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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  1. Your knowledge of music and weaving of the bands' histories with your personal experiences is always a joy to read. I adore this blog not just for its unique music, but your unique perspective, as well. Great job, all around!

    1. Ah, Mr. Johnson - I always look forward to and appreciate your excellent comments! It's words like yours that make me glad I have a music blog, and continue to motivate me to maintain the quality (at it were!) and quantity of posts here. Thank you very, very much!

  2. I remember being bitterly disappointed by how damn average the songs on that first album were! I loved what they were trying to do, but it just didn't happen.

    1. Exactly. Instead of being called "the Black Devo", a better name for The BusBoys should have been "The Black Huey Lewis & The News" - another painfully average (at best) bar band that somehow found itself with a major-label record deal. The only difference between the two was that the breaks wen't The News' way, whereas The BusBoys kept running into bad luck (as noted above).

      Thanks for the great comment.

  3. Thanks very much for this, top tunez

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  5. Some really interesting comments you made regarding the band's sensitivity to being a black rock outfit. I know that Living Colour initially felt a similar chill, though they were able to counteract that with some very funny songs that also happened to rock pretty durned hard ("Pride", "Elvis Is Dead", etc)!

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