The 1990s gave birth to both grunge and pop punk, as well as an era of affected irony. By the time Seattle band Harvey Danger performed their single "Flagpole Sitta" on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in 1998, the staples of alternative rock — a genre filled with contradictory lyrics and conflicted frontmen — were already considered "Old Hat."
"Emotion, sincerity, sentimentality were all taboo, and the idea of a moral stance was just embarrassing," The Guardian’s Zoe Williams wrote of 90s culture. "You said whatever you said ironically or not at all."
This specific environment, paired with the overwhelming oversaturation of their hit single, may have contributed to how briefly Harvey Danger was in the public eye, but it also created the perfect backdrop for "Flagpole Sitta" to become a hit. Dan Weiss of Stereogum described the song as being able to "sum up its own era." Harvey Danger’s frustrated sarcasm targeted the very culture it was a part of.
"Flagpole Sitta," named one of the top 25 songs of the 90s by Rolling Stone, has become synonymous with the band — but they are a more complex group than their big hit would imply.
The Big Hit – "Flagpole Sitta"
"Flagpole Sitta" is an ironic, hook-filled single that absolutely blew up in 1998. It played almost nonstop on late-90s rock radio. While the song itself is "deeply skeptical about the decade’s collision of alternative and mainstream culture" (per The A.V. Club’s Annie Zaleski), the hit has been cemented as one of the best songs of the 90s.
Singer, keyboardist, and co-songwriter Sean Nelson was described by YouTuber and music critic Todd in the Shadows as a "Snotty 90s Morrissey" in 2019 because of his tendency to write lyrics with complex double meanings. "Flagpole Sitta," could sound like typical 90s alt rock on first listen, but Todd noted that the lyrics are "jokes," almost parodying the genre and mocking "the burnt-out alternative scene."
In 2006, Sean Nelson described the hit song as "really conscious of the fact that it is a piece of garbage in the same way that everything in pop culture is a piece of garbage."
Drummer Evan Sult described the song to The A.V. Club as being aware of the commercial co-opting of "underground," while still being part of it: "The ironic remove and the innate suspicion of both the mainstream culture and the alternative culture, and the yearning to be part of something… It’s both really upbeat and kind of savage and snarky at the same time."
Harvey Danger’s hit took on a life of its own
"Flagpole Sitta" has remained a well-known song since the 90s. As noted by A.V. Club, it has a habit of showing up in unexpected places, from being the theme song for beloved British comedy "Peep Show" to infamously playing in the background of a clip of Edward Snowden in Russia. NPR noted that the song has also been frequently included on compilations of jock jams, perhaps unfairly: "Harvey Danger was much more about wordplay and emotion, and the fact that their big hit is this [stadium fodder] is kind of ironic."
As Nelson mentioned in an interview with Alternative Press, the song was on the radio so often that people felt "completely bombarded by it." Members of the band frequently appeared embarrassed by the attention they got. Harvey Danger’s first album went gold, but Nelson told AP that the gold record stayed "in its shrinkwrap behind a bookcase" for years.
When Globecat asked if he felt haunted by the success of the song, Nelson quipped, "Once every fortnight or so, someone … either makes some reference to it, or sings part of it to me, or tells me how much they love it, or tells me how much they hate it, or asks me if it made me rich, or assumes it’s the reason I’m such a success in the music business or such a failure in the music business… I don’t necessarily run screaming from a room when it comes on. I do walk though."
The origins of Harvey Danger
Before the fame, the band started as "a goof." Jeff Lin and Aaron Huffman became fascinated by the burgeoning music scene in Seattle. According to Sean Nelson in an interview with Album Divers, the two had never played guitar or bass before, eventually "learning how to play them by playing together."
After about a year, they recruited Evan Sult to play the drums (which he learned how to do for the band). Sult was friends with Nelson, who had always wanted to be a lead singer. Eventually, the four became roommates, all living in the same house and playing together.
The group recorded an album in only a few days with the assistance of producer John Goodmanson. After the record had been out under a small indie label with only moderate success for about six months, the band briefly considered breaking up. In fact, the surprise popularity of "Flagpole Sitta" was largely due to a lucky coincidence.
According to AV Club, Nelson was working across the street from KNND, a local Seattle rock station. Nelson met one of their DJs, Marco Collins, and gave him a copy of their first album, "Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?" Collins played "Flagpole Sitta" on the air and the song quickly caught on. Soon after that, it could be heard on radio stations around the country.
The first album
The album that Nelson gave Marco Collins was one of only a thousand copies that the band had made at the time. The covers were "hand-screened on cardboard" and the whole run only cost $3,000 to make, according to AP.
As noted by John B. Moore for Blurt, the other songs on the album don’t have much in common with "Flagpole Sitta" at first blush. Of the nine other songs on the album, the band wanted their follow-up single to be the first song on the album, "Carlotta Valdez" (via Todd in the Shadows). The lyrics of the song are a retelling of the plot of Hitchcock’s film "Vertigo" and the sound is significantly more punk rock than "Flagpole Sitta.". Their new label, however, selected "Private Helicopter," a quasi-love song about still having feelings for an ex. While it sounded somewhat more like "Flagpole Sitta" than the other songs on the album, it would never be mistaken for a "jock jam" like the landmark first single.
Other album tracks were more emotionally raw than the layered-in-sarcasm first single, including "Wrecking Ball," which Nelson told PopMatters "corresponds with the specific sadness of being 22, 23 years old, which to me was a surpassingly sad period of life."
Harvey Danger’s Unique Sound
The unique sound of Harvey Danger is largely due to co-founder and bassist Aaron Huffman, who also co-wrote the band’s songs. After Huffman’s tragic death in 2016, Sean Nelson wrote a glowing tribute for The Stranger (where both of them worked), in which he credits "Aaron’s distinctive distorted bass, which he often employed as a melodic lead" as the "signature element of the band’s sound."
In an interview with the Alternative Press, Nelson discussed Huffman’s bass in more detail, explaining that it had helped Harvey Danger stand out as different from any other band.
In 2009, "Flagpole Sitta" was covered by post-hardcore band Chiodos for Fearless Records’ "Pop Goes Punk Volume Two" compilation, with the results somehow sounding more produced and less punk rock than the original. This may be due to the way that Sean Nelson used punk as an inspiration for Harvey Danger, despite not being exactly a punk rock band themselves. As Nelson told AP, "We could only write what we wrote and play it how we played it."
The second album: King James Version
The band released their second album, "King James Version," in 2001. A review of the album on Sputnik Music describes the first song on the album "Meetings with Remarkable Men" as having "a stomping drum beat and infectious guitar line," while Nelson’s vocals are delivered in a "slightly raucous yet fundamentally clean-cut style that is as sincere as it is playful."
Like the preceding album, the lyrics are full of clever wordplay and literary references set to earworm tunes with punk-rock rhythms, but the band’s sound was also progressing and expanding. The album includes the stripped-down fan favorite "Pike St/Park Slope," as well as the "slow-burning, slightly grungy" album closer, "The Same As Being In Love."
As noted by Alex Young of Consequence, "elaborate corporate reshuffling" and "endless mergers and acquisitions" at the label hurt the album’s chances at widespread success. The band was all set to tour with The Pretenders, but without the much-needed assistance of their label, the tour unfortunately fell through. Though the album was released to "rave reviews," it went largely unnoticed by mainstream audiences.
Sean Nelson stated in an interview, it was "almost as if [the record] hadn’t ever happened." The band went on hiatus, but Nelson considered the band to have essentially broken up.
The Christmas EP
In the stretch of time between "King James Version" and the band’s next album, Sean Nelson continued working in the music industry, writing plenty of album reviews for The Stranger. A co-worker once wrote that many of the publication’s staff members "have heard him singing daily in the office."
In December 2004, the band released a new EP containing five songs. Two were previously unreleased recordings of old songs, while one was a demo of a new song. Two were fully-realized new songs: the biblical reference-filled "Plague of Locusts" and a Christmas song called "Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas (Sometimes)."
As noted by The Stranger, the Christmas song about not getting the day off for the holidays is a "sweetly humorous ballad to those making holiday wages." The Stranger considered the song among the band’s best work, particularly praising Nelson’s voice as "strong and ebullient even when the subject matter hinges on the melancholy." In 2014, Chirp Radio named it the #1 best Christmas song written since 1989.
Little by Little…
The band’s third album, "Little By Little…," arrived after a long hiatus that none of the band expected to end. However, Nelson told Album Divers that he still felt the band’s career had been left "unresolved." As such, he and Lin began meeting and talking about music again. This time, with Lin on the piano, they developed some new songs with Huffman’s help, who came in a bit later in the process. Sult had moved on, so they brought in drummer Michael Welke, among others.
The album has a different sound when compared to their earlier work. One reason for this is that the songs were not quite "group collaborations" like on previous records, but were instead chiefly written by Nelson and Lin.
The opening track, "Wine, Women and Song," deals with questions that Nelson was mulling over, like feeling old at thirty-two: "Why is my life shrouded with regret and also why is that so funny to me?" The fourth track, "Little Round Mirrors," is one of the most beloved Harvey Danger songs, and Nelson referred to it in the Album Divers interview as being "as close to perfect as we ever got."
The promotional side of things was different this time, as well. Huffman had cystic fibrosis, and wasn’t up for the grueling tour schedule that was required by labels at that time. Lin determined that they should put "Little by Little" on the band’s website for free — something that was very rarely done. They agreed that "people hearing it was more important than people buying it."
The Farewell Tour
In 2009, Harvey Danger performed one final farewell tour for their fans (via Brooklyn Vegan). During the tour, the band sold an album called "Dead Sea Scrolls." Though initially only available at the live shows on Harvey Danger’s farewell tour, the band’s website would eventually host the MP3s of the album (for free, as with their album "Little by Little…").
The album contains brilliant original songs like "Cold Snap" and "The Ballad of the Tragic Hero (Pity and Fear)," but, as referenced by music critic Todd in the Shadows, the most popular song on the album may be the English Beat cover "Save it for Later." According to Entropy, this "phenomenal" cover song was a decent-sized hit for the band. It isn’t the only cover song on the album, however, as "Dead Sea Scrolls" also includes a take on Hall & Oates’ "Maneater."
In an interview with Treble, Sean Nelson expressed his frustration with suddenly being thrust into the mainstream and then vanishing from it again: "Harvey Danger had happened and then was just over, I was like, ‘Wait — I didn’t ask for it, but I don’t even get it anymore?’"
The Show Must Not Go On
Harvey Danger’s final song opens with the line,"You can bash your head against the wall for years/The wall is not impressed/Or you can take a giant step away only to discover/The wound’s already dressed." The song is appropriately titled "The Show Must Not Go On."
The band’s website, yet again, hosted the MP3 of this track for their fans to enjoy for free. Harvey Danger’s site referred to the song as a "posthumous final single," because the band had already stopped performing. Producer John Goodmanson (who had worked on "Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?") returned to work with the band for this one last hoorah.
In 2011, NPR‘s Stephen Thompson called "The Show Must Not Go On," "a perfect breakup anthem" for the band, but also noted that the song shows that there is "wisdom in knowing when to pack it in and pursue happiness in other ways."
Harvey Danger’s Legacy
The band is often labeled a "one hit wonder" due to the mainstream success of "Flagpole Sitta," as noted by The Vogue. However, Harvey Danger has always had two kinds of fans: those who only know "Flagpole Sitta" and the "devoted cult following" that adores their entire catalogue.
While the forums once hosted on the band’s website are no more, the band’s biggest fans have relocated to private groups on social media and continued following the careers of the band members, often trading unreleased demos and recordings of live performances with one another.
As for those band members, they’re staying busy. Evan Sult became the drummer for the band Bound Stems. According to an interview with International Examiner, where Jeff Lin was once an editor, Lin has since co-founded a startup. In 2012, Lin told Bernadette Connor at International Examiner that he still feels "the occasional pangs of indie rock star nostalgia. But he has no real desire to relive those days." Sean Nelson went on to teach in the University of Washington songwriting program and write extensively about music. His published works include a 2004 book on Joni Mitchell’s "Court and Spark." He has also continued to release new music on his own.
Make Good Choices
In 2013, Sean Nelson released a solo album called "Make Good Choices," which was described by Really Records as, "smart, funny, sad, and true pop-rock songs that peer into the dark corners of the culture, the psyche, and the singer himself." The album features guest appearances from Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie and Peter Buck of R.E.M.
As noted by NPR, the album’s title track "functions as a useful sequel to ‘The Show Must Not Go On,’" as the lyrics reminisce about a relationship that is over. Nelson’s unique experience with the music industry can be felt in tracks like "Creative Differences" and "Kicking Me Out of the Band."
Nelson, who never seemed particularly comfortable with the massive attention that came from "Flagpole Sitta," has moved on to making albums for his own, niche audience — and found himself enjoying it.
"The little taste I had of being quite popular for a very brief moment with one song – it sucks," Nelson told Treble in an interview following the album’s release, "I can’t really complain about it, because there are good things that have come from it. But generally speaking, if you want to say anything complex, it’s the wrong racket. The mass audience, the wide readership, is the wrong venue for complicated ideas."