Saturday, January 5, 2019

THE CUCUMBERS: When Cute is Cool [1986]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1986
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

I had the chance to meet Deena Shoshkes and her partner Jon Fried during a taping of cable access show Videowave around the time this article was written. I never saw them play live, but I always liked their quirky music and videos. They are definitely a New Jersey lynchpin group from the 1980s that do not get as much play or attention for which they deserve.

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #14, dated 1986. It was written by FFanzeen Managing Editor, Julia Masi. – RBF, 2015

Deena Shoshkes’ voice is the sound of a smile: it’s light, warm, clear and destined to help the Cucumbers carve their niche in pop music history.

With two albums to their credit, Fresh Cucumbers and Who Betrays Me… and Happier Songs, on Fake Doom Records, the Cucumbers are already collecting compliments from the critics on the college and underground circuit throughout the country [By the end, they would have 5 LPs of original music – RBF, 2018]. The video for their first single, “My Boyfriend,” a colorful animation, has become a staple on many cable and marathon music video programs. And their latest visual effect, a cover of “All Shook Up,” made its way onto M-TV last Summer.

Their music is cute, clever and very catchy. The songs are written by Deena (guitar and vocals) and Jon Fried (guitar). They started writing together in 1980, although they did not officially form a band until ’82. “My Boyfriend” was the first song they’d ever written together.

“The words for ‘My Boyfriend’ were just little scribbles (that) I wrote down for myself,” recalls Deena. “I wasn’t trying to express the modern relationship. I didn’t even want Jon to see them, but he found them.” He also found the melody on a tape of one of their many jam sessions that tend to go off in all directions. “Jon is really good at wading through all the stuff until he finds the two bars of good music.” Once he finds a chord or melody, he quickly persuades Deena to write the lyrics.

She confesses that when she first started writing, she wasn’t always confident about her work. When she wrote “Susie’s Getting Married,” she was convinced that it wasn’t’ up to par and threw the lyrics in the trash. Secretly, Jon retrieved them from the garbage. About a month later, he came up with some chords. He played them for Deena. She was stumped for words, so Jon promptly handed her the crumpled lyrics.

“Our first songs were really spontaneous and fresh. And then when you decide you’re in it for a while you start writing more songs and start being more serious about it. I got a little more self-conscious. I started looking more closely at what I was doing. I had trouble adjusting to taking myself seriously as a musician because in the beginning it was all fun and games.”

Now, she sometimes worries that the band isn’t taken seriously. It’s not that they’ve taken much flack for being pop; in fact, the reviews are more than favorable. It’s just that they’re so wholesome and unpretentious.

Deena is as sweet as she sounds. The type of girl who could easily steal your boyfriend, but deep in your heart you know she won’t. She exudes that rare strain of confidence that is devoid of conceit.

“I seem to get a lot of attention in the articles that have been written about us, but inside the band I’m not the most important person. We’ve played with a couple of different people. The people we’re playing with now (Yuergen Renner, drums; John Williams, bass) have been with us for a while. As time goes by they have more and more involvement in the arranging and songwriting. I write all the songs with Jon, but the other guys have written melodies. Their input is more involved with rhythm.

“Yuergen has created a couple of drum beats that we’ve written music over. And John Williams is really good at arranging songs and helping out with the dynamics, and improving the part that everyone’s playing.

“Collaboration is really the most wonderful thing about the group, because a lot of times, you see a band and it’s one person fronting the band. They write the songs; they sing them. That can be very good if the person is interesting. But somehow, the interplay of more than one ego being involved makes it more interesting.

“We’re trying to get over our cute image. Some people say we’re ‘too cute,’ but I think that’s because of our name, which started as a joke.”

Jon used to jam with two friends. One would call out a song title. The other would start singing lyrics and John would provide the music. One night they came up with a silly song called “The Cucumbers.” Deena used to love to sing it because she thought it was funny. And when she and Jon started to play together they adopted the name. They never intended to name a band after a song, but it just stuck with them.

It conjures up artistic expectations that they actually deliver. They’ve never been particularly concerned with image or marketing. “We’re hopeless with that,” Deena laughs. “We’re trying to be sincere. The strength of our music is that it’s personal and that we’re ourselves.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Nancy Neon’s Notes: THE JACKETS’ Jack, Schmidi, and Chris Reveal the Spark That Fires Their Sound

Text by Nancy Neon / FFanzeen, Jan 2019
Images from the Internet

Kenne Highland of The Gizmos and The Boston Groupie News' Editor-at-Large explains what sets The Jackets apart from the current barrage of garage rock bands: he describes them as having "the gymnastics of the Monterey Pop era Who and Love It To Death Alice Cooper spider eyeliner, while playing The Kinks at Kelvin Hall feedback-inducing solos while crowd surfing." My introduction to The Jackets came with "Wasting My Time," 3 minutes and 53 seconds of pure Dionysian frenzy.

The band is based in Bern, Switzerland. The lineup is Jack Torera aka Jackie Bruschte on guitar and lead vocals, Samuel "Schmidi" Schmidiger on bass and vocals, and Chris Rosales, from Southern California, on drums and vocals. Jack’s and Schmidi's vocal interplay is distinctive, adding an extra layer of interest to the band's vocal arrangements. At the Cambridge, MA show, October 5, 2018, Torera's vocals were described by Jeff Kabot of The Superkools and The Downtowners as a "grittier Chrissie Hynde" or in a "Grace Slick mode.” As Michael Passman, garage maven and photographer in Austin, TX, remarked "Jack can scream!" Torera mixes up a potent elixir of rhythm and lead guitar prowess that hooks the fans. She is constantly in motion, kicking, gesticulating wildly, and even executing arabesques like a garage rock prima ballerina.

The Jackets 'songs are rebellious and defiant-Youthquaker anthems of autonomy. The Jackets cite their influences as The Music Machine, The Monks, and The MC5. The trio does deliver a kick out the jams level of impact, mixing ‘60s punk with ‘70s punk into a potent, irresistible, and addictive cocktail. I have never seen such a fierce band that is also full of good humor, high spirited fun, and full blast excitement. .No band has ever answered the "Where Have All The Good Times Gone" question so definitively-The good times are here and now with The Jackets.

Torera has a magnetic presence and binds the crowd together and pulls them into a tribal dance like a shaman. John Keegan, writer and photographer of The Boston Groupie News counted the show's highlights as "Keep Yourself Alive," "Hands Off Me," and "Freak Out.” For me, it was my first and favorite: the wild, frenetic "Wasting My Time,” the angry admonition to a bad boyfriend, "Hang Up,” the exhilarating "Don't Turn Yourself In,” and the autonomy anthem delivered as a pure punk assault, “Be Myself."

Michael Passman describes The Jackets as "raw fuzz like The Cynics, but loud like Billy Childish"(who helped make Toe Rag studios in London famous). Passman adds, "The Jackets’ record label, Voodoo Rhythm, is the best label as far as great bands go, including Jackets’ friends and tour mates, The Darts."

It has been two weeks since The Jackets show and I am still asking myself " Why did the band make me feel like a wild, uninhibited teenager again, and what made seeing The Jackets like hearing rock 'n' roll for the first time? " Mike Stax of The Loons and Ugly Things magazine responded, "The Jackets strip rock 'n' roll down to its basic, essential components. Then they build something fresh, something that is unique to their personalities and need for self-expression. It feels new because it is unique and free of cliché and gimmickry"

The Jackets’ drummer, Chris Rosales, explains the rock'n'roll kinship that brought together: The Jackets, with The Loons and The Darts with whom they toured and who helped bring The Jackets to the US,” of which Rosales says, "The connection is good ole rock and roll. As far as my connection with Mike Stax, I first met Mike when I was a regular at Greg Shaw's Cavern Club in the ‘80s. As for The Darts, we met in France a few years ago. Nicole Laurenne invited us to tour with The Darts and we just did it. Then there is the ”Little Steven Underground Garage” connection. So put that all in a pot and stir it vigorously, and that is how The Jackets came to the USA.

When asked what it was like to tour with The Jackets, Nicole, The Darts' singer, who was also brilliant and a personal fave in The Love Me Nots and Motobunny, said "Touring with the Jackets is the most comfortable, easy tour we've done to date. They are not only top-notch musicians but sweet and genuine people with a strong work ethic. They love Indian food as much as we do. We miss them so much. We know they burned Boston right to the ground." Buy The Jackets records, but absolutely do not miss experiencing them live because just as Kabot says, "Just when you thought it had all been done with three chord garage rock, The Jackets have not just reinvented it, they own it!.”

Jack Torera (guitar, vocals);"Schmidi" Schmidiger (bass);Chris Rosales (drums)  
Nancy Neon: Who or what made you want to be a singer?
Jack Torera: It was more of an accident when a friend convinced me to join their punk band when I was 19 to play guitar and sing. Shortly after that, we had a gig and it was like an explosion for me. There was this wild, raw thing that came out of me onstage that I didn't know before.

Nancy: And who influenced your vocal style?
Jack: Playing in many bands and many concerts over the years. I never had an idol or a certain style I wanted to achieve. I just do what I do in my own way and that is good.

Nancy: What artist or songwriter made you want to create your own songs?
Jack: Not a specific artist or songwriter. It was more the DIY movement and the culture from ‘60s garage punk bands... the idea that "everybody can play music" as long as it is authentic and direct from the heart. I always wanted to play my own songs. For me, that is what makes a band a real band.

Nancy: What songwriters made the most positive impact on your writing style?
Jack: A great inspiration for songwriting is Arthur Lee of Love and Sean Bonniwell of The Music Machine. I never get bored of their songs because they are varied which I like, and always sound authentic.

Nancy: Which musicians inspired you to play music?
Samuel "Schmidi" Schmidiger: I am originally a guitar player. My main guitar influences are Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, and Reverend Beat Man[Reverend Beat Man and his band The Monsters are The Jackets’ label mates on Voodoo Rhythm Records - NN]

Nancy: What bass players do you admire?
Schmidi: John Entwistle of The Who definitely inspired me as a bass player. I admire Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Robert Butler of The Untold Fables and Miracle Workers that introduced me to the world of Mosrite basses.

Nancy: How did you get your start as a drummer?
Chris Rosales: I started playing in my garage in the ‘80s. I had a record player next to my drum set turned up to the highest volume on one of those ‘70s portable record players. I would play along to The Seeds and The Doors because I was into the ‘60s garage rock revival of the ‘80s. The Seeds' drummer, Rick Andridge, had a very basic style that was easy to copy, like the beat on "Can't Seem To Make You Mine." From The Doors' drummer, John Densmore, I learned the Bossa Nova and single and double stroke drum rolls. The Sonics' drummer, Bob Bennett had a huge influence on me with the way he played that bass drum. But it was probably Ringo Starr, Mickey Dolenz, and my Dad – who was a jazz drummer in the late ‘50s – who influenced me aesthetically to want to sit behind a band and play drums.

Nancy: The Loons and The Darts helped bring The Jackets to the US. You are also tight with The Woogles and have recently toured with them. How did you get hooked up with The Woogles?
Chris: I met The Woogles in the early 2000s in Switzerland when I was playing in the Get Lost with members of The Miracle Workers [The Miracle Workers had their debut album, Inside Out on Bomp! Records and were based in Portland, OR and in Los Angeles, CA – NN] The Get Lost played a few gigs with The Woogles and we hit it off. I also got to know their drummer, Dan Electro while I was producing a podcast in the 2000's on the network where he was also a podcaster.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Documentary Review: Otway, the Movie: Rock & Roll’s Greatest Failure

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Otway, the Movie: Rock & Roll’s Greatest Failure
Directed by Steve Barker
[No company listed]
97 minutes, 2013

When discussing cult legends, certain names continually come up, like Alex Chilton, Nick Drake, Willie Alexander, and for those in the know, British musician John Otway is up on that list. His fans are fanatical and essentially paid for this documentary, for which I am grateful to be able to finally catch up on viewing.

Y’see, I interviewed the dude in New York for my ‘zine FFanzeen back in 1980 (HERE), and more recently (relatively) reviewed his second autobiography (HERE). He’s a charming dude whose skills include amazing live performances, lyrics that can be either completely deep and emotional or simply silly and whack-a-doodle, and he’s an expert in manipulation. I mean that, of course, in a totally respectful and admiring way. But more on that later.

While most of what is covered in this documentary is also in the book I reviewed, there is a difference. First, let me state that the autobio is a great read, and recommend it either way, as Otway ha a sharp turn of a phrase. But the opening minutes of the documentary show why this film is so special when he see him performing his signature hit, “Beware of the Flowers ‘Cause I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You (Yeah),” in front of a huge hometown crowd in Aylesbury, outside London, in 1978. There ae a lot of performances here, and if I may be so bold, perhaps a compilation of live shows over the years for a next project?

Having seen him play in New York, I know he’s an exciting performer. And at the time I interviewed him (the day before he played) I learned that yeah, he can be a bit of a (in his own words) prat. He had rock star idealism and especially an ego that both served him well and also helped torpedo what might have been a solid career. He worked against his own self-interests by focusing only on his self-interests in the past, isolating his partner at the time, the appropriately titled guitarist Wild Willie Barrett.

Let me digress here a moment… In the late 1990s, I saw a “Teen Idol” show. The opening was Bobby Sherman, who had a moment of stardom only to have it fade quickly. He was gracious and really happy to be there. The middle act was Davy Jones (d. 2012), someone who had a similar path, but was obviously bitter to the point where the person next to me started to cry.

My point is, Otway falls somewhere in the middle. When I interviewed him way back when, I had (and have) no issues with him at all. If the fame had stuck, who knows where his ego would have taken him; I imagine not to good places, considering what he did with his first Polydor paycheck, as shown in this film. However, with his being a “rock and roll failure,” his perspective is different than when we met, and he seems (to this viewer) to appreciate what he has, rather than expecting it.

The arrogance part has transformed into something else: exuberance, which I would more accurately call chutzpah. By accepting and embracing his fate as a “rock and roll failure” (much as Leonard Nimoy did with Spock), this opened up a whole new world of self-promotion that led him to rent out some of the biggest and prestigious halls in England to perform in as marketing himself (and yet real gigs), and sell them out. Once the Internet opened in the early 1990, Otway was one of the first musicians to not only embrace the technology, but used/uses it to his own advantage in, again, self-marketing. Brilliant albeit scary stuff to his (again) management, who knew that if it didn’t work, the finances would be disastrous. But they did it and most of the time succeeded.

Watching the film, you can see the sparkle in Otway’s eyes as even he is amazed at what he has gotten away with over the years. And it seems like as scary as it was/is, he is enjoying it wholeheartedly. My question, and of course there is no way to know this, is if his success had been ongoing rather than a very bumpy road, would he still be so appreciative?

Otway uses his teaching of a music business class at the Grange School in Aylesbury as the framework for the film, going back and forth between his lecture that is frank yet fun and informative, and additional interviews with himself and others, some of which are archival, though most are for the documentary. Nearly all these are with first-hand people, such as musicians who played with him like Wild Willie and Steve Harley, his management team that has worked hard to help Otway meet most of his outrageous dreams, media personalities like Bob Harris of the “Old Grey Whistle Stop,” and various producers, including the great John Peel and Neil Innes. Mixing my metaphors, that’s just scratching the iceberg.

By far, though, it’s Otway’s fans – and this focuses more on those in England of course – that have saved his ass on numerous occasions (and I mean that in the best of ways), helping him finance his dreams, fill the halls, and give him a 50 birthday present of a second Top 10 hit 25 years after his first in 1978. He even let the fans choose which song to put into the stores (they chose disco-ish “Bunsen Burner”; I would have picked “Too Much Air, Not Enough Oxygen”)

Documentaries can be a bit dry, but this one is episodic to the point of being epic, and there is absolutely not a minute that is wasted, even when it’s just people talking. The projects, the ambition, the successes and the failures are all part of a complex musical life of someone who is a bit manic, bold, and exceedingly talented.

Now, let’s make this the big documentary, proper!



Bonus Videos:




Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Trying Hard to CLASH: Rude Boy Review [1980]

Text by Lisle McKenty / FFanzeen fanzine, 1980
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos © FFanzeen blog, 2018
Images from the Internet

This review was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #6, dated Year-End 1980. It was written by Lisle McKenty. The article below was based on seeing the Clash’s 1980 film Rude Boy.

In the very early 1980s, Lisle worked in the same office as me, and we didn’t really know each other well, as she was the assistant to my boss, who kept her apart from the staff. One day, at about three in the afternoon, I was having my daily fix of wake-up tea, and Lisle walked by. Under her breath, she murmured, “Boy was in a hallway drinking a glass of tea.” My ears immediately perked up. I stated, “From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating.” She whipped around, shocked that anyone knew the secret of Patti Smith, and we became close friends for a few years after that. Our boss was not happy about it.

As for the Clash themselves, my friend Nancy Neon and I had tickets in 1981 to see them play in Times Square at Bonds Casino, which is around the same time period as meeting Lisle. Nancy found out that the Rockats were recording their Live at the Ritz album the same night. We both easily agreed to scalp the tickets (at no profit as we were in a rush) in Front of Bonds, and then we rushed down to the Ritz to see an amazing rockabilly set. – RBF, 2018

Rude Boy comes under the heading, “A Michael White Presentation.” Michael White’s London productions list includes Oh! Calcutta!, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Rocky Horror Show, A Chorus Line, and Annie…  His previous films include Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Jabberwocky. Wild stuff. He’s big time.

David Mingay and Jack Hazan directed and produced Rudy Boy. You have to wonder about Jack Hazen. For an ex-cameraman, his shot sequencing is that of a film illiterate. Of course, I don’t know a lot about English films; I’m not what you would call a buff. David Mingay supposedly is. He studied English literature at Cambridge, then spent a year doing Film and Drama at Bristol. He also directed and edited a thirteen-part TV series, “Cinema: The Amazing Years (1897-1916)” before starting Rude Boy.

Rude Boy is distributed by Atlantic Releasing Corporation. Shall I bring up a fairly famous lyric-shall-we-call-it that says something about Atlantic?

As all the ads promised, the Clash is “in” Rude Boy. But how can you get guaranteed personality when you’re lost in the supermarket? Rude Boy is not about the Clash. It’s about Ray Gange [who also co-wrote the film – RBF, 2018], who roadies (don’t get confused) for the Clash when he’s not working in the Soho sex shop that passes for local color. There is also an obscure subplot, but I’ll get to that later. Well, Ray’s in California now, by the way of the money Hazan and Mingay paid him, and Freddy Laker. He has a Green Card, a job as a construction worker, and an American wife. I hope he’s happy. At least, I hope he doesn’t try any more flicks. Somebody please, I hope he doesn’t start a band. Time to go back to anonymity [he mostly DJs now, with a rare acting gig – RBF, 2018]. His best point might be said to be that he is from Brixton. And he did seem to like the Clash, even if his most memorable utterance was when he said to Joe Strummer, “Left-wing is gonna fuck everybody up.”

Ray’s best scenes, and the best in the movie, are the scenes of the Clash playing. No surprise if you’ve ever seen the Clash (and so what if it was over the screen at The Ritz). They’re electrifying. This dumb artsy flick doesn’t even begin to make sense visually or literally. Then you read in the paper that twenty minutes of the original film were cut (must have been the part that explained the subplot – I half-wondered what was up with those pick-pocketing scenes and the subsequent arrest of that Black guy).

Then again, maybe Hazan and Mingay thought that playing the first eight bars of “Revolution Rock” twenty times in less than two hours would drive an audience into an inspired punk madness.  Hazan and Mingay see punk as a “phenomena of the working class consciousness” and a “fusion of New York white punk and England’s polarized reggae, disco, and rock.” They don’t feel it.

The Clash has been there. They formed in 1976, when Joe Strummer (previously of the 101ers) joined up with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, under the management of Bernard Rhodes, a partner of Malcolm McLauren, who “discovered” the Sex Pistols.  They toured as a support group to the Pistols on their Anarchy Tour of England, before pulling out in a dispute over the use of Swastika armbands. Topper Headon joined the band as drummer in 1978. The Clash on Parole Tour (featured in Rude Boy) shortly followed.

After their second LP, Give ‘Em Enough Rope was released, they split with Rhodes and announced self-government, with Caroline Coon as a representative (she’s the pretty blonde who travels with Mick and Paul on their pigeon-shooting charges in Rude Boy [she also wrote the excellent book 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion – RBF, 2018]). They toured the US twice in 1979, completing London Calling, and began a new formal management with Blackhill Enterprises.

Without a doubt, the funniest line in Rude Boy is when Strummer tells Gange that the Brigade Rossi (the Red Brigade) is an Italian restaurant. Rude Boy did try to give an impression that the Clash are revolutionaries. In the film, their performance at the Rock Against Racism concert almost causes a riot (helped by Gange) and audience control is near disaster at Glasgow when Strummer sings “White Man Looking for Fun.” Then there were Gange’s political conversations with the band, but I’ve already given an example of those.

It seems like a million people have asked me if I think the Clash sold out with London Calling. To tell the truth, I’ve wondered a bit myself when I saw the Clash up there on a wall, in-between Linda Ronstadt and KISS, in a suburban record rip-off store. It was nice back in the old days, having them to ourselves. But everything depends on what you mean by selling out.

Selling out usually means trading musical and lyrical quality and morality for commercial success. London Calling is better produced than The Clash or Give ‘Em Enough Rope, let alone the singles (it took me weeks to understand any lyrics on ”White Riot”). “Revolution Rock” is not “Clash City Rockers.” The Clash have contained, purified and polished their riot on London Calling.

“Lost in the Supermarket” is at once more subtle, more pointed, and funnier than “I’m So Bored With the USA” (not that I don’t love “Bored…”). “Spanish Bombs” won’t get airplay in Spain or in any other of what I call non-countries. If “Guns of Brixton” doesn’t incite you, then nothing will. The Clash have retained and strengthened their sense of “unreal politick” and their sense of humor. They haven’t turned us off with any cloying songs, like “Alison” [a song of Elvis Costello I like – RBF, 2018], or distorted reggae to the extent of the Police. In London Calling, they haven’t traded a thing. Just check out “Working for the Clampdown”: “Kick over the wall / Cause governments to fall / How can you refuse it?... / To these days of evil presidents / Working for the clampdown.”

Paul and Caroline
So if they aren’t a sellout crew (and they’re not), why did the Clash participate in Rude Boy? By the time of Clash on Parole, they were packing houses all over England, and their first LP had appeared a year earlier in 1977. Well, until recently, the Clash was denied airplay on both the BBC and Capitol Radio networks (maybe it was just Mick’s affiliation with the Shepherds Bush anarchists?).

As far as I know, they have been continually in debt to their record company, CBS (Epic’s just a trademark). I don’t know if Mingay and Hazan first approached Ray Gange, or the Clash, to make the film, but I’ve got a horrible feeling it was Gange.

In any case, these people wanted to make a “serious film” about punk rock and the working-class consciousness. A band’s a band and a gig’s a gig; the Clash needed the PR, the money, and they wanted the platform. And as far as a sell-out goes, didn’t I use the term “commercial success”?

Rude Boy was made two years ago. Obviously, Mick and Paul and Joe and Topper were a lot less sophisticated than they are now. In my mind, hell, they were damned naïve. Maybe I can blame it on Caroline Coon (or was it Rhodes?). Rude Boy is a terrible flick, excluding the music scenes (“I Fought the Law” was especially great), made by terrible people, in my book.

To bring in the inevitable Beatles comparison (are you ready?), it’s like when Brian Epstein stuck them in suits, albeit without collars. I don’t feel bad panning Rude Boy, and I’m a Clash fanatic. If you like the Clash, then you’re like me – you’ll go see it anyway. If not, maybe you should listen to “Jimmy Jazz” or “The Right Profile” for a while.

To conclude: I often wear a tee-shirt proclaiming “The Clash: The only band that matters.” I’ve seen lots of others around on various other bodies. According to the rumor, the Clash now wants to make their own film. A terrific idea [didn’t happen – RBF, 2018]. Hopefully, next time they’ll make a worthy one – humor, politics, emotion, a riot – one that matters.

Monday, November 5, 2018

THE RUNAWAYS [1978-79]

Text by Barry Geiger / FFanzeen 1978-1979
Introduction and photos by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #3, dated Fall-Winter 1978-1979. It was written by Barry Geiger.

As I’ve stated before, I’ve had the opportunity to see the Runaways play New York three times: once in its original incarnation at a (mostly) music industry showcase at CBGB, once opening for the Ramones at the Palladium, and then post-Cherie Currie with the B-Girls opening, again at CBGBs. Each show was different, and all were a fun night.

When reading this article, I think it’s important to remember the time period in which it was written, because you’re probably going to cringe a bit at the language (i.e., the female descriptors early in the piece). Still, this is one of the early articles about the band, so I leave it as it stand.

I don’t exactly agree with all of what Barry says, since I find the second album to be pretty damn good (though none can hold a candle to the first), but music is so subjective that I respect what he felt.

The only member of the band I met post-Runaways was Currie, at a Chiller Theatre convention in the early 1990s, and she was an asshole to me. Considering how Right Wing she is now, somehow that makes sense. But that’s not going to stop me from enjoying the music of which she was an important part. – RBF, 2018

During the Summer of 1976, I went to the newsstand to buy the new issue of Creem. When I got home, I read this great review of a new debut album about this group of five foxy teenage girls who call themselves the Runaways. After finishing the article, I said to myself, “This band will never make it. The record company must have paid off the magazine to write something good about these chicks.”

Even though I thought it was all a bunch of bullshit, I was a little curious to hear them. I didn’t want to be closed-minded about them. That night I went to the record store and saw the (self-titled) album on sale for three-and-a-half bucks. It had a nice cover, so I figure, “What the hell.” I bought the record.

When I got home and played the album, I was astounded. These girls were really good! It was like magic. From the first note, I knew that this band was very special.

This group was really talented. Cherie Currie’s singing was pretty good, Lita Ford’s guitar playing was great, Jackie Fox’s bass playing was fantastic, and Sandy West’s drumming was sheer dynamite! Joan Jett seemed like a mediocre guitarist, but her lyrics were outrageous: “I’ll give you something to live for/Have you, grab you till you’re sore.”

“Cheery Bomb” was destined to become a teenage anthem. “American Nights” was sheer poetry, “Blackmail” was two minutes and forty-two seconds of pure ass-kicking rock and roll, and their rendition of Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll” was a true delight. “Dead End Justice” would have been great if it weren’t for that stupid dialogue between Cherie and Joan in the middle of the song.

For weeks and weeks, I couldn’t get that record off of my turntable. I simply loved it. Then it happened: the Runaways were featured on the cover of Crawdaddy Magazine. I said to myself, “This is it. They are gonna hit it big!”

Well, I was wrong. Their second album, aptly titled Queens of Noise, which was released in early 1977, was a tremendous disappointment. Alright, “I Love Playing with Fire” is a masterpiece, “Born to be Bad” is pretty good, “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin” is decent, and the title cut is bearable, but the rest of the album is totally uninspiring. I quickly began losing interest in the band. Cheri started to sound too much like Suzi Quatro. The lyrics weren’t as powerful as the ones on the first album; and neither was the music.

They started sounding too commercialized. Steve Tyler of Aerosmith co-wrote one of the songs. Why the hell was he writing for punk bands? I couldn’t believe that the Runaways had sold out. Their songs were bordering with Middle-of-the-Road. “Heartbeat” and “Midnight Music” could have been big AM hits with the right promotion, but they were not rock and roll.

One day that Summer I heard the news: Cherie Currie split from the band. The reason was personal conflicts with Joan Jett. I was shocked. It was impossible for me to imagine the Runaways making it without their lead singer.

A few weeks later it was announced that Jackie Fox, the bass playing Jewish Princess, had quit the Runaways so that she can study Law. I was sure that this meant the end of the group. Jackie was probably the most talented girl in the group. Her basslines are what made me so intrigued with the first LP. I was really upset when I heard they lost her.

Rumors were that Danielle Fay, bassist of the Zippers, an LA band, would replace Jackie, and Joan would take over as lead vocalist. I started gaining interest in the band again. I had heard the Zippers before and I knew that Fay wasn’t bad. I also knew that Joan was just as good a singer as Cherie (she did sing “I Love Playing with Fire,” the best tune on the second album).

The Danielle Fay rumors were later found to be false. As a replacement for Jackie, the Runaways hired a blonde bombshell by the name of Vicki Blue.

In November, the third album, Waiting for the Night, was released. I found it to be the best thing the band had ever recorded. Vicki wasn’t nearly as adept a musician as Jackie was, but she was adequate. Sandy was terrific, as usual. Joan was a very pleasant surprise. Her voice sounded just perfect: the lyrics were full of emotion. It was great!

The most interesting thing about this album, however, is Lita Ford’s devastating guitar riffs. She had evolved from a good guitarist playing for a good group into the driving force behind a great rock and roll band.

Joan had also developed into a fine rhythm guitarist. On the first two albums, her guitar playing wasn’t nearly as important as it was now. On The Runaways album, her major contribution to the group was her songwriting. On the second album she not only wrote the songs, she also sang half of them. On Waiting for the Night, she not only writes and sings the songs, her guitar playing is now an integral part of the sound. She is now the true “leader” of this band.

This album contains some of the hardest driving rock and roll songs the Runaways have ever recorded. “School Days” was custom-made for high school kids and people who know what it’s like to be a teenager in the ‘70s. “You’re Too Possessive” is so full of hate and vengeance that one can’t help but love it. “Thrash Can Murders” is a fantastic song, thanks to Lita’s extraordinary guitar solos. “Wasted” is a New Wave classic (because of its lyrics, not the music).”Don’t Go Away” is the best song on the album. Joan and Lita work great together, exchanging riffs throughout the song. Sandy’s drumming is as superb as ever. It’s also the only number on the album in which Vicki matches Jackie’s excellence on bass.

If the Runaways can continue producing albums like Wafting in the Night and keep away from the kind of dissention that made Queens of Noise such a disaster, they will become a truly super group.

Friday, October 5, 2018

THE COLORS: A Case of Synesthesia [1981]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1981
Introduction, live photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet, unless indicated

This article was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #7, dated 1981. It was written by our Managing Editor and current philanthropic goddess, Julia Masi.

I had the chance to see the Colors a few times, mostly at CBGBs, back around the time this article originally came out. Solid hard-edged powerpop sailing among a sea of punk, the Colors never really went anywhere, though on a verge a few times, releasing a couple of records and lasting for about four years. Some of its members did pretty well afterwards, though. For example, Charlie Pipp went on to join the David Johansen Group (pre-Buster Poindexter); Robert Vickers joined the much popular The Go-Betweens, and then Jersey’s own Yo La Tengo, and he now owns his own Public Relations firm called Proxy Media since 2005; Tommy (Tomas) Cookman is the founder/CEO of Cookman International and Nacional Records,which has released over 150 albums and earned at least nine Grammy or Latin Grammy awards from its over 72 nominations, and he is considered an ambassador of Latin alternative music. But while they were together, they were managed for a time by Hilly Kristal. – RBF, 2018

A shot of adrenalin in the fatigued veins of the New York music scene, the Colors explode on stage with a rush of hardcore rock’n’roll that recaptures the spirit of the ‘60s British Invasion. But these guys aren’t stuck in a time warp. Their debut EP, The Colors, produced by Clem Burke [of Blondie – RBF, 2018] for Infinite Records, proves that they have commercial viability for the ‘80s.

Tommy Cookman, Robert Vickers (pic (c) RBF)
Tommy Cookman (vocals), Paul Sass (lead guitar), Elf (drums), Charlie Pip (rhythm guitar), and Robert Vickers (bass) have the G-rated sexy looks that teenage idols are made of. And enough confidence in their talent to know how to use that as an asset.

“People underestimate us from the word go,” says Charlie. “They think we’re a little kid band. We’re really well rehearsed. As soon as we hit the stage, we hit them with this wall of really tight music. It shocks them.”

They may look like a bunch of rowdy kids hamming it up every chance they get, but there is nothing childish in their demeanor. Dressed in the vibrant colors and military style of the Mersey Beat era, they’re as much fun to watch as they are to listen to.

Tommy, who has an affected English accent, jumps around and off the stage to spur audience participation; offstage, he’s surprisingly low-keyed for a  lead singer, with a voice so soft you have to hug him to hear him. He doesn’t care that some people are initially attracted to the band because of their looks. “It’s like Cheap Trick. When they played the Palladium, the front was all twelve-year-old girls. And then there are all these twenty-five-year-old guys from Brooklyn pushing to get to the front because they like the music. The girls like Cheap Trick because of the way Robin (Zander) looks. People make these comparisons because they see a young band instead of what they do on stage.”

“We’re very audacious on stage,” mentions Paul. “We have a career in music cut out for ourselves. It just takes a lot more time than we may have in the past. We’re very serious. We may not be in a very serious business, but we’re very serious about it. And one of the most important things about it is money. It costs money to play. It costs a lot of money to sound good. We rehearse; that’s one of the best things about having a manager. We rehearse in a studio. But a lot of artistic and musical ideas and concepts we want to put across, we just can’t. We’re not conceptual masters. We don’t have studio production on the first record. The engineer, Jay Burnett, is a genius. But to do more than that, it takes not even our earning money, because bands don’t earn money anymore. They get signed to a four-year contract and the record company that sings them figures, ‘Well, they won’t make any money during the first contract, but when we re-sign them and they make it, they’ll pay us back all that money.’ And that happened with one out of a hundred bands. And the other ninety-nine go back to being dishwashers.”

“Now-a-days, you have to build a lot more than you did before,” explains Robert, in his light Australian accent. “You think of a band like The Who, or a lot of bands from the ‘50s or the ‘60s, they didn’t have to build up anything. They just had to arrive, and once they’re there, you can’t get rid of them. Once you have an establishment, you can never disappear. The public will keep buying the records no matter what you do.”

Paul Sass (pic (c) RBF)
The Colors know how to package them-selves so that people will buy their record, which comes in seven different shades of colored vinyl. The disc is wrapped in a sleeve which spouts a full-color picture of the boys, and has its titles in both English and Japanese.

Tommy, the resident “Jap-o-phile,” takes an active interest in the financial side of the band. He knows how important it is to capture the Japanese market, and he’s aware that the largest record consumers in Japan are teenage girls. “The whole Japanese thing is nice. You see singles that come out in America and especially on the New York scene, they all sort of have the same thing. The Japanese thing just sort of gives it a real distinctive sort of feel when you pick it up. It looks like an import.”

Another unusual feature about The Colors’ EP is that one side is in 45 and the other 33-1/3. Tommy states that, “Peter Crowley was telling me that at Max’s (Kansas City), they have it in the juke box with just one side playing two songs listed, and the other has a sign that reads, ‘Please do not play this side.’ About five times a night someone plays it.” The EP, which has Robert’s “Have You Seen Her” and “West End, “ Paul’s “Rave It Up,” “Growing Up American” and “Jealousy,” proves that the band’s sound cannot be diluted. Paul comments, “The single is a mini-production. It’s almost like a mini-album. Sometimes it seems that our entire set is one song with a lot of parts and a lot of breaks. That’s our business now. We talk about going in and slaying the audience. If they’re not screaming by the end of the set, then it’s a waste of time. If they’re not climbing on the stage, they’re dumb.

“Our instrumentation has a greater range. Not more than other bands, but some bands like to use the same style of playing over and over. Maybe it’s because they think it’s their style. We try to do as many different types of songs as we can. They’re all rock’n’roll-fast.

“Working with Clem has been a really good experience because he’s taken seriously in the industry.” They’re not worried that their association with Clem will have an adverse effect and draw biased criticism to the band. “We already went through that,” Paul notes. “Last Summer, we did about ten gigs with Clem and some of them were billed as ‘The Colors, featuring Clem Burke.’ And if you know the way Clem plays drums, then you know that we couldn’t appear on stage with him and not either get blown away or be really good. I’m sure people didn’t come up to Clem and say, ‘Sure you’re a great drummer, but the band you were with was terrible.’ I think he was a really good drummer for our band. We were right up there with him.”

Last September, Elf joined the band. He received his nickname in Junior High school, where he was always the shortest of his friends. And he likes it because, “When The Colors make it big, then your family doesn’t get a lot of mail, and nobody knows where you live.” On stage, the blond, doe-eyed drummer is almost obscured by his drum kit. “Want to know what kind of equipment I got? My drums were bought by Sears. Right out of the catalog. Sears brand.”

According to Charlie, their rehearsals aren’t much different from their performances. “I always believe that the audience is there for our entertainment only. I think of the audience as being behind the glass. It’s their privilege to watch us doing what we think is cool. We don’t need the audience to make the gig. We sound just as good with nobody there. It’s a treat for them. They’re paying to see us do our professional thing, like you’d pay to see a trapeze artist do a triple somersault. When he’s up there, he doesn’t say, ‘This one is for the crowd.’ He says ‘I’ll do a flip and go downstairs and have a cup of coffee. See you later.’ The audience is just there for him. I can’t say I don’t care about them, because they’re the consumer and the ultimate goal of what I’m trying to do. But I’m not writing songs to make money and to make those people like me. I’m saying, ‘Here, look, this is my statement in musical form. Let’s dance and have a good time’.”

“Being good on the guitar doesn’t mean being like Eric Clapton or something. It’s being able to quickly transmute your ideas and feelings at that moment into musical terms. Just picking up your guitar and saying, ‘I feel sad today,’ and playing all these sad chords. It’s just another way to speak. A lot of people in New York don’t get nothing out of them. They just get noise. But even the volume and the noise are expression. To me, the epitome of rock’n’roll is getting commercial airplay. Most of the bands can’t ‘cause they’re so experimental.”

“The real musicians,” Elf says, “are those Black cats who play in jazz clubs for $18 a night. They’ll play all night long.” He speculates that rock music is “going back to where it came from. Nothing new, but different. We’ve already had classical and psychedelic. And we’ve only had rock’n’roll for 27 years. Nobody has really done anything with it since Chuck Berry. It’s been refined. People can play more guitar notes and runs faster and faster, but then it got more intense, like Cream and Jimi Hendrix. And it got more intricate with lyrics, like ELP and Yes. That isn’t rock’n’roll. It doesn’t have that beat, like Chuck Berry says, on the 2 and the 4.” Elf thinks rock’n’roll will be around “as long as you have people who want to dance to the 2 and the 4, and people who want to get drunk and play.

“I’m in rock’n’roll ‘cause I got a scrap book I can put my pictures in. I gotta have something to show my kids.”