The Scruffs - Biography
By Eric Brightwell
In the 1970s, bands from the upland South like North Carolina’s The dB’s and Oklahoma’s 20/20 and The Dwight Twilley Band, proved that there was no shortage of ‘60s-worshipping, skinny tie-wearers in a region more known for its sweaty, bearded, boot-scootin’ Southern rockers like Barefoot Jerry, The Marshall Tucker Band and The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. The hotbed of power pop talent was centered in midtown Memphis which most notably produced Big Star but also considerable (and criminally undervalued) talents like Tommy Hoehn, Van Duren and The Scruffs.
Formed in 1974, the year Big Star broke up, The Scruffs truly carried the torch for their brand of power pop with their marriage of concise songcraft, lilting harmonies, jangly guitar, rhythmic punch and lyrical concerns that suggest a perpetual adolescence. Although nowadays legions of musicians acknowledge a debt to Big Star, The Scruffs were one of the first to recognize their brilliance and made no efforts to hide their desire to follow in their footsteps – even though, being out-of-step with the prevailing trends, it would similarly doom them to obscurity. Sure enough, just as with Big Star, it took years for The Scruffs to approach anything that can be considered even a cult following, whose awareness, in many cases, is probably limited to their debut as their subsequent albums, despite all being of very high quality, are incredibly rare.
The Scruffs (possibly a reference to George Harrison’s “Apple Scruffs?”) were initially made up of Stephen Burns, David Branyan and Zelph Paulson and Rick Branyan. In 1976, Rick Branyan left and was replaced by Bill Mathieu. Then Mathieu left and Branyan returned to the fold. A collection of recordings from this early period was released decades later, titled Angst, the Early Years. For a collection of demos they sound pretty assured and nicely varied. Except for Burn’s initial, affected British accent (always an embarrassing temptation for Anglophiles) there are otherwise remarkably few missteps. Expectedly, as a young band finding its voice, they occasionally sound blatantly like their influences but clever songs like “So You Want to Be a Big Star,” which neatly references both Big Star and The Byrds, the band reveal considerable self-awareness and unfailingly good taste. As the demos progress chronologically, Burns’s voice grows stronger and suggests a yearning neurotic completely at the mercy of fickle and incomprehensible girls.
At Ardent Studios, the band recorded its first record, Wanna Meet the Scruffs? (1977 Power Play). Despite its unquestionable brilliance and accessibility, it was decidedly at odds with a rock mainstream, dominated by shaggy, sprawling boogie rock anthems dominated by endless, sprawling guitar solos and groove-based jams. None of Wanna Meet the Scruffs?’s 13 tiny masterpieces of economy and streamlined songcraft even reached the four-minute mark. They released one single, “Break the Ice,” on Power Play and received some local airplay but nothing more. The few critics that heard it were universally appreciative. Even regionalist New Yorker Robert Christgau reluctantly praised it, unable to resist its considerable Southern charm.
The Scruffs began recording a followup in 1978. After completing six songs, they moved to New York City where they played at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. In 1979, Rick Branyan moved back to Memphis and Steve Wood stepped in. A few months later Dave Branyan quit mid-performance and a local guitarist, Steve O’Rourke was brought in and back at Ardent they recorded more songs. On returning to New York they opened for the likes of Chuck Berry, Johnny Thunders and Peter Noone, and tried to get their album released to no avail. Almost 20 years later, TeenAge Gurls (1998 Northern Heights) was finally released. On it, David Branyan and Steve O’Rourke share songwriting and singing duties with Burns. With very different voices and approaches, the record has a bit of a disjointed feel, albeit on overall effect suggests a shared appreciation of the Mod revival bands and Nick Lowe. By the end of 1981, only one single, “Teenage Gurls,” had been released to little fanfare and the still unsigned band parted ways.
Burns continued making music with various musicans, the end result was Midtown (1998 Northern Heights) and it ultimately took ten years to get released, credited to The Scruffs who were by then primarily a vehicle for Stephen Burns rather than a stable band. In 1996, Burns recorded Back From the Grave – The Scruffs in New Orleans with Alex Chilton, but it was never released. Burns’s short-lived band, Messenger 45 released Signs & Symbols in 1997 and sounded quite like The Scruffs, albeit with added orchestration.
Back in the mid-1980s, a handful of bands in Bellshill, Scotland (including The BMX Bandits, The Soup Dragons and Teenage Fanclub) were gaining notice for their unabashedly Big Star-indebted sound, cleverly dubbed by the press “The Bellshill Sound.” Using their popularity as a platform, the bands proclaimed their adoration for Big Star and helped elevate Alex Chilton’s stature, eventually convincing him to relocate to Glasgow. Meanwhile, Burns recruited Wil O’Brien from The Andersons to record with him back in New Orleans. Chilton, by then recognized as a musical genius in Scotland, convinced Burns to come over and record. Having only ever sold 2,500 records in his career, Burns was likely surprised by the adoration for his hopelessly obscure band. Joined by Bob Kildea, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson, The Scruffs were resurrected in Scotland and they began recording at Ca Va Studios. The results were mixed back at Ardent. Despite the long absence and new lineup, the resulting album was recognizably The Scruffs, although the lush orchestral touches suggested the influence of baroque ‘n’ rollers like The Left Banke, The Merry-Go-Round and Colin Blunstone. Love, the Scruffs (2000 Nippon Crown) was initially only released in Japan, where The Scruffs (perhaps not surprisingly) had a following and they embarked on two tours there over the next two years. Swingin’ Singles (2003) followed.
The Scruffs still play and sporadically record. The current lineup consists of Stephen Burns Vocals, Paul Napier, Lead Guitar, Simon Cotrell and Mark Rodgers. Pop Manifesto (2007 Scruffsville?) is the latest release and shows the band to be in amazingly fine form.