Monday, March 18, 2019

Forgotten Wax: Jules Shear & Reckless Sleepers' 'Big Boss Sounds'!

L TO R: Jimmy Vivino, Steve Holley, Jules Shear, Brian Stanley
When the Reckless Sleepers' debut album Big Boss Sounds came out in 1988, singer/guitarist Jules Shear was still trying to capitalize on the 1986 Top 40 success of "If She Knew What She Wants", which the Bangles had covered on their multi-platinum breakout album Different Light.

The single came three years after Cyndi Lauper had scored a Top 5 hit with her cover of Shear's "All Through The Night", during which time Shear's second solo album The Eternal Return failed to chart. Shear then collaborated with Elliot Easton of The Cars on Easton's solo debut Change No Change, which also failed to chart.

Shear's collaboration with Easton continued after those sessions and led to morphed into an oddball band by the name of Reckless Sleepers that featured ex-Wings drummer Steve Holley and Jimmy Vivino, who would go on to play in Conan O'Brien's house band, managed to land a deal with I.R.S. Records.

The resulting album was a punchy grab-bag of country-tinged rockers that arrived at a time when heartland rock still had a place on Top 40 radio. Reviews for the album were glowing, local station WXRT did their part by adding "If We Never Meet Again" to heavy rotation and then something odd happened: the promotional push surrounding the song just stopped.

Oddly enough, many of the same stations that had stopped playing the Reckless Sleepers "If We Never Meet Again" started playing Tommy Conwell & The Young Rumblers version of the SAME EXACT SONG, which wound up sliding into the Top 50.

A year later, I.R.S. and Shear had moved into "unplugged" territory for The Third Party, effectively ending the "Reckless Sleepers" chapter of Shear's career.

In revisiting Big Boss Sounds for the first time since its initial release, what stands out is how truly ambitious the record had been and how much musical ground Shear and band were intent on covering over the span of ten songs.

From the anthemic BoDeans-meets-Katrina & The Waves ""This Heart" (co-written by Heartbreaker Mike Campbell) to the surf guitar of "Big Before It Bursts" to the Bourbon Street swing of the title cut, this is an album of alarming depth that deserved more than one half-assed single release before being led out to pasture.

What's most alarming is how truly inspired Shear sounds throughout. Not exactly known for his vocal skills, Shear's limitations add a boyish charm to band performances that can be a little too slick for their own good sometimes.

Meanwhile, "I Wake Up Loving You" wouldn't sound at all out of place on a Bloodshot Records comp or Robbie Fulks album.

Scott Litt, who had produced R.E.M.'s stadium rock opus, Document, brought a keen attention to detail that fills each track with a plethora of interesting textures and overdubs while making sure to feature Shear's vocals prominently throughout.

What sounded just a tad too polished back in 1988 has actually become much more palatable over the years and the material itself is by far the best collection of songs on any Shear project, solo or otherwise.

Friday, March 15, 2019

When Good Bands Go Bad: Red Rider Edition!

There's something to be said for hearing a song with no bias or preconceptions, as we did back in the very early '80s when radio was our #1 source for new music. Many a time we'd find ourselves tapping along to some cool "new wave-adjacent" song only to find that it was Little River Band or Kansas.

On this particular occasion, however, the song that we were hearing proved so tasty to these ears that we promised ourselves we'd buy the album no matter who it was. Unless, of course, it was Little River Band or Kansas.

Had we been old enough to drive the first time we heard Red Rider's evocative sci-fi stunner "Lunatic Fringe" on the radio, we'd have pulled over in stone cold amazement.

Thankfully, our bus driver felt the same way we did (or maybe that was a regular stop) as we sat in absolute silence waiting for the DJ to tell us who it was.

"The phone lines light up every time we play this song, which is by a band called Red Rider.

Breathing a sigh of relief to hear that it wasn't Little River Band or Kansas, we were right in the middle of making a mental note to grab some Red Rider next time we were at the record store when the commercial for the upcoming Kinks concert at the Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena).

This time, when the announcer said "with special guests Red Rider", it caught our ear because NOW WE KNEW WHO RED RIDER WAS.

By then, we had procured a copy of the band's second album As Far As Siam and were still trying to get a bead on Red Rider. To our ears, it seemed as if "Lunatic Fringe" had been a turning point for the band, but it had been written late in the game, leaving the band with an album that wasn't fully representative of who they were since penning "Fringe".

In the spring of 1983, we heard "Power (Strength In Numbers)" on the radio and knew immediately that Red Rider was back and that they'd picked up where "Lunatic Fringe" left off. The band's third album, Neruda, was chock-full of hooky tunes that also wanted to be liked for their evocative sophistication.

"Crack The Sky (Breakaway)" penetrated U.S. rock radio playlists with an icy cold synth riff that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an OMD record, but the truth of the matter was that the band's label, Capitol Records, could have released any song as the next single. Instead, they inexplicably left numerous should-be hits such as "Winner Takes All", "Walking The Fine Line", and "Sights on You" to die on the vine.

A year later, the band released Breaking Curfew, an embarrassingly transparent attempt to connect with the Glass Tiger/Bryan Adams audience. The change was akin to the kid who'd been so punk rock in ninth grade showed up for tenth grade with a pink polo shirt with a popped collar and a Swatch watch on each wrist.

Ticket stub for Red Rider's first Chicagoland appearance opening for the Kinks.
Musically, the band was trying way too hard to replicate the sound of Reach The Beach-era Fixx at a time when even the new Fixx record (Phantoms) wasn't selling.

Sadly, the band was soon ravaged by personnel changes as the rhythm section of drummer Rob Baker and bassist Jeff Jones departed. The next album was titled, simply, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider, and, though his face was on the cover, Red Rider remained too faceless for their own good.

1988's Victory Day and 1989's The Symphony Sessions didn't even warrant U.S. release, but then Cochrane dug out an old demo of a song written years earlier as "Love Is A Highway" and wound up giving his solo career the kick in the pants it sorely needed.

"Life Is A Highway" wound up becoming an inescapable Top 10 U.S. hit in 1991. The song went on to be a hit for country artists Chris LeDoux and Rascal Flatts.

Sadly, the music of Red Rider has largely taken a backseat to Cochrane's more successful solo career.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

'Day Off' Pay Off: Yello And The Continuing Popularity Of 'Oh Yeah'!

Count Yello among the handful of artists who owe their career to John Hughes, the late Hollywood movie director and consummate music geek whose love of the band's music led him to seek their permission to use "Oh Yeah" in a pivotal scene in his new film, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".

Landing in theaters in June 1986, the movie was an immediate box office hit that went on to gross $70 million. Not bad for a film with a budget of less than $6 million.

Yello, a Swiss duo featuring multi-instrumentalist Boris Blank and self-professed "millionaire" vocalist Dieter Meier, had toiled in relative anonymity since their first album established their oddball techno pop template in 1980. After two albums on the Residents' label, Ralph Records, the pair graduated to Stiff Records just as the ship was going down.

Luckily, they were signed to Elektra in the States, who did a masterful job of pushing "Oh Yeah", which first appeared in January 1985 as part of the band's fourth studio album, Stella. When the song got picked up for "Ferris Bueller" a year and a half later, the song hit #51 in the U.S. and was then used prominently in "The Secret Of My Success" less than a year later.

The full-court press continued when Yello included "Oh Yeah" on their next album, One Second, just in case anybody missed it the first and second times around. At least half of the rest of the album wound up doubling as an unofficial soundtrack to the third and fourth seasons of "Miami Vice", where five different Yello songs were prominently placed.

Of all those songs, it is "Oh Yeah" that has wound up becoming one of the most licensed songs for film, TV and commercials.

In 2012, the song was used in a Honda commercial that spoofed Ferris Bueller with help from Matthew Broderick, who played himself calling in sick from a day of shooting.

In 2017, the song appeared in an ad by Domino's Pizza by featured a shot-for-shot recreation of a scene from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" starring Joe Keery of Stranger Things" fame.

What the duo may have sacrificed in "street cred" they've more than made up for in cold, hard cash and, in the end, the critics wound up loving them anyway.

Friday, March 8, 2019

And Then There Were Three: Revisiting the Furs 'Mirror Moves'!

As a fan of the murky and brooding six-piece Psychedelic Furs line-up that turned every second of their first two albums into a dark and claustrophobic mind movie. One wouldn't have thought it possible to thicken the impenetrable sonic fog of their self-titled 1980 debut, but 1981's Talk Talk Talk did just that.

We now know it as the album that has the original version of "Pretty & Pink" on it, but, at the time, first impressions of the album was that "Into You Like Train" would be added to my party playlist ASAP. Stuck among the usual forceful requests for "Freebird" and "Sweet Home Alabama",imagine a lone DJ sticking in the original version of "Pretty In Pink". 

Some nights it sank, but other nights it gave you license to drop some weird-ass shit on an unsuspecting audience of strobe-lit teenagers in various stages of "the dance".

Many of us watched with some bemusement as the song began to take on a life of its own even before it was such a big part of a certain John Hughes film and '80s pop culture.

Can you imagine the career boost of a major movie studio building an entire film around one of your songs? Lucky bastards.

Back in those days, it was how a lot of careers were made: Simple Minds, anybody?

Thing was, it came at a time when the sextet that had actually made the original had been reduced to a trio. Agreeing to re-record the song was both the right and the wrong thing to do.

Was it not bad enough that the Todd Rundgren-produced Forever Now had seen the exit of original members Roger Morris (guitar) and Duncan Kilburn (sax) with no one hired to replace them?

Hey, we knew how it was in the eighties: Even brilliant drummers like The Cars David Robinson and Blondie's Clem Burke were losing work to the drum machine. The Furs would be no different, forcing Vince Ely to pursue a production career that included Ministry's With Sympathy and Go-Go Jane Weidlin's quirky first solo record.

1984's Mirror Moves could just as easily have been named "And Then There Were Three" with the Furs reduced to a core trio of Richard Butler, Tim Butler and John Ashton. It also could just as easily have sucked, but strangely enough, it didn't.

Those of us who played the labels off our Rebel Yell tapes and "Don't You (Forget About Me)" single had been looking forward to hearing what his involvement would do besides scare off the band's drummer.

The first time this writer heard "The Ghost In You", He turned to his brother and said "I bet they wish they'd written this in time to record it with Rundgren". Turns out it was the one that they and the Runt had been chasing all along.

"Here Comes Cowboys" sounds like an outtake from the Talk Talk Talk sessions, which we will gladly take take take.

"Heaven" follows and, if we can be honest, as great a song as it is, it sounds just enough like "Here Come Cowboys" that you almost wonder if the band didn't take two stabs at writing the same song and then decided to put them on the album right next to each other.

Not that I'm complaining. After all, I am a sucker for eighth-note chugging bass lines and Richard at his raspy, cigarettes-and-alcohol-soaked best.

"Heartbeat" was a song that marked the beginning of a very special era for a certain Chicago musician, Mars Williams, who plays Liquid Soul these days.

"My Time" begins with one of Richard Butler's better couplets:

"You've got rain in your eyes and a head full of stars/All the tears you could hold in your hand/And a roomful of sleep and a promise to keep/Isn't it just like love?" 

So good that one almost wonders how it wasn't picked as the first single. By the time Butler leans into that first chorus with just enough of a Bowie Swagger, for a moment you're convinced he is this generation's Sinatra.

"Like A Stranger" is a career-maker buoyed by a jubilant horn arrangement that is beautifully Beatle-esque, yet it didn't get released as a single either.

What is it about "Alice's House" that makes it the sleeper hit of Side Two ("What's that, grandpa?") and filled with more nervous tension than most horror films of the time?

"Only A Game" might be the odd man out among a trio of songs that set the mood for the album closing mood piece "Highwire Days".

And then it was over. Only nine songs.

Granted, eight were solid single contenders.  

Breaking The Mold: Orson Welles Collaborates With Manowar Edition!

Growing up, I used to read heavy metal magazines for the same cheesy kicks most other kids got from MAD Magazine or Archie Comix. There was just so much comedy gold to be found within those pages that you just had to wonder if there wasn't some golden-toothed svengali behind-the-scenes creating both the bands and the story lines for maximum absurdity.

Of course, Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer turned that monotony and bombast into one of the most memorable and, yes, painfully accurate movies on rock music ever made.

What the movie captured best wasn't the glamorous stadium lives of the Judas Priests and Def Leppards, but the treacherous dead-end hauls of bands who seemed to always be on the periphery, yet never rose above opening for Priest or Lep.

If you've read even just one issue of Kerrang! from the '80s, you know the bands of which I speak and no other band shines as a brighter example of attempting to build an audience through sheer elimination than Manowar.

Spending most of the '80s in the "M MISC" section of my favorite local record stores hoping for something new from Missing Persons, Ministry or Mi-Sex, I'd naturally wind up being startled by the sight of the latest Manowar album and its fondness for extreme Greco-Roman cosplay.

No band could take themselves that seriously, I thought at the time. Then I remembered that this was the same band that chose to sign their record deal in their own blood.

"We get paid before we dance."
Only years later did I put two and two together and realize that guitarist Ross The Boss was the same maniac who had been in first wave NYC gutter punks the Dictators. His rather surprising reappearance in a band that was as different from his last should win some sort of award, but, at the time, left this writer baffled.

Were they having a larf, a la the Darkness or were they rocking the Greco-Roman Chippendales attire completely sans irony?

Keep in mind that Orson "War of The Worlds" Welles happily provided narration for "Dark Avenger" from band's debut Battle Hymns. Next to Milton Berle making a cameo in a Ratt video, Welles' participation in the recording of a little known metal band's debut album had been a pretty big deal in the metal press at the time.

Welles' involvement with the band went on to include the single "Defender" in 1983, their first release after signing a new UK deal with Music For Nations (and Metal Force Records in the U.S.) ...IN BLOOD!!

By the time the second LP came out, who should greet us but four Thors thumbing a ride to the renaissance faire?

The sound had also gotten decidedly operatic and bombastic, leaving behind the tighter arrangements, punkier production, and faster tempos of Battle Hymns.

Such a shame because, for a time, both they and pre-Bruce Dickinson Iron Maiden brought an exciting punk edge to the now-infamous new wave of metal.

Friday, March 1, 2019

When Bryan Ferry Sings 'Avalon', People Listen!

With legendary Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry scheduled to appear at the esteemed Chicago Theatre on August 1 as part of a national tour that promises to lean heavily on Avalon-era material, Chicagoland Roxy fans both new and old have come tumbling out of the woodwork to nab tickets for this momentous occasion.

What is it about the mere mention of Avalon these days that sets our hearts a-flutter?

In the 37 years since its release, even old-school Roxy Music fans have slowly come around to Avalon's seductive genius. Meanwhile, those of us for whom the album was our introduction to the band still marvel at Ferry's fluid arrangements and verrrry subtle integration of world music influences.

Speaking of "influences", listening to the album today, it is joyfully obvious where Peter Gabriel got much of the inspiration for So. Ferry managed to make an album that didn't revel in lost youth, but celebrated the stunning fragility of it all.

We can all see Ferry as the dashing hustler who scams his way aboard the Titanic. Once the ship begins taking on water, he offers you a drink and a toast to less exciting times.

Whereas the Motley Crues and GNR's of the world found it harder and harder to match their younger selves, Ferry was smart enough to be making music that he and his audience could grow into.

Sure enough, Avalon has proven to be one of the few albums from that era that ages like a fine wine, capturing the exact moment when Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry merged into a single entity.

Subsequent solo albums Boys and Girls and Bête Noire mined that same fertile territory, defining the sound that continues to define his career, but neither came close to Avalon,

The best part is that when the Motley Crues of this world are trying to wedge their 60-year-old arses into tight leathers they're expected to wear each night, Bryan Ferry simply slips into a tailored suit and comes another night closer to singing "More Than This" and "True To Life" the way they were meant to be sung.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Inside Scoop: How I Single-Handedly Got Material Issue Back Together!

When I was writing for Popdose in 2007, I had the good fortune of interviewing both bassist Ted Ansani and drummer Mike Zelenko for an in-depth article on Material Issue. While I had gotten to know Jim Ellison by him showing up at my gigs, his suicide in 1996 stunned not only his bandmates, but anyone else who'd come to know Ellison as a coinstant THE biggest self promoter on a scene full of ambitious self-promoters.

"Power pop guys don't go out that way", we muttered, trying to make sense of it all.

This interview was a great excuse to converse with a couple members of one of my favorite bands, but it wasn't going to be all rainbows and lollipops, At some point, the subject would have to turn to Ellison and the gigantic hole he left in a lot of people's lives.

At some point in each interview, which was conducted separately, I casually broached the subject of a Material Issue reunion. After all, bigger bands than them have found ways to move past the sudden death of a key member. In speaking to both Mike and Ted, the response was an emphatic "The only way the band gets back together is with Jim and that ain't happening."

Fair enough.

As a fan of the band, I wasn't exactly nostalgic for seeing someone other than Ellison front the band, but it was a question I knew the fans reading the article would want asked.

A year or so later, I decided to move back to the Windy City after a decade in L.A. and found myself itching to waste valuable amounts of time and money by putting a new live band together.

Just for shits and giggles, I called Mike and Ted within a couple weeks of one another and asked if they were available and up for playing in my band. After sending them the songs and then waited for them to say "Yay" or "Nay", Mike was the first to sign on.

Between Zelenko and the guitarist I'd also hired, my thinking was that I had enough of a band to start booking gigs around town. A couple of tasty opening slots were fast approaching and I was still without a bass player. To take my mind of things, I took in a Dandy Warhols show.

Walking out of the venue after the show, I checked my phone and saw that I had missed a call. The voice message was from Ted Ansani. "Got the songs down, ready to play."

I hadn't told Ted that Zelenko was playing drums, nor had I informed Mike that I had approached Ted about playing bass. My thinking was that since we were all professionals, I'd treat that first rehearsal like any of the dozens before it: The new line-up meets when the new line-up meets.

After all, I wasn't trying to reform Material Issue, yet the only thing I could hear in my mind was what they'd each said during the Popdose interview:

"The only way the band gets back together is with Jim and that ain't happening."

The day of our first rehearsal finally arrives and I accidentally show up to my guitar player's practice space on-time. I walk in to find that Ted has beat me by twenty minutes. The only one missing is Mike.

Since I play drums a bit, I get behind the kit and we stumble through a couple tunes when the door to the practice space swings open and a guy carrying a bike, a cymbal bag, and some sticks comes down the steps into the basement where we are set up.

Mike does that look, scoping the room, the players, and does a double-take.

"Ted, is that you?"

"Holy shit," Ted replied, "Hey Mike, long time no see."

And that was pretty much it. Ten minutes later, we'd learned our first song together.

What made those times so great, though, was the fact that Mike would stick around after rehearsal with the guitarist, also a huge Material Issue fan, and talk about Jim and the MI days over a bottle or two of adult beverages.

Sure, we played a few gigs, too, but being there to hear one of the best damn drummers to come out Chicago speak frankly about his experiences in the band was like locking a kid in a candy store.

A few years later, BOOM, Mike and Ted begin playing out as Material Re-Issue.