Guns, drugs and Australia: the story of The Lemonheads' It's A Shame About Ray

Evan Dando on a roof
(Image credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Nobody really saw The Lemonheads coming in ’92. The Boston quartet had been toiling away on the college circuit for the past few years, and had released a handful of patchy indie-rock albums to a small, if dedicated, audience. 1990’s Lovey, their fourth – and first for Atlantic – was a definite step up, but sales were desultory. 

“It felt cool signing to a major label, but we actually didn’t sell any records,” reflects Lemonheads lynchpin Evan Dando. “We were trying to do that heavy, screaming guitar thing when we started. And then I thought: ‘What if we go the other way? I’m gonna go really quiet, let’s go against the grain.’ That was sort of the idea. And I realised that was my strength.” 

The upshot was It’s A Shame About Ray. Released in June 1992, it marked the spectacular advent of Dando’s full songwriting talent, transforming The Lemonheads from Gen X also-rans to leaders of pithily melodic guitar-pop. It was smart, concise and memorable. In a year dominated by grunge and gangsta rap, the album cut through the noise like a rare diamond. 

It’s A Shame About Ray brought commercial success too. The album was an international hit, fired by a pair of singles: the title track and a punky, contentious cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson. It also turned Dando into alt.rock’s new poster boy, his chiselled jaw gracing the cover of numerous monthlies. He even made it on to People magazine’s list of Most Beautiful People. 

It’s A Shame About Ray turned 30 this year. And while Dando has had mixed fortunes over the interim, both personally and professionally, it remains a landmark achievement. One that outweighs its relative size (the original release ran for less than half an hour). Yet it’s arguable whether the album would’ve happened at all had Dando been able to keep the original band together. 

The tale of It’s A Shame About Ray seems about as unlikely as The Lemonheads’ sudden superstardom, involving drugs, feuds with Paul Simon, guns on the mixing desk, and a family of industry veterans who once lived next to murderer Charles Manson. What’s more, as Dando reveals, he needed to travel some 10,000 miles, to a different continent, to get juiced up creatively.


Formed in 1986 while Dando was still at high school in Boston, The Lemonheads moved quickly. Within a year they’d signed to a local label, Taang!, and released a scrappy debut, Hate Your Friends

As the band underwent various line-up changes over the next couple of releases, Dando and fellow singer/guitarist Ben Deily emerged as competing songwriters. Deily quit just prior to Lovey, requiring Dando – now The Lemonheads’ predominant force – to oversee another reshuffle. Artistically too, Lovey rang the changes. Dando began to dial down the noise a little, experimenting instead with mood, metre and rhythm. In retrospect, though, the Atlantic deal felt premature. 

“It was too soon to go to a major label,” Dando says. “I think we should’ve done one more indie record, that would’ve been perfect. But we did our best. They were crazy times. All my friends – literally all my friends – were getting signed and playing big shows; Superchunk, Sebadoh, Babes In Toyland, everybody. It went from this little group of people and bands, then everyone got really big.” 

The Lemonheads were invited to tour Australia in the summer of 1991. But the fractious nature of the Lovey sessions, and escalating tensions within the band, soon resulted in another break-up. But Dando had fallen in love with the place. 

“It was amazing,” he recalls. “I liked Australia so much that I went back in October [1991] and did five dates with Fugazi and some on my own. I just decided I was gonna write there. And it really worked out.”

In Australia, Dando was able to recharge. He fell in with a community of songwriters, including singer/guitarist Tom Morgan and multi-instrumentalist Nic Dalton, both of whom played together in Sydney indie-rockers Sneeze. The new songs that started to emerge showcased a more relaxed, intuitive side of Dando. 

Was it a case of unlocking his potential? 

“It was more like a letting go,” he explains. “The people I met were obsessive about the Velvet Underground, living their lives around those D and G chords. They were really living this rock’n’roll thing. I’d never experienced that before, and it was so cool.” 

Dando’s new songs found the perfect balance between urgent narratives and languid slacker cool. The longest tune came in at just over three minutes. 

“I figured it would be okay to do like a Beatles record, with twelve two- or three-minute songs, or even shorter,” he explains. “The model was sort of like Rubber Soul.” 

One of the first songs to emerge was It’s A Shame About Ray. Co-written with Morgan and musically inspired by The Byrds and West Coast psychedelia, it took its title from a Sydney newspaper headline about a local lad – Ray, naturally – who kept getting expelled from every school he attended. 

Other songs poured out: Rockin’ Stroll, the bittersweet Confetti (about Dando’s parents’ divorce), Bit Part (another Morgan co-write), the punky burst of Alison’s Starting To Happen. The latter referenced Dalton’s girlfriend Alison Galloway, drummer with Morgan’s other band, Smudge. 

“It’s all about Australia, really,” says Dando, addressing the songs that eventually became the It’s A Shame About Ray album. 

“So much of it was written over there.” Given the riffy concision of the new songs, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that Dando and co’s choice of fuel back then was speed. 

“There was no dope or heroin around at that point,” he remembers. “Speed can be terrible too, but we were so young and somehow we got away with it. We were just dabbling and it worked really well for us. I hate to be that person that says: ‘Y’know, sometimes drugs can be good for you too!’”

Back in Los Angeles, Dando fired his management and assembled a new Lemonheads. He brought in his girlfriend Juliana Hatfield (fresh from disbanding Blake Babies) on bass and brought back Lovey drummer David Ryan. The trio then went into Cherokee Studios, founded by the Robb Brothers. Previously the house band for TV’s Dick Clark during the 60s, the siblings had backed a host of that era’s stars, including The Shirelles, Del Shannon, Jerry Lee Lewis and Dion. 

“It was mainly this amazing connection to the sixties, that’s really what it was,” Dando explains of the decision to record It’s A Shame About Ray atCherokee. “That was the feel I wanted. In fact we used Del Shannon’s guitar on the record. We were really psyched to record there. 

"The Robbs had all these stories about people; they knew everybody. They’d played the Whisky in 1965 or something, and got to play with The Doors and The Chambers Brothers. And they’d lived next to Charles Manson. His people would come over and say: ‘Charlie said it was okay to pick your oranges.’ And they’d go: ‘Go back and tell Charlie no. Sorry!’ They’d had to deal with all kinds of people up there.” 

The Lemonheads set about recording the songs conceived in Australia, plus a few fresher ones. Dando chose to finish the album with an unlikely cover of Frank Mills, initially written for the stage production of 60s rock musical Hair. On the surface it seemed like a perverse throwaway; in reality it embodied Dando’s new approach. 

“It was sort of my model of songwriting at the time,” he explains. “A new way to look at songs, with no rhymes. It just keeps going and sort of breaks the rules. It’s a beautiful song. I think doing that cover was a perfect idea. My Drug Buddy was the same, it doesn’t really have rhymes. Incidentally, I’d stopped doing all drugs and I was totally straight when I wrote My Drug Buddy.” 

As producers, the Robb Brothers used their address book when help was needed. 

“That could have been a disaster, but they were really cool,” Dando recalls. “They brought in people like guitarist [Jeff] ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Barry Goldberg, who’d been Dylan’s keyboard player. It was just sort of wild. ‘Skunk’ Baxter came in with a gun and put it on the board, kind of like ‘Don’t fuck with me!’ He put it down alongside his Amtrak badge. He was like an Amtrak policeman or something. But he was cool and talented as heck.”

It’s A Shame About Ray took time to gather momentum. A crucial factor was the boisterous cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson, released a few months later to mark the video release of The Graduate. The Lemonheads recorded it while out on tour in Europe, with Nic Dalton on bass, Dando had no intention of releasing it. But Atlantic head Danny Goldberg had other ideas. 

“We didn’t want him to put out the Mrs. Robinson record,” says Dando. “It wasn’t a very respectful cover. We took two hours to do it and it wasn’t our favourite song.” 

Welcome or not, the single was a Top 20 hit in the UK and Australia. It also made a sizeable dent in the US alternative charts. Reissued with Mrs. Robinson as a bonus track, the Ray album duly went gold everywhere. 

“Paul Simon [its writer] hated our version of that song,” Dando recalls. “But it was great, because [singer] Art Garfunkel loved it, which was more grist to the mill. Paul Simon is a genius as a songwriter, but a jerk as a person. He’s not very nice. The album was a great record already, and that sullied it. But fuck it! Mrs. Robinson’s pretty harmless, really.” 

As the band’s fortunes accelerated through the 90s (next album Come On Feel The Lemonheads was an even bigger hit), Dando’s behaviour grew more unpredictable. He became addicted to booze and Class-A drugs, was once so wasted that he forgot to turn up for his Glastonbury set, and went through a phase of hanging out with Oasis while wearing the late Kurt Cobain’s jacket. For a while there, he seemed odds-on to become rock’s next major casualty. 

The death of his good friend Kevin Godfrey – aka Swell Maps’ founder Epic Soundtracks – flung him into depression in 1997, the same year as he broke up The Lemonheads. 

“It was scary to be me, actually, to be too close to all this horrible tragedy that happened,” he says, alluding to Cobain too. A cleaned-up Dando has since revived The Lemonheads on a couple of occasions, as well as nurtured a solo career. And while their last album of original songs was 16 years ago, he tells Classic Rock there’s another on the way. 

“My band’s all here, which is great,” he says. “It’s been a long time, so we’re trying to get the new record together. We have it all, it’s happening.” 

In the meantime, The Lemonheads are out on the road with It’s A Shame About Ray, saluting the 30th anniversary of their 1992 masterpiece. 

“It still sounds like such a cool little record,” Dando concludes. “And I still really like playing a lot of those songs. It was all about recapturing the joy of Australia. I was pretty excitable and having a lot of fun. I haven’t changed that much, really.”

The Lemonheads tour North America in November and December. The 30th anniversary edition of It's A Shame About Ray is out now

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.