Hunting The Frogs with 5 famous bands that loved them

Portrait of The Frogs
Dennis and Jimmy Flemion of The Frogs.

Nearly 40 years after The Frogs decided to take their wild musical collaboration out of the garage and onto Milwaukee stages, the team of Dennis and Jimmy Flemion has been largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated fans. But 2019 might be the year that the Flemions get the kind of attention that they (and superfans like Billy Corgan and Eddie Vedder) always knew they deserved.

We’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of their landmark album It’s Only Right And Natural. There’s one final, transcendent Frogs album being prepared for release. And a documentary crew has been painstakingly putting together a history of the band, capturing interviews with the folks who were there as well as fans and friends like Andy Richter, Sebastian Bach, Kelley Deal, Steve Albini, Butch Vig and many more. That doc, also titled It’s Only Right And Natural, will supposedly see the light of day in 2019 as well.

The Frogs were always prolific, completist and controversial. From their earliest days at the fringes of the Milwaukee scene, The Frogs meticulously documented their own history — from studio recordings to performance videos to comical films featuring pervy puppets of their own devising. They were satirists of the highest degree who rarely broke that facade, but also unrepentant goofballs and musical geniuses who could move you with a from-the-heart love song. It couldn’t make sense to most people, but for those it touched, the music — and everything else — made a lifelong impression.

But very little of the band’s vast catalog made sense for the mainstream. They created some lovely pop songs, but also produced provocative, sideways takes on homosexuality and race. Their work was never destined for the charts, though many Frogs songs were actually more thoughtful and forward-thinking than they were given credit for.

Above all, The Frogs refused to be edited or packaged. With older brother Dennis as spokesman, the Flemions consistently pushed back against the shorthand of marketing: denying genre, decrying articles edited for length and legibility, disavowing any move to cut their aesthetic down to size.

Mass appeal may have eluded The Frogs, but they had outsize influence on other musicians. The middle period of their epic journey intersects some of the most renowned musicians of the ’90s, who willingly contributed their cachet to the Frogs’ career. Pearl Jam and The Smashing Pumpkins are the biggest acts that befriended the Flemion brothers, but the list stretches much further.

With Dennis’ shocking death in 2012, the saga of The Frogs may have come to an end, but 2019 feels like the year it will be told. Here are 5 bands that played roles in that story.

1. Butch Vig/Spooner. Starting in 1980, The Frogs carved out their own peculiar niche in the Milwaukee music scene. The Flemions were the only consistent members, but Milwaukee veterans like Damian Strigens, Brian “Beezer” Hill and Jay Tiller joined The Frogs on bass at different points in their trajectory. Never closely allied with any other Milwaukee group (Die Kreuzen came closest), The Frogs nevertheless were memorable, early fixtures at underground clubs like The Starship.

Butch Vig was to gain renown as the drummer for Garbage as well as producer of Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth. Before they hit the big time beyond the Midwest, Vig and future Garbage bandmate Duke Erikson were in a band called Spooner in Vig’s hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, that played with The Frogs.

2. The Smashing Pumpkins. Vig in turn introduced The Frogs to a band that would expose the Flemions to an exponentially larger audience. The precise sequence of events are subject to debate, but Jimmy Flemion recounted them to me like this: While recording the first album by Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins’ in his Madison studio in late 1990, Vig brought drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, then bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha, to see The Frogs perform. Finally, lead Pumpkin Billy Corgan checked out the The Frogs and promptly asked the band to open for the Pumpkins, which they would many times in the next few years.

After the death of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, Dennis Flemion took the keyboard spot to tour with the Pumpkins in 1996 and 1997. The Flemions even played on a Pumpkins B-side called “Medellia of the Gray Skies.”

In turn, Corgan performed many times with The Frogs over the years, including their appearances at Lollapalooza.

3. Nirvana. On tour with The Smashing Pumpkins in October 1993, The Frogs encountered a succession of bands at the peak of that city’s notoriety. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was a fan of the Milwaukee duo, who celebrated the burgeoning Seattle scene with a composition titled “Lord Grunge.”

After Cobain’s suicide in April 1994, The Frogs demonstrated their willingness to cross the line of propriety, even with people they loved best, when they penned a song called “Pull a Kurt.”

4. Pearl Jam. Seattle’s other top act of the era forged an even more intense (and enduring) relationship with The Frogs — especially frontman Eddie Vedder, who appeared many times with the Flemions and often displayed on his amplifier the wings he’d received from Dennis Flemion.

The Frogs even released a split single with Pearl Jam: On the B-Side to “Immortality” can be found The Frogs’ take on PJ’s “Rearviewmirror.”

Pearl Jam took The Frogs on tour as well, and the song “Smile” from No Code was actually inspired by Frogs lyrics that Dennis snuck into a notebook of Vedder’s when they played shows together in Milwaukee. Before this performance the day after Dennis’ death, Vedder took time to explain the provenance of the song and remember his friend.

5. Sebastian Bach. One of the weirdest supergroups in history was born when Kelley Deal of The Breeders and Jimmy Chamberlin of Smashing Pumpkins recruited Skid Row vocalist Sebastian Bach and The Frogs’ Jimmy Flemion and became The Last Hard Men. The group would record just one album, which flopped badly, but Sebastian later asked Jimmy to join his touring band. Bach even recorded some of Jimmy’s compositions on his debut solo album Bring ‘Em Bach Alive, including the delightful “Superjerk, Superstar, Supertears.”