Tag Archives: Mick Ronson

R.I.P. Steve Popovich

In the 70s and 8os, when record companies warred against each other like lumbering dinosaurs, there were some real unsavory characters in the business. I’ve met and worked with quite a few of them, and to say I counted my fingers after a handshake is putting it mildly.

But among the stories of the ridiculously rich and powerful were the occasional feel-good stories of when David beat Goliath. Of course these days, that happens daily – the major label stranglehold on music is all but dead.

But when little Cleveland International Records started up, they could have never imagined that they would stumble across one of the most monumental albums of the rock era, especially after most of the supposedly smarter majors passed on it.

Steve Popovich had the career I thought I wanted a the time, a VP of a major label in his twenties with the ability to sign artists and help share them with the world. Any of us who are fans of music have our truckload of underappreciated musicians and writers and singers who would surely be megastars if only given the break. Working under Clive Davis at Columbia Records and then A&R with Ron Alexexburg at their sister label Epic, he was able to help launch or maximize the careers of artists like Cheap Trick, Brice Springsteen, Mott The Hoople, Johnny Winter, Southside Johnny and many of my favorites.

When he struck out to form Cleveland International Records, he used his old school local promotion skills to work an odd and obtuse album called Bat Out Of Hell month after month, slowly building an expanding regional base until radio finally fanned the spark into a flame. I was working in a record store at the time, and I remember how often labels would get all excited about a new record only to ignore it three months later if it didn’t catch on. Popovich believed in the record, believed in Meat Loaf, believed in Jim Steinman. He followed his gut instincts, and the rest is history.

He also gave us Ellen Foley’s majestic Night Out, and when Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson wanted assistance post-Mott, it was Steve they turned to for direction. He had the reputation as a man who would invest in the artist in ways far beyond financial.

Steve Popovich passed away today at the age of 69.

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New Album! Smash Fashion

Glam punk powerpop alert!

I’ll admit it – I love everything about glam powerpop. The fat guitar chords, the thrashing drums, the foot-stomping beat and the huge hooks are the antithesis of subtle, but there’s a time and place for everything. I love Loudon Wainwright III but I don’t bounce down the street blasting “Your Mother And I” out of the car stereo, windows down, rear-view mirror shaking from the pulse of the woofers. Nope, that’s what glam and powerpop is for.

I missed Smash Fashion’s 2003 release (and have since made up for it) and almost did the same thing with 2010’s Don’t Pet The Sweaty Things. (Thank god for late night “sounds like” tangents on Amazon and CD Baby!) I wasn’t sure what to expect from a group photo that had one guy thrusting a Flying V guitar neck at me while sporting an eyepatch, but at the risk of hearing an album full of Dr. Hook covers I dove in.

Video: “She Goes Down

Like most powerpop bands, you can play spot the influence. For example:

  • Baby Dancer” and “Blonde Raccoon” are so reminiscent of Dwight Twilley I had to check the credits
  • Hard On Love” is as KISS-like as its title
  • Confessions of a Opium Eater” is the bastard child of “Auf Weidersehen
  • Proper Way To Eat A Muffin” is T.Rex incarnate
  • Sad Sweet Sick and Beautiful” has Mick Ronson’s fingerprints all over it 
  • All Systems Go” is like a mashup of Matthew Sweet and “If I Needed Someone
  • Mott The Hoople, The Sweet, Cheap Trick…and so on.

The title track is as close as you’ll get to a glitter ballad. There are also a couple of covers – the muscle pop rendition of Abba’sDoes Your Mother Know” is really good but “Benny And The Jets” was probably better left alone. Still, this impressive collection of glammy chestnuts is well worth getting and playing loud. These guys know exactly what they’re doing, and they sound like they’re having a blast in the process.

Life is short, stop taking it so seriously. Blast this mofo out a window.

Smash Fashion’s website and MySpace page

Listen/buy at CD BABY.

Smash Fashiion - worth the trip.

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Mixtape! This is Your Brain On Pop…

Way back in the day – June 1997 to be exact – I slapped this puppy on a C-90 and shared it with my tape swap group. Damned if it still doesn’t sound good now. A nice mix of old and new (new then, anyway), famous and obscure, sweet and bitter. Someday when I have both bandwidth and time I’ll load these on a special tab, but just YouTube or MySpace or Google your way around for now.

This Is Your Brain.

This Is Your Brain On POP!

Any Questions?

The Nerves – “When You Find Out” How can you go wrong when you have not one, not two, but THREE great songwriters in the band? Well, that’s probably two too many…
Ginger – “Feel Like Falling Down” Always a Molson’s Ale in the fridge, always a Canadian pop band on my tapes. Can’t recommend the whole CD but this song is sweet.
Joan Jett – “Indian Giver” Yes, your eyes are working fine. Little Ms. Riot Grrrl does a nice job on this 1910 Fruitgum Company classic.
The Shazam – “Blew It” From Copper Records, the label that brought us the Badfinger tribute, comes this Cheap Trick/Who/Badfinger sounding band produced by Brad Jones, whose influence is strong here (that’s a GOOD thing).
The Clouds – “Aquamarine” An Australian band who I only heard of because they opened up for TPOH – spotty record but this track is killer.
The Guess Who – “Don’t You Want Me” Burton Cummings is a guilty pleasure of mine. This is the second version of this song, from “Road Food”. They could really rock live.
John Hiatt – “Doll Hospital” The greatest living American songwriter. His older stuff is classic; if all you know is “Bring The Family” you are missing a TON of great stuff.
The Chills – “The Male Monster From The Id” Martin Phillips and company – this one’s for all the girls. Another spotty record with some great songs.
Candy Butchers – “Til You Die” More Mikey! No knock on Adam Schlesinger of FOW, but Mike Viola deserves some props for his vocals in the movie THAT THING YOU DO. Buy this EP before its gone.
Blue Cartoon – “Parachute” Lee, who’s one of my SON OF TAPE TREE swap partners, is far too modest to tell you that he writes great pop songs. So I will – this stands up with the best of 1997.
Michael Shelley – “Going To L.A.” East Coast Beach Boys with great lyrics and a borrowed T-Rex riff. Mike’s HALF EMPTY is one of the best records of 1997.
Sylvain Sylvain – “Teenage News” Ex-N.Y.Doll had a much poppier side than the band ever did. Two great records and gone – I wish he were still making music.
Sutherland Brothers & Quiver – “Dream Kid” Great, great pop rock band, probably known best for “Sailing”. This version of the band featured future Attractiion Bruce Thomas on bass.
Stella Luna – “Nervous Man” A plug for Bruce Brodeen’s NOT LAME label and sampler. Jamie Hoover produced this new band’s track; can’t wait to hear the whole record!
Sparks – “Here Comes Bob” Besides being a vastly underrated band, Sparks had a great sense of humor. In this song, Bob has a strange way of making friends…
 
Redd Kross – “Pretty Please Me” I wanted to put “Mess Around” on this tape, but “Pretty Please Me” started off with more of a bang! Cannot believe this band isn’t all over the radio!
Semisonic – “Brand New Baby” One of the best of 1996, from the ashes of Trip Shakespeare. Semisonic’s debut CD was wall to wall great songs and was criminally ignored.
Richard X. Heyman – “Everything The Same” Permanent Press Records will release CORNERSTONE, Richard’s first new record in five years. He plays all the instruments on this song and is a pop god.
The Del Lords – “Stay With Me” In a better world, Scott Kempner and Andy Shernoff would be revered songwriters. This Dictators classic re-interpreted by Scott’s next great band, whose catalogue deserves better. Rhino? Ryko? Hello??
The Pursuit Of Happiness – “Pressing Lips” Speaking of great songwriters….Moe Berg writes ’em, the great band kicks them into gear, and those killer harmony vocals seal the deal
The Faces – “You’re So Rude” We lost Ronnie Lane this month. Although overshadowed first by Steve Marriot and later by Rod Stewart, “Plonk” was the backbone of the Faces, Small and otherwise.
Firesign Theatre – “Porgie Tirebiter” I’ve been slipping in a few non-musical interludes on this tape, but since this is a theme song, I might as well ‘fess up. If you haven’t heard “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers”, you haven’t lived.
Rick Derringer – “Something Warm” From “Hang On Sloopy” forward, Rick always had a knack for pop, even if he didn’t have the voice to match. Still, GUITARS AND WOMEN was a first rate album. He’s back to the blues now, though.
Godley & Creme – “Big Bang” Dedicated to the Jellyfish Listgroup – what should we call this, 5CC? For a laugh, play the Blues Brothers’ version of “Hey Bartender” at the same time.
Cheap Trick – “Oh Candy” From the first of two self-titled albums, a nice, bouncy cheerful pop song about suicide. You won’t be comin’ around no more….
Pat Godwin – “Amish My Ass” For every guy who ever got turned down with a bullshit excuse, Pat sticks it right back up her ass in one minute and twelve seconds.
Eric Carmen – “Hey Deanie” Maybe he lost his way off the path, maybe he is label-less because he is a problem guy. But forget the BS – it’s amazing how many different times Eric captured the innocence of summer love in a song.
Kyle Vincent – “Wake Me Up (When The World’s Worth Waking Up For” Am I the only person who thinks Kyle and Eric Carmen sound alike? This perfect single should be blasting out of every car radio right now! Why isn’t it??
Sparks – “Batteries Not Included” Part two of the Sparks humor brigade. Followed up on the record by a song called “Whippings And Apologies” which I’ll probably toss on another tape someday…
Mick Ronson – “Sweet Dreamer” (edit) Speaking of losses, I miss Ronno. He made Bowie and Hunter better, brought out a great side of Morrissey, and had an appreciation for classic American music like Patsy Cline. 

Any questions?

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Blast From The Past: Mick Ronson

God damn, he was great.

Always been a Ronno fan; loved his tone on all the Bowie albums and thought his collaboration with Ian Hunter was the perfect dynamic for both men. And while his first two solo albums (Slaughter On Tenth Avenue and Play Don’t Worry) didn’t hit those heights, they were enjoyable nevertheless. In later years I marvelled at how his magic touch would lend a spark to artists as diverse as Ellen Foley, John Mellencamp and Morrissey. I have plenty of great Ronson memories but thought of this one the other day when I came across an old review.

When I moved in June of 1981 I didn’t know a soul in my new town, but found out that Ronno’s band The New York Yanquis was playing a beach club about an hour from my apartment. I swear I was the only one in that club who was aware of the magician on stage, despite his more conventional appearance. Everyone else seemed to be getting hammered and ignoring the legend on stage, who simply went about his business blowing my mind.

It was the first gig of that tour, and the band had just gotten a cease and desist order from the Yankees baseball team, but even that introductory story didn’t make a ripple in this crowd of Budweiser swilling drunks. So he just played a myriad of rock and reggae and soul, backed by Shane Fontayne (guitar), Frank Cambell (bass), Tommy Gun (keyboards), and Wells Kelly (drums), with Ann Langte and Dede Washburn on vocals. I even got to talk to him for a while that night; he was exhausted and probably a little depressed but seemed relieved to know that at least someone recognized him and was excited about the band. It was the last time I’d see him.

His death hit me hard in 1993, and I assumed that there would never be another album since the others never sold that well and glam was the furthest thing from the current grunge on the radio. How delighted I was to come across Showtime in 2000, let alone the wonderful collections that followed.

Here is my review from Amplifier Magazine in 2000…

The first officially released live collection dedicated to Mick Ronson’s solo work is yet another stunning testament to the late guitarist’s versatility and passion. Showtime culls tracks from a 1976 performance of The Mick Ronson Band alongside excerpts from the 1990 Hunter/Ronson band tour. Lesser known tracks like “Takin’ A Train” and “I’d Give Anything To See You” shine while the cover of “White Light, White Heat” explodes with energetic fretwork. Extended versions of the instrumentals “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” and “FBI” are highlights, but “Sweet Dreamer”, as always, is the emotional showstopping performance that will leave you with heart in mouth.

Limited editions of this release include a bonus disc featuring four tracks recorded in Sweden in 1991, later versions of which appeared n the posthumous release Heaven and Hull. The label is reportedly assembling more Ronson releases including a CD spotlighting his instrumental work. Keep it coming folks, this is magic!

Listen to clips here.

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New Album! Joe Elliott’s Down ‘n’ Outz

Joe Elliott is a Mott The Hoople fan. A big fan.

Goes without saying, I guess, since the Def Leppard frontman has worn that on his sleeve his whole career. It’s refreshing to see a rocker who has attained the level of global success that he has still be a rock fan at heart. Elliott grew up loving Mott The Hoople and still does.

Elliott has often put his money where his mouth (and heart) is with his support of Ian Hunter and Mott; he was a driving force in organizing the memorial tribute for Mick Ronson and has always touted the music of his favorite band in interviews. So when Mott The Hoople reunited to make their historic stand at the Hammersmith they called Joe in for support, and he assembled a group of like-minded Mott devotees to perform some songs off the family tree that Mott fans probably never thought they’d get to hear from a stage ever again. The success of that gig led to what I can happily say is one of 2010’s best surprises.

I’ve never been a huge Def Leppard fan but have enjoyed some of their work; the overproduction by Mutt Lange usually tempered any enthusiasm I had for the songs themselves. That’s probably why I enjoyed their covers album Yeah! more than their own material; even though that was a bit bombastic I was halfway there before cracking the shrink-wrap because I was already into the songs. On My Regeneration, it’s inverted; I was familiar with the players but not all the tunes, as I never paid much attention to Widowmaker and British Lions after Mott imploded.

I think the wisest move here was using members of The Quireboys in the backing band, and I hope this project brings much attention to them as well. As a lifelong Faces fan, discovering the Quireboys back in the 90s was a godsend (they were The London Quireboys then), since they wallowed in the same loose menagerie of blues, glam and rock that makes my hair stand on end. If there are torch-bearers for the post-Faces era, surely The Quireboys and The Diamond Dogs are at the front of the pack.

So with Paul Guerin, Guy Griffin, Keith Weir, Ronnie Garrity and Phil Martin in tow, Joe lit into a litany of post-Mott cuts, some of which (“Who Do You Love”, “By Tonight”) might be better than the originals. His voice sounds spectacular, but it’s Weir’s tinkling piano and Griffin’s guitar tone that might share MVP honors here as the predominantly hard-rocking album reinvents these twelve tracks with pristine clarity and crisp power:

GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
STORM
OVERNIGHT ANGELS
CAREER (NO SUCH THING AS ROCK ‘N’ ROLL)
ENGLAND ROCKS
SHOUTING AND POINTING
BY TONIGHT
APOLOGIES
WHO DO YOU LOVE
ONE MORE CHANCE TO RUN
3000 MILES FROM HERE
GOOD TIMES

A ten track version of this album was included with a recent issue of Classic Rock Magazine, but if you missed it, My Regeneration is available on CD with twelve MTH family cuts (plus a thirteenth track, a puzzling oddity from Elliott and producer Ronan McHugh). And yes, it’s subtitled “Volume 1”!

Listen to clips here.

In  the liner notes, Elliott says “we did this for all the right reasons; for the love of the music and to celebrate the fact that from the ashes of the then defunct MTH came some amazing music, much of it criminally ignored for far too long…” I know that it’s intrigued me enough that I’m going to pull out my post-Hunter Mott records and find out what I missed with Widowmaker and British Lions. I’ve already got Ian’s career locked and loaded.

I want to have a pint of beer with Joe Elliott – and I’m buying!

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New Album! Joe Grushecky

 

When Joe Grushecky first came pumping out of my car radio, two things immediately caught my attention. First, here was a real blue-collar rocker with a soulful sound and a band that played straight from the heart, and the songs were exciting. And second…was this really being played on the radio in Syracuse, New York in 1979? 

I guess you could say Bruce Springsteen had most recently kicked the door down, although local rockers like The Works and Joe Whiting had been stirring up the same kind of bar room fury on local stages for years. Like the mythical Eddie and The Cruisers, these bands had been lighting up shot-and-beer joints night after night, piling into vans and crisscrossing the East Coast. It wasn’t easy; you had to pull and keep a crowd on a Tuesday and Wednesday night because the weekend money just wasn’t quite enough to get you by. And like Eddie and that mythical band, what drove you and kept you alive was the camaraderie with your band mates and an unbending faith that if you kept punching over and over and over again, one day it would be worth it. 

In Pittsburgh, that band was Joe Grushecky and the Iron City Houserockers, and that day did come, albeit temporarily. A documentary about Joe and his career was released in 2007 called A Good Life: The Joe Grushecky Story and is now available on DVD. While the film is interesting and heartfelt, the real treasure in the package is a bonus live CD from a 1985 hometown show, featuring friend and fan Bruce Springsteen

While not quite a rags-to-riches story, we learn how the band followed the usual path of becoming the big fish in the small pond, friends in a rock ‘n’ roll brotherhood with huge dreams. How “Heroes are Hard to Find” caught the ear of Cleveland International’s Steve Popovich, who believed in Joe and financed some sessions that led to the first album getting released. How the lengthy process of working the record one town and one AOR station at a time led to five-star reviews for Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive and what looked like the start of a lifelong ride at the top…only to be derailed by a changing industry, an imploding label (MCA) and a few poor and impatient personal decisions. 

Read the rest of my review at PopMatters 

Joe’s website

The Grushecky/Houserockers Wikipedia page

“Pumping Iron”  and “Little Queenie” (live in 1988) 

“Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive” (live in 2005) 

Steel Rocking

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New Album! Fastball

Make Your Mama Proud all over again

Make Your Mama Proud all over again

Has it really been eleven years since Fastball gobbled up everyone’s attention with “The Way”? All The Pain Money Can Buy was massive, with several tracks (“Fire Escape”, “Sooner or Later”, “Which Way To The Top”) blasting from every car radio, walkman and video channel for almost a year. Simply put, it was a monster album that should have greased the skids for an easy ten year ride, the kind that lame bands like Creed and Nickelback seem to have blackmailed their way into.

But nooooooo.

The follow-ups were good records, but each seemed to fall further off the radar despite solid songwriting from Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo. The music scene was changing and the labels were starting to free-fall. Perhaps it was backlash after their success; more likely there was no common place to promote a band that echoed the inventiveness of The Beatles with a sound that was equal parts garage and powerop. The Harsh Light of Day was as good or better than its predecessor, but sold poorly, and I don’t even know anyone who owns 2004’s Keep Your Wig On besides me. As a fan, even I was stunned to dicscover a live album earlier this year…four years after its release.

So don’t feel bad if your first thought upon hearing about Little White Lies is “they’re back?” Short recent hiatus notwithstanding, Scalzo, Zuniga and drummer Joey Shuffield have been throwing Fastball at you all along, and I’m glad to tell you that their heater still smokes.

Stripped down, straight-ahead and instantly infectious, “All I Was Looking For Is You” grabs you from the first note and leads the charge. Alternating poppy rockers and midtempo shuffles (“The Malcontent” is kissing cousins to “The Way”), eleven of the cuts on Little White Lies wisely dance around the three minute mark. With trademark harmonies and airtight musicianship intact, several tracks beg for the kind of exposure that their older hits received. While Fastball still channels classic pop bands in ther sound, their Texas roots flavor the stew (“Angelie” even boasts accordion).

The title track is killer; alternating a Lennon-esque rant with creative harmonies against a soulful dance beat (!) before tripping headlong into the acoustic snap of “Mono To Stereo”. My favorite is “We’ll Always Have Paris”, a perfect cross between Ian Hunter and Bob Dylan with la-la-la-la vocals and a short burst of a guitar solo that Mick Ronson would have been proud of. “She’s Got The Rain” has the bounce and piano-based pomp that Paul McCartney used to make a living from. And while “Rampart Street” may rehash a chord structure that’s been used a million times before, it sounds fresh and bright thanks to a sparkling guitar break and yes, those harmonies. The closer, “Soul Radio”, starts out like a darker tune but layers peel back until it immerses you in a more complex but equally irresistible vibe.

Fastball fans will be thrilled; those who only knew the massive hits need to get on board with the rest of us. Little White Lies sounds great (kudos, Bob Clearmountain) and is on my short list of candidates for the Best of 2009.

Visit Fastball’s official website.

Fastball on MySpace.

“The Way”?  Oh yeah… that video. Same song live, from 2007.

Sooner or Later we’ll get some videos from the new album.

But while we wait…how about a streaming concert from NPR?

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