Wednesday, September 30, 2015

THE SHIRTS’ Styles [1981]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1981
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet
This interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #7, dated 1981. It was written by the Managing Editor of the magazine, Julia Masi.

Part of what the Shirts so special was that they were fun. It looked like they enjoyed being on stage, and that transmitted to the audience. I only saw the Annie Golden version play once, and then saw the post-Annie band play at a reunion concert for the late Brooklyn club Zappaz, which was held at the now-also-gone L’Amours in the mid-2000s. As for Golden, I saw her perform at the Bottom Line in a nascent version of the play based on Ellie Greenwich’s music, Leader of the Pack (the Broadway version was not as personal, nor as fun). When the band reformed after Golden left, it took two singers to replace her. That tells you something. Of course, Golden went from the Shirts, to the film Hair, to a recurring role in Cheers, to where she is now, a regular on the extremely popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black, where she ironically plays someone who is mostly mute. – RBF, 2015
“Guilt through association,” states Artie Lamonica as re reflects on why the Shirts are so often mislabelled. “We were considered a New Wave band, but we weren’t really. It’s just a tag. We didn’t form because New Wave was happening. We were around before the New Wave and we’ll be around afterwards.”
In their nine-year history, the Shirts – Artie Lamonica, guitar / keyboards; Ron Ardito, guitar; John Piccolo, keyboards; Johnny Zeek Criscione, drums; Bob Racippo, bass; and Annie Golden, vocals – have gone through a metamorphosis from being “the worst cover band in the world” to one of the more popular bands in Europe. The band began when they were teenagers in Brooklyn. They played block parties and local bars until they started writing their own material. By the mid-‘70s, they were headlining regularly at CBGBs and under contract to Capitol and EMI/Harvest Records. With three albums to their credit (The Shirts; Street Light Shine; and Inner Sleeve), a few cuts on the Live at CBGBs album, and legions of fans who wait in line for hours to get tickets to their shows in Holland and Germany, the Shirts still haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve back in the States, considering they are one of the top ten bands on the college concert circuit.
The way they see it, the problem lies in the fact that they are difficult to categorize. All six members of the band have a hand in writing the songs, and their different tastes and personalities are reflected in their work. In the past, they have shown their cynicism (“Laugh and Walk Away,” “Too Much Trouble”), dabbled in science fiction (“Triangulum”), and expressed disappointment (“Small Talk”) and love (“As Long as the Laughter Lasts”). Their music ranges from danceable high-energy rock’n’roll to ballads.

“We never felt that we had certain sound,” Artie continues, “like band that have a whole album based on a sound. We always felt that we liked to do different things. We try to let everybody be artistically free, as much as possible. We don’t shun a song because it doesn’t have the Shirts’ sound. We try not to. We listen to each other. We listen to the radio, what’s on the air. We try to be as modern as possible. We started out trying to do things differently to create different types of chords and just play them. Now we’ve learned how to arrange; how to simplify our music. We created a base and now we can build. We could be just as popular in America.”
“It’s strange in Europe,” explains Annie, “because it just seemed to snowball by itself. The very first album we did had a hit single on the charts in Holland [“Tell Me Your Plans” – JM, 1981]. Our European record company sent us there to do some kind of public interest stuff and they liked what they saw. They took us to their hearts and we had mild success consistently since that first song. And we understand that the Inner Sleeve album is Number One on the Austrian charts. We’ve never been to Austria. It’s very close in Europe, very concentrated. The people are very cultured because the people are so crammed together. Things can catch on a lot better than they can here.
“I’ve progressed as the chatterbox. In our personal life, I’m the chatterbox, but in the stage show, I never used to talk to the audience. We always let our music speak for itself. Now, I feel more comfortable talking to people. I feel like they want to hear what I have to say. I never really go blank. I usually talk about the club, or the next song, or the Shirts.
“When we go to Europe, we’re not stifled. We just talk less, and we just let the music speak for itself. So, we don’t really feel uncomfortable that way. It’s funny: you’ll say something, like if you’re in Holland, ‘You might remember this song from a couple of years ago,’ and they don’t respond, or some of them might. But once you sing that first line, then the excitement stirs, and they go crazy.
“Sometimes it’s hard when people are shouting things at you from the front. You can tell when it’s kind. You can tell by the delivery. And most often it is; you get so frustrated and you wish you could understand them” On the whole, Annie finds European audiences “Anxious and eager; pretty polite. They listen. They don’t stir around or mix it up. They pay attention to you, which is pretty strange. All eyes are on you. We’re not used to that.”
But they should be. When the Shirts take to the stage, their visual presence is almost as strong as their music. Petite, blonde Annie flutters around the stage like a trained modern dancer as she sings and vamps with the boys. The rest of the band plays off each other and sometimes with the audience. They’ve been known to offer their instruments to fans and invite them to play along. “But it’s not contrived,” says Annie, who explains that her stage moves aren’t choreographed; they’re just a natural reaction to the music. She describes them as callisthenic, and admits that aside from her training with Twyla Tharp for the movie Hair [1979], she has never formally studied dance.

She eschews the preening role of the prima donna that so many female singers are obsessed with. “I hate that ‘Oh, is my make-up on right? Is my hair fixed?’” Although her stage personality is very feminine, she looks upon herself as a mixture of “woman, groupie, and one of the boys.”

The latter day The Shirts
As entertaining as their live shows may be, the band hasn’t relied on their stage presence to get by on film. For their most popular video, “Laugh and Walk Away,” they flew to England and employed the talents of Brian Grant, the best television cameraman in the country. He wrote a story that begins with Annie singing as she is wheeled into a hospital by the band, all wearing white coasts. “We had gone to London to the video and we were all jet-lagged, and everything. And Grant had this storyline for us. I was standoffish, as I usually am about outsiders presenting their ideas to the band. And when I read his outline for the song, I couldn’t believe he had never heard us perform; yet in his outline of “Laugh and Walk Away,” he had me playing all these different kinds of characters. Just the fact that a lot of my physical moves have been said to be puppet-like, and he had me playing the puppet, with strings being manipulated by business people. It’s so funny, ‘cause I don’t drive. I’m terrified to drive. And he had this thing of me driving, and then being terrified in the car. It was really great the way he was naturally in tune with what we were about, never having seen us.

Realizing that it takes more than a memorable video and a polished sound to make a hit single, the Shirts have left Capitol, their American record company. They are hoping to have more input on the next record they do, so that they’ll go on record sounding the same as they do at a live gig. “Our sound man’s been with us for eight years. The ultimate goal would be to have him engineer, or produce or something, because we always get compliments on our live sound. When we hear cassettes of live gigs, it always sound exactly the way we feel we sound.”


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