Thursday, March 25, 2010

Two on RONNIE & THE JITTERS

Live photos © Robert Barry Francos
Album image from the Internet

Here are two pieces of the New Jersey band, Ronnie and the Jitters, who appeared around the New York scene right on the cusp of the ‘70s/‘80s. I was introduced to them by my then-managing editor, Stacy Mantel, who talked me into seeing the band at CBGBs, and then we all went over to Phoebe’s restaurant down the block for a very noisy interview.

However, the first piece here is by me, as was published in the Scottish fanzine
Next Big Thing, by Lindsay Hutton. The second is the very interview I just discussed above, from FFanzeen.

In the short years that they were around, I saw Ronnie and the Jitters quite a few times, including Max’s Kansas City on one of the very last nights that it was open. I’m not sure where all of the band members are now, but I am aware that Steve Missal has a recording studio and teaches drums, and bassist Dave Post is part owner of Maxwell’s,
the rock’n’roll bar / club in Hoboken, NJ.

Around the time they broke up, after one amazing studio album called
Roll Over, Steve became the drummer for Billy Idol soon after he left Generation X. Supposedly there is a photo of Idol and his new band, which appeared in Billboard, has Steve wearing a FFanzeen logo tee-shirt. I’ve never seen it, so if anyone has a copy of that, I’d be grateful. – RBF, 2010

Part I: Introducing Ronnie and the Jitters
Text by Robert Barry Francos, early 1980s
Originally printed in
Next Big Thing Magazine #13/14, early 1980s

New Jersey. Desolate. The joke of the East Coast (more so than even Philadelphia). Years ago, Dictator Adny Shernoff had put out a fanzine while growing up there and aptly named it Teenage Wasteland Gazette. But every once in a while a person or group comes out of that expanse of highway , trees and gas stations who shines through the factory smoke. There was Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye. Then there were some of the Dictators. And now there’s Ronnie & the Jitters. Each of these have their own sound, and each are masters of it. Ronnie & the Jitters are, alphabetically:

Ronnie Decal; lead vocals/guitar: As the frontman and songwriter of the group, he pulls the band together. He’s tall and possesses very round eyes, sometimes known as “doe eyes.” His eyes are the first thing to capture your attention. When on stage he uses a bit of eyeliner (for some God-knows reason) and he gets the band geared up. His voice is gritty and no nonsense – but there is the element of fun loving that is undeniably there. There are no wild guitar solos, no Ted Nugent tendency, just a good chordal strum and some solid riffs. A talent.

Warren Keller; vocals/saxophone: The heartthrob of the group. Despite his obvious Irish looks and name, his nationality is debatable. A mystery man. For a while he insisted he was black. He even does the Motown covers, like “My world is empty…” Then there was his “Jewish” period. He’s always coming out with these wild Yiddish expressions. And that’s not all that’s wild about Warren. All you have to do is hear him wail on his sax on their cover of “Wild Weekend.” To dissipate any doubt of his talent, even his erratic playing on some of their original material is controlled – but far from tame. He is also the fashion plate of the group. There is always flash in the way he dresses, from his red shoes to his multi-colored jacket. And the motions he can make with his sax.

Steve Missal; drums: One of the more powerful drummers on the scene today. He was once the drummer for a famous rock star, making some “real” money. But after hearing the Jits at a local N.Y. club, he knew what he wanted to do. “I was a born again rock’n’roller,” he would later claim. His chance came when he joined the band. He fit right in and is now the driving force behind them, with his two differently pitched snares and his power. Sometimes he gets into the songs so much that he starts playing standing up! He also has the sharpest sense of humor of the group.

David Post, bass: David is the historian of the band. Even now he is at work on an extensive piece on Duane Eddy. Though the most silent on stage, his presence is always there, as he keeps the rhythm at an even keel with varied, but steady bass riffs. A definite A-1 rock’n’roll bassist.

That is all the Jitters, but as Monty Python had Carol Cleveland, the Jits have Belinda, Steve’s girlfriend and group (I mean this kindly) mascot. She is there at every set and ahs become as much a participant of the sets as the group is. She’s the Spanish devil wit the large chest and the vodka and grapefruit juice right up front. Most of the jokes the band makes on stage deals wit her, but she doesn’t mint. She’s having as much fun as her compadres and the rest of the audience. Fun is the key work in Ronnie & the Jitters.

I once asked Belinda how she could sit through set after set, since the band has really started to play out now, after being together over a year. “Well,” she told me,” I can’t listen to the tapes they’ve made anymore and rehearsals are a bit boring, but every show is different. Every time they play there’s something fresh and new. They get along so well with the audience and the audience with them. Everyone just has so much fun and I love it.”

That’s true; every set has that spark of originality. The reason for this is two-fold: one is that they are friends on and off stage, and because they get along so well, they can always play off each other, but it musically or verbally, without worry about hurting each other because everything is taken causally and in jest. The second is that the sets are not totally structured. Sure there is a plan but they wing it once in a while and they just swing. It’s as though every show was a jam and everyone on and off the stage gets into it.

As of yet, they have only one single out on their own independent label, Meshugenah Records. They handled all the costs and production themselves. One side is a rip-roarin’ version of “Black Slax” which literally blows the lame Robert Gordon version away. There is no way to listen to it and not move some part of your body. The flip side is another cover, “Wild Weekend,” with lyrics (!) written by Ronnie that make you think that they were the original (“Alright, it’s the end of the week / I wanna dance ‘til I’m sore on my feet…”). Don’t’ bother asking for it though, ‘cause it’s been sold out for a while now (“Well, my mother has a copy,” claims David).

As of last count, they have another single ready to be released, as soon as they can get the money to pay for its pressing. One side will be my favorite of their originals, the rough, tough, wild in the streets, “She’s Not the Girl For Me.” The flip is supposed to be one of their more romantic non-ballads, “Take Me In Your Arms,” in which both Warren and Ronnie share the vocals.

But not all of their songs are fast, rip ‘em up rock’n’roll songs. They do have their ballads, such as “You Can’t Fool a Woman in Love,” one of their newer pieces. It only goes to show their versatility.

You may ask, how did they come up with the name, “The Jitters”? That in itself is remarkable. It’s taken from the title of one of their favorite movie shorts by the Three Stooges called Baby Sitters Jitters. From that they wrote a piece called “Jitter Me Crazy” (with Warren sputtering out, “Jit-Jit-Jit-Jit,” etc, at a very fast and frantic pace on the chorus, over Ronnie’s vocal). That led them naming themselves.

The full name, Ronnie and the Jitters, is misleading though. When you isolate the name of the lead singer it makes it sound as though the back up is not as important. However, the Jitters are not merely a back-up band for Ronnie, they are all the Jitters. The Jitters is also what they give the audience who dance the night away.

There you have the ideal band; rock’n’roll, fun, humor about their music and themselves who are out to have a good time, know their roots, and can entrance an audience. And there’s Belinda.

Part II: AMA Approved Case of the Jitters
Text by Stacy Mantel
Originally printed in FFanzeen #4, 1980s
© FFanzeen


Thanksgiving is “Bah! Humbug!” to a lot of apathetic Americans who forget about things like history and their roots. I was one of those until this past Turkey-Day when I became a giver of thanks. It happened at Hurrah’s. I was bored. While sinking into my drink, a group took to the stage. Without a word of warning, they ripped into the Rockin’ Rebels’ “Wild Weekend” (with the addition of more than appropriate lyrics). The next thing I knew, the place was hoppin’, my feets started shakin’ and my body was a-boppin’. It was a jolt as experienced upon seeing an old friend in a strange environment. The band was kickin’ out the kind of rock’n’roll that’s been trapped in 15 year-old vinyl jails. Jon Landau may have seen the future of rock’n’roll as having the name of Springsteen, but that’s all in the past. Rock has been rejuvenated – given a new face and fanny lift. I had heard this band before on the famed WPIX-FM Radio, Radio programme, but they definitely drive harder live. Colorful, kick-ass rock’n’roll – and its name is Ronnie and the Jitters.

Ronnie and the Jitters are:

- Ronnie Decal – serious front man with boyish good looks and a round, yet unadorned driving chordal guitar style. He has a prowess for writing enigmatic tunes reminiscent of early Ray Davies – mellow sarcasm with cream and sugar. Punchy;

- David Post provides measured, supportive bass lines and clever runs, the bones keeping the ligaments and guts in place;

- Steve Missal’s use of two differently pitched snare drums is unique, and so is his range – from machine gun attack to savage nonstop – vibrate your heart beats; and

- Fourthly, Warren “The Boy Who Should Have Been Born Black” Keller on manic alto sax, whose name should be synonymous with tremendous, or at least always thought of when one mentions King Curtis.

Together, their sound is more than just the sum of four intrinsic parts. It’s the kind of nourishment we were long in need for. The kind of rock’n’roll you and I were weaned upon.

The following interview took place between sets at CBGB’s at Phoebe’s on February 17, 1980. All the Jitters were there, along with manager Jim Green, FFanzeen editor/publisher Robert Barry Francos, and assorted girlfriends.

Stacy Mantel (FFanzeen): So you’re working on a new single now, I hear.
Ronnie Decal: Yes and no.
Warren Keller: Sure. No, we just tell people that.
Ronnie: As soon as we find someone to back it we’re gonna do a new single, but if nobody backs it soon, we’re gonna put it out ourselves.

FF: What songs do you feel are the best to put out now?
Ronnie: It’s gonna be “She’s Not the Girl” backed with “Throw it Away.”

FF: Well, what’s the problem; I mean, what’s the difference between putting out an album rather than a single? You certainly have enough good material.
Jim Green: Money.
Ronnie: We don’t have enough money to put an album out. If someone wanted to finance an album, certainly we would put out an album.
Warren: Of course.

FF: Okay, the boring questions... standard influences. As a group, do you follow any one particular guy or group – like you have this song dedicated to Little Richard (as the “King of Rock’n’roll”).
Warren: Everybody.
Ronnie: I like the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols.

FF: Warren, what about Lee Allen or King Curtis?
Warren: I heard one record by King Curtis once called “Floating” – it was good.

FF: What about Charlie Parker?
Warren: Naw, I wasn’t very jazzy – I never followed any of those guys.

FF: So, basically all your own style?
Warren: No, I guess I like later people [e.g., Clarence Clemens].

FF: How did you feel when you missed your cue on The Uncle Floyd Show?
Warren: Which one?

FF: I know everything was lip-synced and must be a real hassle – It was probably the first time any of you had to do that.
Warren: Wha’d I miss?
Ronnie: You know what he did…on The Uncle Floyd Show he stopped playing at the saxophone solo.
Warren: Yeah, dah da-da dah, I cut off early; that was pretty funny.
Ronnie: Yeah, that was it. Do you like The Uncle Floyd Show?

FF: Yeah, I watch it all the time. We have an interview with him in this issue.
Ronnie: He’s getting’ interviewed a lot lately.
Warren: Yeah.
Ronnie: He liked us a lot.

FF: You’re the new drummer.
Steve Missal: Yeah.

FF: How long have you been with the group?
Jim: It’s been about…
Ronnie: No, you’re [to Steve] supposed to answer that.
Steve: Fourth gig.
Warren: That’s why he has a manager, ha-ha.
Robert Barry Francos: Reminds me of the movie, The Girl Can’t Help It when Jayne Mansfield keeps saying, “Ask my agent.”

FF: On the single, “Wild Weekend,” you wrote “Traditional” under the title, when Todaro/Shannon wrote the song.
Ronnie: We just wanted to get in trouble.
Warren: He couldn’t spell it.

FF: But you wrote BMI, which was the company that copyrighted it.
Warren: He thought it was funny – he told me to do it, so I did it.
Ronnie: Told you to do what?
Warren: It.

FF: Did you mean traditional in the sense that having a wild weekend is traditional?
Warren: Sure, that was it.
David Post: It’s a traditional rock’n’roll song.
Ronnie: No, I didn’t mean it as having a traditional wild weekend; it was more or less like – that’s traditional rock’n’roll as far as I’m concerned, you know. Besides, I didn’t know who wrote the song, so I had to put something down. It served its purpose because everyone asks why I put “Traditional” down. And the true answer is – just to get in trouble, just to have people notice it.

FF: Do you consider yourselves a dance-band?
All: Yes.

FF: How do you feel when people cannot dance, like at CBGBs?
Warren: Bad; awful.

FF: I really feel constipated when I don’t have room to dance.
Warren: Yeah, a lot of people say that when they sit up front. They know why we’re Jitters, coz they just got it.

FF [To Warren]: I know you jump around a lot on stage like they did in the early ‘60s-late ‘50s, like the guys in Rock Around the Clock. The sax players would jump all over the piano and on everyone else, and lay down on the floor.
Warren: Oh, really, all the sax players I saw were so spastic.

FF: Everyone was doing choreographed dances.
Warren: Yeah, that choreograph stuff, that’s so corny, you know. You see all these little spastic horn players movin’ around.

FF: And all the people in the audience were doing the Bop – do you think that’s gonna swing around and come back again?
Warren: I don’t think choreography’s gonna come back, like everybody together, but I think energetic type stuff, jumping around will, definitely. It should come back. People are lazy; they hang back and they play. Today, too many people got that “sophistication” thing, like “this is the ‘80s so I’ll just hang out and play.”

FF: Do you see any major record deals coming up?
Warren: I hope so.

FF: You do… you’re negotiating?
Warren: Got interest.
Jim: [What he said here was totally muddled by “Heart of Glass” from the jukebox – anyone for symbolism? We’ll just say – they’ve talked to a couple of companies and got good vibes from them, but no signatures yet – SM]

FF: Is there any hesitation on your part to sign with a major label, or would you rather have your own?
Ronnie: If it doesn’t come soon, we’re all gonna die of malnutrition.

FF: I take it you all have other jobs.
Warren: Sure.

FF: How did you come up with the name “Jitters”?
Ronnie: It’s from an old Moe, Larry and Curly move, The Three Stooges.

FF: What was the name of the movie?
Ronnie: The Jitters.
Jim: I never heard of that one.

FF: A group like the Romantics, no comparison intended, but he sound is somewhat similar…
Ronnie: And we wear red pants.

FF: They have this image. I think they stay up nights just thinking about what kind of clothes they’re going to wear. Do you ever think of doing something like that?
Ronnie: No, we can’t afford the same clothes.

FF: Today you look pretty coordinated – kind of pinkish, reddish…
Warren: Yeah, we somehow manage to do that even though we don’t think about it.
Ronnie: It’s intuitive – except that Warren always asks if he looks all right before he goes on stage.
Warren: Yeah, yeah.
Ronnie: And he takes our word for it.
All: Ha-ha.
Warren: Yeah, they fix me up good – it’s fun to dress up.

FF: Do you think sax is going to regain its importance?
Warren: I hope not, because then I’ll just be another one. Sax got a lot of importance in disco, but as far as the really wailing rock’n’roll sax…

FF: Yeah, but not as much as synthesizers.
Warren: Yeah, but every song had its little alto sax solo. I hope not. I just don’t want to be just another one. Let ‘em stay; let ‘em stay the way they are.
Ronnie: I’m gonna clear it up right now, what we really want is big bucks.
All: Ha-ha.
Ronnie: We want big dollars… we want to ride around in gold-plated Cadillacs like Teddy Pendergrass.
Warren: Porsches and stuff, and houses; fireplaces.
David: How about paying the phone bill, Ronnie.
Warren: And oil.

FF: What kind of music do you like to listen to? [To Ronnie] I know you like the Stones and the Pistols…
Ronnie: I listen to the radio; I don’t have any records. Dave’s got records.

FF: When you buy records, like other stuff, what would you pick up?
David: Old rockabilly or Stones.

FF: What do you think about this song [on the jukebox is “Money,” by the Flying Lizards]?
David: I love this song.
Ronnie: This song, I think it’s great… this is the best song I’ve heard in my life, ha-ha.
Warren: Ha-ha, who is it?
Ronnie: The Leaping Lizards.
Steve: This song shows me that a new seed was planted…
Warren: The Flying Gizzards.
Steve: Take the go-go boots out of the closet – it’s gonna get back to rock’n’roll, r-i-g-h-t?
[All agree]

FF: Disco’s dying out.
Ronnie: Let’s hope so.

FF: Some people making the disco songs don’t even want to make them.
Warren: You know what I’m scared of? This whole things gonna get so packaged, all this New Wave stuff. It’s already stared to get so produced…
Steve: The Heat, the Knack, the This, the That…
Warren: It’s gonna be like, Donna Summer of the ‘80s.
Steve: Dress New Wave like Close Encounters.
Ronnie: We’re not a New Wave band.

FF: What do you consider yourselves?
Ronnie: We’re a rock’n’roll band; we’re not a New Wave band by any means at all.
Warren: We have to listen to a lot of that.
Ronnie: Did you think we were a New Wave band?

FF: No, I thought you were an early ‘60s-late ‘50s type rock band.
Ronnie: No, we’re an early ‘80s rock’n’roll band.

FF: Have you all played in groups before this? Warren?
Warren: Yeah, I had actually only one professional band before this. I ran the gamut from big brass Chicago to funk and disco. Rock like the Aerosmith sound.

FF: Dave?
David: This is my first rock’n’roll band. I’ve played weddings, symphonies, jazz bands, big bands. I’ve been playing bass for 10 years.

FF: Ronnie?
Ronnie: I was in one other band before this called the Ros. They were a New Wave / punk band.

FF: It used to be that, about three years ago, anyone could play at CBGBs even if they’ve played guitar or bass for only a couple of weeks.
Warren: Yeah, that was a shame.

FF: It’s not like that anymore. Do you feel a competition with any other groups?
Warren: No.
Ronnie: No, I don’t think there are any groups like us around.

FF: What’s happening in Jersey [where the group lives]?
Warren: Well, nothing. We’re definitely not a Jersey circuit band.
Ronnie: We just live in Jersey coz that’s where we were born and we can’t afford to move out. Once in a while we pick up a gig over there, but there’s no circuit in Jersey.
Steve: New Jersey’s Alabama. If you’re in New Jersey, you can be in Alabama.

[While FF is digging up questions…]
Steve: Do you do it in the road?
Ronnie: I do it wherever I can, whenever I can. I did it before in the dressing room.
Steve: By yourself?
Ronnie: No, you were there.
Steve: Ha, yeah, I remember. It was so fast.
Ronnie: He slapped my face.
Jim: What’s this locker room stuff?
Warren: Uh-oh, here comes another one [question].
Ronnie: Here comes a good one.
Steve: A new one.

FF: Why do you think there’s such a big resurgence of the ‘60s in clothes, music and movies? Do you think it’s because we’re bordering on war?
David: Are we bordering on war?

FF: You know, the whole scare with the draft.
Warren: What it is, is the cyclic theory of history. You get so sick and tired of using what you did right up to your technological capacity and then you go back. Dig it all up again. I think rock’n’roll lost its fun and went progressive – somebody was smart enough to say we gotta go back.
Steve: Rock is getting back to the prestige it lost when it got hyped up in disco. Rock is making a big, big comeback. Everybody’s talking about dancing to rock, which is one of the first questions you asked, “Do you consider yourselves a dance band?” Of course. People shouldn’t be able to sit when we play.
Warren: I think we’re enough of a show. We want people to watch us, too. So we don’t exactly want everyone jiving away there and not checking us out. But we think it’s cool, too.
Ronnie: Do you like the band?

FF: What band?
Ronnie: Us.

FF: We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.
Warren: Ah, a newspaper with integrity, that’s what I like.

FF: The first time I saw you was at Hurrah’s. I was just standing there and you went on and [with Marty Feldman eyes] I went “wow.”
Ronnie: They had to revive you, right?

FF: Yeah, ‘cause I’m really into that sound. I loved the Crystals, the Dovells, Duprees, Ventures.
David: The Del-Tones, the Tone-Dels…
Steve: You know the movement for Born-Again Christians? The Jitters made me a born again rock'n’roller.
Warren: Hallelujah!
David: Hallelujah, thank the Lord.
Ronnie: Praised be the Lord.
Dave: Oh yeah, that’s right.

FF: What were you [to Steve] doing before?
Steve: Whatever New York had to offer to someone from out of town. Trying to make a living playing with various…
David: Steve has six months combat duty with Ted Nugent.
Steve: It’s true… I saw the Jitters at Hurrah’s on probably the same night you were there.

FF: We were there Thanksgiving.
Steve: I saw them one date previous to that. That’s when I met her [points to his date]. The day I saw the Jitters, I met her; yeah. I looked up [smiles and blushes].
Warren: Oh, what a good story that is.

FF: You see, everything falls into place, eventually.
Steve: You see, you can go to the Heat, CBGB. You can go to Trax or any club, and a lot of bands are rockin’, but this band really, really rocks, totally… Robert Gordon, Levi and the Rockats may be in the same ballpark, but they don’t really twist it.
RBF: They both take themselves too seriously. They don’t relax when they’re doing it.
Warren: That’s where it all gets pretentious. When you’re dealing with a sound that should be fun and rock’n’roll, and then you take yourselves that seriously, that’s when it really comes off, you know.

FF: You can always tell you enjoy yourselves because you’re always kidding around on stage.
Warren: Yeah, man. It’s fun – it’s fun as hell. Well, we’re out to have a good time.

Check out Warren's current Website on astro-imaging: billionsandbillions.com

3 comments:

  1. RONNIE & THE JITTERS were one of the last GREAT bands to play Max's Kansas City. Like the others, they were ignored by Robert Christgau who'd decided only the first wave of Max's/CBGB bands were worthy of mainstream media attention.

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  2. Thanks, Peter! Nice to have someone who was at Max's agree. Our ex-managing editor used ot have a button that said "Christgau D-". She always got positive comments on it. And she was the one who introduced R&tJ to me. 8)

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  3. These guys were AWESOME! Drove up from Boston to Max's once to seem them and it was more than worth it. Had a great time!

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