God only knows what Baby Lemonade would be without the musical taste of two founding members, Mike Randle and Rusty Squeezebox, who are passionate, knowledgeable and omnivorous rock fans.
No need to speculate, though: This grass-roots Los Angeles band has an ear for what's good, and its varied influences form the foundation of a richly melodic sound that strikes a complementary balance between abrasive modern-rock guitar clamor and the old-fashioned delights of harmony-enriched pure pop.
In separate phone interviews last week, Randle and Squeezebox (who will not disclose his real name and says he adopted his pseudonym because he knew it would crack him up every time he saw it in print), voiced their enthusiastic appreciation for a wide-enough selection of brilliant precursors to stock a very nice record collection.
In terms of its history, if not always its sound, Baby Lemonade owes the biggest debt to the Beach Boys. The band, which plays tonight at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach, began to coalesce in the early '90s around Randle's and Squeezebox's shared love of Brian Wilson's adventurous "Pet Sounds" and "Smile" period.
The two singer-guitarists began playing together in the mid-1980s, when Squeezebox, now 26, was still in high school. They eventually drifted apart, but Brian Wilson brought them back together.
Squeezebox, who hadn't previously paid much attention to the Beach Boys, got caught up in their music in the early '90s when he began reading glowing reports about their CD reissues.
"I kept hearing things about [Wilson's genius] and said, 'I'd better check this guy out,' " recalled Squeezebox, who took his name from a scene in the movie "Amadeus," in which the jealous composer, Salieri, harrumphs that the work of another genius, Mozart, sounds like "a rusty squeezebox."
"For the next year, I was pretty much obsessed with collecting everything" by the Beach Boys, he said. And to aid his search for rarities, he looked up his old friend Randle, who he knew was avid about the Beach Boys.
Soon, the two were rooming together, working at the same Santa Monica record shop and comparing notes on songs they had written.
"They were so similar, in the same spirit, that we said, 'Let's start a band,' " Squeezebox recalled. They recruited drummer David Green and bassist Henry Liu, named the band after an obscure Syd Barrett song, and began plying the Los Angeles club circuit at the end of 1992.
"I had two older brothers who were into everything from Parliament to the Beatles," Randle said of Baby Lemonade's extensive musical schooling. "Same thing with Rusty. My parents would listen to country music as well as folk and jazz. I was exposed to tons of things. This is really going to sound strange, but Stevie Wonder and Kiss played a very important role in my life. Kiss made me want to perform, and Stevie Wonder made me want to sing. Rusty and I were also really big Clash fans. The one thing we got from the Clash was that you shouldn't ignore any styles of music. Anything that's done right is good."
Having versed itself so well in rock history, it was only fitting that Baby Lemonade established a close connection with a singularly vibrant and enigmatic part of it: In 1993, Arthur Lee, mainstay of the sublime '60s band Love, recruited the young players to be his backing band.
It was a mixed blessing: Baby Lemonade got to play some of the greatest rock songs ever made, while lending fresh vigor to a still-potent old-line rocker who had been dismissed as a burnout case. The downside was dealing with Lee, a man of great charm, but also of strange mood swings and self-defeating habits. Lee outdid himself last July at the Coach House in a show that featured splendid performances of Love songs, but also some bizarre and uncalled-for extracurricular nonsense on the part of the easily distracted star.
Over the past year, Randle and Green have played a handful of shows with Lee, but Squeezebox and Liu (who left Baby Lemonade about seven months ago and was replaced by Dave Chapple) had had enough after that Coach House gig.
"I don't know about that guy," Squeezebox said with a chuckle. "He's an incredible talent, but it's hard for me to play with him when I just don't know what's going to happen next."
Randle and Green, rejoined by Liu, are planning to back Lee on brief tours of Spain and the Northeastern United States later this month, and at a show July 15 at the Coconut Teaszer in Hollywood.
"We really love the music, and putting up with Arthur is a small price," Randle said. "You can hang up in his face and not want to talk to him for two years, then you put on the records and say, 'Damn, I've got to give him a call.' "