Flagpole Sitta, Harvey Danger, And Me

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As Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Lester Bangs) says in the film Almost Famous:

“Music: true music– not just rock and roll:

it chooses you.”

I’d like to talk about my experience with the band Harvey Danger, who are best known for their ubiquitous 1998 hit, Flagpole Sitta.

The first time I saw Harvey Danger was a commercial for the first NOW: That’s What I Call Music compilation. I couldn’t really make out the song.

But when I saw a chubby, tall, nerdy guy with thick glasses and a crazy mop of curly hair, I felt an immediate kinship with him.

He felt like someone who could live in my sub-division; a friend’s cool older brother who lived down the street.

The guy’s name was “Harvey Danger.” I assumed they were a singer and his backing band. Although I’ve never heard him talk about it, I wonder if lead singer Sean Nelson ever had a “Hootie Problem” with kids calling him “Harvey?”

“Don’t even get me started.”

The song was titled Flagpole Sitta.

I wouldn’t know what that meant until 20 years later. At the time, I assumed “sitta” was a term for a catchy pop song, like, “ditty”.

Though they’ve since expressed regret over not naming the song something more obvious, I’d say that referencing a “flagpole sitter” is a perfect title, in more ways than one.

The song balanced everything: the sincerity and insincerity, commercial success and indie obscurity, youthful vigor and jaded cynicism almost impossibly well. It still holds up today, with threads and articles and retrospectives still written about it nearly every year.

It wasn’t until my senior year in the fall of 2003 that I randomly heard Flagpole Sitta. on the radio and realized how much I really loved everything about it.

So I went and found their first album at Best Buy, called Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? And I bought it. I was struck by how little the rest of the album sounded like Flagpole Sitta.

I also learned there was no one in the band named Harvey Danger.

I began researching them and my other favorite bands on the Internet, reading whatever few articles and interviews I could dig up on Yahoo or Lycos.

There wasn’t much to go on.

Though, I discovered Harvey Danger had not only a website but a second album that had been released several years earlier. There was a brief song clip that played on the intro page at their site.

It had a lot of falsetto.

I could not find the album anywhere in stores. But I did discover a music video for the first single, called Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I remember the video took forever to buffer and I first heard the entire song in five second increments. I finally ordered the album, called King James Version, off a random website that summer.

It was the first time I’d ever bought anything off the Internet.

A year after that, the band’s website was updated with a new band picture and a brief blurb stating that “stuff is actually happening.”

I scoured message boards for news, discovered they were recording a new album. I learned of some new song titles, and read users’ speculations about what the new album would be called. It finally came out that fall (2005), and it was titled Little By Little.

In a then-revolutionary move, Harvey Danger put it up on their website for free (two years before Radiohead made this practice globally famous with In Rainbows.) But I wanted a CD, and so I ordered one from a record store. This record was piano-centric instead of electric guitar-based, and at the time it reminded me of Keane. (Remember Keane?)

It dawned on me that I truly loved this band.

They were popular enough to be known by everyone but obscure enough to be considered my own.

And I loved that I had to put in effort and search, in order to get their music and their story.

Their sound was typical 90s garage-y alternative rock but with other elements; almost old-timey and show-tuney. Lots of organ and keyboards and ‘woooo-ooohs’ and ‘ba-ba-da-ba-da’s.’ The lyrics were literary and Sondheim-level sophisticated, an interesting juxtaposition given the basic structure and rhythms of the music itself.

The bass had lots of high end, and lots of distortion. It was usually out front while the guitars were fuzzy, warm, fully-strummed chords filling in the background. The music had that same ultra-intelligent Pacific Northwest hipster vibe as Bright Eyes or The Decemberists. But there was a poppy, everyman quality and accessibility to it, with none of the unspoken pretentious, “I’m so smart and you could never do this” vibe that I got from a lot of artists in the same genre.

The parasocial relationship was fully formed. This was a band I’d follow for the rest of my life.

Their bio became clearer as the Internet and social media grew. They’d come together slowly over the course of the grunge years.

University of Washington students Jeff J. Lin (guitar) and Aaron Huffman (bass) thought it would be fun to start a band in 1992.

Jeff was trained in classical piano and violin but wanted to learn guitar after hearing Nirvana.

They took their name from a piece of graffiti on the wall of the student newspaper where they worked. I wonder what happened to the real Harvey Danger? I’ve never seen anything on him or the graffiti artist who used that name.

Lin and Huffman played as a duo until 1993, when a fellow student named Evan Sult was invited to be the drummer.

He brought his friend Sean Nelson to sing.

They were allegedly so broke that household items like hubcaps and a pickle jar served as drums for their first practice.

They wrote original songs and played shows at house parties, bars and clubs, the first of which was in April 1994 only a few weeks after the death of Kurt Cobain. That year, they recorded a six song demo with local producer John Goodmanson. These demos got them a full length record deal with The Arena Rock Recording Company, and they released their first album in 1997.

Sean gave a copy of that first album to a radio station in Seattle in late 1997, and Flagpole Sitta. became a hit. They signed to a major record label. Slash, a subsidiary of London Recordings.

And thus began their ride on the mainstream.

They toured extensively, and were in heavy rotation on terrestrial radio and MTV. Flagpole Sitta was licensed to several movies and TV shows.

A well-received second album dropped in 1999. But corporate reshuffling and a record label merger left them without adequate promotion or representation, and the album tanked when it was finally released in 2000.

The ride was over. Harvey Danger broke up in April 2001.

A few years later, they had an unexpected reunion, minus Evan Sult who’d moved to Chicago. He was replaced with Seattle drummer Michael Welke. After releasing Little by Little, they toured again during the late 2000s before parting ways amicably in 2009.

They did a final eight show tour in the summer of 2009, ending at The Crocodile Cafe in Seattle.

They released a final single called The Show Must Not Go On, from a compilation of b-sides and rarities called Dead Sea Scrolls.

And that was it.

Sean Nelson continued to write for The Stranger and other publications, and put out a solo album in 2013 called Make Good Choices.

He moved to Tennessee in the late 2010s.

Jeff J Lin now works in tech and is the CEO of Momento360 which deals in the production and distribution of 360 degree imaging.

Evan Sult is now based in New York where he works as an art director and plays in the band Sleepy Kitty.

Sadly, Aaron Huffman passed away in March of 2016 from respiratory failure caused by cystic fibrosis.

Aaron Huffman

Aaron sang lead on a Harvey Danger song called We Drew the Maps.

You can listen to here. It ends with some of my favorite HD lyrics:

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cstolliver
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cstolliver
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March 1, 2023 4:47 am

Thanks for sharing this thorough look at a band whose big moment in the spotlight was the only thing I knew about them prior to now. It’s intriguing to me how certain artists just burrow into our brains. Welcome to our motley group and I hope to hear more from you!

Last edited 1 year ago by Chuck Small
Phylum of Alexandria
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March 1, 2023 8:17 am

Welcome to the fold!

I really enjoyed your article. I’m only four or so years older than you, and you really captured that strange, rapidly shifting time of the late 90s/early 00s.

Of course, during adolescence, a four year age gap can be significant, at least as far as perceptions are concerned. I was in high school when “Flagpole Sitta” came out, and I was deep into punk and goth music. So I dismissed the band and its song out of hand as “pop,” and that was that. Ah, youth.

I do remember my friends and I walking past some meathead jocks in the hallway around the time the song came out, and one of them asking if we were “flagpole sitters,” to the chuckles of his troop. Basically, the original meaning of “punks.” It did make me wonder at the time if the band had intended such a meaning, but my guess now is no.

Middle-aged me can readily appreciate a smart song like “Flagpole Sitta” (even though the spelling still bothers me). I love all the great indie music that’s available now, but I find the popular music these days–overall at least–to be one of the most homogenous and lackluster bodies of music in a long time.

And in terms of popular rock music, game over. For now, at least. Hopefully the larger listening public will see another Harvey Danger, and they’re not smothered in synthy cough syrup gloop.

On the issue of access, I remember Kurt Cobain talking about why he let Walmart censor his In Utero cover art. He said that when he was a kid in Aberdeen, Walmart was his only outlet for music, so he wanted to be able to reach kids who had no other way in.

Things were better for me on that front, as I lived in a city, with Tower Records and used records shops, and in high school I had friends who were recommending me all kinds of cool stuff. But even so there was a lot of hunting down, chancing upon stuff, sitting with something until you learn to love it.

These days access is not really much of a problem at all, so long as an area has enough signal to make streaming possible. It’s not a minor quibble to note that the access is ephemeral, ever-changing, and skewed away from obscure curiosities, but even so…a kid in rural Washington could easily stumble upon Harvey Danger, or Scratch Acid, or The Silver Apples in today’s environment.

But will they appreciate what they find? Possibly, but only as one sound among countless other sounds available at the click of a mouse.

Access is great, but there are drawbacks, and you highlight how absolutely rewarding it can be to work, and hunt, and finally get something that had been unattainable for so long. I wonder what the modern-day corollary to that experience could be.

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 6, 2023 3:11 pm
Reply to  Adrien Carver

Ha, I’ve always hated that spelling too, so it makes sense!  😆 

As for punk, I meant its original, rather homophobic connotation. I don’t think that Harvey Danger was going there, but those jocks I mentioned sure meant it that way…

Last edited 1 year ago by Phylum of Alexandria
thegue
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March 1, 2023 10:29 am

There might not be any greater thrill(s) than the following:

  1. Discovering a band no one knows.
  2. Discovering the song title of a song you heard once and loved, but never heard before.
  3. Discovering the discography of a band that’s brilliant, but unknown beyond a song or two.

I completely understand the love you have for Harvey Danger!!!

LinkCrawford
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March 2, 2023 12:49 pm
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I will second all three of your list items, thegue.

Virgindog
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March 1, 2023 11:05 am

I loved “Flagpole Sitta” immediately, except for the spelling of the title, and bought the album. Like you, I was surprised how different it was from the rest of the album. It had some good stuff though, like “Private Helicopter.”

“Flagpole Sitta” is a total earworm and it doesn’t take much to get it playing in my head. It will be there all day now. Nice first article! Welcome.

mt58
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March 1, 2023 11:09 am

With our music articles in particular, I notice that I’m beginning to experience what I’ll call for lack of a better term, “the layout effect.”

It’s a 24 hour-ish earworm, and most often, not an unpleasant experience.

mt58
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March 1, 2023 11:10 am

How would we categorize this song? I’m kind of leaning towards “post punk power pop.”

Virgindog
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March 1, 2023 11:34 am
Reply to  mt58

I was going to say “alt pop” but I like your alliteration.

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 1, 2023 12:31 pm
Reply to  mt58

Not sick. Not well. Very hot.

JJ Live At Leeds
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March 1, 2023 11:26 am

I recognised the name Harvey Danger but knew nothing about them and the title Flagpole Sitta meant nothing to me. So it’s been an education, thank you. It’s great to read of that thrill of discovery and then the bonus of rediscovering them and finding more music.

Turns out though that I instantly recognised Flagpole Sitta once I gave it a play. Its their one UK chart entry at a lowly #57. Given how catchy it is and how in keeping it seems with the last 90s I can’t believe it wasn’t a much bigger hit. Turns out it was also used as the theme to long running comedy Peep Show so it’s probably a case over here that loads of people recognise it without knowing who it’s by or what it’s even called. I’ll be having a Harvey Danger deepdive this week to at least go a little way to putting that right.

cappiethedog
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March 1, 2023 1:37 pm

Great article, Adrien.

This line set my path down memory lane: “It was the first time I bought anything off the internet.”

Everybody in the English department used the Marxist book store. They wanted their students to save money. They also stocked enough copies so nobody would go back to their dorms disappointed. But there was one holdout, my academic advisor. The campus book store, predictably, ran out of the desired novel. No such luck with the university library either. Somebody checked it out. My neck of the woods’ public library system: (laughter) we’re not New York. Borders: no. All three(!) locations. I complained to my academic advisor. I read her eyes as “smack my forehead”. She had an

“Have you tried Amazon?”

Prior to going back to school, I worked at the post office. I saw the Internet as an existential threat to my job and completely ignored the web. I was a naive Luddite. To this day, I’m still playing catch-up.

I had very little idea what Amazon was.

So I went online, this time with a different mission. I used the computer almost solely to download lyrics to musical artists who mumbled their lyrics.

Oh, wow. They sell books.

My first internet purchase: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing.

I liked Harvey Danger a lot. I’m glad I bought Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? before “Flagpole Sitta” hit the airwaves, or else I would have dismissed it as too mainstream. CMJ reviewed it. (I have since gotten over my High Fidelity-level music snobbery. I like Enya.) My favorite album tracks are “Jack the Lion”, “Carlotta Valdez” and “Radio Silence”, in that order.

Harvey Danger deserved a better fate than one-indie famous hit- wonder.

Thank you.

dutchg8r
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March 1, 2023 8:26 pm

Nicely done Adrien!! And welcome to being a writer here at tnocs.com! I remember when Flagpole Sitta first came out, I really didn’t listen to the lyrics in depth and instead wound up focusing on the overall angsty vibe of the song. And how it was a good scream-along-in-the-car song.

You are in good company here – we all can relate to that feeling of essentially a First Kiss From a Song. I’ve mentioned mine in the past over at the mothership that my most prominent one was an audio/video twofer whallop upside the head watching the ‘Faith’ video Christmas 1987 and it dawning on me this not only was the same guy who had just done I Want Your Sex, but sang with Aretha earlier in the year, AND was that gleaming teeth and poofy hair dude from Wham! The fact that George Michael was all those facets just absolutely my mind as a 13 YO, and the pieces all fell in place in the span of the latter 2 minutes of that video. We know. 😉

Zeusaphone
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March 1, 2023 8:31 pm

There’s a lot to like about Flagpole Sitta. Anybody that can make a hit with a dick joke as the title has my respect.

They were pretty obviously going to be a one hit wonder right from the jump. Flagpole Sitta is a character song, which is a terrible way to introduce yourself to the public. Most people aren’t going to examine it closely enough to realize you’re not the smug, self-absorbed asshole of the hit and will either be repelled enough by the lyrical conceit to not want to listen further or disappointed when you don’t continue in the same vein. This isn’t the kind of song that presages a long career topping the charts.

blu_cheez
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March 1, 2023 9:01 pm

Obligatory “Todd In The Shadows” link – nice write-up!!
https://youtu.be/T-e_PsXpYrk?list=PLLznZMqdhi_T5X0XrVX16lTN0um7Onpkf

mt58
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March 1, 2023 9:51 pm

Big thanks to Adrien for a thoughtful and entertaining first at-bat.

Good on you!

LinkCrawford
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March 2, 2023 12:51 pm

Never heard this one before!

mt58, how hard was it to find a picture of Debby Harry looking unimpressed and disattached?

mt58
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March 2, 2023 8:08 pm
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We strive for relevancy.

blu_cheez
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March 3, 2023 5:04 pm
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Don’t you just Google “Debby Harry”?

Edith G
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March 9, 2023 10:57 am

Belated welcome Adrien, thank you for introducing me to something unknown but good. I never heard anything about this band before, and I enjoyed your journey to know their work.

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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March 9, 2023 12:47 pm
Reply to  Edith G

Hey Edith, you and JJ’s recent article just got me wondering. Are there any US bands that had bigger careers in Mexico? Or vice versa?

Edith G
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March 10, 2023 6:17 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I should make a research, because many acts that were successful in the U.K. were big here too, such as singers or bands from the Euro dance. And from the U.S., Semisonic comes to mind, but there must be more examples.

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