Marvelous 3

When Elektra Records picked up the Marvelous 3 and released Hey! Album as a major label debut in 1998, they thought they were signing a hit act. After all, the flagship single from that album, the mercilessly hooky “Freak of the Week,” had done quite well for itself as an independent release, notching near-ubiquitous airplay on the band’s local Atlanta radio stations and earning the Butch Walker-fronted power-pop-rock trio a passionate fanbase. But the wider mainstream audience wasn’t really ready for the catchy, idiosyncratic sound of Marvelous 3, which blended biting sarcasm, bitter lyrics about failed relationships, and easy-to-swallow melodies together into a unique concoction. Instead, the radio was turning toward boy bands and rap metal, and as “Freak of the Week” failed to score a high chart position, Elektra realized that they had signed anything but a hit pop act; they had signed a band that, in that age of pop music, wasn’t marketable to the average radio audience. At all.

In such a situation, a decent record label would have tried to make the best of a bad situation: they would have worked to promote the Marvelous 3 as the torchbearers of the 1980s revival that would explode a few years later, or tried to market Walker’s budding production talents as something that pop music listeners should have been paying attention to (which, given his wildly successful career as a producer, was true). But money troubles and a slew of similar unmarketable acts left Elektra scrambling to fix things the easy way, and the result was that the record label left bands like Marvelous 3 in the dust. Feeling the neglect of a label that didn’t give a shit, Walker, Jayce, and Slug recorded an album that melded their power pop influences with their 1980s hair metal roots, creating a shameless and fearless record full of larger-than-life arena rock songs. Of course, the band was still writing sarcastic lyrics about sex and love gone wrong, but with their third record, titled Readysexgo! it all took a turn for the grandiose, and the result was the greatest record these three guys ever made in each other’s company.

It was also the last record they made in each other’s company. Beneath the anthemic choruses, the epic guitar solos, and Butch’s layers of studio wizardry, Readysexgo! was, at its core, both a love letter to the Marvelous 3’s loyal fanbase and a middle-finger-in-the-air “Fuck You” to Elektra Records. Rather than try to adapt their sound to fit the changing radio format, Walker and company consciously drove off a cliff in the opposite direction, writing what was probably one of the least marketable albums from a major label act back in 2000. Sure, there were still plenty of catchy songs, but they weren’t 2000s radio catchy. The opening trio of this record—“Little Head,” “Grant Park,” “Get Over”—was and is a parade of some of the best hooks Walker ever wrote, but there was far too much attitude and tongue-in-cheek sensibility in those songs for them to ever have a shot at radio airplay. “Grant Park” was about a guy who walked in on his wife hooking up with another woman, while “Little Head” had a line about “falling off the short bus and landing on your head.” In a year where the number one hits consisted of sap fests like Savage Garden’s “I Knew I Loved You” and Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open,” these songs were destined to be dead in the water. Hell, the album’s fourth track, “Sugarbuzz,” relied heavily on a hook that read, “You can stick that sign up your ass/The one that says it won’t last,” and it was the lead-off single. If Butch and his bandmates weren’t intentionally trying to mock the state of mainstream music, they sure did a good job of doing it by accident.

Whatever the band’s intentions behind Readysexgo!, the label wasn’t among the album’s fans.From the sounds of it, there was a lot of neglect, dishonesty, and double-dealing going on in the Elektra offices around the time this record hit the streets, and since the guys in the Marvelous 3 had all been screwed over by the music industry once or twice before, the poor treatment didn’t sit well with them. Years later, when Butch would tell the story of what happened between the September 2000 release of this record and the band’s farewell show in Atlanta the following August, the order of events that led to the dissipation of the Marvelous 3 would shift around a bit, but the outcome was always the same: the band decided to cut ties and walk away in order to escape the abuses of Elektra—or, as Walker called the label in the band’s break-up notice, “Neglectra”—and the chapter of the Marvelous 3 came to a close.

“We had this hit song and everything was cool, and then the record company said ‘hey guess what?! We’re done promoting you. But we’re going to keep you on our contract if that’s okay with you,’ and we’re like, ‘No, that’s not fucking okay.’ So we said…I guess the best way it is that…the best way that they can’t, you know, take anything from us or keep us from creating art was to break up. So we broke up, and we said ‘fuck you’ to the label, but we stayed the best of friends and that’s the most important thing, ‘cause friendships last and mean more than any fucking band could ever mean.”

I didn’t personally hear Readysexgo! until 2005, so I can’t comment on how the record hit for fans listening to it for the first time on release day. However, looking back now, it’s fairly clear that the record was written as a farewell album. On the surface, album centerpiece “Radio Tokyo” is a towering arena rock anthem—complete with a guitar solo ripped straight from Butch, Jayce, and Slug’s hair metal days—but listen to the lyrics and the song rings as an anti-establishment tirade. It’s the most prophetic song Walker ever wrote, painting a picture of a world where labels and mainstream radio formats don’t matter anymore, where rock ‘n’ roll recedes back into the underground, and where all the kids tune their receivers to pirate radio stations in the middle of the night because that’s where the truly vital music is playing. For me, the song is more indicative of what happened in music over the course of the 2000s than just about any other—though the revelation came by way of downloading and the internet rather than via pirate radio. It all gets kicked a notch higher by the last line (“Seven hours later, they stopped the elevator to the second floor/And there was no more”), which feels like a strikingly final statement, even amidst a record full of songs (“This Time,” “Better Off Alone,” “I Could Change”) that crackle with climactic energy.

But the song that truly lays the Marvelous 3 to rest is, appropriately, the final one. Frequently introduced by Butch at concerts as “the last song we ever wrote, we ever performed as a band, and ever put on a record,” “Cigarette Lighter Love Song” is a bittersweet finale that stands as one of the best songs anybody wrote last decade. It’s Butch’s first utterly flawless song, from the delicate piano intro to the way the band kicks in at full force just in time for the first chorus. On record, it’s indelible, borrowing the general melodic contour of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” for the chorus—David Bowie even gets a tongue-in-cheek co-writing credit in the album liner notes—and building it into a sky-scraping power ballad.

Live, “Cigarette Lighter” has appeared in many formats, almost always as the highlight of whatever set it graces. For the final Marvelous 3 concert, it was an emotional coda to the 15 years these three guys had spent playing together; early in Butch’s solo career, for the fantastic acoustic live album, This Is Me, Justified and Stripped, it was a bare-bones piano confessional. And since I started going to live shows, I’ve also seen the song take many forms. In the first rock concert I ever went to, it was the penultimate linchpin for the main set, beginning as a solo piano arrangement, plunging the audience into pure darkness during the second verse, and then exploding in electric instrumentation as the full band returned and the house lights went up for the show’s grand finale. On the 2007/08 live album, Leavin’ the Game on Luckie Street, it was once again a punched-up, muscular rocker, with a snippet of Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger” blasting through the noise during the final moments of the song and adding even more power to the proceedings. And on recent tours, Butch has taken the song to its highest levels of emotion and meaning by stripping it down to its barest essentials and utilizing it as an a cappella show opener.

“Cigarette Lighter Love Song” might well be the definitive Butch Walker song. It was his parting gift for the followers of Marvelous 3, and it’s continued to follow him through every stage of his solo career, taking a new form every time he plays it. To this day, when I hear the bridge (“Everything’s supposed to have a happy ending, but the record keeps skipping and the needle keeps bending/Like the road I’m driving to the bridge that has no end/I wanna take back everything that I’ve broken, but the bridges behind me are burning and smoking/I guess this is the end”), I find it difficult not to get choked up. Very few album closers are this powerful, this sweeping, this anthemic. I certainly don’t think I’ve ever heard another closing track that serves so well as a swansong. By the time Butch was singing those lines, he’d been bouncing around the music industry for years: he’d conquered the Atlanta music scene, playing shows six nights a week, when he was still only in high school. He’d served a quick stint in a major label hair metal outfit and he’d turned out three great records with the Marvelous 3. But “Cigarette Lighter Love Song,” this moment of complete honesty and emotion, tacked onto the end of an album and a band career that often emphasized sarcasm and cleverness above almost all else, this is where Butch Walker found his voice, and that’s why it’s the most important song he’s ever written. With Readysexgo!, Walker may have been at the end of one musical journey, but with “Cigarette Lighter Love Song,” he gave fans a preview of the many great things still to come.

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