Thursday, March 27, 2014

The BusBoys - Minimum Wage Rock & Roll

The first time I ever encountered The BusBoys was when I saw them on ABC's Fridays late-night TV program in late 1980. Fridays, which began airing in April of that year, was ABC's attempt to duplicate the success of NBC's Saturday Night Live on their own network. As such, it completely ripped off the format of SNL, with guest hosts, musical acts, sketches with recurring characters, and even a mid-show parody news program similar to SNL's "Weekend Update" called "Friday Edition". The only discernible difference between the two shows was that NBC's was staged in New York, while Fridays was broadcast from Los Angeles. Other than that, the ABC show was a veritable carbon copy.

It's been said that Xeroxing something usually degrades the image; Fridays was no exception to this rule. For much of the first season, the show sucked - the studio audience was made up of whooping, hooting clowns (the same sort of obnoxious buffoons who would anchor Arsenio Hall's show years later and cement the bad reputation of L.A. audiences the world over) who would bray on command with shrill, fake laughter at the program's horrifically unfunny, poorly-written sketches based upon tasteless, inane premises. Here's an example of the show at its lamest and worst, an early skit called "Women Who Spit":

In those first few months, practically the only reason to watch the show was for its musical guests - Devo, The Boomtown Rats, The Jam and The Clash (who made their U.S. television debut on the show) were just some of the great bands Fridays featured early on. But all in all, the show was terrible. TV critics had a field day savaging it, and ABC affiliates across the nation began dropping the program.

The only thing that saved Fridays from a quick cancellation later in 1980 was the turmoil surrounding NBC's Saturday Night Live's sixth season. In the summer of 1980, SNL majordomo Lorne Michaels, burnt out after five years of producing the show, wanted to take a year off, and was allegedly led to believe by network executives that the show would go on hiatus during that time and restart when he returned. But NBC, at the time dead last in the ratings after a series of missteps and expensive flops (including Hello, Larry, Pink Lady & Jeff and Supertrain), couldn't afford to let one of its few profitable shows go off the air. So the network negotiated behind Michaels' back and hired Jean Doumanian (ostensibly "Associate Producer" of the show for the first five years, but someone with no direct involvement in or knowledge of the inner workings of SNL) to keep the program on the air for the upcoming year. When word got out regarding NBC's treachery, the entire cast and all but one of the core writing staff walked out with Michaels.

In the ensuing turmoil surrounding the rapid hiring of an all-new cast and crew, SNL was beset with problems from its very first show that season - unappealing actors, terrible direction, and poor writing which spawned insipid, tasteless sketches (the infamous "Leather Weather" and the "Carters in the Oval Office" skits were included in early episodes). Viewers tuned out in droves (according to Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad's 1986 book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, by the third show of the season, SNL had lost close to 10 million viewers from the final show of the previous season), and critics ran out of words describing what a disaster the program's current season was. During the same period, the ABC show improved its writing staff, and many of the same critics who once panned Fridays began praising it as being, by comparison, smarter, edgier and funnier than SNL. I began watching Fridays more and more, and one night saw The BusBoys perform.

The BusBoys were formed in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena in 1978. The band consisted of brothers Brian O'Neal (keyboards, vocals) and Kevin O'Neal (bass, vocals), along with Mike Jones on keyboards, drummer Steve Felix, backing vocalist Gus Louderman and Vic Johnson on lead guitar, with almost all of the band members (with the exception of Hispanic drummer Felix) being African-American. The group's sound was an unusual hybrid of rock and R 'n' B, with some New Wave elements thrown in for good measure. Their music defied specific categorization, but kept them from being pigeonholed into set genres/expectations for "black bands". In the late '70s, The BusBoys built an audience in Southern California through their novelty factor and their outstanding, high-energy live shows, and came to the attention of Arista Records, who signed them in late 1979. The band's debut LP on Arista, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll, was released in the summer of the following year, and the label went all out to promote it, including getting the band the Fridays gig, their first national TV exposure.

The BusBoys appeared on the November 14th, 1980 show, the week after Devo appeared (Devo would go on to make a total of four appearances on Fridays during its short life; they were the 'house band' in all but name for the show). I recall that in the week leading up to the program, a lot of the copy I read regarding the group referred to The BusBoys as "The Black Devo". As a big Spudboy fan back in the day, this of course whetted my appetite for the band. But outside of a couple of New Wave-y aspects and some similarities in the rhythms and power chords used in a couple of their songs, the group's links to Devo were negligible. In my opinion, here's the most Devoesque (as in "not very") of the three tunes they played that evening:

All in all, their TV performance that evening was pretty good, and it held my interest - but it's not like I went dashing out of the house the next day to buy their record.

And I think that was the public's general reaction to The BusBoys; despite high expectations and massive label support, and even though it sold fairly well and made the lower half of the Billboard 200 charts, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll wasn't the breakout hit that the band and Arista hoped it would become. It was years later, actually, that I finally purchased the disc on CD. The album isn't bad, as far as straight-ahead rock/New Wave albums are concerned; the group is tight, musically, and there are some great tunes on the disc (including "Anggie", "Dr. Doctor" and "Minimum Wage"). But in my opinion, The BusBoys bear down on the "look at us - we're black guys playing rock!" thing just a little TOO hard, with unsubtle song titles like "There Goes The Neighborhood", "KKK", and "Did You See Me". Their attempts to satirize the social expectations of black performers and blacks in particular lack potency and wit, and just come off as forced and weak - the fact that they allude to it in several of their songs tells me that the band was still sensitive and self-conscious about their sound in relation to who they were, and more than a bit unsure of their place in the rock universe.

The band continued touring, and released their second album, American Worker, in 1982. Despite being much stronger that their debut, American Worker did not sell as well as Minimum Wage Rock & Roll. This album was harder rockin' than The BusBoys' first disc, and pretty much dispensed with the self-depreciating tone of their debut. It also had some great songs on it, which should have been huge hits (one tune, a cover of a song titled "Heart and Soul" previously recorded the year before by Exile [yes, the "Kiss You All Over" guys], did not chart - but Huey Lewis & The News made their own cover of it the following year and took it into the Top Ten). The album also charted, albeit at a lower level and for a shorter time than its predecessor. But it did get the group noticed by the producers of a buddy-cop movie being filmed that summer called 48 Hrs. The BusBoys and their album cut "New Shoes" were featured prominently in the movie.  However, it was another song that they wrote and performed for the film's soundtrack that cemented their legacy - "(The Boys Are) Back In Town":

During the production, the band formed a strong association with 48 Hrs. co-star Eddie Murphy. For the next several years, The BusBoys allied themselves with and were championed by the comedian. Through Murphy's influence, the band got a gig performing on Saturday Night Live in early 1983 (with Eddie singing backup). And The BusBoys served as the opening act for Murphy's celebrated Delirious standup comedy tour (which produced the Grammy-award winning Eddie Murphy: Comedian album and Eddie Murphy Delirious cable TV special) that year, being referred to several times by the comic during the show. They also found time to contribute a song to the Ghostbusters soundtrack; their tune "Cleanin' Up The Town" was the band's only Hot 100 single, peaking at #68 in 1984 (tragically for The BusBoys, the 48 Hrs. soundtrack wouldn't be released until 2011, so "(The Boys Are) Back In Town" never charted as a single back in the '80s - it would have been a sure-fire Top Ten hit for the group).

That was the group's peak as well. The band released its third album Money Don't Make No Man on their own Rattlesnake Venom Records label in early 1988, but even with Eddie Murphy's heavy involvement (he sang on several cuts and appeared in the lone video from this disc, for the single "Never Giving Up"), the LP went nowhere. Murphy soon lost interest in the group, and after a few personnel changes The BusBoys folded in late 1990.

For a while, group members moved on, playing in other bands (Brian O'Neal and Felix put together a band called Black Bart; Johnson played (and still plays) guitar for Sammy Hagar). But in the late '90s, the band reformed, with old and new members. Now known as Brian O'Neal and The BusBoys, they still occasionally tour on the low-level nostalgia/oldies circuit with the likes of Ray Parker, Jr. and Otis Day, and continue to release music, both on their own label and via digital download.

It's hard to say what ended up keeping The BusBoys from entering the big leagues; they definitely had good tunes and an appealing sound. Perhaps it was bad timing or bad luck (the 48 Hrs. thing especially); maybe it was bad management; it could have been a similar case as to what The Veldt would experience a decade later, with a label that didn't know how to exploit an out-of-the-ordinary African-American band. Maybe it was some combination of all three. But the band deserved better than it got back in the day.

So here's a little something for you all, to help you recall the band in its early glory days: The BusBoys' Minimum Wage Rock & Roll, released by Arista Records in mid-1980. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.  

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Monday, March 17, 2014

The Pogues - Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (RS500 - #445)

Here's a timely post, considering the day . . .

During my junior (Second Class) year at the Naval Academy, there was a guy in my company named John, who lived across the hall from me that year. John was sort of short and wiry, but strong and smart as shit, and the dude could run like a gazelle for miles. His one aim in life was to become a Marine Corps officer, and during his time at the Academy he focused on that goal with steely concentration. He was in no way a party hound or a 'good-time guy' - he spent almost all of his time either studying, running or reading Marine manuals and other things related to the Corps. Through his stern demeanor and the way he carried himself, he earned the respect of most of his classmates. And although I never heard him raise his voice or flip out on anyone, the plebes under his tutelage quickly learned not to be unprepared in his presence, and trembled under his gaze.

Just about the only thing John did outside of his academic and athletic pursuits that could remotely be called "recreation" or "relaxation" was listen to traditional Irish folk music. He was nuts for the stuff, and had stacks of it on cassettes which he kept in a special drawer in his desk. Now for me (and I think for most other people), a little bit of that music goes a long way - yet John would sometimes play his Irish tunes for hours, driving his roommates and others in nearby rooms straight up the wall. But people never got on him about it, due of that aura of respect the guy had around him. I DID make attempts to 'counter-program' on occasion, playing selections from my rapidly-growing collection of punk and New Wave cassettes to drown out the mournful Celtic wailing and tin whistle tooting coming out of his room. This no doubt painted me as some kind of music freak/weirdo in John's eyes. He was a pretty hard guy to get to know on a personal level, and we weren't really buddies, per se - more like nodding acquaintances. So for a while there, I couldn't figure out any way to break the ice and convince him to play something different every once in a while . . . until I hit upon a plan. And that plan involved The Pogues.

The Pogues had their origins in The Nipple Erectors (aka The Nips), a band formed near the very dawning of the English punk movement. The band, fronted by vocalist Shane MacGowan, released four singles and a live album between 1977 and 1981 (one song, "Gabrielle", is featured on the 1-2-3-4: Punk & New Wave 1976-1979 compilation I posted here last month). In the late 70s, MacGowan also played with a pickup band called The Millwall Chainsaws, which included banjoist Jem Finer and Spider Stacy on tin whistle. Near the tail end of The Nips' existence, the group shifted its musical direction, becoming less of a straight-ahead rock/punk band and incorporating Cretan and Irish folk into their music. This new focus didn't last, as the band fell apart within six months.

After The Nips broke up, MacGowan began concentrating more on The Millwell Chainsaws, who changed their name to The New Republicans. In 1982, he convinced his old Nips bandmate James Fearnley to join the group on accordian, and the quartet, newly christened Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for "kiss my ass") played their first gig at The Pindar of Wakefield in London in October, 1982.

Over the next year or so, the group added drummer Andrew Ranken and Cait O'Riordan on bass, and began building up a fan base in and around London, appearing at various local clubs and releasing a self-financed single, "Dark Streets of London". Pogue Mahone began receiving their first national attention in early 1984, when they opened for "The Clash" (and I use those quotation marks deliberately, as "The Clash" at this time consisted of Strummer, Vince White, Nick Sheppard and Pete Howard - the same lineup that would record and release the abysmal and much-maligned Cut The Crap a year later) during their Out Of Control Tour that winter. MacGowan and Co. signed
with Stiff Records that spring, and after a name change to The Pogues (brought on after listener complaints led to a brief ban from the BBC), the group released their first album, the generally well-received Red Roses For Me, in October 1984.

I didn't hear about The Pogues until the late spring of 1985, when I began seeing articles about them in the British music mags I read at the time. Their follow-up to Red Roses For Me was slated for release later that year, and as I recall, the stories I read seemed to downplay the punk side of the band's output, focusing more on the folk aspects of their sound. I wasn't quite sure how I felt about purchasing a hardcore Irish music disc . . . but at the time, I trusted the reviews and opinions these magazines offered, so I decided to give it a try. The Pogues' second album, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, was released that August; I recall picking my copy up at a record store in Pensacola, Florida while down there doing a short summer training session.

Overall, I enjoyed the album very much. It's remarkable how well this punk/folk mashup works; the former genre intensifies the passion and the meaning of the latter. The Pogues storm through raucous, authentic-sound originals like "The Sick Bed of CĂșchulainn" and "Sally MacLennane", and provide different takes on traditional folk tunes like "The Gentleman Soldier" and "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Everyday". But my two favorites off of this disc are a cover of Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town" and the album highlight "A Pair Of Brown Eyes", penned by MacGowan himself:

The album cover itself is also remarkable, in that it superimposes pictures of band members' faces over figures in Theodore Gericault's classic and celebrated French Romantic painting The Raft Of The Medusa. All in all, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash was a smash hit in Britain, with the album making the UK Top 15 and three singles reaching the Top 100. It didn't do much chart-wise here in America, but the right people (myself included) were exposed to it. And that fall, I decide to expose John to it as well.

I bumped into him in the hall one day and engaged him in conversation, steering the chat towards music, especially towards his beloved Irish tunes. I casually mentioned that I had recently begun listening to Irish music, and offered to loan him my new Pogues cassette. John was initially skeptical - he KNEW what sort of stuff I was normally into, and couldn't believe that I enjoyed the same tunes that he did; he undoubtedly suspected that I was taking the piss out of him. His suspicions were somewhat alleviated when I went to my room and quickly returned with the tape, but he still had a weird look on his face as he sauntered away, promising to have a listen to it sometime soon.

A few days went by, and I hadn't seen much of John during that time - we were both off just doing out respective things. On the positive side of that, however, I hadn't heard much traditional Irish music coming from him room during that period, which was a blessing. I finally ran into him one afternoon out in the Yard on the way to class.

"Hey John - what's been happening?", I asked.

"Not much," he replied, taciturn as always.

"Did you have a chance to listen to that tape I lent you?"


"What did you think?"

John paused for a moment, then broke into a rare and uncharacteristic smile.  "It's the greatest stuff I've ever heard!"

So I made The Pogues a new fan that day!

After graduation, I lost touch with John for several years. But I saw him again at the 20th Class Reunion six or seven years ago. He'd loosened up a lot since our Academy days, and we had a good time reminiscing about old times. I was surprised when he brought up my loan of that album to him; apparently, it affected him a lot more than he let on at the time. Not only did it lead him to become a Pogues fan for several years afterwards, it also expanded his music tastes beyond what he was used to, and he learned to appreciate groups that he was blind to before, like The Clash, The Smiths and The Jam. So I guess for once I did something right.

And with that, here's something right for you all: The Pogues' Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, produced by Elvis Costello (who ended up later marrying Cait O'Riordan for a few years) and released by Stiff Records in the UK in August 1985, and by MCA Records in the U.S. that same month. Enjoy your St. Patrick's Day, and as always, let me know what you think.  

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Sneaker Pimps - Spin Spin Sugar EP

The only thing worse than getting royally screwed by someone . . . is screwing yourself over. Here's a prime example.

Sneaker Pimps was the brainchild of two musicians from Hartlepool (in northeastern England), friends Chris Corner and Liam Howe. Chris and Liam were the sort of teenage music nuts who would hang out together after high school, talking about bands they liked and creating their own weird, experimental lo-fi bedroom recordings. Their mutual interests in reggae, pop, funk, folk and show tunes eventually found their way into their music, and after college the pair (as F.R.I.S.K.) inked a deal with small independent Clean Up Records and recorded the instrumental The Soul of Indiscretion EP in early 1993. This disc (along with others such as Massive Attack's 1991 album Blue Lines) is considered to be one of the earliest examples of what soon became known as trip-hop - a label that the duo came to despise, as they weren't out to create a whole new genre of music. Whatever their intent, and despite the label's small reach and limited distribution network, the 'right' people were exposed to the EP, and the new sound began taking off and spreading.

For a couple of years after this release, the duo worked as in-house producers for other Clean Up artists, and continued releasing trippy, funky, beat-heavy instrumental recordings on the label, both as F.R.I.S.K. (1994's Take The Sun Away EP) and as Line of Flight (World In A Cone EP that same year). But by late 1994, Corner and Howe were eager to move into producing their own complete songs, with more complex structures and vocals. Not feeling that they were up to the task of writing their own lyrics, they got in touch with an old Hartlepool school chum, Ian Pickering, and the three of them together honed about a dozen songs for eventual release. The only problem they had now was in finding an actual vocalist to sing their words over their music; Howe and Pickering couldn't sing very well. Corner had the pipes, but at the time he felt severe trepidation and anxiety over fronting as a lead vocalist. Beside, the group, now christened Sneaker Pimps (taken from an article they read in The Beastie Boys' Grand Royal magazine, about a guy they hired to track down classic sneakers), felt that the lyrics were more suitable for a female voice.

While attending a show in a Birmingham pub in 1995, Corner and Howe noticed Kelli Dayton, a saucy, bubbly lead singer and guitarist for a band called The Lumieres. They didn't think much of her personality, but they liked the sound of her voice, which seemed a perfect fit for the new songs they had available. After a few days of discussions, they talked Dayton into joining their band as vocalist. Two more old muso college friends, Joe Wilson and David Westlake, were also recruited to comprise a rhythm section, and the group entered the studio in early 1996 to record their first LP. Corner and Howe, as Line of Flight, served as producers, and shared engineering and mixing duties with others, including Flood and Nellee Hooper. This album,  
Becoming X, was released by Clean Up Records in England on August 19th, 1996. Throughout it all, Corner and Howe approached Sneaker Pimps and the album as a short-term project, fully expecting that the disc would repeat the fate of their previous Clean Up releases - a few thousand copies sold, a little recognition and acclaim in some limited quarters, and that would be that. They figured they would soon be back to their behind-the-scenes production duties and instrumental releases.

Of course, that's not quite how it turned out . . .

After a slow start, momentum behind this disc gradually began to build - first in England, where over the next year, four singles from the album ("6 Underground", "Spin Spin Sugar", "Tesko Suicide" and "Post Modern Sleaze") all made the British Top 25. The album itself went Gold in the U.K., with sales of over 100,000 copies, eventually reaching #27 on the charts. American distribution of Becoming X was picked up by Virgin Records, with the result being that "6 Underground" and "Spin Spin Sugar" also charted on the U.S. Hot 100 (the former nearly breaking into the Top Forty), and the two songs made the Top Ten on the American alternative and dance charts, respectively. The album also charted in the States, never reaching any lofty heights, but spending considerable time on the U.S. Billboard 200 charts and selling in excess of 200,000 copies. By all measures, the disc was a surprising, smashing success.

No one was more surprised than Corner and Howe; the runaway popularity of their little in-house project caught them completely off guard. These guys were primarily studio geeks, with no interest whatsoever in becoming rock stars (or so they initially claimed). But as the buzz began to grow in the U.K., Sneaker Pimps were reluctantly forced to get out on the road and tour. Originally slated for a short series of concerts in England, the tour kept expanding in size and scope, eventually morphing into an international campaign with scores of stops in dozens of countries over the next eighteen months. These shows were generally well-received, further enhancing sales of the album. By the end of 1997, Becoming X had estimated worldwide sales of over half a million. I snapped up my copy in the fall of 1996, while I was living and going to school in Charlottesville, VA - the local college station played "6 Underground" to death!

The release was so popular that an EP of remixes of the album cut "Spin Spin Sugar", put out in September 1997, also made the lower reaches of the UK Top Fifty. The EP song list was as follows:
1. Spin Spin Sugar (Radio Mix)
2. Spin Spin Sugar (Armand's Dark Garage Mix)
3. Spin Spin Sugar (Armand's Dark Dub)
4. Spin Spin Sugar (Farley & Heller's Fire Island Vocal Mix)
5. Walk The Rain (Previously Unreleased)
By the unofficial end of their Becoming X tour in early 1998, trip-hop was no longer an underground phenomena but a mainstream genre, with established pop artists such as Bjork, Madonna and Kylie Minogue(!) incorporating elements of the sound into their own music. Sneaker Pimps were classed, along with artists like Portishead and Tricky, as leaders of the musical movement - a circumstance that left the group enormously conflicted. While they had received critical acclaim and great financial success with their sound, Corner and Howe decided they didn't want to be shackled to the trip-hop genre; they wanted the freedom to move in any musical direction they wanted, even if that risked all that they had achieved and experienced over the past two years. To me, that's a bit of a pretentious stance by self-styled "artistes" . . . but that's what they wanted.

In addition to that emotional conflict, tensions also began to rise within the group. As lead vocalist, the attractive Kelli Dayton naturally became the focal point and public 'face' of Sneaker Pimps; her pleasant, talkative personality contrasted sharply with the darker, more brooding personae of her band mates. Corner and Howe, of course, resented all of the attention being focused on Dayton; as far as they were concerned, Sneaker Pimps was THEIR band, and she was considered by them to be little more than a hired hand. Soon after their return to the UK after the tour, the group used part of their Becoming X cash to move their studio from northeast England to London, and began working on songs for the second album. Dayton insisted on assisting in that songwriting, but was repeatedly rebuffed. By this time, Corner decided that he had gained much more confidence in his singing abilities (what a shock, eh?), and not surprisingly, the songs he, Howe and Pickering wrote over the
next few months suited his voice more than Dayton's. The handwriting was on the wall . . . Kelli Dayton was 'dismissed' (i.e., 'fired') from the group in mid-1998, and Sneaker Pimps continued on as a quartet with Corner as lead singer.

It took Sneaker Pimps nearly a year to finish their next album (ironically releasing the Becoming Remixed album - featuring Dayton's vocals - as a stopgap during that time). This sophomore
effort, Splinter, featuring a radically different sound from its predecessor, was released in mid-1999. As such, the album was generally ignored by most critics and mainstream rock fans in general, who were apparently looking forward to a more Becoming X-ish sound and found instead a more acoustic-driven, painfully emotive, somewhat whiny emo-rock disc.  Splinter has its fans, many of whom consider it to be Sneaker Pimps' best work. But the seemingly abrupt shift into this new sound did the group no favors, and resulted in extremely poor sales. The album faded from the charts very quickly, with only two cuts from the disc reaching the lower end of the British Top Sixty. If they had played their cards right and capitalized on their successful debut, Sneaker Pimps were poised to break out with their second disc. But the reception of Splinter doomed them from that point onward to being a second-tier band. And they had no one to blame but themselves.

After their next album, 2002's Bloodsport, flopped in Britain, the members of Sneaker Pimps scattered. Since that time, Chris Corner has released five solo albums under the moniker IAMX [hmmm - Becoming X; "I AM X" - still a little possessive and defensive, are we not?]. Liam Howe is a successful music producer, and Joe Wilson and David Westlake went on to form the band Trash Money. Kelli Dayton (now known as Kelli Ali) has released three solo albums, the last being 2008's Rocking Horse. Thus ends the tale of a band that singlehandedly engineered its own demise.

But at least we have some fond memories and good music to remember them by. Here's Sneaker Pimps' Spin Spin Sugar EP of remixes, released by Virgin Records on September 23, 1997. Enjoy and, as always, let me know what you think.

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