Friday, April 26, 2013

Boy O Boy - Shish-Ska-Bob

I was going through my CD stacks the other day, and came across this old disc, which has been in my possession for over twenty years. Ah, Boy O Boy . . . a fond memory from my days in Washington, DC many moons ago. This band was a case study in the old adage, "You've got to punch your weight."

Boy O Boy was formed in 1985 by a bunch of musically like-minded friends, all students at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. They made their bones initially on the frat house circuit, playing campus parties and the like at VA Tech, before branching out further afield to other local schools as word-of-mouth began to spread. Boy O Boy started out playing mostly covers of ska and ska revival classics, but soon began penning and playing their own skank-infused originals. Their sound, a good-time, rollicking fusion of ska, rock and funk, with lyrics primarily focused on partying, girls and dancing, was perfectly suited for the college circuit, and the band became known for its high-energy shows. At that time, Boy O Boy wasn't anything of any substance; they were basically your typical frat-house-type band, a bunch of guys who liked playing music on the weekends and picking up a few bucks here and there while they did it.

After graduation, the band members (who at the time consisted of drummer Mike Boyd, keyboardist Eric Lawson, lead guitarist David Triano, Dave Peterson on bass, with a horn section consisting of Jim Pennington on trumpet and trombonist Chris Leitch and the recent addition of Virginia Commonwealth University music major Schiavone McGee as lead vocalist) decided to get serious and see if they could make a go of this music thing. In the late 80s, Boy O Boy relocated east to Richmond, Virginia, a more central, transportation-assessable location (don't know if you've ever been to Blacksburg, but it's in the middle of fucking nowhere), and began expanding their circuit, playing gigs up and down the East Coast. They also started self-producing discs on their own BOB (Boy O Boy) Records imprint and selling them at their shows - the first self-titled album was released in 1990.

I used to see these guys a lot in the DC area in the late 80s/early 90s - as I mentioned in an earlier post, Boy O Boy was a fixture on the mid-Atlantic club circuit. I was mad for ska back in the day (still a big fan today), and went running to see any act of that persuasion that passed through the Washington area (for example, Special Beat (the collective made up of former members of The English Beat and The Specials) played the 9:30 Club on F Street a number of times between 1990 to 1993. The last shows of theirs I went to before moving away in 1993 was a three-night stand at the club - I went to EVERY show, all three nights!). At the show Boy O Boy played at 9:30 sometime in 1992, I enjoyed it so much, I purchased the album they had on sale there, Shish-Ska-Bob (their second BOB Records release) which included just about every song they played that night. In addition to the original tunes on the album (written mainly by Triano and Leitch), the band added reworked ska versions of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" and Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze". But the best song on the album, in my opinion, is "All I Need Is A Holiday", a superb ska workout that reminded me a lot of Bad Manners.

Boy O Boy toured relentlessly throughout the early 1990s, eventually playing more than 150 shows per year at colleges, clubs, and other venues up and down the East Coast. In 1993 they released a Christmas EP, Bobsled, which was well received by their regional audience. Through hard work and nonstop gigging, the band reached the point where it was self-supporting, and while the band members weren't making huge money, they were making a living doing what they enjoyed.

Then Boy O Boy did a curious thing - in mid 1994, they changed their name, now referring to themselves by the new moniker "Fighting Gravity".

Why did the band decide to forgo nearly a decade of fan goodwill and name recognition by making such a move? Well, band members had long held aspirations beyond regional popularity; by the time they had completed recording of their third BOB Records disc, No Stopping, No Standing, they were openly angling for a major label record deal. As part of that process, they attempted to incorporate the "Boy O Boy" name . . . only to find that it had already been incorporated by someone else. Faced with either retaining their original name, which would pretty much seal their fate as a local act, or changing it and building the new name into a national "brand" while hopefully retaining their old fans, Boy O Boy opted for the latter.

No Stopping, No Standing was released at the end of 1994. While it was a stronger album than any of the band's earlier releases, it didn't sell as well as Shish-Ska-Bob or Bobsled. I think fans were confused, not only by the name change, but also by the subtle change in the band's sound. Ska, while prominent in songs like "Godzilla", "Deep Blue" and the title track, was no longer the overarchingly predominant sound of Fighting Gravity. The group's tone became more rock-oriented, and somewhat darker and less good-timey then their earlier work. It was a sign of things to come.

Fighting Gravity's first big taste of national exposure came in the fall of 1994, when they were invited to compete on TV's "Star Search", a talent competition. The band ended up winning the show, and began getting looks from big music labels. EMI offered them a shitty deal in 1995, which they wisely turned down. The band headed back to the Virginia area for more touring, all the while keeping an ear open for additional major label offers they assumed would come pouring in. When no new offers came through that year, Fighting Gravity recorded another BOB Records release, Forever = 1 Day, if for any other reason to keep their momentum and name recognition going. Forever = 1 Day was even more 'rockier' than their previous release, with many of the band's songs veering into the Dave Matthews Band vein of soft pop (no shock there, since former DMB producer John Alegia helmed this album) - the skankified horns were few and far between on this one.

At the end of 1995, Fighting Gravity caught another huge break in their quest for national exposure. That December, Rolling Stone magazine assigned a writer and photographer to accompany the band on one of its regional frat house tours, to document life on the road in a feature article as part of an upcoming issue focusing on college life and music. When the article appeared in the March 1996 issue, the floodgates opened; the band was suddenly inundated with major label offers. Later that year, Fighting Gravity signed with Mercury Records. It was a better deal than the one offered earlier by EMI, but not huge, so the band continued their frenetic touring schedule while preparing songs for their major label debut. Some of their older BOB Records albums were rereleased under their new name as a stopgap, utilizing Mercury's distribution network.

You and Everybody Else was released on Mercury in the late summer of 1998. On this record, the band almost completely dispensed with its signature ska sound, completing their transformation into "Dave Matthews Band-lite" that began on Forever = 1 Day. Most of the songs (such as "Turn To Me", "Waterfall" and "Wait For You") are bland rehashings of tunes done better by other bands. There is very little on this disc that showcases the versatility, excitement or personality that the band used to display in its live shows. Needless to say, the record was a huge flop - listening to it now, you can hear why. Mercury wasted no time in cutting its losses and dropping the band from the label. Fighting Gravity had their chance, and they blew it.

The band soldiered on for almost another decade, resuming its extensive touring and cranking out albums on their BOB Records imprint. Some original band members fell by the wayside, to be replaced by new members who also departed after a year or two. By the mid-2000s, McGee, Peterson and Boyd were the only remaining founding members. Earlier that decade, Fighting Gravity dispensed with their long-time horn section, becoming a straight-ahead rock combo. Needless to say, that did nothing to endear them to their fan base. Nevertheless, Fighting Gravity got one more shot at national exposure. They were signed by a subsidiary of Atlantic Records in late 2002 and prepped an album for release the following year. But unfortunately, the label they signed to went under. The album they produced, Blue Sky & Black, was eventually released on their own label in 2006. That was Fighting Gravity's final release before breaking up in 2007.

Boy O Boy/Fighting Gravity was a good regional band, but I honestly don't think they had the right sound to break out of their limited area and expand their fan base across the USA. I think the band themselves realized that their original sound was not the recipe for national success - ska is not a musical genre warmly accepted by a majority of the record-buying public. Many an American band that started off surfing the high crest of ska's Third Wave (Fishbone, No Doubt, and Reel Big Fish, for example) found more success and acceptance by coasting down into the more familiar, more tranquil, less turbulent waters of pop and funk. Shoot, even Third Wave giants the Mighty Mighty Bosstones didn't find widespread success until they released the considerably toned-down song "The Impression That I Get" in 1997, their only Top 40 hit. In my opinion, the only band in the past 20 years that found national commercial success with an uncompromised, out-front ska sound was Sublime . . . but the band ended right at its peak with the death of lead vocalist and main songwriter Bradley Nowell, so the question as to whether the band could have/would have sustained its sound and its popularity will never be answered.

So, like I said, Fighting Gravity knew that ska wasn't their golden ticket to the Top 40. But in their hunger to make it big, they completely abandoned the music that got them to where they were in the first place. By they time they disbanded, I don't think they really knew who they were anymore, musically.

I'm all for individuals and groups reaching for the stars, and doing what they can to achieve success. And I know that in that quest, sometimes compromises and changes have to be made. But when does it become too much? How much can you change and still be true to yourself? What's the final cost, and is it worth it?

Fighting Gravity/Boy O Boy found what the price of would-be glory would be, and in the end it proved to be too much for them. To paraphrase Mark 8:36 -
"For what shall it profit a band, if it shall gain the whole world, and lose its own soul?"
Here's the best representation of the original ska band in all its glory: Boy O Boy's Shish-Ska-Bob, released in the spring of 1992 on BOB Records. Enjoy . . . and as always, let me know what you think.

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