Sporting a tuxedo and the rock star equivalent of a bed-head hairdo, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day spent more than 10 minutes at the podium reflecting on his band’s career and the people who made it possible. On April 18, Green Day was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, joining such inductees as Lou Reed, Ringo Starr and Joan Jett.
As the band was anointed into rock royalty, Armstrong name-checked many influences from the stage of Cleveland’s Public Hall: Led Zeppelin, Cheap Trick, Patti Smith …and Sacramento’s late-great Sewer Trout.
The moment was brief, just a quick name drop toward the end of Armstrong’s speech, which was broadcast via HBO on May 30. But for those familiar with Sacramento’s underground punk scene of the late-1980s, how sweet and ironic it was to hear the name “Sewer Trout” during the night’s A-list pageantry.
Long before the band ascended to Hall of Fame status and outgrew punk clubs for sports arenas, Green Day regularly played all-ages shows around the greater Sacramento area and Northern California. Green Day was still known as “Sweet Children” in those days, and shared some of its earliest bills with Sewer Trout, including a veteran’s hall in Davis and Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street.
Armstrong reflected on those formative years at 924 Gilman Street as he wrapped up the acceptance speech.
“And what a great scene,” said Armstrong. “(I) got to see Operation Ivy, and I got to see Crimpshrine, and I got to see Sewer Trout ... these far out there bands. I’m truly fortunate.”
Sewer Trout’s run was fairly short, lasting from about 1985 to 1990. The band’s core included Jim MacLean on vocals and bass, brother Hal on drums, plus guitarists Keith Lehtinen and Erik Benson. Sewer Trout set much of the tone for Sacramento’s punk scene back then, with songs soaked in sarcasm and plenty of cheap beer. But among the snark and double-time drum beats, Sewer Trout’s lyrics were sprinkled with introspections (“I’m a Hypocrite”) and a heavy dose of sing-a-long melodies.
All these years later, hearing Sewer Trout mentioned at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was slightly surreal for Hal MacLean.
“That’s pretty crazy,” said MacLean, in a phone call. “I guess it was a lot more influential than we’d ever know.”
Sewer Trout and Green Day were onetime labelmates on Lookout! Records, which released Sewer Trout’s “Songs About Drinking” e.p. in 1987. But unlike Green Day, Sewer Trout wasn’t a bunch of careerists with rock star ambitions. They were content to play underground gigs and house parties, until breaking up in 1990. The times were such a whirlwind that MacLean says he barely remembers gigging with Green Day.
“It was thrilling,” said MacLean about the late-1980s punk scene. “I remember seeing Green Day tons of times. But who played what show is all kind of a blur to me.”
Green Day later signed with Reprise Records and released its major label debut in 1994. The title of that album, “Dookie,” might as well have been “Sewer Trout.” Both of the names are juvenile slang for feces.
But that kind of snarky, hook-laden approach was a specialty of Sewer Trout, a sound that gave shape to Sacramento punk rock and beyond. You can sense that influential blend of beer-fueled propulsion and harmony in such early Green Day tracks as “One for the Razorbacks” and “One of My Lies.”
More than two decades later, Sewer Trout’s tunes still sound great, a blast of melody and a band that puts the “smart” in smart aleck. Physical copies of Sewer Trout’s music can be hard to find, but Sacramento’s Phono Select record store carries a copy of the “Sewer Trout For President” e.p. for $25.
“It holds up really well,” said Dal Basi, owner of Phono Select. “If you listen to a lot of Sacramento bands, that influence can be heard throughout there. Sacramento has this nerdy, quirk, funny side to its punk rock. It’s not mean and angry – at least not in the midtown/downtown scene. It was more, ‘Let’s drink some beers and be funny.’”
Sadly, there isn’t likely to be any kind of Sewer Trout reunion. The post-script of Sewer Trout’s story has a tragic ending, with the 2005 suicide of Jim MacLean. His brother, Hal, now lives and works in Oakland and drums for Party Force and other bands.
But now, to fire up the turntable with classic Sewer Trout tracks as “Coors For Contras” and “Wally & The Beaver Go To Nicaragua” is to feel Sacramento’s salad days of punk rock spin back to life. The songs and memories are powerful enough that even a newly minted member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still remembers.
“I thought about my brother,” MacLean said about his reaction to Sewer Trout being mentioned at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Green Day’s pretty amazing, and good for them. I really appreciate they’re giving back. They haven’t forgot their roots.”