The New Radicals broke up in 1999, just months after their anthemic single “You Get What You Give” became a hit all over the world. They’ve subsequently rejected all offers to reunite over the past 22 years. But just about a week ago, New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander finally got an offer he couldn’t turn down: The Biden-Harris administration wanted him to play “You Get What You Give” at their virtual “Parade Across America.”
“We pledged if Joe [Biden] won, we’d get together and play our little song both in memory and in honor of our new president’s patriot son Beau,” Alexander said in an intro to the song. “And also with the prayer of Joe being able to bring our country together again with compassion, honesty and justice for a change.”
Only a portion of the song aired on TV, but Rolling Stone is premiering the complete performance. We also spoke to Alexander about gearing up for the big day, the infamous “Marilyn Manson” verse and what this might lead to in the future.
When did you learn that the Biden family was a fan of “You Get What You Give?”
A friend read in a [Washington] D.C. paper that the lyrics to “You Get What You Give” had been recited at Beau Biden’s funeral. But I didn’t understand why until I’d heard Ashley [Biden] speak of the song in Beau’s eulogy. And then later it was in Joe [Biden’s] book.
The song was also used in presidential and Georgia “get-out-the-vote” videos so perhaps between those two events, it catalyzed the invitation for us to perform. It’s such an unexpected honor particularly after the tragic year of 2020 and the hope there’s a little positivity in our song it can bring to the start of 2021 and the Biden/Harris administration.
Who called about the possibility of a reunion and what was your first reaction?
Another friend whose team made the “get out the vote” videos asked me, “Gregg, the song has such personal meaning both to the Biden and Harris families (it’s also Kamala Harris’ husband’s “walk-out” tune). If they asked, would you consider performing the song as New Radicals at the Inauguration?” It sounded so far-fetched I half-joked “Only if you play guitar!”. But a month later, I received an official request, so I said, “Let’s do it!”
But seriously, my reaction was that I was deeply honored, but subdued, as it’s a somber time in America.
Roughly how many reunion offers have you turned down in the past? Why was this one different?
Countless – and of course it’s always flattering. Label heads have offered small fortunes for a second New Radicals album, but honestly, I’m relatively happy with my life. I do get a chuckle when I see us sometimes referred to as a “one-hit wonder” as some people may not realize that New Radicals ended by choice before our second single was released. But I view it as a cute pop term of endearment.
I‘m sure that if I had simply sung my song “Game of Love” with Santana when asked by the label, or my Euro hits I wrote for others, things would have been different. But, again, maybe then my life wouldn’t be my own.
“It’s such an unexpected honor particularly after the tragic year of 2020.”
In my iPhone intro piece for the Inauguration performance – for the TV viewers who may have no idea who I am – I jest about the fact I’m the guy on Rolling Stone’s Greatest One Album Wonder list ….along with the Sex Pistols, Lauryn Hill and Jeff Buckley. You have to laugh about this stuff.
But a presidential inauguration is vastly different from other potential reunions particularly when our democracy’s at stake. Or when you learn that One in four Americans under 25 has thought of suicide in the last month. So you hope if someone hears you singing, “If you feel your tree is breaking … just bend” on TV, you might give them the tiniest reminder to hang on in the face of the negativity we unfortunately can’t escape online or in the news every day.
Which past members of the band did you invite back? What were their responses?
It literally came together in two days, so sadly there was no Covid-safe way for my old touring band to get from California to a Philly soundstage. Luckily, some of the best musicians live in Philly and happened to be available. And even though we’d never all played together before and we had no time to rehearse, these guys are such badasses that it quickly came together after jamming for just a while. On top of that, we had to perform in a Covid-compliant social distance from the musicians and crew, but [my New Radicals bandmate] Danielle [Brisebois] was our den mother constantly reminding us all to be safe and not to get so close!
Walk me through the process of preparing for this performance.
My main preparation was mostly just me dancing around. At this point, I know the song pretty well! We filmed a full performance of the song which was edited by the inauguration [organizers] in a way that they needed to work for the parade. But we’re releasing the full version now for the people to see too.
Stephanie Cutter, the awesome executive producer of the inauguration, was firm when I humbly suggested they run the visual of our entire performance without other footage to not disappoint anyone tuning in expecting to see just the performance. She humorously reminded me, “Gregg, this is Biden’s inauguration, not a New Radicals video!” That was kinda funny because little did she know we hadn’t actually shot a music video in over 20 years!
When is the last time you sang the song in any capacity?
Here’s something terrifying…when somebody puts you on YouTube singing to an audience whilst having equipment difficulties…it’s a reminder when singing on a public stage that you have to assume someone’s recording it!
Five years ago, my tune, “Lost Stars” (Adam Levine), was nominated for an Oscar and at an LA Italia Awards ceremony, a guitarist and I were invited to perform it acoustically. But they also asked if I’d do a New Radicals song and I naively agreed.
The mic on the guitar wasn’t turned on and I realized after I started singing that only my voice was heard by the audience. So I did a head fake trying to get the audience to clap to the beat and distract from the lack of guitar whilst breaking into an unhinged acapellla, ” You Get What You Give” . The show must go on!
But the terror of that experience is still seared in my memory. If you’re bored enough in quarantine and wanna hear – and see -someone panicked singing acapella to a room full of Italians – it’s out there!
Will you change any lyrics, particularly the infamous “Marilyn Manson” verse?
I actually had no beef with the artists I mentioned in the rap in the song. My main issue was with the corrupt bankers, FDA and health insurance types which was, in retrospect, a sadly prescient lyric. But in the late Nineties, no one wanted artists metaphorically “spoiling the party” with such political lyrics during the CD boom!
Writing that “health insurance rip off lying FDA” rap when I got to the part of trying to rhyme the words “mansion” and “ass-in” only words like Hanson, who are very talented BTW, were among the options I had at the time! But for the inauguration and only four minutes to play, I couldn’t get to the rap part anyway.
“I’m pretty sure [“You Get What You Give”] will outlive me.”
What’s your current level of anxiety as you play in front of the entire country?
I don’t get that kind of anxiety anymore after having played TV and multi-billed radio shows in the late Nineties with sometimes 50,000 people. I had to let that anxiety go a long time ago. We were more anxious about being on a soundstage during Covid – particularly with Danielle’s constant reminders!
Is this a one-off or are you open to future band activities?
I have unreleased albums with many songs – maybe as good as my best. So when I can just figure out how to clone myself and send that person into the world for me to live that crazy life, maybe I can still be a contender!?
But seriously, regarding the future I often have a rabbit or two up my sleeve. And looking back, I’m very grateful that music’s been a passport to a life I’d never imagined at 16, when I just stopped trying at school so I could save my energy to run home to my bedroom ramshackle studio to make off-the-wall demos.
I’d play them for classmates without saying it was me so I could discover their favorites ones and why; that elusive search for the songs that make people happy, sad or better yet both at the same time.
I’ve probably written a thousand songs, sleepwalked into a dozen Euro hits or my “Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too” album’s little cult of public or critical acclaim. But if only one thing from my life had to be my “ambassador” to the world, I’d be a fool to choose anything but “You Get What You Give.” I’m pretty sure it will outlive me.