Coming Home

Not entirely appreciated in their day, the Seventies band the Scruffs has better luck with today's fans.



Mid-Seventies power-pop pioneers Big Star may be Memphis music's most famous "failure," garnering great reviews in their heyday without selling many records, only to re-emerge as a key influence on future bands. But a similar story happened in the wake of Big Star's big flameout, by yet another batch of Beatlemaniac Memphis kids rooted at Midtown's Ardent Studios.

That band was the Scruffs, whose lone album released with the band's original line-up intact, 1977's "Wanna' Meet the Scruffs?", has become one of the most interesting and durable footnotes in the city's musical history.

"It just took off in terms of press," remembers Scruffs singer/songwriter/ guitarist Stephen Burns, who has spent the past few years living in Scotland but returned to Memphis in June to work on a new Scruffs project.

"I think everybody here was a little shocked," Burns says. "They thought, "Whoa, you're on the way, kid!" And we were so naïve about the record business that we probably bought into it. So we headed off to New York, where we thought people would be ready to write checks for us."

Influential Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote of the record, "Only a sucker for rock-and-roll could love this record, and I am that sucker," going on to note that it "bursts with off harmonies, left hooks, and jolts of random energy."

But, then as now, press didn't equal record sales.

Burns and his then-bandmates -- drummer Zeph Paulson and brothers guitarist Dave and bass player Rick Branyon -- relocated to New York, dived into the club scene, playing famous venues such as CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, and waited for a big record-company contract that never came.

"We got plenty of exposure and record labels were interested, but we just never got signed," Burns says.

A follow-up album was recorded back home at Ardent, but wasn't released until 20 years later (with the title Teenage Gurls), and soon Burns' bandmates abandoned the music business. Burns returned to Memphis and recorded the occasional song, his Eighties" work collected on the compilation CD Midtown under the Scruffs name.

Though "Wanna' Meet the Scruffs?" is often thought of in conjunction with Big Star, it's striking for how different it sounds. Recorded several years after the first Big Star releases, "Wanna' Meet the Scruffs?" is a louder, faster take on the same power-pop template, one that also fits into the context of the then-burgeoning punk scene. If anything, the album is as close in sound and spirit to the band's British punk contemporaries the Buzzcocks -- another band playing mid-Sixties Beatles-style songs with more agitated, sugar-rush tempos -- as it is to Big Star. Burns acknowledges this connection to the punk scene.

"All we did was listen to stuff coming out of England. So we were very aware of all that," he says. "Our guitar player, Dave, was really into [English punk bands] the Clash and the Damned. And I was a big Nick Lowe fan. Everything [we did] was faster, but with the melodies on top. We knew we were speeding up [that Big Star sound], in some cases making it angrier and harder. But at the bottom the songs and melodies are what people like about it. But it is different from Big Star. We get the comparisons because we were both Anglo-pop-type bands from Memphis, which was unheard of at the time."

The Scruffs were a Memphis band trying to succeed at a time when soul music was dominant and white bands were more likely to ape the boogie sound of Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

"I wouldn't say the Scruffs concept was embraced by the average Memphis clubgoer," Burns remembers.

But what may have sounded a little too extreme to some local listeners at the time sounds almost classic now: What "Wanna' Meet the Scruffs?" most definitely has in common with Big Star albums such as #1 Record and Radio City is that nearly 30 years after it was recorded it retains a freshness and immediacy.

It's a sound that, like Big Star's, has won its share of younger converts, something Burns found out when he traveled with Big Star founder Alex Chilton to Glasgow, Scotland, at the turn of the decade.

"I'd moved down to New Orleans and saw Alex on a fairly regular basis and he was getting ready to do some shows in Glasgow," Burns remembers. "He said people knew my stuff there."

And they did. In Scotland, Burns found plenty of Scruffs fans, including current or former members of popular alt-rock bands such as Teenage Fanclub and Belle & Sebastian.

"When I got to Glasgow, there was a great pool of people who were willing to have a go at it," Burns says.

With a host of younger admirers backing him up, Burns started recording again, retaining the Scruffs name.

"At one point I thought I could manage to break away from the Scruffs moniker," Burns says. "But once you have some sort of name-recognition it becomes a marketing and distribution thing. It's a slot in the record stores and you don"t want five slots, so it's best to [keep it all together]."

Burns and his rotating cast of new bandmates released Love, The Scruffs in 2001, followed by Swingin' Singles in 2004. Burns, a University of Memphis graduate whose parents remain in town, brought his current band to Memphis last month to put the finishing touches on a third new-school Scruffs record, Pop Manifesto, and to play his first Memphis concert under the Scruffs name in more than 20 years.

Burns currently does most of his record selling and touring in Europe and Japan and has an easier go of it in a music climate now less reliant on the support of major record labels.

But as successful as his current projects are, the minor classic "Wanna' Meet the Scruffs?" remains his calling card.

"We weren't consciously saying, let's make a record people will still care about in 25 years," Burns says of his and his bandmates' debut album. "But it happened. Maybe that's not such a bad goal. There's just so much stuff now and most of it you won't remember six months from now."

Add your comment: