Perfect Sound Forever

...And How to Die the Immortal Death

by Marc S. Tucker
(April 2006)

From the "honor" of having Rolling Stone name their debut LP 'album of the year' to a long slow death of highly uneven uninspired bricks, their main man jumping back and forth between hideous Hollywoodian solo albums and complete invisibility, not to mention a stymieing late effort to resurrect the magic of the first discs, Crack the Sky is one of rock's more frustrating stories. Unlike Blue Oyster Cult, which, while it still decays, continues to put out a sparse menu of decent proggy metallo-tunes amidst a welter of tepid insipo-pop, these guys went from a quintet of top-level adepts to a morphing roster of clunk-merchants, fading so rapidly that the unsettling transition itself remains a baffling enigma to its cult of diehard fans. Often, the key cited is John Palumbo, the group's eternal focal point, even when absent - but that misses the point: Crack the Sky was one of those bands which found its voice right at the very start, in a unique blend of musicians on fire with a chemistry requiring exacting equilibrium. As soon as the formula deviated, problems began.

The group was birthed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Palumbo emigrating from West Virginia to join a garage ensemble and emerge in a band originally dubbed ArcAngel until a goofy-ass label, Lifesong Records, latched onto them. Their music took hold, however, in Baltimore, Maryland, where a radio station rhapsodically clicked to the style and lent unusually strong support. That first LP, Crack the Sky (1975), was a masterpiece of wry lyrics and sharpshooter musicianship, taking the prevalently mainstream rock base over into prog by transcending the catalogue of genre norms like 3/4 signatures, song lengths, syrupy poetics, etc. It opened with the crunching hybrid "Hold On/Surf City," a song incanted in a Sparks-ily smarmy manner, indicating the vibe of the whole cynical release. From the very first bar, it was also obvious the country had a dynamite new guitar duo in Jim Griffiths and Rick Witkowski, a finely tuned pair along the lines of the emerging Mike Slamer/Steve Broughton match up over in City Boy.

That smart-ass opening song segued into the Procol Harum-ish "A Sea Epic," shading off A Salty Dog, a weird ditty of maritime madness, murder, and, of course, Jesus, who fits so well into such scenarios. As elegantly paced as any Brooker/Reid tune, it transformed Witkowski & Griffiths from dueling string-benders into a Hunter/Wagner unit, dressing the song up as classily as the more hallowed pair had graced Alice Cooper or Lou Reed. Up welled the symphony and a Harum-ian Edmonton gig unfolded, making CTS's construction almost PFM-ish, no shock when the listener was presented with the band's most-remembered song, "Ice," a Crimsony concoction, somewhat Lark's Tongue period, kicking off side two.

The level of professionalism was riveting, attracting the Brecker Bros. and David Sanborn to tip in horns, prompting the infamous Rolling Stone's oft way-lame critics to note its Beatlesy flavor, circa Sgt. Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour, resulting in the magazine's acclaim of Crack The Sky as 'LP of the Year', one of the few times the rag got things right without resorting to restating the overly obvious or hyper-lauding the already ridiculously famous. RS's staff, though, as any Crackcionado will happily point out, was only hearing what was abundantly evident to even the brain-damaged: a band of unusual prowess and prodigious imagination, not to mention steel cojones, subject matter and lyrics being what they were. So, with such accolades, did the sterling unit sell in numbers commensurate to its excellences?

Are you kidding?

Thus, the band hit the showers, adjourned to the studio, put their heads together, and released a second just-as-killer disc, Animal Notes (1976). Diving in with a lively "We Want Mine," notice was served that the Cracksters were neither going away nor accepting the brutal mercies of the market. Notes was another masterpiece. The note-for-note Strawbsy "Animal Skins" shifted gears radically in a symphonic arabesque lifting into the skies, wryly chorusing the obeisances of sheeple for their governing masters. Palumbo, who wrote and composed everything, wasn't shy to take a skewer to herd conformity on any front, framing shots in every cut, ridiculing convention witheringly. Witkowski & Griffiths remained unbelievably tight and inventive, lashed to a primal rock root whilst swimming toward farther shores. The rhythm unit of Joey D'Amico (drums) and Joe Macre (bass) cranked up and gave them an atmosphere to play in. Palumbo, plying the keys, took credit for the music and words, though it was perfectly obvious the rest of the cast was just as responsible for arrangements and clever executions. The blend of all five drew the music away from mainstream securities into brilliant crafting, thoughtful exploration, and ringing harmonies.

Palumbo, it was noted from the outset, definitely had Lennon-ish leanings, unafraid to take whatever he thought appropriate to each song and amalgamate unerringly, even when it concerned a strange and jaundiced yarn about the Northwest Mounties ("Rangers at Midnight"). In various other ways, the group had resemblances to Klaatu ("Invaders from Mars"), a group also taking from that quartet of Liverpudlian mop-tops, wading into similar waters. By the time this sophomore LP closed, fans were delirious, possessing another solid collection of unique and powerful songs.

To try to boost the ensemble, Lifesong released the "bootleg" Live at WBAB (1976), ostensibly a DJ promo which somehow got pressed in sufficient numbers to leak out to record shops across America - not in huge quantities, but enough to fan the nascent flames, or so Lifesong hoped. Actually, all it did was please the faithful and little else. Maryland may have loved the crew but jocks across the continent were involved in their usual payola, coke, second-string prossies, and follow-the-leader antics; thus, Lifesong, a mega-outfit by no means, and its catalogue were perennially left standing in the rain.

Besides that, there were a few unanswered questions. Whether or not this new affair was truly recorded before a studio gathering of fans is questionable: the dubbed-in background audience-track keeps looping so painfully that it's almost pathetic. Writing to Palumbo about it in the mid-70's, I made sardonic reference to the fact. He shot back, equally sarcastically, that I had a sharp eye for the obvious, making rueful reference to label shenanigans and executive dimwittery. It was a friendly letter but one couldn't miss that the relationship twixt label and artist was less than golden.

Nonetheless, an extended "Ice" led off in bold Crimso fashion, the middle eight practically a side-riff from Lark's Tongue's "Talking Drum" subtleties, with crashing Red guitars pounced in every so often, mellotron sidling up near the end. Everyone was at the top of his game, the release proving that CTS wasn't reliant on studio gimmickry for its genius: everything needed already resided in a flurry of flying fingers. WBAB rolled through "A Sea Epic," "We Want Mine" and four other songs in effortlessly exhilarating fashion, providing the sort of always-cherished variant on the canon fans still never cease slavering for. Those fortunate enough to have beaten fellow rack-rats to vinyl merchants' copies of it stood in broad envy.

For some unexplained reason, a two-year layover occurred, then WBAB's lead was repeated, resulting in the issuance of Live Sky (1978), basically a re-do of WBAB - at another gig with a few different songs interposed, including a great version of the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus." However, fans instantly noted the absence of Palumbo, who'd exited in the middle of writing the upcoming Safety In Numbers, which would issue without him. Live showed the band knocking out the repertoire with energy and intelligence, the departure of the lead man not quite deficiting them yet. "Ice" got dragged out to 13 glorious minutes, Gary Chappell making a superb vocal stand-in while Vince DePaul supplied the keyboards. For Crackheads, all was right with the world. The muscular take on "Walrus" signified future provender for ever-thirsting appetites. Having seen them at the Milwaukee Music Fest that year, a drunken and delirious institutional bacchanal, I can personally attest to their prowess... at least insofar as hops-laden memory will allow.

But life doesn't proceed quite so accommodatingly as such a build-up might suggest. Safety in Numbers came out the same year, sans Palumbo but with the Witkowski/Griffiths core intact, therefore... good roads, great weather, right? Not really. Right from the clumsily mixed first cut, patchily cohered, it was evident the incarnation wasn't going to stand as the most tolerable evolution of the initial quintet. The guitars were impressive but half the flavor had gone out of the songs, the compositions clumsy and forced. Safety was almost a sophisticated parody of the band. What had happened? For one thing: Rob Stevens.

Oh, you don't recall the name? Well, there's good reason. One website boneheadedly cites him as a "wunderkind" because he was the production brains behind... now get this... Dean Friedman and the Lavender Hill Mob. What's that, you say? Come again, you mutter? Never heard of Dean "Ten Pounds of Glucose in a Three-Ounce Bag" Friedman or The Lavender-For-Christ's-Sake Hill Mob??? Exactly. In such corporate idiocies are the gods tumbled from their Valhallic heights. Safety was attractive but disappointing. Producer Stevens hadn't Clue One and you can practically hear the specter of gloopy Friedman peering out from the muddily ill-arranged mixes. Fans sighed, fretted... and hoped, crossing fingers for the next time out.

Then, White Music (1980) was released. Fingers uncrossed, the faithful began to flee in droves. Palumbo had rejoined Witkowski and DePaul, but Griffiths beat feet and the trio became a multi-man Doug Fieger, carbon-copying The Knack, cranking out decent but very standard ho-hummers, one right after another. Some degree of Palumbo's capabilities showed, as did Witkowski's, but both were encapsulated in, ironically enough, ice, frozen and unmoving. It's only in retrospect that the LP survives critically at all. The Crack was so far from its base that expectations could be nothing but crushed. Worse, few were amused at the imputations of anti-Caucasian idiocy in the title cut - the LP was, not so ironically, a living evocation of the white-man's-burden, smarmily propitiative bile that none in the peanut gallery were going to be enthused over, doubly baffling since each member of the outfit was lily white. Boneheadery redux.

Photoflamingo (1981) emerged a year later but the music had worsened. CTS now seemed a five-man Andy Pratt, once great but decaying before the listener's very ears. By this time, the group had few fans left on Earth. With an intriguing Charly-ish cover photo, a la No Second Chance, a dim, dim, dim hope flickered futilely for only the briefest moment, forlorn and doom-laden. Once the shrink-wrap was breached, the buyer found Witkowski had been shit-canned, or perhaps had just wised up, leaving a huge hole. From the first, an irredeemable wilt factor set in. Insistent on Knacking off, Palumbo was cranking out material just barely above the rock-bottom values of a Toronto or a Shooting Star.

So Worlds in Motion, in 1983, was something of a surprise. The liner showed them on stage, seemingly coughing up "My Sharona" but actually climbing back out of the hole, rocking again, thanks to the addition of Bobby Hird, who knew his way around a guitar, galvanizing DePaul and even Palumbo. By no means classic Crack, it was listenable: sloppy here, goopy there, but, mostly beholden to Hird, carrying a wisp of the old charm.

To everyone's surprise, Witkowski re-joined the pack, along with D'Amico (b.vox only), pre-empting Hird in From the Greenhouse (1989), reinstalling a sliver of the early maturity and musical adventurousness. Palumbo's lyrics, however, were trite, juvenile, fully as bad as any of his solo drek, with the engineering far too much on the thin side, a large measure of intelligence missing. Didn't really matter all that much; there was barely a spark of interest left. Crack's base had just about completely abandoned them. Greenhouse went straight into the dumper and shouldn't have. Yeah, it was on the Grudge label (shudder!), the liner photos reminiscent of a barbecue in a trailer park, the sleeve lyrics merely tasteless typeface, but the cover art was a dark little masterpiece and the music had just enough progressive head to pull the listener partially in. Maddeningly, it appeared that the band might have had a vestige of spunk yet unexhausted...

...until, of course, Dog City (1990) reared its ugly barking head. The Grudge Label Curse set in with a vengeance, everything watered down to complete vacuity while the feebly struggling ensemble just trudged through time signatures, absently plucking at strings and listlessly crooning. Thank God, the roller coaster had...stopped? Not on yer life, Giacomo.

The Net has lately become a huge aftermarket for both the savvy and the unwary, and CTS, in an ever-rotating line-up, continues to release CD's of live gigs wrenched from neighborhood bars, as well as studio compendia of new songs. What's it all like? Couldn't tell ya. I got bit way too hard for much too long to gamble more shekels on a brand name later synonymous with disappointment. Throw ducats down a rathole? No thanks. Better to go into one's dotage with the bright lamp of the first four LPs etched indelibly on fading synapses, echoing contentedly, nestled in brittle crenellations, trading quaint jokes with amused and enfeebled neurotransmitters. That's what memory's for: solace for the disappointments of the present.

The point is obvious: the first four Crack the Sky LP's (Crack the Sky, Animal Notes, Live at WBAB, and Live) were absolute masterpieces and remain so, aging not a second. Safety in Numbers is a dice throw, but securely disenfranchised from its predecessors. After that, you're on your own, recommended to the rest of the catalogue only should you happen to be one of those strange rack scavengers who really likes mediocre music (and trust me, dear reader, they exist - bizarre collectors who genuinely cherish such fare - please don't hold the fact that they drool as they peruse, or that they subscribe to Goldmine, against them).

CODA: Hilariously, media conglomerate MSN's music reviews, so often good for little more than an astonished laff, compare Crack the Sky to David Sylvian and Random Hold, as well as Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, & Howe, even Mallard (what the hell?!?!). T'ain't so, dear reader, not even distantly. If you want a good comparative and have an unusually broad collection, they're actually more in line with the aforementioned Charly and City Boy, the latter of which maintained a much stronger artistic presence before collapsing into a lightning-swift decline.

POSTLUDE: I would dearly have loved to interview John Palumbo, Rick Witkowski, or Jim Giffiths, but all adamantly refuse to answer inquiries. David Arnold, who hosts a website devoted to the group, was kind enough to personally forward my request to Palumbo, but no word came back. Bobby Shred, who's likewise a Crackcionado, equally attempted to elicit Palumbo's cooperation, again to naught. Witkowski, who produces many groups in his home locale and runs a jingle-writing service (don't laugh! it made Barry Manilow tons of money), refused to answer multiple letters, and so the reader is left with merely an overview. Perhaps the CTS boys knew questions upon the majority of their output would be a bit... trying? As stated earlier, I possess an old response letter from Palumbo, written just after the release of the WBAB "boot." It's cynical, warm, and witty, but can only guess that he's unwilling to speak to a rather abysmal record following the exit from his brainchild. Can't blame 'im- I'd be trepidatious too. Embarrassed, to boot.

Also see the Crack the Sky website

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