Speed, not sugar

There are very few bands that, when recalling the various gigs they've played over the years, can list both elementary schools and the Warped tour on their résumé. But the Candy Band is no ordinary band.

These four rock 'n' roll moms decided that, in order to give their children a sound musical education sans the bad language and drug references that inevitably crop up, they would start a band that plays punk-rock versions of classic children's songs.

The sugar-dusted band consists of Daniela "Skittles" Burckhardt on vocals, Anita "Kit Kat" Kelly on bass, Tammy "Starburst" Ristau on drums, and Paula "Almond Joy" Messner on guitar. They've released four albums to date, including 2007's Calling All Kids, a record with artwork that apes the Clash's London Calling sleeve (which, in turn, aped Elvis Presley's RCA debut).

According to Messner (sorry, I just can't bring myself to call her "Almond Joy"!), there's a lot of fun to be had playing punk-rock nursery rhymes.

"Candy Band started in May of '02," she recalls. "It started solely because I couldn't find cool music for my kids to listen to that didn't have swear words and drug references in it. I like punk rock but the bands I enjoy, like the Sex Pistols, have a lot of sex and drugs in the rock 'n' roll. They'll get that in junior high soon enough, so I didn't want to shove that down their throats too early. To me, good punk rock is about the vibe that it sends — the loud music, the poppy guitars and the drum sound. You could be reciting the alphabet to the music and still make it into a punk rock song. It's all about the attitude when you're singing it. So we decided to take nursery rhymes and give them a little attitude, make them into angry little nursery rhymes."

Messner's keen to point out that the music of the Candy Band isn't necessarily only for kids, though. "Even grandmothers like our music," she says. "People always ask what age group we appeal to and I say, honestly, ages 1 to 99 — because we do take a lot of traditional nursery rhymes and folk music and turn them into punk rock. It's not offensive. But it's got attitude and it's still loud, fast and hard. You don't have to say the F-bomb to make it 'punk.' That's getting old, anyway."

Rather sweetly, the first song that the band "converted" to their punk sound is something of a classic.

"Believe it or not, the first song we learned was 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,'" she laughs. "And, immediately, it sounded like a cross between the Ramones and Iggy Pop. Our singer Skittles [Daniela] is originally from Switzerland, so she sang everything with a kind of German accent, which made it even more punky to me. More snarly. We all were moms with kids — that was the common thread between us. But we also all had our own interests and that blended into the band to create a great combination."

The Candy Band may sound like a ludicrous gimmick group. On the surface, it is. But it's also serving a real purpose. Who hasn't listened to Hanna Montana without thinking, "Jesus, why do kids like this crap?" The truth is that Ms. Montana and every other DayGlo flavor of the month is packaged in such a way as to bring the little ones flocking in droves. It's a very cynical and perfectly executed business and will probably forever be successful. Not only that but, with very few exceptions (Britney Spears being an obvious one), parents can feel safe in the knowledge that their precious children aren't being polluted with inappropriate videos and X-rated lyrics — just very bad music.

The Candy Band allows parents to take their kids to a punk show with a clear conscience. Thus, they can be the first rung on a ladder that eventually leads to the Ramones and the Clash. Still, it's hard to imagine Joe Strummer singing about SpongeBob SquarePants, a song that Messner tells us is a fave with their fans.

"Yeah, that's one of our top hits to this day," she laughs. "We gave that one a cow-punk vibe and [satellite] XM Radio were all over it. We were No. 1 on the kids' charts for three months! 'Scooby Doo, Where are You?' is also always a favorite, as is 'I've Been Working on the Railroad'" — a song that, ironically, includes lyrics that were incorporated into a New York Dolls song and could lead kids in their direction as well.

Not that it's all covers for the Candy gals. "Oh, we have our originals as well," she says, "like 'Rock, Paper, Scissors,' 'Play-Doh' and 'Ken Lost His Head.' My kids played with Barbie and Ken dolls and Ken never had a head. It was funny how they always ripped the boys' head off. So our own songs are totally inspired by our kids. "We're getting ready to record a new record, and we have a song called 'Mom Said No, Go Ask Dad.' It's silly and funny, and anybody can relate because we've all been a kid at some point — rebelling teenagers or rebelling 8-year-olds. Actually, 8-year-olds can rebel just as much as a teen can, let me tell you!"

With a new CD release and a bunch of shows planned for this year, the Candy Band looks to a busy 2009. Don't be fooled into thinking that they have it easy, however. Messner's keen to point out that a crowd of youngsters more than keeps her band on its toes.

"Sometimes it gets crazy," she says. "We've played elementary schools where the kids thought it would be cool to run up onstage and then jump off. Amazingly enough, the parents are nowhere to be found at that point and we feel like rock 'n' roll babysitters. There have also been times where we've played at schools and we've had moms and dads standing at each side to hold the kids back because they run across our stage area, unplug stuff and want to touch our gear. I've played the bar scene and I really don't know what's crazier — a drunk or a young kid experiencing rock for the first time.

"I've been onstage and seen someone change a crappy diaper right down in front of us," she laughs. "I still see everything that I saw when I was playing to grown punks — the throwing up, the peeing, the screaming, the yelling.

"I really enjoy doing the kids stuff, though. I was in several bands before — the Motor Dolls and the Vertical Pillows — and played all over the place. That was fun. I loved it. But it was also always late hours and smoky bars. I like playing earlier in the evening because, afterwards, I can go and party with my friends."

Adult beer-puke or kiddie's cookie-spew? Which is better? You decide. But the Candy Band has already picked its corner.

The Candy Band will play Saturday, May 16, as part of the opening day of the Rock Stars' Cars & Guitars 2 show and exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn; 313-982-6126. With ’80s Inc. and the Hot Rod Lincolns. Go to thehenryford.org for more info.

Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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