Thursday, March 22, 2018

Out Of This Rut: How The Elvis Brothers Changed My Life!

A lot of people like to say that seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan one sleepy night changed their lives and, for those who went out the next day and bought (or stole, as the case may be) a guitar or a set of drums, such a claim is 100% true, but, for most, claiming any one band capable of changing one's life, much less the world, is ultimately a tad hyperbolic.

Until now, that is.

Back in 1983, I first became aware of the Elvis Brothers from the pages of my trusty Trouser Press, which had touted the Elvis Brothers and Combo Audio as two of a number of midwest bands that had landed major record deals. Why it caught my eye at all was because the article noted that both bands were managed by Ken Adamany.

Adamany, of course, had already managed Cheap Trick, Off Broadway, and U.S.S.A., so let's just say I had come to trust his judgement. I made a note to self to keep an eye out for the Elvis Brothers or Combo Audio at the local mall record store.

Needless to say, this proved easier said than done because, while major labels like to brag about how great their distribution networks are, there is a mile-long list of album titles I could read to you that I did not see in the flesh until I moved to Chicago.

So the fact that, a few weeks later, I actually managed to get my hands on an actual copy of the Elvis Brothers' Movin Up was pretty amazing considering that - TO THIS DAY - I have never once seen a Combo Audio record in a store. Ever.

I'll surmise that I am not alone.

Yet this band signed in good faith to the almighty Capitol Records under the belief that the same label that got all those Beatles albums into stores back in the 60's could do the same for them, but noooooooooo.

If Capitol Records hadn't dropped the ball, it might have been Combo Audio with whom I cut my first album.

As it stands, the CBS distribution network reigned supreme and I took the Elvis Brothers' Movin' Up home that night.

Keep in mind that it wasn't like I was expecting a clear vinyl copy of Wayne County & The Electric Chairs' "Toilet Love" on Safari Records to show up in my local "Record Hut" just because I'd read about it in Trouser Press.

(Which, oddly enough, did happen and, yes,  I nabbed it!)

Perhaps my mind is overly active from having watched one too many YouTube documentaries on string theory and "the multiverse", but what if I'd stumbled upon a Combo Audio album instead of an E.B's record on that fateful day in 1983?

Now, here's where it might get spooky for some.

While I enjoyed the pop sensibilities of the Elvis Brothers' debut album Movin' Up, I wasn't entirely crazy about the rockabilly schtick that they'd employed so the album was eventually filed away as my tastes gravitated to new albums from the Chameleons, Platinum Blonde and Cheap Trick.

A couple years later, as my own band widened our search for a proper manager, we felt it only fair to give Cheap Trick's manager, Ken Adamany, a fair shot at adding us to his enviable roster. During a call to his office one day, I heard what sounded like a new Elvis Brothers song on the "hold" music and, from what I could here, the band had moved on from their rockabilly phase.

Keep in mind that this meant that Adamany was A) using his own artists' music as hold music for those calling the office (pure genius) and B) he'd gone so far as to start playing yet-to-be-released E.B.'s tracks, which is more than most management offices were doing for their acts at the time.
I should know because I called ALL OF THEM!!

Just as I was really starting to wrap my ears around the song, which turned out to be "Burnin' Desire", Adamany picked up the phone.

"Can you put me back on-hold?" I quipped before diving into the meat of my sales pitch to Ken.

For the cost of an interstate long distance phone call, I had heard the intro, first verse and chorus of a new E.B.'s song that was decidedly NOT rockabilly. In fact, this tune, to my ears, had all the ingredients for a big pop radio hit.

But then I promptly got caught up with my own musical ambitions and forgot all about the song until one day I was killing time in a hardware store right smack dab in the piddly little town I called home when I spied what looked like a new Elvis Brothers album.

Upon closer inspection, it was, in fact, new E.B.'s wax and the best part was that I didn't even have to drive the half hour to the nearest big town record store to find it.

If you ask me, it sounds like somebody up there wanted to make sure I knew the Elvis Brothers had a new album out because, sadly enough, there would be no more hints that such an album existed - no music videos, no review in Rolling Stone, and, as far as this fan could tell, no other discernible attempts at promotion on the part of their label.

Before long, I knew every word to every song on the band's second album, Adventure Time, which had been produced by Bowie guitarist Adrian Belew. In completely ditching rockabilly for an angular pop sound not all that far removed from Crowded House, the band had successfully reinvented themselves.

But, even so, the album didn't change my life.

In fact, I probably hadn't listened to the album for a few weeks when my girlfriend at the time caught me just before I was leaving to go to work at Pizza Hut.

"The Elvis Brothers are playing in Chicago tonight," she said excitedly.

"Okay...." I replied.

"DO YOU WANNA GO?!" she asked.

"Sure, but I'm just about out the door for work."

"Call in sick," she retorted.

"I can't," I replied, "My shift starts in ten minutes. That would be an awful thing to do, leaving them short-handed on a Friday night."

"We can stop by Wax Trax! Records on our way to the show," she purred.

"I'll drive," I replied, and off we roared in the direction of the Windy City.

Did I mention that the show was 21 and Over and that neither my girlfriend nor I were 21?

So, newly canned from Pizza Hut, I cashed my first and last paycheck from the Hut and burned rubber in my girlfriend's tiny MG on the off chance that we'd manage to get into a 21 and Over show.

Little did I know that someone up there was still looking out for me.

With our hair blown to a tight frizz from two hours of highway driving in a convertible, we pulled up to FitzGerald's in Berwyn to discover that their American Music Festival was in full swing so the place was packed to the rafters both inside and out.

As we waited in line to pay our cover, I couldn't help but notice everyone in front of us had their ID's and cash out as they waited to enter the club. Oh crap, I thought.

One by one, I watched with nervous anticipation as each person handed the doorman their ID, their money, and then walked inside. With each passing second, I grew more and more curious as to what I was going to do when it came to be my turn at the door.

As the doorman fixed his gaze upon me, I did the only thing I could: Handed him my money and tried to look 21.

Without a second glance, the doorman simply added our cash to the sizable stack in his hand and motioned us inside.

"Did that really just happen?!" we screamed at each other once inside.

Taking in the scene inside FitzGerald's, I glanced to the stage and saw that Graham Elvis was setting up his bass rig and sipping from a Heineken, so when the waitress asked which beer I'd like, I replied. "Give me the coldest Heinie you've got."

After my first sip, I did an unplanned spit-take, and handed the rest of my beer to my date.

Of course, before I got to witness the E Bros in action, I would first have to wait for the two opening bands to finish their sets. While the first band was awful, the second was a band called Spooner, featuring a pre-Nirvana Butch Vig and led by Duke Erickson, currently in Garbage.

Watching that quintet tear down their voluminous gear and amps, only to be replaced by the headliners' minimal set-up of a couple practice amps and a set of vintage Slingerland drums was entertaining to say the least.

By the time the mighty Elvis Brothers busted into their first song, I was still wondering when the rest of their gear was due to arrive.

By the third song, "What equipment?"

It was one of those rare instances when a live band just absolutely kicks the living shit out of the studio versions everyone in the room already knew, making you almost upset at the producers responsible for recording not one, but two albums that failed to capture the manic intensity and pop genius of the Elvis Brothers in-concert.

Normally, when seeing a band live, you tend to cut them a little slack because you know it's not always possible to recreate a multi-track recording with dozens of overdubs and painstakingly-sung vocal harmonies on a small stage in a room full of party people, but the E.B.'s did so with ease and still managed to deliver numerous vaudeville-worthy (I shit you not) routines between songs.

Some you could tell were staples of their set, but others were completely spontaneous and off-the-cuff, giving the evening the feel of a tightrope act.

I turned around at one point and saw every member of each warm-up band watching the E.B.'s with both jealousy and admiration.

I drove back to Michigan, chucked my drum throne in a closet and began teaching myself to play drums standing up, just like Brad Elvis. While we had no hope or desire to sound exactly like them, you couldn't help but want a piece of that magic.

Eighteen months later, I would enter the studio with the Elvis Brothers for the first time as bassist Graham Elvis began producing my band's demos, ultimately beginning the working relationship that led to the recording of my first solo album.

The members of the Elvis Brothers would remain a successful live act until 1996 and would go on to play in various configurations on all four of my albums and, without fail, they always managed to be just the right ingredients to take things in unexpected directions, which, for me, is one of the only reasons to ever go into a recording studio in the first place.

For that, I can never thank them enough.

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