ROCKING YOUR WAY TO THE MIDDLE:
Four Bands from CBGB's Second Golden Era
By now, I will wager and presume that you dear readers have seen the quarter-centennial punk/New Wave/whatever retrospectives. Seen the PBS documentaries, seen Lydon weeping in silhouette over Sid, Debbie and Chris reassembling their heart of glass once and again, the inevitable K-Tel and Rhino compilations. Hell, most recently, three-fourths of the Dead Kennedys reconvened to squeeze a few more nanoseconds of fame out of their minimal and overrated canon (making one pine for something more representative of Fog City's punk scene of the time, like a Mutants reunion - come back Sue and Sally, all is forgiven!).
By Michael Layne Heath
But for now, let us cast our collective mind's eye back to where this beast got its rock and roll heart started - that unassuming, scuzzy little Bowery bar, where snarky waitresses and beer lights guided so many to a hopeful, illuminated potential of a future. A future in which one everyone created and everyone who picked up a guitar or mike could conceivably be a star of the island off the coast of America, if not beyond.
CBGB's (for that is of which we speak) was, sans doubt, the artistic hothouse from which innumerable colorful and chiaroscuro flowers of music and rhythm alike grew back in the proverbial day/night. By this late date, the prime awards for punk-rock pollination have been well and, mostly truly - David Bowman, white discourtesy telephone, please - presented, black and blue-ribbon style. Yet, for all those lucky few that got to flourish thereafter in the international garden of celebrity, there were scores of teen and post-teen combos equally deserving. Bands that never got the special nurture and treatment that those that have since been validated by history reaped.
Consider this, then, to be the literary equivalent of UV grow lighting, aimed at a quartet of journey-folk that also chanced upon that sweet little stage ruled by the bearded, benevolent Mr. Kristal. Four bands that were undoubtedly in the right place, though sadly not the right time.
Of the four in question being discussed here, the Marbles were the closest (or 'nearest'?) contemporaries to that first blush of Max's-and-CB's-circuit crawlers (their "Red Lights" 45 came out in 1976). Brothers David and Howard Bowler, Jim Clifford and Eric Li sported identical, post-Fab Four pudding bowl haircuts and confirmation couture, which was, at a juncture of rock's timeline that almost demanded jeans and beardy-weirdness of its practitioners, a most radical look.
Their musical forte was equally radical, yet - similar to the way the Ramones reconstructed Sixties pop with the newly acquired roar of Marshall technology - traditional. All four Marbles played; moreover, all four sang, at times in an orgasmic blend of harmony rarely heard since the heyday of the Beach Boys or pre-cynical Flo and Eddie. To add to the mix, Eric Li's delicate keyboard filigrees acted as twinkling fairy lights, strewn across and within the virtual Christmas tree he and his companions created over each three-minute burst of pure, uncut Powerpop.
They were well liked among their peers of the time, even showing up in an early issue of John Holmstrom's Punk Magazine, clowning around in wigs with the future rock diva then known only as "Debbie Blondie". Which somehow made sense - both bands exhibited nothing of the artistic antagonism of the likes of Patti Smith and Television, their eyes and ears fixed on a vision of Top-10 triumph on a worldwide scale.
Eventually, the Marbles were taken under the wing of Alan Betrock, editor of Punk's local rival, New York Rocker, and thrown into a studio or two. You can snag one side of their debut, "Red Lights", on the essential ROIR compilation The Great New York Singles Scene. It is a stunning intro to what woulda-coulda-shoulda been a hit-bound future for the Marbles: ebullient, bright, catchy as all hell, with a characteristic and gorgeous four-part harmony bridge. The single even got them noticed by their punk brethren in London, eliciting a thumbs-up in one British magazine from that most commercially-minded member of the Clash, Mick Jones. The second and remaining Marbles release, "Forgive and Forget"/"Computer Cards", ups the Powerpop ante, both songs being as tuneful as the debut, yet more sophisticatedly arranged, thus more challenging. "Computer Cards" in particular, is a vocal tour-de-force, all four Marbles taking the listener from robotic unison to wondrous, enveloping rushes of Bowery-barbershop bliss.
There were even more Marbles tunes - now relegated to the occasional, hard-to-find bootleg tape - that ideally would have propelled them into the charts and hearts of American music fans, songs like the Left Banke - stately "She's In Movies", and the near-flawless melodic splendor of "Closing Me Down" (the band's contribution to A. Poe and I. Kral's flawed but definitive cinematic document of the period, The Blank Generation).
Needless to say, though, it didn't turn out that way, though they did manage to tour as far South as Washington D.C., playing at the turbulently ruled Atlantis (now 930) Club. In fact, therein lies a killer anecdote: the band was sightseeing earlier on their day in the Nation's Capitol, at one point finding themselves waiting on line for the tour of the Washington Monument. A fellow tourist clocked them, all Beatle hair and pre-Knack skinny ties, and asked who they were. When told that they were an honest-to-God rock band, they were then asked in so many words to prove it. The four Marbles then proceeded to present to all and sundry in proximity a spot-on, four-part accapella version of "Computer Cards". The reaction of the tourists is yet to be documented.
Apres Byrne, le deluge. The buzz generated around Talking Heads, culminating in their LP debut '77, gave encouragement to a sizable group of aspirants to a kind of post-pop music, falling somewhere in between the melodic, monochrome zone of the Brudders Ramone and the engaging yet cerebral noodlings of Patti and Verlaine's respective mobs.
One of the first bands to take up this challenge was Nervus Rex. Their leader, Shaun Brighton, was one of many amidst the perceived influx of college-age rockers, trust funds and guitars in hand, spending countless late nights at CBGB's and Max's. Brighton eventually made the acquaintance of another educated soul hanging out - literally ("they had a lot of great ledges at CB's to watch the bands from in those days") - one Lauren Agnelli. She was a relative veteran of the scene, and had even taken an assumed name before such a thing became a typical step in one's punk-rock makeover.
As "Trixie A. Balm", Agnelli had parlayed a talent for sharp and amusingly cynical commentary into a gig as record reviewer for Creem magazine (hers was one of the first - and best - writeups of the disgustingly brilliant first Dictators LP, Go Girl Crazy!).
One new band on the scene, towards which both Brighton and Agnelli had a grudging affection, consisted of four mooks straight outta Cleveland, with an almost ungodly passion for exploitation flicks and obscure rockabilly and garage rockers, calling themselves the Cramps. They were all equally ill equipped, technically speaking - didn't even have a bass player, fer Chrissakes - none more so than their drummer, Miriam Linna. (Her one and only drum lesson came from Tommy Ramone, who told Linna, "You hold them like this" - wielding his sticks like billy clubs - "and you don't let up".) But what the Cramps lacked in musical ability, they made up for, like the best rock bands, in heart, energy and an undeniable stage presence.
Linna had been president of a fan club for what were then thought of as eternal San Francisco no-hopers, the Flamin' Groovies. Canadian-born, another collegiate adrift in the Big Apple, aching and itching for something real - like that which she found in the works of Patti and of Lester Bangs, both of whom she met shortly after her arrival in NYC, both of whom she found herself decidedly underwhelmed by.
In any case, both Brighton and Agnelli were fans of the Cramps, but especially of Linna, whose command of the pagan skins by then was as decent as that of a mutual musical heroine, Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground.
Soon enough, Linna booked from the ranks of the Cramped, winding up with Brighton, Agnelli and bass player Lewis Ecklund as Nervus Rex ("No 'O' in 'Nervus', and we'll be getting rid of more vowels throughout the evening", Brighton would cheekily declare at the top of one early CB's set.) Their sound was one of twangy, post-surf lead guitar matched by choppy rhythm strums, and tremulous, fluttering male/female vocal harmonies, lyrically sophisticated yet - with Linna pounding away - thoroughly danceable. To some, it brought to mind the sounds of pre-hippie West Coast folk rockers like the Beau Brummels, Vejtables and the We Five, whose classic "You Were On My Mind" was an early staple of Rex sets.
Sadly, Linna found herself hindered by the "musical abstraction" (her description) of many of Brighton's songs and once again bailed, falling back on the rockabilly sounds closest to her heart in bands like the Zantees and the A-Bones, eventually becoming once-and-future ruler of the roots-rocking Norton Records empire. The rest of Nervus Rex would soon regroup with a Mod-looking gent named Jonathan Gildersleeve, who claimed to have been drummer for a latter-day version of Ohio Express, and whose Ringo-in-a-marching band playing style seemed to fit right in.
Nervus Rex released their own single on the Cleverly Named (ho ho) record label in 1978, the heartrending "Don't Look" (maybe the best song Sal Valentino and Ron Elliott never wrote). It was coupled with "Love Affair", which weds a strikingly dissonant, car-alarm guitar riff to a call-and-response vocal arrangement, ending with Shaun and Lauren/Trixie counting out the stars they see in the post-coital sky (twenty-seven, to be exact). In due time, the band hooked up with producer Mike Chapman, then fat and sassy with pride in his role in finally making Blondie a worldwide success with Parallel Lines, for the much-anticipated debut LP in 1980.
Proving that lightning doesn't strike twice in the same breeding ground, however, the sole and self-titled Nervus Rex album found Chapman basically mummifying some great tunes in a slick, bubbly, antiseptic cocoon of sound. That one of the few successes of the album was a cover - a stomping, rock-disco treatment of the Shocking Blue's "Venus" - should have been a warning to all and sundry. The cartoonish, space-age layout (think The Jetsons) and garish color scheme of the album sleeve was further indication of the awful truth within - that the guiding light of British glam rock had transformed the band's bittersweet art-pop confections into brightly packaged, ultimately generic New Wave bubblegum. As upbeat as Brighton songs like "Go-Go Girl" and "The God Sheila" were, this was clearly so not what was required, but it's what those few savvy enough to pick up on it got, which, quite frankly, stunk big time for early fans.
Chapman went on to subsequent mega-sellers with Blondie, again, then Pat Benatar; Nervus Rex, the album, went on to fill bargain bins from Portland to Poughkeepsie. Nervus Rex, the band, never fully recovered from the Chapman debacle, stumbling along the club circuit and attempts at a second LP before finally imploding in the early Eighties.
While Brighton has reportedly retreated into the world of computer graphics technology, Agnelli has happily kept in there with post-Beat Generation combos like the Washington Squares and most recently, the Dave Rave Experience (featuring fellow New Wave veteran, and perhaps Canada's greatest poetic mind this side of L. Cohen, Ralph Alfonso).
THE MODEL CITIZENS/COME ON
Model Citizens- photo courtesy of Genie Easy
Another challenge many bands on the CB's/Max's circuit seemed to welcome and rise to: how much art they could incorporate into their songs and still be considered a 'rock band,' albeit one that nightclubbers could appreciate as a leftfield rejuvenation of the familiar. At one extreme, some stuck to keeping it more or less traditional; others turned their backs on rock-as-we-know-it and pushed the envelope far into the abstract, resulting in the No Wave stream of bands like Mars, DNA and Lydia Lunch's maiden voyage of sonic intolerance, Teenage Jesus. Then there was a handful - like the Model Citizens and Come On - that did a damn good job of walking the Art/Rock slackrope.
Not much is known about either group, really; it's as if - like so many on the circuit - they materialized out of the subway grates, fully formed, ready to take on New York clubland. The Model Citizens' recorded legacy - a 1979 EP on art/punk pioneer John Cale's short-lived Spy imprint - does at least include a rather stylish group portrait: three Gordon Gekkos in training, decked out in high Wall Street, flanking two young ladies who look like they'd just come from a Roxy Music album cover audition. Young Republican though the outward appearance might have been, however, the music of the Model Citizens was anything but. For one thing, it seemed to delight in energetically spasmodic time signatures that would have surely given Zappa pause. Furthering the FZ parallels, one of their lead instruments was the marimba, played with a gusto that echoed the work of legendary Mothers percussionist Ruth Underwood.
Basically, the Model Citizens took the oddball, oddly arranged (dare I say progressive?) strategies of a select few - Zappa, Gong perhaps, most certainly Phillip Glass - and distilled them into something leaner, spikier, more anxious and intense. It was a sensibility right in tune with that of other musical absurdists of the time - the Akron/Clevo axis of DEVO, Ubu and Tin Huey, the ascendant B-52's.
In fact, one could make a case for Gloria Richards and Eugenie Diserio (the Citizens' female faction) being the darker, neurotic response to Kate and Cindy's Martian Beach Party proselytizing. The opening cut on the EP, "Shift The Blame", finds Gloria and Genie in a hyperactive snit over some verbal faux pas, their voices rising from a trill to a shriek ("People don't know what to think... just say what you mean!"), while the music alternates between a lurching funk and a sort of New Wave take on the Can-Can. The pair's other star turn, the equally frenetic "Animal Instincts", has them milking Yoko Ono's infamous ululations for all the sex and violence they're worth - proof that the 52 Girls weren't the only ones worshipping at the then languishing altar of Mrs. Lennon. Yet another vocal gambit distinguishes the other EP track of note, "You Are What You Wear": a muffled, Gregorian mumbling courtesy the entire group - foreshadowing a similar device used by (ripped off by?) Lou Reed on "The Bells" - that peels off into individual turns over hacksaw guitar, funhouse organ, a now-silky-now-jagged rhythm bed, and of course the omnipresent marimba.
With this EP would soon follow the inevitable split into other minor club attractions, some of whom even got to record themselves: the Dance, 2 Yous. The most notable of these offshoots must surely have been Polyrock, in Hey-Presto time taken under the wing of acknowledged hero Phillip Glass, and whose first LP (of three) for RCA featured such early 80's rock-disco floor fillers as "#7" and "Your Dragging Feet." In an amusing turn of events, in the '90's, Polyrock would also find themselves characters in the parallel universe of Bruce Sterling's amazing piece of speculative rock and roll fiction, "Dori Bangs."
There's a bit more evidence of the existence of Come On that survives, though not much. What seems to be their sole bit of press at the time was a rather obtuse concert review in New York Rocker, capped with a rundown of the vital stats of frontman Jamie Kaufman, courtesy the singer himself. Recent inquiries made of both Andy Schwartz (Alan Betrock's successor as NYR editor) and self-styled Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau, come up with no recollections of the band from either gent.
It has been suggested by some anonymous rock gadfly that, if the Talking Heads were the Beatles, Come On were Badfinger. Listening to the recently compiled, mostly previously unreleased anthology, Come On: 1976-1980 (Heliocentric), such a simplistic attitude doesnít necessarily seem unfounded: the angular, tightly wound leads, chicken-scratch rhythm guitars and Kaufman's high-strung yelps all leave no doubt as to what band was a major inspiration for the quintet. But hey, "Baby Blue" and "No Matter What" were just as good as anything the Fabs churned out, right?
So it is with Come On's earthier, wackier variation on the early, pre-funkicized themes of Byrne and co.
Indeed, one could not conceive of David, Chris and Tina in their wildest RISD dreams coming up with a debut single consisting of not one, but TWO songs based around kitchens
('Donít Walk On The Kitchen Floor' / 'Kitchen In The Clouds', from 1978, thankfully included on the CD). And it is every bit as much a treat listening to Jamie Kaufman ponder where one puts the silver in the latter, heaven-bound nook as it was the first time hearing the head Head tensely announce that he didnít have to prove he was creative.
The remainder of Come On's resuscitated worldview is of a similarly bemused and hysterical nature: "Old People" tipping over cars and setting trash bins alight (kind of a musical version of the Monty Python 'Hells' Grannies' skit), a recitation of colors of tennis-playing housewives' panties, a child's ultimate disappointment at Disneyland ("Mickey didn't shake my hand!"). Truly, Jamie Kaufman comes off as a nerd-geek visionary of a stature and conviction a hundred Weezers could never hope to achieve. Those seeking adventure in their art-pop should be most grateful that former Come On guitarist George Elliott believed enough in the worth of his compatriots' work, all these years later, to have bothered putting this CD out in the first place.
Also see the Come On website
And where, you may ask, can I seek out these nuggets-if-you-dug-its, to quote that esteemed geologic musicologist Lenny Kaye? Probably the best starting point - assuming one does not want to go the Ebay route for the original vinyl - is the aforementioned Singles: The Great New York Singles Scene on the ROIR label. Not only does it have cuts by all the featured bands, but you also get bonuses no self-respecting rock fan should be bereft of: Patti Smith's "Piss Factory" from '74, a slightly fine-tuned version of Television's "Little Johnny Jewel (Pt.1) and the title cut from Richard Hell and the Voidoids' Blank Generation EP. And then there are cuts by other downtown denizens like Lance Loud's Mumps, the Erasers (Susan Springfield, phone home!), and Glenn Branca's first band Theoretical Girls. But that's, most assuredly, another article or three.
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