Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 36, which explores the history of Cake and “The Distance” with help from Sadie Dupuis.
Cake formed in Sacramento, California, in the early ’90s. Four quick facts about Sacramento. Sacramento: the Cincinnati of California. Sacramento: inspiration and setting for Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated 2017 film Lady Bird. Sacramento: home to 20,000 Del Taco locations. I’m estimating. And finally, Sacramento: baffling that the Kings took Bagley over Luka. We’re caught up on Sacramento. Of the founding members of Cake, the two guys still around are singer-guitarist John McCrea and trumpeter Vincent DiFiore. Lotta turnover in this band. We’ll hit the highlights. I understand that there’s an actor named John McCrea in the Cruella movie, the Emma Stone Cruella de Vil origin-story movie. This is a different guy. Just to clarify.
So John McCrea’s voice, at first contact, has the sarcastic, wise-ass, irreverent, gloriously punchable tone that is like a cruise-ship-sized dog whistle for too-smart-for-their-own-good teenagers with a They Might Be Giants/Weird Al/Pee-wee/Mad magazine mentality. Wherever this guy is right now you just know he’s alone, too.
Instantaneously, this is one of your guys. You can picture this guy. You can picture this guy’s beard. You can visualize, as though it is a physical planet, the heroic contempt of this guy, and the contempt he heroically inspires in particularly uninspired others. And he, in turn, without an ounce of contempt whatsoever, makes you feel seen.
Excess ain’t rebellion is a remarkably profound idea to convey to a clueless 16-year-old in a wacky but also alarmingly angry pop song. Is that true, that excess ain’t rebellion? And if we consider all the excess, all the chaos, all the self-destruction of early-’90s alt-rock radio, what is rebellion, in an era when everyone else seems to think that excess is rebellion? Is true rebellion … restraint? Minimalism? Or is it excess of a subtler and wittier sort? Is true rebellion a lead singer who doesn’t sing so much as sardonically declaim? Who gets to decide what’s sardonic or wacky, for that matter? Is true rebellion presenting to the world as an alternative rock band but flirting relentlessly with country music, and mariachi music, and Middle Eastern music, and, like, opera? Is true rebellion a trumpet solo, or a pedal-steel solo, or a Bakersfield-style honky-tonk guitar solo? Is true rebellion a vibraslap?
Is true rebellion writing songs that make teenagers laugh out loud even when there’s no explicit joke, per se? I’m a teenager. I’m driving around with my best friend Mike. We’re listening to the first Cake album, called Motorcade of Generosity, from 1994. It’s got “Rock ’n’ Roll Lifestyle” on it. We’re listening to this album in full for what I’m pretty sure is the first time, if only because I will never forget Mike laughing out loud, as we turned onto 71 North, midway through the first song, which is called “Comanche,” when all the drunk-sounding horns hit.
There’s just something so captivating about the audacity, the absurdity, the joyful communal insolence of this band, starting with Track 1 on Album 1. Mike laughed out loud at least two more times our first time through Motorcade of Generosity. Once during a song called “Up So Close.”
Pretty sure this drive happened in Mike’s car, an excessively beige Oldsmobile. Sound system was OK, though. I think he almost blew it out once playing Radiohead’s “Let Down” too loud for his girlfriend at the time, but that was later.
He laughed out loud at way down south. Teenagers. Same deal with this line from a peppy little tune called “Pentagram.” Great guitar solo on “Pentagram.” Worthy of Buck Owens. Worthy of Don Rich. Is that sacrilege? Who decides what’s sacrilege?
Teenagers. If this all sounds a little in-jokey to you, OK, OK. I get it. Motorcade of Generosity also has a song called “Jolene.” Not Dolly’s “Jolene.” Cake’s “Jolene.” Cake’s “Jolene,” though, is a song that respects the majesty of Dolly’s “Jolene.” You can just tell. Also Cake’s “Jolene” is one of the purest and hookiest and most joyful guitar songs of my lifetime, or for that matter of Dolly’s lifetime.
When John McCrea asks for guitar, John McCrea gets guitar. The last two minutes or so of the Cake song “Jolene” consist of John receiving the guitar he requested.
Is he yelling Get down! ironically there? Who gets to decide what’s ironic? Who gets to decide if calling something quirky is bad? Who gets to decide if being funny—lyrically or sonically funny—makes you unserious, which makes you unrebellious, which makes you uncool? Another question for you: Why did I pay $20 for Cake’s Motorcade of Generosity on CD in the first place? How did I afford my rock ’n’ roll lifestyle? That’s like five hours of bagging groceries with Mike. Pretty sure I heard “Rock ’n’ Roll Lifestyle” on the radio only that one time. I’m quite positive I never saw the video for “Rock ’n’ Roll Lifestyle” on MTV; I just watched that video for the first time, right now, on YouTube, and I’m pretty sure they spent less on that video than I spent on my CD copy of Motorcade of Generosity. That video cost like $12, and most of that they spent on fruit. I’m also quite positive I never heard any other song from this album on the radio or on MTV ever. So why did a dippy Midwestern teenager such as myself take a chance on the minimalist debut album from this subversive little country-rock band from Sacramento? Oh, right: Here’s why.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.