Fan Club Single #2: Sorry Rudolph

by Jessica Letkemann , John Reynolds on December 15, 2005

Cover to Cover




(Click to enlarge the photos above)

By the time Pearl Jam turned two at the end of 1992, turntables were well on their way to being only the domain of audiophiles, DJs, and old-schoolers and band fan clubs were mostly nostalgia. But the young band had other ideas. They’d sent their fan club the same holiday gift in 1991 that the Beatles had back in the day: an exclusive 45rpm single with their greetings on the b-side. 1992 would be no different.

This time, the record had a macabre title, Who Killed Rudolph?, and cover art to match. The sleeve’s cover photo was taken by Jeff Ament and shows a dead deer lying on the side of a stretch of two-lane blacktop in his home state of Montana, presumably roadkill judging by the blood-smear from the middle of the road. The photo on the back sleeve is another Ament photo from Montana: this time a view looking down into a shed or barn of a dead pig, motionless among some boxes and other debris. Both photos have been tinted green, which combined with the red “Pearl Jam” on the front, form the two primary “Christmas colors.”

The theme continues with the song chosen for Side A: a cover of the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer.” Like the previous year’s single, Side B contains a band greeting to fans interspersed among a montage of sound bytes. The inaugural single’s greeting was “Ramblings,” which explains this single’s title of “Ramblings Continued.” Sony pressed 25,000 of the ’92 single, up from only 1,500 the year before; a newly platinum debut album has a way of pumping up membership to your fan club (Ten actually went triple platinum just days after they recorded “Sonic Reducer.”)

Sonic Reducer, Ain’t No Loser

The back of the single lists the ASCAP publishing credits for “Sonic Reducer” as “bators, chrome, zero, blitz, magnum, thomas.” You punk historians may be aware that there was no one named “Thomas” in Dead Boys, and that’s because the song began life as a song by Rocket From the Tombs, which included a guy named Dave Thomas. RFTT soon split into two influential bands: Pere Ubu and Dead Boys, both of whom adopted “Sonic Reducer,” but Dead Boys made it famous.

So what in the world is a “sonic reducer”? In the liner notes to the recent RFTT reissue “The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs,” David Thomas said it had to do with “sonic reduction.” He wrote the RFTT song “Final Solution” (later recorded by Pere Ubu), which includes the lyric, “buy me a ticket to a sonic reduction / guitars gonna sound like a nuclear destruction.” Sonic reduction? “The idea of sonic reduction occured to me in ‘Final Solution,” Thomas writes in the RFTT liner notes. “And then I wrote ‘Sonic Reducer’ because it was a cool idea (sonic reduction!) and I figured I ought to make more of it. As for what it was… I remember it had something to do with a synthesis of much sound into a moment of clarity.” Thomas is right: formally speaking, “sonic reduction” is an obscure school of musical thought (circa the early-mid 70s when RFFT was around) that followed minimalism: instead of minimalism’s idea of playing as little as possible (ie, with as much silence as possible); sonic reduction was stripping a song down to its most basic components (a basic drumbeat, the fewest chords) and really hammering on those. Sounds like a basic definition of punk rock if you ask us. The term also refers to a studio/recording technique: make it simple and loud. Also a good way of describing punk.

The term “Sonic Reduction” has been applied to everyone from Rancid to Sonic Youth, and Pere Ubu and Q and Not U both have songs that mention the phrase. Meanwhile, Pearl Jam is far from the only band to cover “Sonic Reducer”: Overkill has, and so has Face to Face, and Saves the Day. Additionally, pre-PJ band Green River covered Dead Boys’ “Ain’t Nothin’ to Do.”

In the years since the ’92 single, “Sonic Reducer” has become a favorite at PJ shows even though it’s rarely played. But as the band barnstormed North America as the second band on the bill at Lollapalooza in the summer of ’92, the song suddenly turned up on their setlists for the first time. After a gig at the Lakewood Amphitheater near Atlanta on September 1st, the Lolla bands had the next two days off. PJ headed off to a one room studio near the Atlanta airport to cut their new favorite cover with a little-known 32-year-old local producer named Brendan O’Brien.

Enter Soundman

Sonic Chronology
09/01/92
PJ plays Atlanta Lolla
09/04/92
PJ records at Southern Tracks, hauls ass to New Orleans Lolla
09/07/92
PJ rehearses MTV VMAs
09/08/92
PJ plays “Sonic Reducer” in Phoenix
09/09/92
Ed tags “Jeremy” with “Sonic Reducer” lyrics at MTV VMAs
09/11-12-13/92
PJ plays “Sonic Reducer” during 3-Lolla finale

Below the tracklisting on the back sleeve, the writing reads “recorded and mixed by Brendan O’Brien at Southern Tracks in Atlanta, Georgia on Sept. 4, 1992″ in Jeff’s own distinctive handwriting, and that’s where the “Rudolph” recording chronology gets a little murky. PJ couldn’t be in two places at once, and they were definitely about 475 miles away rocking the UNO Arena in New Orleans at 3:00 PM on that day. Our guess? PJ and O’Brien wrapped the session in the wee hours of the morning and pulled off the seven-hour drive to New Orleans just in time for their set.

This first ever PJ/O’Brien collaboration was the beginning of a long association: months later Brendan was behind the boards producing Vs., then Vitalogy, No Code, Yield, and parts of Binauaral. But back when he got behind Southern Tracks’ early model SSL console for PJ’s quickie “Sonic Reducer” session that September of 1992, the one-time member of the Georgia Satellites didn’t have any big albums to his credit. The record that made his name, ironically, was Stone Temple Pilots’ debut Core, recorded earlier that year (April) and released just three weeks later (Sept. 29, 1992).

The recording itself is textbook “sonic reduction” – as rough and ready as the song and the small studio, and just about as rude as the original (we mean that in the best of ways). Right before Eddie sings “I’ll be a pharaoh soon,” someone lets out a loud belch. There is also enough guitar feedback and stray noise to capture the live feel of the recording, not unlike the way it was probably played by the Dead Boys at CBGB in the late ’70s.

(Click each image below to enlarge).


About the photos on the label: Band in fall weather against a backdrop of baretrees, but Jeff in short sleeves. B-side is a guy in a white t-shirt – probably a member of the band – near an open window with a curtain flowing over his head in a white brick room with the giant letters “JAM” used on the cover of Ten. There are no photo credits for either of the photos.

Following the recording in Atlanta, Lollapalooza ’92 finished up with Pearl Jam playing “Sonic Reducer” in almost every set in the Southwest leading up to three dates in Southern California. In addition to these dates, Pearl Jam performed at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. At the rehearsal on 9/7, Pearl Jam was all set to play “Sonic Reducer”; the MTV execs, however, insisted the band play “Jeremy.” During the waning notes of a very powerful “Jeremy” performance at the awards show on 9/9, a scowling Eddie lunges for his previously tossed microphone to get in some last words, snippets from Sonic Reducer: “I don’t need no … don’t need no mom and dad….”

Ramblings Redux

The B-side, “Ramblings Continued,” combined a semi-bizarre band holiday greeting with an assortment of obscure audio: old Christmas songs, bits of movie dialogue and interviews. Monthy Python and Eraserhead are intercut with Stone declaring “I’m not bisexual” for no apparent reason; and President Bush (Sr.) set to dance music is juxtaposed with Jeff promising the guy on the next record who isn’t wearing shoes will be the one who had been “really fucked up” during this session (hilariously, four of five PJ members are barefoot in the Vs. liner notes). “Merry Pissmas,” Mike jokes. It’s an odd little recording. Here’s the play-by-play:

Sample 15 seconds from The Beatles’ “The Inner Light”
Sample Unidentified 15 seconds of airy violin/flute music that sounds as if it’s played backwards
Sample Soundbytes of an explosion followed by a gust of wind
Sample Instrumental version of “Deck the Halls”
Sample Nat King Cole singing “Joy To The World”: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come”
Sample Scene from David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead:

Woman: Did you and Mary have sexual intercourse?
Man: Why?
Woman: Did you?
Man: Why are you asking me this question?

Sample Unidentified hysterical woman: They’re still not sure it is a baby!
Sample Song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”: “The child the child / Sleeping in the
night / He will bring us goodness and light”
Sample Malcolm McLaren, Sex Pistols manager, interviewed on British TV, December 1976:

Interviewer: … it must be a good example to children.
McLaren: More people are sick everywhere. People are sick and fed up with this country.
Interviewer: In fact, you’re actually speaking for the group today.
McLaren: Yes, indeed.
Interviewer: Have you stopped them from talking to us?
McLaren: Not at all. They’re just so disgusted by our having to answer so many questions about something so simple.

Sample 5-second clip of the ending of an unidentified song
Excerpt of Pearl Jam talking on microphone prior to “starting” the fan club single recording
?? George just called and said that the rent in the practice basement went from $350 to $400.
Jeff Oh that’s it?
Stone Oh my God (cut)
?? …Use another addition room built into the warehouse.
Jeff I heard it’s actually like actually [Jimi] Hendrix actually used to work there as a shipper loader kind of guy.
?? Yeah, Hendrix worked there when it was there.
Sample Jimi Hendrix interview:

Interviewer: If you had the chance to communicate one general idea to the American public what would it be?
Jimi Hendrix: I guess it would be understanding and communication between the different age brackets, which there’s no such thing about age brackets anyway, not in my mind, because a person’s not actually old in numbers of years but how many miles he’s traveled. You know? How he keeps his mind active and creative.

Back to PJ conversing
?? An “H” is carved in to the wall
Mike Let’s do this thing.
Jeff It’s doin’ right now.
Whole band Hey!!!
Sample Song intro: “Hey lets go / Ok look out look out” sung over cracking reigns and jingle bells
Back to PJ conversing
Stone Merry Christmas.
Mike Merry Christmas. We just thought we’d give you a little insight to our band psychology.
Sample Monty Python’s Eric Idle singing: “Always look on the bright side of life … [whistle]“
Sample Unidentifed sample with man’s voice “Makes ya sick, doesn’t it?”
Back to PJ conversing
Jeff We don’t just sit around and party.
Stone Which one of us is really fucked up? That’s the question we pose to you.
Sample Pres. George Bush Sr. (from a Nov. 8, 1991 press conference in Rome, Italy), set to dance music: “It’s far less deep than the previous recession. Heh heh heh” over crowd chanting
Back to PJ conversing
Stone Is it Eric Johnson or… [see reference]
Jeff It’ll be the guy on the next record with out wearing shoes.
Stone I’m not bisexual.
Sample Monty Python song, “Christmas in Heaven”: “It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas in
heaven / Hip hip hip hip hip hooray”
Back to PJ conversing
Mike Eric is dead. [see reference]
Stone We just looked at the artwork for the Christmas single and it’s pretty damn good. Jeff Ament. It’s been a really fun year and…
Dave We’re a little more relaxed at this little…
Stone Oh, we’re much more relaxed right now. Thank you guys very much for supporting us so much. Say something nice to the people, Edward.
Eddie: [long pause] Hi.
Stone He’s doing the shy routine right know.
Eddie: I’m not shy I’m just pissed.
Stone He’s pissed and shy.
Mike Merry Pissmiss.
Sample About 10 seconds of an unidentified flanged guitar sample.
Stone Alright, Bye!
Mike See ya.
Jeff Bye.
Sample The overture of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar

“Ramblings Continued” references

  • Eric Johnson was PJ’s tour manager[Go back to where I was]
  • “Eric is dead” is a reference to the Beatles conspiracy theory in the late 60s that Paul McCartney was dead. Fans who bought into the theory supposed that since Paul is barefoot and out of step with the other Beatles on the cover of Abbey Road, he’s meant to represent a corpse.[Go back to where I was]

Special thanks to Glenn Kenny for providing the Rocket From the Tombs compilation and liner notes.

Jessica Letkemann ( Twitter: @Letkemann )
TFT co-editor Jessica Letkemann is a New York based digital music journalist & editor. She's currently VP & Editor-In-Chief of Digital at Fuse Media (Fuse.tv) and was previously managing editor of Billboard.com. She has also been on staff at Spin and Premiere magazines. Her first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 2, 1992.
John Reynolds ( Twitter: @jjjrrr )
A New Jersey based programmer, John handles TFT’s programming and technical aspects. He also conceives and writes his share of TFT’s articles and sections. John’s first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 12, 1992.

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