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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Romantics

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

Have you ever bought a record you had never previously heard, performed by an act you had never previously heard of?

I’m not talking about a record by a new act that includes a performer you’d experienced elsewhere (like when I recognized Paul Collins from The Nerves and scarfed up the debut LP by Collins’ then-new group The Beat), or a review you read somewhere prompting you to take a chance on the unfamiliar (like when Rolling Stone compared an act to BlondieThe Buzzcocks, and The Ramones, compelling me to purchase the debut album by The Darling Buds). No. I’m talkin’ tabula rasa, baby. You’ve never heard the music. You’ve never heard of the band. But money changes hands anyway, and this new music is now yours.

That’s how I discovered The Romantics.

My memory may be imprecise. I’ll concede the possibility that I read about The Romantics in Bomp! magazine before I bought my first Romantics record, but I’m pretty sure it was record first, write-up later. I do know that I can’t claim full credit for stumbling upon the record unassisted. The guy behind the counter at the record store pointed it for me.

It was in the spring of 1978. I was a freshman in college at Brockport, NY, and a budding power-pop punk with a musical mania for the 1960s, the British Invasion, The MonkeesThe Sex Pistols, and The Ramones. I’d recently discovered my Syracuse hometown heroes The Flashcubes, and I was constantly on the prowl for MORE! A cool place called The Record Grove was Brockport’s vinyl oasis, managed by a true believer named Bill Yerger. This was about a year or so before Bill opened his own emporium, Main Street Records, the best little record store there ever was. Bill was a huge fan of rockin’ pop music, he knew his stuff, and he knew how to steer kindred spirits toward the record we needed to own, even if we didn’t know it yet.

Although I was perpetually cash-strapped, I visited The Record Grove as often as I could, and bought what I could afford when I could afford it. Bill had a small display box of import and indie 45s for sale at the counter, the box from which I’d purchased my first Ramones and Sex Pistols records during the previous semester. On this particular spring ’78 visit, Bill recalled that I’d recently bought an EP by the British power pop act The Pleasers, a record I’d snapped up on impulse, drawn in by The Pleasers’ overtly Beatley image and the presence of a song called “Lies” (not The Knickerbockers‘ hit, I’m sorry to say). Bill asked me if I’d liked The Pleasers, and I said something like, Yeah, they weren’t bad. Not as good as The Knickerbockers, but I like ’em all right. Maybe Bill already had his next move planned, or maybe it was prompted by my mention of The Knickerbockers. Either way, he said, Well, if you liked that, I bet you’ll like this, too.
And Bill pulled out “Little White Lies”/”I Can’t Tell You Anything,” the debut single from Detroit’s Phenomenal Pop Combo, The Romantics. Awright, then. Just take my money, Bill. Just take it.

My roommate and I were increasingly at odds by this point, so I don’t know if he let me play my newest 7″ vinyl treasure on his stereo, or if I had to wait until a school break to hear the damned thing for the first time back home. Whatever whenever, I immediately dug both sides of this Romantics record, way more than I liked The Pleasers. “Little White Lies” just seemed to combust on the stereo, a pyrotechnic display of pure pop played fast ‘n’ swaggering. “I Can’t Tell You Anything” hijacked a Bo Diddley beat to craft a basic pounder that simultaneously (and incongruously) evoked both The Raspberries and The Rolling Stones. Magnificence times two, and I was duly hooked. When I finally did read about The Romantics in Bomp!, the write-up referenced “Can’t You See That She’s Mine” by my Tottenham Sound lads The Dave Clark Five. But of course.

I listened to a lot of music during the summer of 1978. My parents let me move my little stereo and my growing record collection into the living room; they were away for much of that summer, so I was able to play my rock ‘n’ roll platters with a bit more volume than might have otherwise been likely. I had a part-time job, I saw The Flashcubes as often as I could, and I let the records spin freely: KinksSeedsBobby Fuller FourThe JamGeneration XKISSHerman’s HermitsEddie & the Hot RodsRich KidsRunawaysStandellsBeau Brummels, Monkees, Beatles, Ramones, Pistols, Tom PettyBuddy Holly, Raspberries. The Pleasers, too–I did like them, just not as much as I liked The Romantics. Both sides of my Romantics 45 saw significant turntable time throughout that season.

As summer surrendered its space to my sophomore year at Brockport, I saw that The Romantics were coming to Syracuse for a show with The Flashcubes, and it would be at my favorite nightspot The Firebarn. It would also be my first week back at school, and there was no way I would be able to see that show. The Romantics played Syracuse dates with The Flashcubes on several occasions in this era (and the ‘Cubes also traveled to Detroit to return the favor), but always when I was away at school. I never did have an opportunity to see The Romantics play until decades later.

I remained a fan. I bought their second single, “Tell It To Carrie”/”First In Line,” mail-order from Bomp!, and I scored another Romantics track called “Let’s Swing” on the Bomp Records compilation album Waves Vol. 1 (an LP that also included “Christi Girl” by The Flashcubes). As my third and final year in college beckoned in August of 1979, local rock station 95X started playing “When I Look In Your Eyes,” an advance track from The Romantics’ forthcoming major label debut. That eponymous debut featured another new track, “What I Like About You.” Maybe you’ve heard of it…?

It cracks me up that so many folks think of The Romantics as a one-hit wonder for “What I Like About You.” The Romantics are so much more than one song, and that one song wasn’t even their biggest hit; that would be “Talking In Your Sleep” (# 3 in Billboard), and “One In A Million” also fared better chartwise (# 37) than “What I Like About You.” In fact, “What I Like About You” missed the Top 40 entirely (# 49), but it became a retroactive and enduring Fave Rave a few years after the fact, thanks to the power of a new, content-hungry entity called MTV. They were all hits in my mind anyway.

Sometimes, when a rock ‘n’ roll act you discovered ahead of the pack subsequently achieves mainstream success, you may feel a temptation to dismiss the more popular work, to sniff and insist that you liked ’em not only before they were famous, but before they, y’know, sold out, man! While it is true that, in my opinion, The Romantics’ major-label efforts never quite equaled the sheer punch of “Little White Lies”/”I Can’t Tell You Anything,” it is also true that I’ve loved The Romantics’ work across the span of their career. I love “When I Look In Your Eyes” and “What I Like About You,” I dig “One In A Million” and “Talking In Your Sleep” and “Rock You Up,” their incredible cover of the Richard & the Young Lions nugget “Open Up Your Door,” plus “Test Of Time,” “National Breakout,” and a fantastic, unreleased cover of The Spencer Davis Group‘s “Keep On Running.” Hell, I even like their 1981 hard rock album Strictly Personal–“In The Nighttime” just kicks, man!–and virtually nobody likes that record except me and Flashcubes guitarist Paul Armstrong

After years and years of missed opportunities, I finally saw The Romantics at an outdoor sports-bar show in the mid ’90s. Yeah, I would have preferred to see them at The Firebarn, but it was still a thrill. They opened with an authoritative cover of The Pretty Things‘ “Midnight To Six Man,” and I’m sure you can guess what song closed the show. I don’t believe that I will ever tire of hearing “What I Like About You,” nor will I tire of the lesser-known gems to be found throughout The Romantics’ stellar c.v. More than forty years ago, my friend Bill Yerger introduced me to the music of The Romantics, and they were but one of many pop treasures Bill pointed out for me. Bill Yerger passed away in the late ’90s. Bill, if you can read this across the veil that separates our world from yours, lemme tell ya: the inspiration you provided drives me to this day. That’s what I like about you.

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45 Single Sleeve Cavalcade #1: Gerber Music Edition

Following tuesday’s reminiscence of the great Syracuse-based Gerber Music chain, we continue our tribute to the late Bill Gerber with this all-Gerber Music edition of 45 Single Sleeve Cavalcade.

ABBA: Knowing Me, Knowing You
I wish I could remember the first 45 I ever bought at Gerber. I picked up some slashed-price close-out singles from a record-store sidewalk sale at Northern Lights Shopping Center some time during my high school years, a haul that included gems like “Rock And Roll Love Letter” by The Bay City Rollers, “Changes” by David Bowie, “You” by George Harrison, and “I’m A Rocker” by The Raspberries. Those could have come from Gerber’s Northern Lights store, but I’m pretty sure the purchase took place after Gerber had left Northern Lights in favor of its new Penn Can Mall location in 1976. Record Town went into Northern Lights, and I betcha I bought those cheapie 45s from Record Town rather than Gerber.

So maybe this fab 1977 ABBA single was first. I liked some of ABBA’s singles, and neither time nor the negative opinion of others has done anything to change that. I enjoyed their first U.S. hit “Waterloo” in 1973, loved 1975’s “S.O.S.,” was benevolently indifferent to “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” and “Mama Mia,” dismissive of “Fernando,” and A-OK with 1976’s “Dancing Queen.”

Although by ’77 WOUR-FM had nearly monopolized my radio listening, I still had some interest in AM Top 40, and ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” was sufficiently catchy and engaging to prompt a purchase of the single. I also bought ABBA’s 1978 hit single “Take A Chance On Me” at Gerber.

I bought a number of other 45s in the ’76-’77 period, when I was a senior in high school. I can’t recall the precise chronology of my purchases, nor can I guarantee where I bought each of them, but it’s likely that my copies of “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas, “Magic Man” by Heart, “Blinded By The Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “We Are The Champions”/”We Will Rock You” by Queen, and “Isn’t It Time” by The Babys all came from Gerber’s stock.

I remember eyeing a copy of KISS‘ “Calling Dr. Love” single at Gerber, and deferring the purchase because I knew my sister Denise planned to give me a KISS album as a graduation gift. And I remember being tempted by the sight of The Ramones‘ “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” 45. I had read about punk rock in my Gerber-supplied issues of Phonograph Record Magazine, and all of that exciting, as-yet-unheard noise intrigued me. I was especially intrigued by The Ramones, but couldn’t bring myself to check them out when I was in high school. That would change when I got to college in the fall of ’77.

THE CLASH: Cost Of Living EP
Just as I can’t positively ID the first single I bought at Gerber, I can’t be sure of the last one, either. But I betcha it was The Clash‘s Cost Of Living EP in 1979. It was my last summer living at home with my parents in North Syracuse; when I graduated from college in 1980, my girlfriend Brenda and I got an apartment in our college town of Brockport, intent on finding out if we could be any good at this mystifying growin’ up thing.

I’ve written often of the events of my summer of 1979; I’ll try not to repeat those details here; those who do still wanna know about what happened can read a summary I call “Summer Could Have Lasted Forever.” For right here and now, suffice it to say that was both my last summer of (presumed) carefree youth and the first real hint of what trouble might loom ahead.

I’m trying to remember what Clash records I owned before this. Maybe just my two 45s, “Remote Control”/”London’s Burning” and “Tommy Gun”/”1-2 Crush On You,” and I may have gotten one or both at Gerber. I don’t think I had any Clash LPs yet; I would pick up the American version of their first album pretty soon thereafter, either at Gerber or at Brockport’s Main Street Records

So my Clash collection was perfunctory. But man, I needed to own this Cost Of Living record. Maybe I read about it in Trouser Press, but I knew it contained The Clash’s cover of one of my favorite songs, The Bobby Fuller Four‘s “I Fought The Law.” The mere thought of one of my punk bands playing “I Fought The Law” thrilled me, and I snapped up the EP the second I saw it for sale at the Penn-Can Gerber Music. 

I liked The Clash’s take on “I Fought The Law” a lot, but never as much as I liked The Bobby Fuller Four’s definitive version. The EP contained two tracks–“Gates Of The West” and “Groovy Times”–that were almost folky, and a killer remake of The Clash’s own “Capital Radio,” with a unique Cost Of Living tag stapled to to the end. It was a good purchase.

I don’t think it was quite my last-ever Gerber Music buy. I probably got a few albums at Gerber that summer, plus an issue or two of Trouser Press (one with The Beatles on its cover), and I think it was at Gerber’s Shoppingtown location that I scored 99-cent cutout copies of The Real Kids and The Residents Present The Third Reich ‘n Roll when I shoulda been back-to-school clothes-buying at J.C. Penney

But if Cost Of Living was indeed my last-ever Gerber Music acquisition, it’s fitting. I was introduced to punk rock in the first place by issues of Phonograph Record Magazine I snagged at Gerber in 1977, and I’m cool with the symmetry of completing my Gerber Music patronage with a punk purchase.

I bought a few other punk records in the time between….

THE RAMONES: Rockaway Beach
Here’s the only instance I can think of where I can tell you the exact date, location, and even the weather outside when I bought a specific record: The Ramones‘ “Rockaway Beach”/”Locket Love” 45; January 17th, 1978; Gerber Music at Penn-Can Mall; it was snowing. 

And it was my 18th birthday.

I was home from college following the fall semester of my freshman year. Things at school hadn’t quite gone according to plan–in part because I didn’t have a plan–but another semester loomed with an opportunity to make things better. (SPOILER ALERT: things got worse before they got better.)

For my birthday, Mom and Dad took me out for a lovely dinner at Beefsteak Mining Company at Penn Can Mall. After dinner, I had planned to go out with friends for my first legal drinks, but there was time for a stop at Gerber Music to pick up a record. A 45. A Ramones 45.

This wouldn’t be my first Ramones record. I had finally gotten around to purchasing the “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” single while away at school, and already considered it the record that changed my life. I wanted more. And, on a budget, I chose to get more on the installment plan, one 45 at a time.

I don’t think I’d heard “Rockaway Beach” prior to that 1/17/78 purchase, but it didn’t disappoint. So, great birthday meal with parents, great doubling of my personal Ramones library. 

But the weather was disappointing. It began to snow harder, ultimately forcing my goin’-out-drinkin’ agenda to be abandoned for the evening. The perils of a January birthday in Central New York. 

It stopped snowing eventually; that happens, even in Syracuse. I had a few opportunities to go out a-partyin’ in Syracuse before the spring semester commenced back in Brockport. I even had a chance to see a local rock ‘n’ roll bar band for the first time–my first punk band! But that’s another story.

THE JAM: All Around The World
In the summer of 1978, as I tried to reassemble my own scattered pieces after a tumultuous freshman year in college, I got a job at Penn-Can Mall. I was a part-time morning maintenance man–i.e., a janitor–at Sears, part of a mostly-young crew that cleaned the store each AM prior to the start of the business day. My friend Tom was on the crew, and he helped me get the job to begin with. Money in my pocket. I could go out, see bands, try to be better. 

Great. Fine. Worthy goals! But let’s not forget the reason God created cash in the first place: I could buy records.

I still tried to stay within a reasonable budget. But c’mon, I now worked under the same big ol’ roof as a Gerber Music store! I wouldn’t and couldn’t resist the allure of import 45s at Gerber. My preferred rock magazines–Bomp!Trouser Press, and CREEM–gave me an information pipeline to some of what was out there. I read about the U.K. punk/power pop group Generation X, and snapped up their “Ready Steady Go” and “Your Generation” singles at Gerber. I may have gotten my red-vinyl 45 of The Rich Kids‘ “Rich Kids” and/or the single of Rich Kids bassist Glen Matlock‘s former group The Sex Pistols‘ “Pretty Vacant” on one of my frequent Penn-Can Sears-to-Gerber beelines. Beyond punk, the sight of George Thorogood & the Destroyers on TV’s Midnight Special prompted a cash transaction at Gerber to secure my copy of the “Move It On Over”/”It Wasn’t Me” single. I also bought teen pop star Shaun Cassidy‘s hit single “Hey Deanie” and local group The Alligators‘ “I Try And I Try.” My main interests were rock ‘n’ roll, punk, new wave, and (especially) power pop. But I wasn’t strict. If I liked something, I liked it.

My specific interest in power pop was stoked by Bomp! magazine, which had published a special power pop issue earlier in ’78. Gospel to me. Hey, remember that local punk group I mentioned in the previous entry about The Ramones? It turned out the Syracuse punk combo’s idea of punk kinda dovetailed with a power-pop approach, evidenced by their original songs and their chosen covers, of acts like The KinksThe RaspberriesBig StarBadfingerThe Hollies, and the early Who alongside your prerequisite punks The Sex Pistols. And yeah, everyone who knows me knows exactly what local punk/power pop group we’re talkin’ about here, but we’ll get to that in a second. Their originals were fantastic, and they had excellent taste in covers.

And they covered The Jam, a great new British group that came out of punk but were clearly and proudly beholden to the model of ’60s Mod, particularly The Who. Following my own weird introduction to The Jam’s music, my fascination with them had grown by leaps and bounds. I bought The Jam’s U.S. single of “I Need You (For Someone)”/”In The City” while away at school, and dutifully trekked to Gerber after Sears shifts to snag import 45s of “The Modern World” and “All Around The World.” Of these four songs named, “All Around The World” was the only one I didn’t already know via live in-club covers by Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouse…

THE FLASHCUBES: Christi Girl
Of course.

The story of The Flashcubes is happily entwined with the Gerber Music story. All four of The Flashcubes–guitarists Paul Armstrong and Arty Lenin, bassist Gary Frenay, and drummer Tommy Allen–worked at Gerber at some point. When Bill Gerber passed in May, The Flashcubes issued a statement: “There would be no Flashcubes if there had never been a Gerber Music. In 1977, we all worked at the best music store in CNY history. Gary and Paul (and sometimes Arty) worked at the Shoppingtown store, and Tommy worked at the Fairmount store. It was there that we hatched the idea of forming a band. Bill Gerber was a great boss (and a championship amateur golfer), and when you worked for him, you became a member of his extended family, that included his wife Debbie, mother Jean (and HER mother Mrs. Rosenbloom), and his siblings Leonard, Heidi and Terri.”

In no uncertain terms: the very existence of my all-time favorite power pop group was owed to Gerber Music. That makes Gerber sacred ground to me, now and forevermore.

When the ‘Cubes were set to release their first single “Christi Girl” in ’78, I hounded the staff at the Penn-Can Gerber every freakin’ day, with my own breathless inquiry of Is it out yet? Is it out yet? Is it out yet? To their credit, the good folk behind the Gerber counter put up with me. They even had an advance copy of the 45 on hand, awaiting its slow-to-arrive picture sleeve, and they let me hear both sides of it on the store’s sound system. I bought it the first day it was available.

I cannot overstate how important The Flashcubes have been to me. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s possible that I would have gotten around to writing about pop music and co-hosting a weekly rock ‘n’ roll radio show even without The Flashcubes’ influence, but it would be a stretch for me to imagine how that would have been. When I was given the honor of inducting The Flashcubes into the Syracuse Area Music Awards Hall of Fame in 2014, I noted once again the three groups that had the greatest and most lasting influence upon my life as a pop fan: The Beatles, The Ramones, and The Flashcubes.

That was also the night I met Bill Gerber, however briefly. Gerber Music was inducted into the SAMMYs Hall of Fame on the same 2014 evening, with members of The Flashcubes helping to induct their former employer. I shook Bill’s hand, and told him, “I never worked at Gerber; I worked at Cavages (the Buffalo chain that bought out Gerber), but I wish I’d worked for you!” I added that Cavages fired me, and he laughed and said, “They fired me, too!” I bought a commemorative Gerber Music/Flashcubes SAMMYs Hall Of Fame t-shirt from Bill’s sister Terri Gerber; I wear it often, and I glow with the shared pleasure of strangers who recognize the Gerber logo and want to tell me how much they cherish the joyful memory of being a Gerber Music customer.

Yeah. Yeah.

Memories have a soundtrack. Life has a soundtrack. We play the music, and we let it reach us and inspire us. We’re grateful for those who brought the music to us. The writers, the performers, the music men and women, the DJs on the radio, and the song sellers, for whom it was more than just business; it was the only way to live. 

Gerber Music lives. I have the records to prove it.

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This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Damned

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.

Phonograph Record Magazine figures into my first exposure to British punks The Damned, but a larger role in that introduction was ultimately played by a green-eyed girl named Mary Ellen. We’ll get to her in just a sec, but we’ll start with PRM.  Phonograph Record Magazine‘s coverage of this exotic, scary, mysteriously intoxicating music called punk captivated me as a senior in high school, 1976-77. I didn’t know what any of it sounded like, but I was aching to find out.

I was intrigued by so many of these bands that PRM name-checked so casually in its tabloid pages. The RamonesBlondieThe Sex PistolsEddie and the Hot RodsChris Spedding and the Vibrators! It was a long, long list of acts I’d never heard of before, from The New York DollsThe Dictators, and Milk ‘n Cookies through Cheap TrickElvis CostelloIggy PopTom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Yesterday and Today (later shortened to Y & T). I was desperate to learn more.

Even if you’re my age or older, it may be difficult to remember just how different the world was just four decades ago. Today, if you encounter a reference to some new musical act, the great ‘n’ powerful internet can put that act’s complete c.v. at your disposal instantly. YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of other cloud-borne resources that would have been the stuff of science fiction during the Bicentennial are now humdrum, banal fixtures of everyday living. Hell, a YouTube video was likely your introduction to this new act in the first place. The thrill of the hunt has long since been replaced by the smug, jaded smirk of entitlement.

Heh. I’m a curmudgeon at 58.

With that all said, I have to admit I enjoy the convenience of easily-accessible information. But there was something intangibly thrilling about the sheer mystique and wonder conjured in a young man’s mind by the hype and glory of fevered ramblin’ in the pages of mid-’70s rock rags like PRM. You couldn’t hear the music; you could only imagine how amazing it must sound.

The Damned were among the many loud and angry punks mentioned in the pages of Phonograph Record Magazine. I don’t recall the group necessarily getting a lot of ink in the few PRMs I was fortunate enough to grab, but I do remember Flo & Eddie discussing (and dismissing) one of The Damned’s singles–either “New Rose” or “Neat Neat Neat”–in their Blind Date column. Flo & Eddie were not impressed with British punk on first exposure.

In the fall of ’76, I met Mary Ellen at the ESSPA (Empire State School Press Association) Convention in Syracuse. I was there with a cadre of my fellow North Syracuse High School literary insurgents–Dan BacichTim Schueler, and Sue Caldwell–representing our school literary magazine, The NorthCaster.  At the banquet and awards ceremony, we shared a table with a group representing a magazine from a Rochester area high school, and Mary Ellen was part of that group. I think their magazine was called Brown Bag, and I’m pretty sure they won top honors at ESSPA that year.

I have no photo of Mary Ellen. 

Our two groups hit it off pretty well, and it turned out that Mary Ellen was a big rock ‘n’ roll fan. She was especially fond of The Who; I’d remembered reading ads for some Who bootlegs (probably in The Buyer’s Guide For Comics Fandom). I said I’d send her the information, and we exchanged addresses.

She wound up writing to me first, saying she was listening to Montrose and slipping into the terra incognita, a favorite phrase of hers. Starry-eyed teen that I was–I was kinda like Davy Joneson any random episode of The Monkees, except usually without reciprocation–I immediately began to imagine True Love. I was–what’s the word?–an idiot. On a January bus ride from Cleveland to Syracuse, traveling back home solo after visiting my sister, I daydreamed about Mary Ellen, about singing Beatles songs together and maybe exchanging a playful kiss. 

But this was all just fancy on my part. I wrote her a long, presumably witty letter, devoid of any attempt at romantic content–I wasn’t quite that much of an idiot–and she responded with delight. Further correspondence revealed that we would be switching neighborhoods in the fall; I would be starting college in Brockport, a mere 19 miles from Rochester, while she would be attending Syracuse University. She sent me her phone number at SU.

One fall evening in Brockport, I called Mary Ellen, and we spoke on the phone for about an hour. It was a breezy, banter-filled conversation. I remember mentioning The Raspberries (whom she didn’t know all that well) and The Bay City Rollers (which horrified her, since she saw them as not far removed from the dreaded “D-I-S-C-O!”). We had both discovered punk. I don’t know how The Damned came up in the conversation, but she asked me if I’d heard them yet; I hadn’t, so she cranked up the stereo in her dorm room and played The Damned’s LP track “Stab Yor Back” for me. So that was my true, lo-fi introduction to the music of The Damned.

We mentioned earlier how much easier it is nowadays to find out about something or anything. You wanna know what else has changed since 1977? The cost of long-distance phone calls. My 60-minute call to Mary Ellen cost a whompin’, stompin’ fifty dollars, which is an awful lot of money to spend for a few seconds of The Damned. My parents weren’t real happy about paying that bill for me, so that was my Christmas present that year; they threw in a copy of the Alive II album by KISS, because they were really great parents.

But that phone call (and, I think, one subsequent shorter one) were my last positive communications with Mary Ellen. I tried to get in touch with her the next time we were both in Syracuse, but she’d figured out by now that I mighta possibly had hearts in my eyes, and she didn’t need that at all. And honestly, I can’t blame her. In any case, I was soon involved with Sharon, a girl I met in Brockport, and then also with Theresa (another girl I met in Brockport), and significant complications loomed on my immediate horizon.

Complications. My man Archie understands.

It was more than a year until I would be in the same room as a Damned song playing on a damned stereo near me. In the Spring of ’78, a friend at school loaned me a compilation album called New WaveNew Wave included The Damned’s debut single “New Rose,” and I liked it a lot. It turned out that there would be a number of songs by The Damned that I like a lot, especially “Wait For The Blackout” on the group’s 1980 LP The Black Album. I’ll have to try listening to that over a $50 phone call some day.

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LOST IN THE GROOVES: TELL AMERICA By FOOLS FACE

I wrote here about my contributions to a 2005 book called Lost In The Grooves, a collection of short essays billed as a “capricious guide to the music you missed.” We’ve already seen what I had to say about The Ramones‘ Subterranean Jungle album; this was my other entry in Lost In The Grooves:
FOOLS FACE
Tell America (Talk, 1981)

Based in Springfield, Missouri, Fools Face earned raves in the pages of Trouser Press and Creem, but remained criminally unnoticed by the general public. Even interested parties have had a hard time actually buying a damned Fools Face record. To this day, I own the only copies I’ve ever seen of the group’s three elusive LPs, plus a bootleg CD-R of the final cassette-only release, The Red Tape.

Within the pop underground, however, Fools Face is renowned. For me, the moment of revelation came via the first track on the group’s second album, Tell America. “American Guilt” is an acid-tongued critique of both gung-ho Reagan-era jingoism and mushy-headed neo-hippie naivete, lyrically as incendiary as a testimonial from The MC5, but with a perfect pop sheen. When the chorus soars with the lines, “When push comes to shove/All you need is love,” the transcendent effect of the Beatles quote nails everything into place.

By turns confident and vulnerable, Fools Face was always literate, intelligent, musically accomplished, rooted in ’60s songcraft but forged in the crucible of ’70s punk and new wave. The individual tracks make the case: “Nothing To Say” is the best break-up song ever, encompassing casual heartache (or heartlessness?) and a matter-of-fact recognition of the need to just move on; “Land Of The Hunted” and “Stand Up” compress paranoia and determination into an irresistible 1-2 punch; “L5” even manages a compelling pop tune about space colonization.

Many fans prefer the group’s third album, 1983’s just-as-wonderful Public Places, though few will speak on behalf of Here To Observe, the merely okay 1979 debut. As a happy postscript, the original quintet returned for a splendid reunion CD in 2002, an album that lives up to the promise of Tell America and Public Places. Tell…someone!
POSTSCRIPTThat eponymous 2002 reunion disc was joined on the retail shelves by a vintage live performance, released under the title of Live At LastGood luck finding any of it. 

While you may not be able to track down any Fools Face albums or CDs, you can still get a copy of Lost In The Grooves via Amazon. Watch this space for one more unpublished Lost In The Grooves piece in the near future.

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LOST IN THE GROOVES: The Ramones’ SUBTERRANEAN JUNGLE

I’ve written several times here about the 2001 book Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, edited by Scram magazine’s Kim Cooper and David SmayI was so, so happy to have been involved with that book, and I’ve been delighted to re-present my contributions here on Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do)They’re all but a click away: my Bubblegum History, my Bay City Rollers piece, and my debate with Gary Pig Goldon whether or not The Monkees were ever really a bubblegum group. I’ve also posted my proposed Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth audio companion, and even my fake This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio playlist/appreciation of David Smay’s fictional group, The Daisy Bang. When it comes to Scram, I’m a fan!
So when Kim and David asked me to contribute to their next book, I was all for it. That book was Lost In The Grooves in 2005, billed as “Scram‘s capricious guide to the music you missed.” It was a collection of short essays about underrated, under-appreciated, or otherwise unjustly neglected albums. I think I proposed a bunch of potential albums I wanted to write about (including the [post-Bay City] Rollers’ 1979 work Elevator), but was given the go-ahead for but a pair: Tell America by Fools Faceand Subterranean Jungle by The Ramones.
(I recall having to convince Kim about including a Ramones album in Lost In The Grooves“The Ramones aren’t underrated anymore, Carl,” she said. “Maybe not,” I replied, “but this album is!” She ceded the point, and I got to work….)

THE RAMONES
Subterranean Jungle (Sire, 1983)

The Ramones’ seventh album, Subterranean Jungle is the most underrated work in their Carbona-huffin’ canon. It is the only one of The Ramones’ post-’70s works that fully embraces the trash-pop, bubblegum aesthetic that made the first four Ramones albums such enduring classics; yet it was the first original Ramones album to be deleted. And its follow-up, 1984’s far-less-bouncy Too Tough To Die, wound up being hailed (falsely!) as The Ramones’ return to greatness.

The Ramones wanted to be a bubblegum band, a faster and louder version of The Bay City Rollers and The Ohio Express. With ’60s bubblegum vets Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin producing, Subterranean Jungle opens with a cover of The Music Explosion‘s “Little Bit O’ Soul.” (A fab cover of The 1910 Fruitgum Company‘s “Indian Giver” was also recorded, but appeared as a non-LP B-side.) A seemingly incongruous cover of The Chambers Brothers‘ psychedelic soul touchstone “Time Has Come Today” defies expectations and simply soars. And Dee Dee Ramone’s misfit themes “Outsider” and “In The Park” (the latter song inspired–go figure!–by trips to the park to cop heroin) transcend their origins and emerge as triumphant, fist-pumpin’, bubblicious delights.

It’s not all bubbly. While Joey yearns for “Somebody Like Me” and “My-My Kind Of A Girl,” Dee Dee’s badass “Time Bomb” warns he’s gonna kill his mom and dad, and Dee Dee and Johnny’s “Psycho Therapy”–ultimately the album’s best-known track–is an audio slasher flick, with a horror-film video banned by the weasels at MTV. Behind the scenes, Marky Ramone was fired from the band during the making of the album; the cover graphics show him clearly apart from the rest of The Ramones, looking out a subway window, a brudder-in-arms no more. This was the last great Ramones album, a bubblegum punk classic, and no one seems to appreciate it. Maybe that time has come today.

I still like Subterranean Jungle more than any other Ramones studio album released after 1978’s Road To Ruin. (I specify studio album because 1979’s It’s Alive! is my all-time favorite live record.) I’ll post my Lost In The Grooves essay on the great Fools Face album Tell America some time soon. And if the good folks at Scram ever decide to do another book, I think they know where to find me.
Oh, by the way: Lost In The Grooves is a cool little book, with or without me, and copies are still available over on the Amazon thing.  In the immortal words of Jack “King” Kirby: “Don’t ask why–just BUY!”

Subterranean Jungle illustration by Tom Neely, from Lost In The Grooves
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GUILT-FREE PLEASURES (A Defense Against The Dark Arts): “Freedom” by Wham!

There is really no such thing as a guilty pleasure in pop music. Unless you happen to love neo-Nazi ditties or glorifications of hatred or violence, I’d say it’s okay for you to dig whatever you wanna dig. Yes, even the hits of The Eagles. Why? BECAUSE THEY’RE POP SONGS! Guilt-Free Pleasures (A Defense Against The Dark Arts) celebrates pop songs. The guilty need not apply.


WHAM!: “Freedom”

It has never been cool to like George Michael. He sold something like, I dunno, a billion gazillion records, both solo and as the front face of Wham! (the latter alongside cohort Andrew Ridgely), so somebody must have thought he was okay. Critics grew to like him, too. 

But rock ‘n’ rollers hated him. I’m a rock ‘n’ roller. I think I’m supposed to hate him; loathing of teen-idol pop stars is listed in the rock ‘n’ roller’s job description, right between hoping to die before we get old and yelling for punters to get off of our cloud. Nonetheless, George Michael’s records never bothered me. I’d stop short of saying I was a fan, but nor were his songs an automatic prompt for me to change the station. It was, at worst, a peaceful co-existence; at best, it’s possible I may have tapped my toes a time or two.

My first awareness of Wham!–then referred to as “Wham! U.K.” here in the States–came in a Joey Ramone interview I read in some rock rag circa…1983? Maybe earlier. Joey dismissed Wham! as the sort of crap kids were listening to when they shoulda been diggin’ the rock ‘n’ roll. My loyalty to The Ramones was (and is) unshakable, so I had no reason to question Bruddah # 1’s distaste for this Wham thing, whatever it was. The first Wham! song I ever heard was “Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do),” an inoffensive, slight 1982 single that I probably didn’t hear until ’83. I didn’t hate it, Joey’s admonishment notwithstanding. 

In late 1984, I started a job at a record store. Wham! became suddenly ubiquitous, with the # 1 smash single “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and the mega-selling album Make It Big. “Careless Whisper” gave the group its second U.S. # 1, and would eventually be named the top single of 1985. 

I objected to none of it, not the bubbly confection “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” not even the slick ballad “Careless Whisper,” with its much-mocked line “Guilty feet ain’t got no rhythm.” It was pop music, and to my ears it was better radio fare than a number of Wham!’s contemporaries. I mean, there were certainly dozens of other 1985 hits (and non-hits) that I preferred to Wham!, from The Bangles and Prince to Los Lobos and The Long Ryders. I remained neither acolyte nor dissident. Wham! was Wham!, and there were plenty of other things more worthy of my devotion or my derision, whichever one applied.

In the summer of ’85, I decided I needed to supplement my record store paycheck with part-time employment at McDonald’s. At the ripened age of 25, I was the oldest cook on the crew, but still energetic enough to work retail all day, work a closing fast-food shift three nights a week, and hit the bars after midnight before going home, showering, napping, and heading back to retail in the morning.

You could say it was a foolish slog. To me, it felt like a second shot at being a teenager. Freedom. And there just happened to be a song on the radio that bore that title.

“Freedom” was Wham!’s fourth single off Make It Big (“Everything She Wants” was the third), and the only one to miss the tippytop of the Billboard Hot 100, settling for a peak at # 3. Compared to the ’80s bubblechirp of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” the mournful regret of “Careless Whisper,” and the relative anonymity of “Everything She Wants,” “Freedom” was something else again: it was pure, over-the-top, capital letters POP, almost (if not quite) bordering on power pop. Its giddy exuberance exploded from cheap speakers everywhere, demanding volume, delivering the irresistibly agreeable swoon of hooks and melody cranked to a deep-red, blissful saturation point. The Raspberries could have done this song. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles could have done this song. The Monkees should have done this song. Any of those prospects would have been intriguing. And I doubt that any of them would have surpassed Wham!’s incredible rendition.

It was product. Sure. It was disposable CHR fodder with no pretense of grit or substance. It was the 1980s in microcosm, and I’m not terribly fond of the ’80s. It is all these sins and more. And yet, there are moments when I think it’s The Greatest Record Ever Made. I confess this transgression without apology.

The song’s title contrasts with its story. The lyrics tell us that the singer is madly in love with a hinge-heeled girl who thinks relationships should be open and free, non-exclusive, and she laughs and tells our besotted hero he should go out and try it. But he doesn’t want that kind of freedom; he wants commitment, trust, stability, an everlasting and monogamous meeting of hearts. I don’t want your freedom/I don’t want to play around. All he wants right now is her, not some other floozy de nuit. He wants the true love promised in pop songs. 

It was also what I wanted, and I got it. In that summer of 1985, I celebrated my first wedding anniversary. Brenda and I have now been married for nearly 35 years. We’re still in love. Just like pop songs always said we could be. 

Wham! itself wasn’t built to last. George Michael went on to a successful and well-regarded solo career; he called his second album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. Guilt-free pleasure, right? I never again embraced any of his work to anywhere near the degree I exulted in Wham!’s transcendent pop song “Freedom.” But I respected him. He was one of the many casualties of 2016, a year which took away so many of our pop idols, a year that seemed crueler than any other cruel, cruel year. 

Before Michael’s death, I had already reconnected with my delight in Wham!’s wonderful pop song “Freedom.” The track’s a bit too long–pop songs sound best with running times of two to three and a half minutes, not over five–but its charm remains, and I love it without reservation or shame. It sounds great with some Motown and some Badfinger, some Aretha FranklinKai DanzbergDusty SpringfieldSqueezeThe Isley BrothersLisa MycholsHerman’s Hermits, and yes, even alongside some Ramones. Joey Ramone was wrong, at least this one time. But you know that I’ll forgive you/Just this once, twice, forever. Forever. Let “Freedom” ring. 

VERDICT: Innocent, not guilty.

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The T-Shirts Of My Life

Don’t tell me that love hurts
I read the book, I saw the movie
Got the T-shirt
“T Shirt” by J. Imray (recorded by The Crickets)

Me in a Monkees T-shirt, my wife Brenda in normal adult clothes

I don’t wear plain Ts, of course; I favor some kind of design, usually a graphic from pop culture, whether it’s a rock group or a comic book character, whatever. I remember wearing a Batman T-shirt when I was six (circa the 1966 Batman TV series). I have no other recollection of what T-shirts (if any) I wore as a kid. (Though I should at least mention my Baron Daemon sweatshirt, proudly emblazoned with the black-and-white image of Syracuse’s favorite TV vampire, and stating, I’m a real cool ghoul.)

Even into high school, I don’t really remember what T-shirts I may have owned. The only one that specifically comes to mind is the Budweiser shirt I had when I was 15. I didn’t drink Budweiswer then, and I don’t drink it now, though the reason why has evolved; in 1975, I didn’t drink Budweiser because I didn’t drink beer, whereas nowadays I don’t drink Budweiser because I don’t regard it as a real beer. Gimme a Belgian, man.

Really, college was when I started getting more into identity-proclaiming T-shirts. I’m sure I wore a bunch of ’em freshman year, 1977-78, though I only remember my dorm T-shirt, my free local disco Club 2 On 2 T-shirt (which was definitely not identity-proclaiming, but it was free), and a White Rock T I won from Utica’s WOUR-FM. The White Rock shirt–which was connected to a ski movie scored by Rick Wakeman from Yes, not some stupid neo-Nazi thing–caused friction with my girlfriend’s roommate Rosanne; Ro also had a White Rock T-shirt, but hers went missing, and it was an uncommon enough item that I can’t blame her for being suspicious when she saw me wearing mine (especially given, as she put it, that I was hanging around her room so much). 

As college progressed, I started to get a few Ts more specifically reflective of my pop tastes. Christopher Reeve as SupermanKISSThe Sex PistolsThe Ramones. I recall a visit to a Syracuse University shop called Tops To Please, which at the time had an amazing selection of rock, punk, and new wave shirts, including a shirt emblazoned with the logo of my local heroes The Flashcubes. Alas, I was but a poor college student, and my budget didn’t allow me to purchase anything there. I never even got a Flashcubes T-shirt, at least not at the time. After the ‘Cubes broke up, and their T-shirts were no longer available, I went to a custom shirt place in Brockport, armed with a plain black T and my official membership button from when I joined The Flashcubes International Fan Club. I went to the shop’s counter, and told the clerk, “Make this shirt look like this button.” Yes, I’m guilty of commissioning the world’s first bootleg Flashcubes T-shirt. When the group reunited decades later and offered new shirts for sale, I made sure to buy one in penance for past sins.

For my 21st birthday in 1981, my girlfriend bought me a Monkees T-shirt. I loved that thing, and I wore it whenever I could. I wore it to a club show by a great British Invasion-influenced group called The Insiders. As the show went on, one of The Insiders told the crowd, “I hear there’s a guy here tonight in a Monkees T-shirt. Well, this is the song he came to hear,” and The Insiders played “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” I think they did “Last Train To Clarksville,” too.  Hey, hey…!

I remember once staring at a Yardbirds T-shirt for sale at Record Theatre in Rochester, wanting it, but reluctantly moving on because the store didn’t have one in my size. But the ’80s opened the floodgates for my fresh sea of Ts. Johnny Thunders! More Ramones! Batman! Um…Madonna. It was free. And, if memory serves, Ms. Ciccone wasn’t wearing a shirt herself in the image on the front, her strategically-placed arm securing the modicum of modesty necessary for one to wear the T-shirt in polite company.

’80s, ’90s, and into the 21st century. I had souvenir Ts from visits to Key West, Yosemite, Peel Pub in Montreal, and Malaga, several shirts depicting images of Batman and/or The Joker, shirts dressed with logos or likenesses of The Beach BoysThe Rolling StonesThe Wonders (from That Thing You Do!), The Cavern ClubGerber MusicThe BeatlesLannie FlowersThe Catholic GirlsCoca-ColaHarry PotterSyracuse University basketballSpider-Man…! Some I outgrew, some I replaced. I still wear ’em, from early, early spring to late, late fall.

My favorite T-shirt? The Kinks. People notice it pretty much every time I wear it, and I wear it often. Am I a dedicated follower of fashion? No, plainly not. I read the book, I saw the movie. Now just lemme have my T-shirts.

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Fans of pop music will want to check out Waterloo Sunset–Benefit For This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, a new pop compilation benefiting SPARK! Syracuse, the home of This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & CarlTIR’N’RR Allstars–Steve StoeckelBruce GordonJoel TinnelStacy CarsonEytan MirskyTeresa CowlesDan PavelichIrene Peña, Keith Klingensmith, and Rich Firestone–offer a fantastic new version of The Kinks’ classic “Waterloo Sunset.” That’s supplemented by eleven more tracks (plus a hidden bonus track), including previously-unreleased gems from The Click BeetlesEytan MirskyPop Co-OpIrene PeñaMichael Slawter (covering The Posies), and The Anderson Council (covering XTC), a new remix of “Infinite Soul” by The Grip Weeds, and familiar TIRnRR Fave Raves by Vegas With RandolphGretchen’s WheelThe Armoires, and Pacific Soul Ltd. Oh, and that mystery bonus track? It’s exquisite. You need this. You’re buying it from Futureman.

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Hold On! It’s NORMAN’S NORMANS!

It’s like The Rutles, except for Herman’s Hermits instead of The Beatles
Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) supporter Dave Murray

Ripped! is an independent flick from 2013, written and directed by Rod Bingaman, and you risk no loss of film-fan status if you admit you’ve never heard of it. Hardly anyone’s heard of it. I stumbled across a listing for it on Amazon some time back, thought the concept seemed cute (and certainly unique), and I finally got around to watching it a few weeks ago. Ripped! can rightly claim one all-time accolade as its very own:

It is the Citizen Kane of Herman’s Hermits pastiche movies.

Sure, it’s also the Plan 9 From Outer Space of Herman’s Hermits pastiche movies, the Ishtar of Herman’s Hermits pastiche movies, the Heaven’s Gate of Herman’s Hermits pastiche movies, the ZardozWest Side StoryShowgirls, and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein of Herman’s Hermits pastiche movies. Not a really crowded field, those Herman’s Hermits pastiche movies. But Ripped! is indeed one enjoyable, unassuming little hoot of a Herman’s Hermits pastiche movie, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I enjoy any actual Herman’s Hermits movie.

A little bit o’ background here: I love Herman’s Hermits, and none of the seeming snark above should lead you to forget that fact. I love many of the Hermits’ records, especially “No Milk Today” and “A Must To Avoid,” but also including all of their big hits and many of their lesser-known tracks. I saw a bar-band line up of Herman’s Hermits (minus Peter Noone) at a nightclub in 1978 (right in the same time frame that I was seeing The Ramones and The RunawaysThe KinksElvis Costello & the Attractions, and The Flashcubes), and I thought they put on an impressive British Invasion rock ‘n’ roll show. I saw Peter Noone with his new wave band The Tremblers in 1981 or ’92, and saw Noone and his current collection o’ Hermits about two years ago, and those were both terrific concerts, too. I have nothing negative to say about ol’ Herm, Derek LeckenbyKarl GreenKeith Hopwood, and Barry Whitwam, nor about their records.

Their movies? Different story. Herman’s Hermits made awful movies.

My thoughts were different when I was a lad of six in 1967, and I went with my sister to see Herman and his Hermits in Hold On! I’m sure I loved it then, and I loved the soundtrack LP when I scored a used copy of it about a decade later. But when I tried to watch Hold On! again as an adult, I couldn’t bear to finish it. Same story when I tried to watch Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter, nor could I muster up much interest for Herman’s Hermits’ supporting role in the bland When The Boys Meet The Girls. I love jukebox musicals, from The Girl Can’t Help It through A Hard Day’s NightElvis Presley in Loving You through That Thing You Do! (The Greatest Movie Ever Made), The Ramones in Rock ‘n’ Roll High SchoolThe Monkees in Head, even much-maligned vehicles like The Dave Clark Five‘s Having A Wild Weekend and Sonny & Cher‘s Good Times, maybe Bloodstone‘s Train Ride To Hollywood. Hell, I’ll cop to a frequent fondness of Frankie & Annette beach flicks–ya can’t beat Harvey Lembeck, man–and I dig American Hot Wax enough that I forgive its approach of fantastical fiction masquerading as fact. I’ve even come up with fanciful li’l pipe dreams of my own jukebox musicals Jukebox ExpressLet’s Go Out Tonight, and The Bay City Rollers in Catch Us If You Can. But Herman’s Hermits movies? No. The Lord says love the singers, hate the singers’ films.

So the idea of a 2013 parody of 1967’s Hold On!, starring fictional Brits Norman’s Normans in place of Herm and the lads, was not a sure thing. The trailer and description seemed intriguing, but my expectations were very, very low. I figured it would be either condescending or dumb, possibly both, and inevitably a pointless waste of time.

But it was fun!

I mean, it was dumb, if willfully so; it’s difficult to make a movie about a fictional ’60s British pop group accidentally rocketed to a planet inhabited solely by women–a planet at war with the estranged men of their neighboring world–where the music of Norman’s Normans conquers all and makes everything gear and free, luv…well, it’s kinda hard to try to pull all that off without risking a few extraneous brain cells. “Dumb” would seem the smart path to take here. The ending is rushed and anticlimactic, the result of filmmakers rashly deciding Right, that’s enough! when the ready supply of time, money, motivation, and/or patience evaporates before the story’s been finished. Ripped!‘s virtues outweigh its shortcomings. I can’t explain how the makers of Ripped! were able to maintain just the right tone throughout. It’s not really camp, nor does it seem to be slumming. It believes in itself, in the moment. It’s not smug, and it embraces its own ludicrous identity with casual but undeniable pride. I was expecting parody. Instead, I was rewarded with a loving pastiche of a silly little pop movie I saw when I was seven years old. The pastiche, miraculously, feels more sincere and real than the borderline-cynical B-movie that inspired it.

The music’s cool, too. Going back to the Rutles comparison, the beauty of the music from that 1978 Beatles parody All You Need Is Cash is that The Rutles’ tracks sound like perfectly swell pop music, even apart from their corresponding on-screen hijinks. Norman’s Normans sound similarly fab, and Ripped!‘s opening number “9-9-9!” has already found a place on our weekly This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio playlists. A band doesn’t have to actually exist to make decent pop records. I bought Norman’s Normans’ six-song Music From Ripped! as a download from normansnormans.bandcamp.com“9-9-9!” and “Down On My Knees” are the Fave Rave Top Gear Picks T’Click, but “(I’m In Love With) The Queen Mother” and–of course!–“Mr. Brown” are snappy like Mr. White’s boys The Wonders, and “Man In The Moon” and “Come With Me (Beam Trip)” add appropriate atmosphere. I realize that Norman’s Normans aren’t, y’know, real, but it wouldn’t break my heart to hear more from whoever crafted their peppy little tunes.

Ripped! will never be anyone’s favorite film. But it’s gentle, confident, and gawkily charming, at home in its own distinct skin. It’s the movie equivalent of the best Herman’s Hermits songs. At long last, there is a movie worthy of Herman’s Hermits. Even if Herman’s Hermits aren’t actually in it.

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THE BEST OF EVERYTHING: Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four

Sometimes only the best will do. The Best Of Everything looks back on specific greatest-hits and best-of LPs and what they meant to me.

THE BOBBY FULLER FOUR: Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four (Rhino, 1981)

In 1966, my brother Art had a red Alfa Romeo. I’m told it was kind of a crappy car, really, and I remember its ignominious final days in his possession: a scarlet husk parked, prone, lying in state beyond the shed at the end of our back yard. Collecting dust, collecting rust. A tow truck ultimately came to whisk this luckless red Alfa Romeo to the promised land.

But my prevailing principle memory of this doomed vehicle is a happy one. I believe the memory involves the consumption of Royal Crown Cola, or possibly a root beer and Teen Burger at the nearby A & W Drive-In. The memory absolutely involves the car’s one true immortal virtue: its radio.

That radio? When I was six years old, I may have thought that radio was magic.

I mean, it must have been magic. There were songs I heard on that car’s radio that I never seemed to hear anywhere else. I should ask Art if he listened to Syracuse’s 1260 WNDR in ’66, or if it was WOLF instead, or even the less-fabled WFBL. Whatever it was, it played “I Like It Like That” by The Dave Clark Five, a record that–to me–only existed on the AM dial of Art’s star-crossed Alfa Romeo. Even better, it played–often!–another irresistible exclusive: “I Fought The Law” by The Bobby Fuller Four. To this day, more than five decades later, my visceral memory of that terrific song is inextricably linked to those moments in my brother’s Alfa Romeo, of drums, guitars, and a singer bemoaning his fate of Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun, allpouring forth from the little car’s speakers as my big brother cruised suburban streets with his pesky kid brother on board. It’s indelible, and I embrace and cherish its vivid image.

A decade and change passed. In 1978, I was finishing my freshman year in college, and immersing myself in the rockin’ pop of the ’60s and the then-contemporary sounds of punk, new wave, and power pop. It was all one big ol’ ball of pop music to me, from The Monkees to The Sex PistolsThe Romantics to The Beau BrummelsThe Ramones  to Joey Ramone‘s fave raves The Who and Herman’s Hermits. Oh, and The Kinks to The Kinks, “You Really Got Me” to “Rock And Roll Fantasy.” In this joyous crucible of discovery and rediscovery, “I Fought The Law” was ripe to reclaim. I think I found an oldies 45 reissue, but I found something lacking in its sound–couldn’t match the magic of the Alfa Romeo, lemme tell ya! I bought a various-artists LP called 15 Original Rock N’ Roll Biggies Vol. 2, an oddball set that gave me “I Fought The Law,” familiar old gold from The Platters and Little Anthony & the Imperials (and, incongruously, “Day By Day” from Godspell), and some archival stuff that was brand-new to me, by names like The StandellsThe E-Types, and Chocolate Watchband. I played “I Fought The Law” and the two Standells tracks–“Why Pick On Me” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White”–a lot in that music-filled summer of ’78.

I don’t know if it occurred to me that The Bobby Fuller Four might have had more than just one great song. Hell, my “I Fought The Law” 45 had only contained one BF4 track, its flip occupied by The Seeds‘ “Pushin’ Too Hard.” Nor did I know that Bobby Fuller himself was dead, and I certainly didn’t know anything at all about the suspicious circumstances surrounding his demise. The opportunity to learn about all of this would not present itself until after I graduated from college in 1980.

The specific sequence of events is cluttered and imprecise in my recollection. In 1981, my girlfriend and I were living in an apartment in Brockport. She would graduate that spring, and I’d already leveraged my Bachelor of Arts degree into full-time employment at McDonald’s–success! And rent money, as well as cash for beer and food and beer, and to keep buying music at Main Street Records. At Main Street, my dovetailing interests in punk and pop led me to Pebbles, the essential Nuggets-inspired series of possibly-not-fully-authorized compilations of ’60s garage and psych. I started with Pebbles‘ second volume, which introduced me to The Choir‘s “It’s Cold Outside” and The Moving Sidewalks‘ “99th Floor,” and to The Electric Prunes‘ unforgettable commercial for Vox wah-wah pedals. It’s the NOW sound! It’s what’s happening!

Pebbles, Volume 2 also offered my first exposure to a Bobby Fuller song that was not about robbing people with a WHOMP-WHOMP-WHOMP six-gun: the relatively nondescript “Wine Wine Wine.” Fuller remained a one-hit wonder to me for just a little bit longer.

Within this same time frame, Phil Seymour (formerly of The Dwight Twilley Band, and a collaborator with ace combos like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and 20/20) released his first solo album. My favorite track on Phil Seymour was his version of “Let Her Dance,” an incredible pop confection first recorded by–you guessed it!–The Bobby Fuller Four. Something nagging at the edges of my memory insists that I did hear the original version before hearing Seymour’s cover, but I can’t imagine where I heard it. Either way, I loved the song. I was ready and eager to dive more deeply into Fuller’s c.v.

I probably snapped up Rhino Records‘ Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four the first time I saw it on the shelf at Main Street; if not, it wasn’t long thereafter. I knew, at best, two songs. It was high time to know more.

The album begins with the lone hit, Sonny Curtis‘ “I Fought The Law,” originally recorded by The Crickets, later covered successfully by The Clash. I’ve always considered The Bobby Fuller’s version to be definitive. I still do. By the early ’80s, I would have been more than skeptical of the idea that it could ever be demoted to something like my fourth or even fifth favorite BF4 track. But that revelation was mere grooves away.

Granted, nothing else on Side 1 of Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four really threatens to challenge the primacy of “I Fought The Law.” “King Of The Wheels,” the LP’s second track, is its weakest, an amiable but unremarkable car tune. The rest of the side is pretty damned good, with the pure pop likes of “The Magic Touch,” “It’s Love, Come What May, “Only When I Dream,” “Don’t Let Me Know,” and Buddy Holly‘s “Love’s Made A Fool Of You” combining to build the case that maybe these one-hit wonders deserved greater notoriety than the one hit that defined them. In particular, “Don’t Let Me Know” seems like it should have at least been a hit single, perhaps capable of cracking the lower end of the Top 20 while never quite matching the Top 10 status of “I Fought The Law.”

But Side Two…!

Side Two opens with “Let Her Dance,” a bona fide gem later covered by Marshall Crenshaw, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad version of it. The BF4’s original is the equal of “I Fought The Law,” perhaps its superior. “Another Sad And Lonely Night” is even better, a lovelorn lament that all too few recognize as the essential classic it is. “My True Love,” “I’m A Lucky Guy,” and the Eddie Cochran ripof…er, tribute “Saturday Night” keep things moving at a mere-mortal (but terrific!) level. By this point, Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four has already proven the group to be worthy of repeated play beyond just its best-known song.

“Fool Of Love” is the icing on this cake, a cruel-love compatriot to “Another Sad And Lonely Night,” both of them simultaneously shiny and devastating in their resigned, boppin’ acceptance of the heart’s tear-stained pursuit of an elusive happiness. The two tracks politely take turns as my all-time top Bobby Fuller Four track. The haunting “Never To Be Forgotten” brings the program proper to a close, the heart’s quest yet unfulfilled, but its lonely plight comforted by the warmth of the stereo. An unlisted bonus track–the group’s radio spot for The Big Kahuna, a popular DJon L.A.’s KHJ-AM, sung to the tune of “I Fought The Law”–finally ends the LP on a gloriously exuberant note.

I was 21 years old in 1981. I lived inside my pop music. I was also living in the (overrated) real world for the first time, trying to reconcile the frequently conflicting promise of art and the demands of responsibility, adulthood. It can be a difficult line to tread, an ongoing balancing act between the dreams we dream and the clocks we punch. Doing what we have to keeps things going; doing what we want to keeps us going.

Bobby Fuller wasn’t much older than that when he died in the summer of ’66, a pop star three months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, a West Texas kid who hit the big time, a rockin’ pop success story with a Billboard smash on his resumé and the world at his feet. The liner notes to Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four offered my first hint of his tragic story. Bobby had talent. Bobby had good looks. Bobby had a string of pretty young things on his arm. And on July 18th, 1966, Bobby’s body was found slumped in his car outside his apartment in Hollywood. He had been beaten. He had been doused with gasoline. The authorities ruled his death a suicide (later amended to “accidental”).

Right.

The record business is big and brutal. And wherever there’s money, there are criminals, and there is often the mob. Ask Tommy James. Or ask Miriam Linna, co-author (with Bobby’s brother Randell Fuller) of the book I Fought The Law: The Life And Strange Death Of Bobby Fuller. Linna and Fuller believe Bobby was murdered by the mob. Sound crazy? Really, crazier than suicide by beating oneself and bathing in gasoline? I’m not one for conspiracy theories. Elvis is dead. Paul is alive. Neil Armstrong did indeed walk on the moon. Oswald may well have acted alone. I find tinfoil hats unbecoming. And I also believe that the mob killed Bobby Fuller, whether over business (likely) or for revenge on Bobby for dallying with a pretty young thing whose dallying allegiance was presumed to already belong exclusively to an underworld boss. The latter scenario was, as I recall, favored in the liner notes of Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four. Whatever actually happened to Fuller, it’s a safe bet it wasn’t self-inflicted.

The sordid tale of Fuller’s end, as sad and frustrating as it remains, can’t dilute the prevailing appeal of his music. Listening to Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four was my first real evidence that there could be more–much more–to an act that show biz writes off as a one-hit wonder. I no longer own my copy of that LP; it was replaced many years ago by a CD that contained even more great Bobby Fuller tracks, and that CD was replaced by the five discs of Bobby Fuller material that now sit proudly on my shelf at home. Fool of love. Another sad and lonely night. Let her dance all night long.

My road to appreciating the bounty of The Bobby Fuller Four began in earnest with Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four in 1981. But the road truly began on the road, literally, back in ’66: when the magic radio in my brother’s unreliable but intrepid red Alfa Romeo played a song I could never hear anywhere else. The law didn’t win this one, I fear. But the music plays on. Never to be forgotten.

(And, for a fictional take inspired by Bobby Fuller’s murder, check out the blurb for my story idea The Beat And The Sting.)

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He Buys Every Rock ‘n’ Roll Book On The Magazine Stands, Part 1: The Circus And The Stone

The first rock ‘n’ roll magazines I recall seeing were issues of Circus and Rolling Stone. I found them around the house, and I presume they belonged to one of my older siblings, probably my sister Denise. I am reasonably certain that neither of my parents would have been into either magazine. On the other hand, my Dad worked at the post office, so it’s equally plausible that these were dead-letter subscription copies that had been discarded, and that maybe Dad brought ’em home. Either way, these magazines made their way to our living room in North Syracuse.

Circus never meant much to me, and although I occasionally flipped through new issues on the magazine racks when looking for rock ‘n’ roll reading material in later years, it wasn’t something I cared about. Until a couple of days ago, I’d largely forgotten that Circus was my first, from 1973. I remembered that Carly Simon was on the cover, and a bit of Google sleuthing led me to the likely culprit pictured above.

I liked Simon at the time. I was an AM radio fanatic. I enjoyed her singles “Anticipation” and “You’re So Vain,” as well as “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” and I would continue to like a few more of her hits before I lost interest in the mid ’70s. I’m sure I read the Circus article about her, and I would imagine I at least glanced through the other cover-mentioned pieces about Deep PurpleYesBlack SabbathStevie WonderTommy, and Colombo‘s Peter Falk. But I remember virtually none of it. Not even the Uriah Heep calendar! Though it is fitting that my first rock magazine should presage my first live rock show: my first concert was KISS with opening act Uriah Heep on December 16th, 1976. A coincidence, sure, but a cool connection nonetheless.

My second rock magazine had a little more lasting impact: Suzi Quatro on the cover of the Rolling Stone, January 1975. Swoon! I was instantly smitten with Quatro, even though I’d never heard of her before seeing this magazine. I read the article about her, but didn’t get an opportunity to hear her music until much later. When I finally got to hear and see Suzi Q sing “I May Be Too Young” on the British TV show Supersonic in 1976, it verified the veracity of my smitten nature. Did I mention swoon? Thanks, Rolling Stone!

Most rock fans of my age or older had some affection for Rolling Stone at some point, and I was no exception to that. Other than a 1976 issue with The Beatles on its cover, I don’t think I read the magazine much (if at all) before starting college in 1977. But I devoured Charles M. Young‘s cover story about The Sex Pistols. My roommate Arthur had a subscription to Stone, despised punk, and eventually passed his copy of that Pistols issue to me (with the disdainful expression of one handing over a sack of poopy diapers). I bought Rolling Stone sporadically; I enjoyed “Bang The Head Slowly,” Timothy White‘s 1979 piece about The Ramones, but bemoaned the fact that The Ramones never rated an RS cover feature during their blitzkrieg-boppin’ lifetime.

I eventually subscribed to Rolling Stone, but I grew increasingly and frustratingly aware of the annoying polar opposites that characterized the magazine’s approach: one half rooted in a smug, condescending rote-hippie consciousness, the other not rooted at all, but embarrassingly eager to chase and embrace whatever shiny Next Big Thing mirage flits across pop culture’s short attention span. Come on–Rolling Stone‘s putz swine-in-chief Jann Wenner still insists on blocking The Monkees from The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but he’s fine with cover-featuring Kardashians? Sorry, even introducing me to Suzi Quatro doesn’t earn sufficient gravitas to compensate for that. Rolling Stone and I parted company a long time ago.

But let’s get back to the ’70s. In spite of being initiated via Circus and Rolling Stone, I don’t really recall reading many rock mags during my high school years. I was certainly into the music. I mean, I listened to radio nearly all of the time, bought records when I could afford them, tried to catch rock ‘n’ roll on TV when the opportunity presented itself. But the meager spending cash I had for reading material went to comic books, pulp paperbacks, and the occasional Playboy or Penthouse. The latter resource did include a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll coverage amidst its more celebrated, y’know, uncoverage. I remember reading the lyrics to The Kinks‘ “Here Comes Yet Another Day” in a Penthouse article, at a time when I was just beginning to learn about The Kinks. Penthouse also published an extremely dismissive piece about The Bay City Rollers, and an interview with Patti Smith that was the first time I’d even heard of her.

The only other rock-related magazines I remember from my North Syracuse High School days were Welcome Back Beatles, a series of fanciful scenarios detailing fictional Beatles reunions, and a Bay City Rollers one-shot fan magazine. Oh, and Marvel‘s KISS comic book. And there was still one more bona fide rock ‘n’ roll publication that did matter to me, and it mattered a lot. I only saw two issues of this during my senior year, plus one more back issue the following summer. Even so, the impact of those tabloid pages was far greater than any other rock read I’d experienced to that point.

This was something new. This was something different. This was Phonograph Record Magazine.

TO BE CONTINUED!

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