was in the music business and they had seen what he had gone through. They were immensely aware that there were a lot of unsavory aspects to the music business.”
Speaking to American Songwriter, Robinson and his younger brother and co-Crowe helmsman, Rich Robinson, are using the occasion of the reissue to reminisce about the circumstances leading up to the band’s very beginnings.
“They just didn’t think that I could make it,” Chris continues. “So I agreed to drive the 16 hours from Atlanta to Vermont for my college interview. But before we left our fucking subdivision, in my mind I cut out any other possibilities, except being in a rock and roll band. I just didn’t tell them I say turn the car around.”
At the time the elder Robinsons faced double jeopardy. Rich had also expressed his desire to pursue his passion via the music biz. “I was just more trouble than Rich,” Chris confesses. “Rich didn’t drink or experiment with drugs. I was the black sheep and the one making bad decisions. Even though Rich was there with me, whatever Rich was doing was kind of okay.”
Fortunately, the brothers received vindication early on when the dubiously-dubbed Mr. Crowe’s Garden found success in their local environs in the mid ‘80s. At the time, there was a rich musical tradition already established in Marietta Georgia, the place the brothers called home. Naturally then, they took their cue from bands like REM, the Dream Syndicate, Let’s Active, the dBs and a handful of British bands such as The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen and Siouxie and the Banshees.
“We met this guy who worked in Atlanta at the Record Bar named Dave Macias,” Rich remembers. “He was a drummer, but he also expressed an interest in managing us. He knew an A&R guy at A&M Records, and the guy came down and offered us a demo deal. We recorded some sessions in North Carolina, but it seemed like an eternity before things started happening. I had just started playing guitar. I was maybe 14 when I got my first guitar the Christmas before I turned 15. Within a year, we were already doing demos for A&M. Not too bad.”
George Drakoulias, an A&R rep with Def American Records, a label founded by producer Rick Rubin, with whom Drakoulias had worked, eventually signed the group after the tentative deal with A&M records fell through. Draukoulias, who made a name for himself by producing Tom Petty, Screaming Trees, Primal Scream, the Jayhawks, and Maria McKee, was also chosen to oversee the band’s aforementioned debut.
“We were birthed in that punk and alternative scene, and that’s kind of what shaped the way that we saw our music,” Rich mentions. “We definitely had more of an independent attitude.We preferred that sort of anti-corporate approach. George allowed us to play what we wanted to play and that was what spoke to us when we signed to Rick Rubin’s label.”
Draukoulias was also instrumental in introducing the band to the classic rock sounds that had swept England the decade before—bands like the Faces, the Stones, Humble Pie and Led Zeppelin in particular—and as a result, Rich and Chris quickly absorbed those influences into the making of Shake Your Money Maker.
“Chris and I wrote the whole record over one weekend, and we recorded it in eight days,” Rich remembers. “Our philosophy was that we were not going to overthink this. We had just came off a tour, and by then, we knew what we were doing as a band. We grew by leaps and bounds like any band would playing that much, and we just went in and did it.”
Indeed, the continuum quickly changed.
“We just kind of put this record out and soon after we were opening for bands like the Michael Schenker group and Aerosmith and Robert Plant and Heart and ZZ Top,” Rich recalls.. “Something clicked and that was it. Within that first year we sold a million records and by the end of January of the next year we had sold three million records. I think we sold two million albums in one month, which was pretty crazy. It was just unbelievable, especially opening for Aerosmith. All the Aerosmith guys loved our record and were really supportive. Brad Whitford wore a Black Crowes T-shirt in one of their videos, and Joe Perry would have this long solo in the middle of one of his songs, and every night he would look over at us and play twice as hard trying to impress us.”
These days, Chris sees himself as a standard-bearer of sorts, a musician determined to carry the torch for a sacred rock and roll tradition. “I’m like the last front man,” he muses. “They don’t make that kind of job anymore. I feel kind of like the chimney sweep of rock and roll. I’ve never won any popularity contests, so for the people that want to say ‘Fuck him and I don’t like his opinion and he’s a loud mouth’ and whatever, I don’t give a shit. I’ve always been an outsider and I will always be an outsider. That’s the culture that spawned us. I’d rather stop being a musician and doing what we do if I felt like we were selling out or letting somebody else influence us for the sake of a buck.”