The album had a hit single, “Someone Like You,” but never rose to the success of bands like Warrant and Ratt. Birk explains why Psycho Café deserves a second life over two decades after its initial release.
When we are younger, we are influenced by others around us, whether it’s people we meet at shows or murmurings in school hallways about a certain album being the most brutal thing of all time. The kid who grew up listening to Korn sees a guy wearing a Metallica shirt, and thinks to himself, “That shirt looks awesome. I wonder who they are.’ Flipping through albums at a record store, the cover of Slayer’s Reign In Blood is hard to tear away from, especially from someone who believed Marilyn Manson was the personification of evil.
: Then sometimes, it’s a more primal instinct that influences our musical tastes. As a pre-teen, Birk became fascinated with the opposite sex. This led to him expanding from thrash and death metal to other genres, including the much-maligned hair metal. Helping out the neighbors, who happened to have a beautiful daughter who caught Birk’s eye, he found out about Bang Tango. At the time, Bang Tango had just released their debut album, Psycho Café.
“I had a paper route, so I had about 50 bucks each month to spend on tapes,” Birk remembered. “I was like ‘F**k it. I’ll buy this Bang Tango album in secret.’ Why I thought it was a secret, like there was some scene police looking over my shoulder while I bought it, I don’t know.”
Like most hard-nosed kids, he was very leery of letting others know that he was into other music beside the most extreme that metal had to offer. The concept of a “guilty pleasure” was not lost on Birk, as he regularly put The Cult’s Sonic Temple in rotation. Psycho Café found its way into that category quickly, though Birk didn’t have an immediate attraction to it upon first glance.
“It was a strange album. It sounded like hair metal, but it had this funkiness to it,” Birk said.
That funkiness that Birk alluded to is one of the defining traits to Psycho Café, though by no means the major influence on these ten songs. On the surface, this is hair metal basics, with glossy production and song titles like “Breaking Up A Stone Of Heart” and “Love Injection” making sure that the stone-cold metal heads will point their middle finger to it in disgust. However, the groove-infused bass work and hip-shaking tempos of “Attack Of Life” and “Shotgun Man” stood out compared to many of their contemporaries.
“I guess I never really perceived it as a funk metal record,” Birk reflected. “I listen to it back now, and yeah, there’s definitely some funkiness to it. You hear a song like ‘Attack Of Life,’ it’s funky, but in a way that ‘70s Aerosmith was funky.”
Blending the groove of funk with the sleaze of hair metal was something out of the norm when Psycho Café was released in 1989. Bands like Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Infectious Grooves were playing around with those kinds of sounds during the same time, but very few hair metal bands were dwelling into that. It was something that gave Bang Tango the mark of originality, but also may have hindered their success, as their single “Someone Like You” could be considered generic.
In the hour-long discussion between Birk and myself, one of the subjects talked about was the other possibilities that Bang Tango could have went with as a first single. The immediate one that came to our minds was the excellent opener “Attack of Life.” It was a better representation of the band’s sound, with the strong funk vibes and energetic pace. Birk landed the best comment on it, mentioning “Attack of Life,” “would be a smart song for what was going on at the time on rock radio. It did have a bit more of their signature to it.”
Birk’s affection for Psycho Café continued past his crush with the neighbor’s daughter, as he kept the album close to him throughout his high school days. While he mostly leaned away from metal during high school, finding more value out of hardcore and ‘80s Goth music, he got back into metal during college and found a used copy of the band’s 1991 album Dancin’ On Coals. That was the tipping point for Birk, who hasn’t heard any of their other work to date.
“That band is very set in time,” Birk said. “I don’t want to shatter the good vibes I have about the band. I’ll cap it with two albums and that’s it.”
Psycho Café charted near the Billboard Top 50, and “Someone Like You” received airplay on MTV, but the album didn’t lift off the way the band might had been expecting. Dancin’ On Coals failed to match up in sales to their first album. The band has gone in and out of existence ever since, releasing Pistol Whipped In The Bible Belt back in 2011, though vocalist Joe Leste is the lone original member.
Psycho Café is an example of an album that wasn’t able to get that one big break. Birk theorizes this question, “What if Bang Tango went out with Motley Crue?”
“Around that time, Dr. Feelgood came out, and that was huge. Here’s this record that’s got critical acclaim and everyone is raving about it, and then you see the sales figures, and it’s like ‘What happened?’”
Though Birk believes that now is a perfect time for Psycho Café to see some sort of renaissance, with labels reissuing albums left and right for a quick buck, it’s unclear if that could happen. With their original label long deceased, there could be a decent amount of red tape to wade through to see this album get another large pressing.
Birk wants albums like Psycho Café to get a new life with a reissue, as he believes, “there’s a lot of cool albums that deserve to stay in print, and hopefully there will be enough people in the future that will want to keep buying metal albums and want to keep some of these band’s memories alive.”
Guys have done crazy things for girls before, though some may argue that nothing could be quite as insane as giving a hair metal album a listen. Birk found out about Bang Tango because of a girl, but he became a lifelong fan because of how unique the album was in a hair metal culture, where being original wasn’t rewarded with high sales or endless plays on MTV. Bang Tango went against the mold, and Birk is reminded of his past whenever Psycho Café gets played.
“I really enjoy growing up through the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s,” Birk explained. “All the music I listened to from ’85-’92, for better or worse, was my favorite music. No matter what time or what mood, I can put any of that on and just be whisked away to that time.”