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Miscellaneous Masterpieces: Harvey Danger – King James Version

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As with any good deed that goes unpunished, there are any number of good albums that go overlooked.  Maybe a band misses the gravy train due to disputes with a label or amongst the members themselves.  Maybe the band released their album a few years too soon, maybe the public just wasn’t ready for their sound yet. For whatever reason, those who get swept under the rug can either later recover or go into hiding permanently. After 1998, many probably thought that Harvey Danger would succumb to the latter.

Like several ’90s bands before them, in a market saturated by Veruca Salt, Spin Doctors, Nirvana, and the like, Harvey Danger was labeled a “flash in the pan.”  The music industry is a cruel mistress, and in 1998 the Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? single, “Flagpole Sitta” became a hit for London/Slash Records, who then pressured UW’s finest to create a repeat effect.  After giving way to tension, production limbo, and simple reality, Harvey Danger went on a five year hiatus, but not before bringing citizens the most unappreciated album of 2000, King James Version.

Recorded outside of Woodstock, New York, this audiophile’s carnival of pop rocks and pop culture punch-ups was the sophomore slump that most expected, but did not hope for. While the lyrics were continually clever, the vocals were purposely abrasive, and the guitars and keyboards harmonized like a stripped down “Van Hagar” set, lack of label support during recording sessions came off as an omen.  Referred to by band members as “elaborate corporate reshuffling,” endless mergers and acquisitions left King James Version collecting dust. Without London/Slash backing them, Harvey Danger’s tour with The Pretenders fell through and while KJV was finally released in 2001 to rave reviews, the buzz was minimal.  Seven years to the day of their first gig, the band then performed a one-off show in Portland, Oregon before going on an indefinite hiatus.

With Evan Sult and University of Washington alumni Sean Nelson, Jeff Lin, and Aaron Huffman opting to form a band for what seems to be purely out of boredom, it’s doubtful anyone had dreams of being famous rock stars.  As you read into lyrics from any song, the sarcasm and intelligent conversation that ensues feels remarkably authentic.  It’s the sound of some friends who can accept whatever cards that are dealt to them.  The success of “Flagpole Sitta” astonished everyone within Harvey Danger, but while Nelson was initially ecstatic about it all, he soon noted a downhill slope ahead.  Before we all even got the message, Harvey Danger disappeared with an English Beat cover slapped onto the film 200 Cigarettes and KJV becoming an irrelevant relic.

King James Version is unlike many albums of its kind, because it does not try to play itself up in any way. Reading the insert you get the feeling that this album is more of a documentary on popular culture satire than a musical recording. Harvey Danger pulls no punches, drives no hype, and though London/Slash wanted a hit single they were relatively unseen as KJV was being produced. You can see the lack of motivation to bother with unit shifting bullshit, and it makes for all the more enjoyable a listen. One prime example of “no holds barred”, satirical methods can be seen in the first track, “Meetings With Remarkable Men”:

I had a lovely brunch with Jesus Christ.
He said, “two words about inanity: fundamental christianity” and
the food was very nice.
But then He had to go and die for my sins
and stick my ass with the check.

Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy
Go near an open window and that’ll be the end of me.

I bowed before the avatar.
He said, “the problem’s clear to me: you never got over Morrissey.”
and said “well, right you are!”
“it’s so much harder to be underfed
than under-understood,” he said.

I went to see Kip Winger.
He said, “in my day we knew how to party;
bands today, c’mon, not hardly.”
He had a back-up singer (doo doo doo doo).
He said, “the metal scene is a disgrace,
but I ain’t got no dog in that race!”

Don’t despair, your mother loves you.
Don’t be proud because she has to.

Members managed other lives and careers post-Danger. During Nelson’s tenure as DJ for KEXP in Seattle, questions arose about possible reunions which were repeatedly ignored.  Come 2004 Lin, Nelson and Huffman had been toying around with ideas and after new members Rob Knop and Michael Welke joined, a recording process went along smoothly sans drummer Evan Sult. By 2005, a new and improved Harvey Danger released Little by Little… via free download from their official website while also selling physical copies complete with bonus material. Under the radar, it would appear as though HD is alive and well.  Unfortunately, for the majority of the US, they rarely tour outside of Washington, and to their liking are keeping a relatively low profile without supreme governing labels overhead.

King James Version is the epitome of what can happen when a band is tucked away and left forgotten, chalked up to being a “one hit wonder.” Lyrics such as “You don’t need a passport/to know what state you’re in” from “Carjack Fever”, or “I was the type-o/you were the Liquid Paper” from “The Same As Being In Love” are snide and passionate, poetic and perfectly compatible with Jeff Lin’s guitar. With references to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Portnoy’s Complaint among others, Nelson is the lyricist many aspiring songwriters should attain to be, and Harvey Danger is the band that should have been better noticed.

The story of Harvey Danger starting out in 1994 using laundry tubs and hubcaps for drums is almost rags to riches and backward to the middle. Nelson himself has continually remained relevant on the west coast as a writer for The Stranger in Seattle, WA. The 15 minutes of national fame him and his colleagues experienced with Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? sheds light on a sad fact of celebrity being everything but iron clad, even as the song is still a soundtrack staple in some regions.

In any event, everyone should give King James Version a fighting chance because it is by far their best recording. It’s digest-able, approachable, funny, catchy and if not for certain powers that be or better timing they may have been placed higher in most collections alongside other Seattle superstars. Show us the hero, and we shall write you a tragedy indeed.

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