2003 (as this note is written) is the 30th anniversary of the founding of CBGB’s. Not the founding of the bar itself, or even the coining of its name. The Palace Hotel flophouse was built (according to owner Hilly Kristal’s estimates) in the 1880s and was still upstairs until the space was sold for conversion into offices in 2002. It was one of the few Bowery institutions surviving from the long era characterized by drunks, dropouts and drifters which was slowly coming to an end in the mid-seventies. The area is now practically being swamped by the relentless tide of downtown gentrification, although the Palace Hotel itself is still holding out. The Palace Bar was originally the hotel bar. At some point, upstairs separated from downstairs.
In the civilized old days before punk rock, CBGB’s and OMFUG (Country, Bluegrass and Blues, and Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers) was, under its different name, an uncompromisingly blue-collar haunt of railway men and manual workers. For the most recent 30 years, it has been the haunt of multicolored-collared musicians in search of themselves and their voice, usually with more worldly and ambitious goals than their hard-drinking precursors. It’s superfluous to say that many musicians whose names are now familiar and bankable started their careers there, taking their first tentative baby steps in what is still a critically uncompromising but socially nurturing environment.
We all know about the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Blondie, Television…..the seventies list goes as far as you care. Later, when CBGB’s became establishment, more and even bigger names would grace its tiny stage (bathrooms to the left, downstairs). Beginning in the eighties, the club became in demand as a showcase and a film set, thankfully without losing its social street welcome or basic perspective (no velvet ropes here, just the occasional police barricade). Even Spinal Tap would feel honored to play there. But in the seventies’ Golden Age there was another lively layer, of bands that, for various reasons, didn’t make the household-name grade.
The Shirts (from Brooklyn, as the description went) was one of these, along with the Laughing Dogs, Manster, the Rudies, the Tuff Darts, Mink deVille, the Miamis, Orchestra Luna, the Sorrows and many more who had what it took but didn’t benefit from the right roll of the dice. In many ways, the Shirts' erratic progress through hope, failure, despair, experiment and success mirrored the experiences of many others at the time, trying to survive while carving a musical identity in what in retrospect looks like a remarkable and special hothouse. And the Shirts tackled it with a basic, honest, earthy family attitude. No artsy posing here. The Shirts were (are) from Brooklyn.
I had been working for EMI Records, London, in the A&R Department, starting in spring 1976. My boss, Nick Mobbs, had seen the band on a mid-1977 trip to New York, and had immediately wanted to sign them. The US arm of EMI, Capitol Records, were very conservative and really wanted nothing to do with them (a reaction similar to that of most of the big US companies to the members of the burgeoning punk/new wave movement, despite the phenomenal successes achieved by like-minded acts in Europe). Nick persisted, told Capitol that he would sign them directly to London whatever, so the Shirts ended up signed jointly to the two companies in a sort of face-saving compromise.
Perhaps we should have guessed that there was corporate trouble ahead, but there was so much enthusiasm for the Brooklyn connection throughout the London company that the Americans' ruffled feathers didn’t seem to matter. The group’s A&R direction was primarily Nick's responsibility in London, although he was very careful to keep the Americans in the political loop. He played me their demo, recorded largely by JR Rost and CBGB/Shirts sound man Norman Dunn in their four-track home studio in Brooklyn, and asked if I was interested in producing them. I saw them play at the club in late December 1976, and met their manager, CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal. I liked them and their music, and the feeling was mutual after several beers down the road at Phebe’s, the unofficial CBGB’s spin-off lounge four blocks up the Bowery. Off we went.
The Shirts was my first production assignment out of New York, in 1978, and it followed immediately my debut production year in which I had delivered four substantial efforts to London and one to Paris. Their unusual record deal could have been designed as a structure calculated to provoke corporate rivalry and group distress through the resulting fallout. But there were so many bright signs that we were all so optimistic.
This six-person group embraced so many talents, in an inspired and chaotic existence which, full-time, lasted from 1972 to 1984. Their star shone brightly but short. 25 years on from their first album, in 2003 lead vocalist Annie Golden is now established on Broadway and in film (her first break was in Milos Foreman’s movie version of Hair). Several of the others continue the pursuit of their musical muses. One is now working at a record production plant, another in his family construction business. But all of them keep their hand in, and occasionally reform for one-off gig nights at the club.
However, Annie was just one of three in the group that could handle lead vocals, the others being Robert Racioppo (also bass) and Artie Lamonica (also keyboards and guitar). The lineup was completed by Johnny ‘Doom’ Piccolo (keyboards), Ronnie Ardito (guitar and keyboards) and Johnny ‘Zeeek’ Criscione (drums). Ronnie and Zeeek were also very competent as backup singers. This profusion of overlapping talent would lead to arguments (constant) and stuffed many songs and performances with ideas almost to bursting point. A band of six solid songwriters ensured that material was never in short supply.
To overlap and complicate matters still further, all the Shirts except Annie (who was auditioned in front of the jukebox at the club by the founding members) were all locally related in some way, part of a classic Brooklyn-Italian extended family. Robert, Ronnie and Johnny Piccolo are cousins. Artie, Robert and Ronnie grew up within six blocks of each other. This placed them structurally separate from most of the CBGB’s bands who typically formed after being individually attracted to the scene rather than arriving fully-formed in it (one notable exception was the Ramones, who all grew up in the same neighborhood in Queens).
This didn’t mean so much musically, but it did mean that band tiffs and expressions of group angst (such as the occasional destruction in the communal Shirt House in Park Slope (435A Ninth Street at Seventh Avenue, before the area’s gentrification) were unusually uninhibited. Even the house was was an anomaly. Next door to a Saturday Night Fever style disco, which you could hear until 4am, it was originally the ladies' quarters serving the bordello on Seventh Avenue. What was the back door became the front door to an unnumbered house when the landlord separated them. Robert created the 'A' in exasperation at the missing mail, although judging by the number of bill collectors who would phone the house, a little anonymity might have been helpful.
The five boys in the band lived there, along with road manager Barbara Demartis and Norman Dunn. A whole neighborhood and family cast of characters would pass through, at all hours. One fixture was John Durkin, who always seemed to be fixing something spontaneously, the classic unlit Brookly half-gone cigar in his mouth. He would always be hanging out in the first floor lounge adjacent to the studio. Nobody could quite remember how he first became a Shirt House member. He's still in the neighborhood.
As far as the US record business went, the Shirts were born under a bad sign, even on their debut album. Elsewhere, things were different and showed the difficulty of the US record business to adapt to a music not that far out in left field, a syndrome reflecting the size and inherent inertia of the national market served. In more agile social surroundings, the Shirts had an immediate top ten hit in the Netherlands with Tell Me Your Plans. Back on home ground, they were listed as a top radio breakout in the US by no less than Billboard Magazine. But the Capitol A&R man on the case told me that selection meant nothing. Huh? As you might say in Brooklyn. Or, go figure....
It is still very hard to pigeonhole their music. They were capable of raucous rock+roll, and I think it was Robert who elegantly described that music’s appeal as going round a corner on two wheels, in danger of turning over at any time but not quite auto-destructing, just holding it together. But they could translate that energy into an ambitious song like Poe in whose chorus, for some reason everyone had forgotten, the whole audience would wave their fists in the air during the ‘hey hey hey’ line at the end. They had progressive musical ambitions in line with the emerging New Wave and a developing technique to support them, although the resulting music would not flower fully until the following Streetlight Shine album recorded in New York in the first half of 1979.
The first Shirts album was recorded and mixed in London in early 1977. The recording was done at Wessex Studios, where the Sex Pistols had just completed their first album, and mixed at Advision in London’s West End, where I had enjoyed delivering projects for Wire, Telephone and Soft Machine. The London life and sessions threw the group into overdrive. It was a time of great inspiration for all of them, although compromised for Annie by having practically to commute by Concorde between the tracking sessions at Wessex Studios in North London’s Finsbury Park and the Hair shoot in New York. Always highly-strung, she was jangled to the edge of breakdown by her punishing schedule. Most people find themselves at full stretch recording an album or working on a movie, and Annie had to deal with both simultaneously. Quite a leap for someone who previously had led a Brooklyn-basic street rock+roll existence.
Everything about the Shirts was down-home, and for me it was a charmed family introduction to New York. Most people arrive in Manhattan, but I had the good luck to come in through a gentle re-orientation process. Brooklyn had little to do with bright lights/big city, and ensured that excursions and encounters with Manhattan glitter not to go to these babies’ heads. If Brooklyn was separated from the five boros of New York, it would be the fourth largest city in the United States: no lack of identity here, but not something that the glossy magazines rush to embrace.
Such inclusiveness was typical of the scene at the time. Wire and the Shirts became very friendly. In another, stylistically less likely combination, Kit Hain (who was riding high after her worldwide hit with Dancing In The City in the late seventies) joined in, and would eventually even stand in on keyboards for Artie Lamonica’s band Jing after moving to New York in the mid-eighties. Part of the overlap reflected the fluid and enthusiastic A&R department in London, where bands would happily drop in and mix socially in the reception area. You didn’t have to have your manager in tow for negotiations over a beer (or even have a deal). The days when it was possible for a major record company to have the cosy social feel of a comfortable independent are long gone.
Going back to any record 25 years on is always an unpredictable experience, even if you were once buried in its construction. Some of my efforts still sound as if recorded them yesterday, and presumably will remain timeless after surviving another full musical generation. Some sound only of their time . The hit Tell Me Your Plans achieves a ageless quality thanks to the (what was even then) retro squeaky organ, a device which has never gone out of periodic fashion and which also underpinned, for example, Blondie’s early sound.
It’s also one of the steadiest. To be effective, a recording of a song seems to need a steadier tempo than its live performance, and in the studio Zeeek was prone to speeding up. But this and his busy drum parts effectively became a distinctive part of the group's sound, an essential contribution to the excitement of their live performance appeal. A similar recording issue in the early days was pitching the songs very high, particularly for Annie's leads. Her struggle to get the stratospheric notes on Empty Ever After sounds like the major effort is was, but it does keep you on the edge of your seat listening to her grasp dramatically for the rock+roll high Cs. Changing the key of a whole band, however, is a more drastic proposition than it seems in an age of instantly-transposable synthesizers and we didn't try. Conversely, one of the standout tracks, The Story Goes, hits Annie’s range perfectly.
talk about the weather
What comes through the first Shirts album is the energy and optimism of those early CBGB’s years, warts and all. We succeeded in bottling the headlong rush (with trademark speeding up very measured and effective in The Story Goes), but the over-reaching ambition of the group still comes through, embracing what for the time were quite ambitious shifts of gear and key. (The rock+roll world has become more technically facile since.) And all with a minimum of production artifice. With one exception.
Lonely Android had a charmed existence. Originally recorded as a throwaway spare track for a seven inch B side, the performance had an instant, casual charm. Robert’s vocal has a similarly classic rock+roll looseness. The vocal chorus (‘can do, no can can do……') was a throwaway gesture that turned into the most unlikely hook when I suggested expanding it. In such unlikely ways, goofy singles are born. The ‘invasion’ shouts and grunts were recorded in Abbey Road’s Studio One, the big classical room and, in the context of this tight, clubby sounding record, come from Mars. The track became a UK single.
A friend subsequently complained that hanging out with the Shirts was like being in a club to which you were invited and made welcome but where you still didn’t have the VIP pass. I did, and I’m grateful to them for their family inclusiveness. Just like the feel of CBGB’s, then and now. It was a great period for us all, where time and place were right and the world seemed limitlessly intriguing and full of possibility. Whether or not we have gone on to conventional successes, each of us will carry the solid memory of the explosive personal growth that we experienced.
When the world drifts
- Mike Thorne, April 5 2003
In 2003, the group extended with vocalist Caren Messing and keyboardist/vocalist Kathy McKlosky. Annie Golden is no longer with the band.
Thorne production commentaries
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