The Lemonheads, college rock favorites of the mid-1980’s, were to become by 1992 international pop-sensations. It was an unlikely place for a band of their type to find themselves in. Today we’ll take a quick look at the circumstances that lead the Lemonheads a, frankly brilliant power-pop band, responsible for much more than the Mrs. Robinson cover, to sit at the height of pop stardom for several years.
The circumstances we are talking about included the unexpected rise in the public psyche of music akin to alternative rock. There was also the terrific timing that allowed their recording of an all-time Simon and Garfunkel favorite to become a worldwide smash.
Alas, things could not last, which in itself is not spectacularly surprising. What is though, was the matter in which it all come tumbling down for a great band that was never moved by great ambition. Fortunately, the Lemonheads regrouped in the late 2000s and, later, in 2019. It marked another chapter in the history of true alt-rock slackers.
The Lemonheads’ Mrs. Robinson becomes a hit
Evan Dando and a shuffling Lemonheads lineup had been at it for the latter half of the 1980s. College radio loved them and so did those who enthusiastically listened to bands like Dinosaur Jr or REM.
The Lemonheads’ formation may have owed a good deal to punk rock. Their sound, however, was honed in classic power-pop trickery, more Big Star than the Sex Pistols. Judging by these factors alone, the band’s eventual radio success doesn’t seem quite as outrageous.
In 1992 the classic movie “The Graduate” which had starred Dustin Hoffman was being re-released on video format. Luckily for Dando and the group, those responsible for the movie’s promotion had the brilliant idea of capitalizing on the rise of alternative rock with a modern cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”. The song, of course, had been debuted in the movie’s soundtrack and, later, achieved the status of standard.
In retrospect, if this sounds like a sure-fire for success, then it was. It ticked all the right boxes. Take a classic song from a classic movie, re-recorded by a band associated with the hip musical trend of the moment, and you get a hit. The studios played their best trick and it worked better than expected. It also helps introduce the Lemonheads and it’s singer, Evan Dando to the world at large.
The Lemonheads were a band. This has to be stressed for all those that may believe, given the fact that the band’s promotion relied almost solely on Dando’s looks, that they were, in fact, a solo vehicle.
They had put out strong albums up to that point and had received some attention, but the label and media interest helpfully caught them at their creative peak. Focus and vision would be lost only a few years later, but for the time being, the Lemonheads seemed like the softer and more palatable substitute to the hard rock leanings of alternative rock bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
And, like a softer spoken version of Cobain himself, Dando was paraded around the television and in magazines profile. For his part, the singer always seemed like the genuine deal, un-begrudgingly going along, yet never bought too much into his own myth.
It was this reputation that would follow the band for most of their career. While Dando’s sharp songwriting skills are clearly evident, and while through their several incarnations the Lemonheads remained a strong alt-rock band, they are mostly remembered for their heavily featured music videos and a string of successful singles (at least to the general public).
The Lemonheads had released one album already on Atlantic records (“Lovey”) and on the strength of their cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” had toured Europe. It was their album “A shame about Ray”, that with the help of bankable singles and the major label support, made them world-famous.
This can also be duly considered their masterwork. It’s a record that effortlessly shifts freely between alternative rock, country, and punk while delivering a very strong collection of songs. Besides the obvious mentions of “Mrs. Robinson” and “It’s a shame about Ray“, there is also the punk rock fantasy of “Alison’s Starting to Happen“, the loose “My Drug Buddy” and the prophetic (given the band’s future) “Rudderless“.
More still, the band was more than capable of playing smaller clubs, as well as big-scale shoes with the same do-nothing policy. Their shows leaned heavily on cover numbers, often performed by Dando using merely an acoustic guitar. The fact that the group could play well yet were, clearly, took themselves far less seriously than some of their contemporaries endeared them to many.
The band recorded two more albums for the label “Come on feel the Lemonheads“(1993) and “Car button cloth” (1996), which showed signs of brilliance, but also a lack of interest in making a memorable set of songs from start to finish. It was in these years that Dando struggled to balance his newfound fame (which he even used to appear in several movies) with his growing songwriting skills. Dando always cited diverse influences from Black Flag to Gram Parsons, from Abba to Leonard Cohen.
In 1998 Atlantic presumably decided to cut their losses and with no new Lemonheads album on the horizon and the popularity of group waning, released a Best Of package from the recording years of the band on the label. It did showcase a ’90’s alternative band with a great ear for melody, varied musical influences, a group that at their best had the singles and the deep cuts go along with those.
In the years that followed, Evan Dando seemed to lose interest in his rock star status and even his status as working musician. He did release a solo album in 2003, titled ” “, that while not without some weak points, did show the same concentrated brilliance on some of the songs.
It was difficult to discern at times from Evan Dando solo endeavors to the Lemonheads as an entity, but under the band moniker, they continued to tour on again – off again until the present.
The year 2009 had them release a new album, the collection of covers “Varshons“. It was a logical step for a band that had always specialized in covers. The album featured songs from artists as diverse as Leonard Cohen, G.G. Allin and, of course, their long time favorite, Gram Parsons. The Lemonheads (or Dando, on his own) continued to tour sporadically, usually playing the old favourites.
Somewhat surprisingly, given how quiet the group had been on the recording front, the Lemonheads celebrated the 10th year anniversary of “Varshons” with a follow-up. ” ” featured a wide array of covers from artists as diverse as Yo La Tengo, the Eagles, and Nick Cave.
Original compositions are rumored to be in preparatory stages for some time, with Ryan Adams even associated with production duties at one point. But, similar to Dando’s hero, Alex Chilton, as far as a select audience is concerned, their work simply couldn’t have been any better.
The Lemonheads produced a strong catalog and some occasional gems, but always left the feeling that there could have been more to their music if they’d only found the time in their ever-busier schedules throughout the ’90s.