In Hindsight: Ben Deily explores The Lemonheads' punk origins
As The Lemonheads prepare their earliest recordings for a new lease of life, formerly estranged co-founder Ben Deily revisits the Boston band's punk origins
“I had never sought out, nor had I ever planned to make music the primary activity of my life.” Ben Deily pauses briefly, reflecting on the choices that took him away from his former life as co-frontman of the Lemonheads. “I had always wanted to finish my degree in English literature, and I had a sort-of plan – I thought I’d really like to go into advertising, or become an English teacher in some Ivy institution, wearing a tweed blazer with elbow patches.”
This is the story of the punk rocker who opted out.
To the casual fan of 90s indie rock, it’s fairly clear that Evan Dando was the Lemonheads. His long-haired, stoner kid charm and boyish good looks made him the perma-wasted darling of the grunge era, plastered across the pages of ‘serious’ rock press and teen magazines alike. His natural affinity for a beautifully sad chord progression helped as well, of course. But that wasn’t always the case.
Our story begins in 1982 at Boston, Massachusetts’ Commonwealth school, an independent establishment that the 46-year-old Deily now cheerfully describes as a “ludicrously competitive academic boot camp”. One day he stumbled across fellow freshman Dando, and the pair instantly bonded. “We were in the lobby in our high school, and one of us started quoting this crazy 70s comedy troupe – this improvisational psychedelic… thing called The Firesign Theatre, and the other picked up on the quotation and kept going with it. So we were both locked into the same weird thing.”
As their friendship blossomed, Dando and Deily discovered punk rock together, and began hijacking the school jazz band’s drum kit whenever the opportunity presented itself. After persuading fellow hardcore nerd Jesse Peretz to play bass, the nascent trio decided to make a record.
“We went to a lot of local hardcore shows. I really loved a lot of bands in Boston at the time, like The F.U.s and Gang Green, and we’d go see all the other luminaries when they came through – y’know, Black Flag, Husker Du, Negative Approach… I think literally two or three days after we graduated we went and recorded the first EP, Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners.”
"Everyone’s so keen on constructing a Lennon and McCartney narrative that no-one actually listens to me” – Ben Deily
But if that part was easy, finding a name presented more of a challenge. “One of my favourites that Evan came up with was The Fucking Clocks!” He chuckles at the memory. “I thought that was pretty good. Ill Willy And The Roller Chute, Vitamin Smell… The Whelps came up; that was probably my terrible suggestion. We might even have written it on an early cassette tape, and then our friend Ivan Kreilkamp, who appears on the cover of the Creator album, told us we should be called Lemonheads. So we took his advice.”
The newly-named trio played shows around their home town as often as possible, and once their debut EP found its way into the hands of Taang! Records founder Curtis Casella, they began working on a full-length LP. Drawing on the bratty, brawling rush of their heroes The Replacements, 1987’s Hate Your Friends had a clear high point in the lofty powerpop hooks of Second Chance, one of four Deily compositions. Meanwhile, Dando flooded the record with goofily snotty thrashes that were audibly proud to play dumb, and all the more fun for it. With the 'year zero' mentality of punk inspiring a tidal wage of creativity, Boston’s college rock scene was positively exploding, and the band were more than happy to fling themselves into the midst.
“It was definitely a very exciting time to be involved with music, and especially for us – one of the most exciting things was meeting and playing with bands we had kind of a worshipful regard for, like The Pagans, one of the great American punk bands, and the Angry Samoans, who were always one of our favourite bands because they were so goddam funny.
“Oh, and of course we opened for the Ramones! That was lots of fun. We didn’t really meet them so much as we saw them shuffle past on the way to their dressing room, and I have to admit they had this sort of dead-eye, zombie-like aspect even at that time. Can you imagine what they were like ten years after that…?”
And then, of course, there was a certain band whose existence ran parallel with the early life of our heroes.
“Early on in our existence,” explains Ben, “we played a show at [Cambridge rock club] TT The Bear’s and these two girls came to see us. They said ‘You’ve got to come and see our band,’ so Evan and I went to see the Blake Babies play at this strange little coffee house called She’s Leaving Home. They were really great. We ended up spending a lot of time together and setting up shows together, and we met bands through them and they met bands through us.”
Also formed in 1986, the Blake Babies created beautifully effervescent jangle-punk, revolving around a core trio of Freda Love, Juliana Hatfield and John Strohm. The latter went on to become the Lemonheads’ drummer in the wake of Hate Your Friends, and the two bands’ relationship would become increasingly symbiotic as the years went by.
In the meantime, the band began work on second album Creator, and while their fast-developing knack for energized heartbreakers gave their new material a more accessible feel, it was noticeably darker. Dando in particular developed a fascination with the infamous cult leader and convicted murderer Charles Manson, which Ben found similarly intriguing.
“We definitely consumed a fair amount of Mansonalia. We repeatedly rented and watched the documentary Manson, listened to his album, and tried to learn what we could about smuggled prison tapes, the whereabouts of ‘Manson Family’ members, their parole status, etc. When Squeaky Fromme was briefly on the lam in 1987, we joked a lot about trying to drive down wherever in the American south she had been sighted, and maybe give her a lift and shelter her. I was never quite sure whether Ev was quite kidding or not…”
The album was also notable for Deily’s heartfelt acoustic ballad Postcard – a stylistic staple of the Dando-led era to come, and yet the band’s mid-80s incarnation bickered over such a new and untested development:
“Back then I was the sappy one – in fact there was a serious debate about whether Postcard could or should be included on the record. A member of the band with whom I had some tension – not Evan – said, ‘What are the skinheads in our audiences at the all-ages shows gonna say about a freakin’ sappy acoustic song?’ It just shows you how much a couple of years can change how a band perceives itself. I was like, ‘Hey, The Replacements can do Here Comes A Regular and not have to turn in their testicles. Why can’t we do Postcard?’”
Shortly thereafter, the band’s various attention spans began to wander adrift. “We sort of petered out for a while. I think we weren’t doing enough to occupy Evan’s energy and talent, and he was spending a lot of time with the Blake Babies – they were always looking for a bass player, so he jumped in. That became the primary focus for him for a little while there, and I was in and out of school. Then Curtis was keen for us to make another record, and once a certain number of months had passed we said we should get back to this Lemonheads thing.”
This led to the band’s third album Lick; a curiously wonderful odds’n’sods collection that merged sterling new material with covers, B-sides and unreleased tracks. As Strohm returned to his primary concern, Dando took over behind the kit, whilst Bullet LaVolta guitarist Corey Loog Oldham joined to provide blazing bursts of frenetic lead over their increasingly-melancholic pop. Inevitably, cracks swiftly reappeared, although Deily dismisses the long-prevailing rumours that the two songwriters’ friendship took the brunt of the strain.
“It’s not true,” he says, without hesitation. “If there were tensions in the band, they were not between Evan and myself, let’s put it that way. I think everyone’s so keen on constructing a Lennon and McCartney narrative that no-one actually listens to me.”
“Around that time I opted out of the band. There was a European tour planned, and I told everyone that I wasn’t going because I had this academic symposium in Ireland that I had gone through a great deal of machinations to attend. So the band that went off to Europe was firing on all cylinders, and consisted entirely of people that very much wanted to be in a rock’n’roll band.”
He also talks of an “outside influence who shall not be named” as an additional reason for his departure, but resolutely sticks to his claim that he left to pursue a relatively normal lifestyle in the working world. While the band shot to stardom with the major label albums It’s A Shame About Ray and Come On Feel The Lemonheads, Deily divided his time between that long-awaited career in advertising, and his first marriage. Aside from his work with short-lived indie-punks Pods, there were to be no more Ben Deily contributions to music for over a decade. He remains philosophical about the experience.
“Of course, I missed playing music with Evan. I didn’t really miss any other aspect of the whole thing; it took years and the encouragement of a lot of other people for me to realize that music can have a place in a responsible adult’s life, and was in fact quite dear to me. But the person who exerted the most pressure for me to leave [the band] was pretty much the centre of everything in my life at the time, and she did not care for Evan one bit, so it was a non-issue as long as she was around. It was a proxy source of tension – you know, ‘it’s him or me’. Not between me and Evan, but other parties, as is so often the case. I guess that takes us back to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, doesn’t it?”
After his marriage ended, Ben went to see Evan play a show in Silver Lake, California, and the two swiftly reconnected. He also began writing songs again, assembling the first lineup of his current band Varsity Drag in the late 90s, before forming a new version with Lisa, now his wife of seven years. Thus far they’ve released two excellent albums via UK punk stable Boss Tuneage, and there are loose plans afoot for a new “old Lemonheads” record in the near future. The former punk rocker has no plans to relaunch a full time career in music, however, as he cheerfully discusses future plans in the light of Dando’s 90s assertion that his own name amounted to the “subtext” of the band.
“The band as it exists now is clearly Evan. But back in the long-ago, it was just as certainly me and Evan. So, am I still a member of the Lemonheads as an actual going concern? I guess it comes down to semantics.”
“We’ve definitely talked about how much fun it would be to make a new record, whatever that might sound like. We probably benefit from not having had to work together over decades on the road! Whatever opportunity exists now is simply a chance to play music with one of my oldest and most beloved friends. The one thing that is almost certain not to happen is me joining up with a real, working, touring band, because I have no more taste for that now than I did twenty-odd years ago.”
And what of those dreams of tweed? Again, Ben laughs. “You can chalk this up to youthful callowness, or the deep conservatism of your average 19 year old male, but I had always thought, ‘What kind of grown man does rock’n’roll for a living? That’s just crazy!’”