Less than a year ago no-one had heard of San Francisco’s 4 Non Blondes; now, sales of their debut LP are going crazy. Is there a masterplan at work?
IN CASE you needed confirmation, the sound of Summer In The City 1993 has been the all-pervasive 4 Non Blondes and the Spin Doctors, two bands out of San Francisco, where the hippies have all been replaced by bodysnatchers.
The success of 4 Non Blondes certainly qualifies for the “overnight” category — at least in this country. They only commenced touring their Bigger, Better, Faster, More! album in March, but have already gone Gold here and topped the charts in Germany and Sweden. Meanwhile the LP has sold half-a-million copies in the States, where it was released late last year, and people everywhere are walking round humming the lilting chorus of the worldwide hit single, ‘What’s Up’.
True, there are some renegades holding out who think 4 Non Blondes were invented as a corporate exercise. These sad, deluded, paranoids have imagined a scenario in which you take Linda Perry— (a wacky chick in a hat with one of those Edie Brickell voices) add Christa Hillhouse and Dawn Richardson (two accomplished female musos) then sack original guitarist Shaunna Hall during the album recording sessions. The fact they are signed to Atlantic Records’ Interscope, home of Lemonheads, reinforces the suspicion that 4 Non Blondes have either killer management or a gold pass to the top.
Christa Hillhouse, the band’s tattooed bassist, disputes any hint of an easy ride, despite the fact that the group has already had choice support slots with Prince, Neil Young and now Aerosmith. “Those shows were fine and dandy,” drawls the 31-year-old Okie, “but given the choice I’d rather play a crowded club where you can touch the audience and the energy blows the roof off, than an arena. Of course we’d rather headline. Still, it was cool seeing Neil Young, sitting side-stage with his pack. He’s so raw and simple, he makes the most powerful music. I sucked it in like a sponge. Prince is brilliant too, but there’s a lot more extras in his show. Neil Young just jumps into your soul and doesn’t need any tricks.”
It was the braided, butch-looking Hillhouse who started 4 Non Blondes with 28-year-old singer Perry back in 1989. Their first rehearsal had to be cancelled when the October 7 earthquake rattled the Bay Area. Christa likes the significance of that event just as she dislikes fake showbusiness glamour. “Same goes for Linda. If she’s in a bad mood one night, that comes out in her performance. She don’t go onstage and smile automatically and be somebody she’s not. Linda’s honest and direct. She cuts through the BS. She was an acoustic performer when I saw her. That’s when I chased her down to be the singer in my band. She opens her mouth and her gut. Linda’s one of life’s drivers; a strong, confident person, which is good in this business. Linda won’t take no for an answer. She stirs up feelings in a person… a rare gift.”
Perry is 4 Non Blondes’ dominant force: a self-confessed former acid head who stopped taking drugs when she fell off a third floor balcony. Many of the songs the band plays now have been in her solo repertoire for some time; ‘Spaceman’, the current single, is three years old. 4 Non Blondes sound like a band who have been around a while. Drummer Richardson, who replaced original drummer Wanda Day shortly before pre-production on the album, is a trained percussionist with a degree from Cal State, Los Angeles; token bloke guitarist Roger Rocha is an art school type, grandson of abstract expressionist Clyfford Still; while Hillhouse is the daughter of a jobbing hotel musician from Arkansas.
Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, a heavily-scented hybrid, was produced by David Tickle — who small print scrutineers may recognise as engineer of Prince’s best work (Around The World In A Day and Parade, of course). Hillhouse thinks the record works because “it isn’t trendy. That’s the beauty of it, man. Our fans are diverse. Kids to 40-somethings. And we’ve sold all those units! That’s hard to comprehend but generating all that money in the midst of a recession makes me feel good ‘cos I’ve been broke for years.”
So there is no hidden agenda. “Nope. Linda writes melodies and lyrics that are out there but she’s also accessible. We don’t limit ourselves to that ‘What’s Up’ style either. Dawn and me, we get to wank a little on stage. Show off a bit. Now we also know the difference between a club and an arena but we won’t set off fireworks just because we’re playing with Aerosmith.”
4 Non Blondes’ success means everyone wants a piece of their action. City promoters all over America are clamouring for the ‘What’s Up’ package. For Hillhouse, who spent 12 years playing salsa, Brazilian, jazz and funk, the big time was becoming an impossible dream. “When we were in Scotland somebody recognised me, but they didn’t really speak English. I don’t feel special or different, I’m just not secretary material. If I wasn’t working right now I’d hop onto a Harley and head into the mountains in Northern California and get myself a new tattoo. They’re like mile markers on my body. Symbolic reminders of different events. Useful, now I almost can’t remember what my life was like before 4 Non Blondes.” As I told you, it will be a lot easier if you submit quietly.
© Max Bell, Vox, October 1993