Rewind: Harvey Danger Was More Than “Flagpole Sitta”

Rewind is a new feature at The Airspace. It’s a personal look at the bands and records that didn’t really reach commercial or critical success but still deserve praise.

Last weekend, my roommates and I threw a 90s party, inviting our closest friends for a night of listening to my 90 song 90s Playlist, and watching Space Jam, a movie that pretty much captured the decade. As people were slowly strolling into our 3 bedroom Chicago apartment, the driving electric guitars marking the beginning Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” played over the speakers and everyone stopped and began emphatically singing and dancing along to the track. “Flagpole Sitta” is one of those rare singles that even 16 years after its released, it’s still resonant and loved. Though Harvey Danger will forever be remembered for that song, their short discography has aged just as well as “Flagpole Sitta.”

Harvey Danger was a band that never really found its niche—they were neither critical darlings nor a commercial success story. After “Flagpole Sitta” was featured prominently in American Pie and hit the Billboard Top 40, the band found themselves in a strange place between the mainstream and the underground. “Flagpole Sitta’s” almost overnight success made it hard to picture the band as anything other than a future “one-hit wonder.” Jason Josepheses’s 1997 Pitchfork review of their debut said as much, writing that since Harvey Danger was an “obscure band [that] score[d] big with anthematic, catchy-as-hell single,” they had all the marks of a one-hit-wonder. Unfortunately, in the mind of many, that’s exactly what happened. The band’s witty and hook-filled 2000 follow-up King James Version failed to have a hit single, and while it gathered positive praise from critics, it was faint praise at best.

When I was nine, my mom bought me Harvey Danger’s Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? after I heard it on the radio dozens of times and loved it,  at the only record store in my hometown of Big Rapids, Michigan. Fortunately my parents were never too concerned about profanity in popular music and were extremely supportive of their nine-year old being exposed to as much culture as possible in rural northwest Michigan. As a kid, I played that CD relentlessly, though at the time I kept skipping to “Flagpole Sitta.” But as I got older, I kept on revisiting the record and would have it next to my budding Jimmy Eat World and Green Day collections as an adolescent.

After moving to Grand Rapids right before high school, I bought King James Version and reignited my childhood love for the band. Standout tracks like “Why I’m Lonely” and “Sad Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” got repeated plays and served as a youthful jumping point into the world of pop-punk. Whenever my pop-punk minded friends would bring up American Idiot, NOFX, or Fall Out Boy, I’d remind them about Harvey Danger. (Keep in mind we were all 13 and 14 at this point).

Like many bands I loved in my youth, there was a period from high school to college where I hardly listened to Harvey Danger at all. At the time, I had outgrown my love for pop punk and was diving deeply into the discographies Radiohead, Pavement, Built To Spill, Bjork, and Broken Social Scene. I totally missed the 2005 free download release of Harvey Danger’s third album, Little By Little. That album marked a change in direction for the band—it was relatively more subdued, included way more pianos, and showcased an improved vocal dexterity from lead singer Sean Nelson. Towards the middle of my college career, my girlfriend at the time started playing “Flagpole Sitta” and I was instantly reminded of how much I loved them. I was so surprised I remembered all the words and how much I still liked the song. Ever since, I often find myself listening to their three records.

Harvey Danger played their last show in August of 2009, ending their set on a fitting note, with the new song, “The Show Must Go On.” And with that, Harvey Danger ended their complicated, roller coaster of a career. Whenever I’m asked about my most personally influential bands, I always bring up the big names—Radiohead, The Beatles, Pavement, and Built To Spill. Though I often forget, Harvey Danger was a band that was close to me from the very beginning of my formative years as a music lover. They were perennial underdogs, even with their brief success, and were constantly capable of releasing solid albums.

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