Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Birth of the NYC Ska Scene: Interview with Dan Acker and Chris Johns of Cryin' Out Loud - Relocated Midwestern Rockers Mix Power Pop & Ska

My introduction to Cryin' Out Loud (COL) was through their song 'The Distance' featured on the NY Beat!: Hit & Run' ska compilation and from a video that I would see infrequently on MTV in the mid-80's. I always liked their songs and was struck by how different they sounded from the other ska bands who were mostly New York born and bred. There was more of a rock influence that belied COL's Midwestern roots as well as a strong streak of romantic and political cynicism that set them apart from many of the younger ska bands.

Though they were a 4-piece band who had met in Columbus, Ohio and approached being in the band as a democratic endeavor, Don Brody was the leader of COL and the glue that held it together. Older than his 3 band mates by seven years, it is his voice that makes the first impression. That and the bittersweet quality of the songs he sang that hinted at something going on much deeper below the surface. According to a heartbreaking essay written about Brody and his untimely death at the age of 44 in 1997, Brody was born in Columbus, Ohio in July of 1953. At the age of 2 he contracted polio, for which he had to undergo a number of surgical operations and was left with a disability that made walking difficult. He was the Ohio Poster child for the March of Dimes. His friends and family in Ohio knew well the hardship that he went through from the disease, but those who knew him in Hoboken were barely aware of it. His cheerful good humor and generosity of spirit so towered over his disability as to render it indifferent. But the emotional depth of his songs, achieved with deceptive simplicity, was evidence that he was no stranger to suffering.

Like many bands before and after them, COL left home in the late 70's and early 80's to try and make their mark in New York City's bruising music scene. Settling in Hoboken, New Jersey (the picture above was taken on a roof top in Hoboken, NJ and you can see the Empire State Building next to Don Brody's knee!) , they incorporated their love of the British ska and reggae influenced music they were hearing at the time into their own unique mix of ska, reggae and power pop notable for its clean guitar sound and straightforward simplicity of structure.

Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters, who organized the NY Beat!: Hit & Run compilation was looking to highlight a broad range of bands playing ska influenced music in New York City. While there was a core of bands who drove the scene, Hingley was also interested in bands who were more loosely affiliated including COL. Though they were not part of the core of the NY Ska scene, COL played shows at CBGB's with The Toasters and had a dedicated following of their own. Notably, they were the first band from the New York ska scene to make a video that was shown on MTV during the summer of 1985.

I connected with the three surviving members of COL over the last few months and interviewed the rhythm section of bassist Dan Acker (DA) and drummer Chris Johns (CJ) about their memories and experiences playing in COL and the New York ska scene of the 1980's. Its a great read and a unique 80's New York music story

Where did you grow up and when did you make the conscious decision to be a musician? Do you come from a musical family?
DA: I grew up in Toledo Ohio for the most part although New York State, Missouri, and Texas were in there too. Two things come to mind on my decision to become a musician. I saw “Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” on the late movie and the late, late movie and thought that being in a band surely had to be the most fun anyone could ever have. And secondly, my friend Scott Moore was playing his acoustic one day and said “Every band needs a bass player” so that’s what I did. We did have a piano in the house and my mother and sister would play it. It wasn’t a real influence on me however.

CJ:I grew up in Central Ohio (Columbus). My family was not especially musical, although my Mom played piano and sang opera (not professionally). When I was 14 I came across a drum set, started hitting it, and thought it very fun. That Christmas, I got a drum set. But for as long as I can remember, I was always tapping my fingers on things, and when I was about 12, my Mom gave me a pair of bongos. I don't know if I ever made a conscious decision to be a musician. I just kept doing it because I liked it and was reasonably good at it. I got involved with musicians in high school, and I just kept going, until I was about 30.

What were some of your earliest musical influences? Do you remember the first live concert you ever saw? The first record you ever bought?
DA: I’ve always loved a good pop song. I like any music that makes me happy or rock-n roll regardless of genre. In Toledo we would easily get CKLW which was basically Motown blasted on a big AM signal tower. It was the old style format that promised the hits every hour. When I was in grade school my sister used to blast the Monkees, Cowsills, Herman’s Hermits and Paul Revere & the Raiders from inside her room on a red plastic General Electric record player. I was listening. The first records I owned were given to me by my sister and it was Mott the Hoople and Steppenwolf. I was in 5th grade so it was way cool. My first concert was KISS and once again my sister was on hand to chaperon along with my future brother in-law. Gene Simons blew fire from a top the P.A. stack at the Toledo Sports Arena. I was probably 14-15 years old. Does it get any better than that?

CJ:Well, oddly enough I was into Elton John early on, then prog rock, and by the time I was 18 I had a sudden revelation that AD/DC totally rocked. It was their unpretentious simplicity that struck me. The first 45 I ever bought was, I think, "Mongoose" by Elephant's Memory (how could I forget!). The first album I bought was 'Three Dog Night Live'. But the earliest drumming influences were John Bonham, Barrimore Barlow, Carl Palmer, Billy Cobham. Also, a local friend, drummer, named Jim Castoe, who was into jazz-rock, e.g., Return to Forever. But later it was Stewart Copeland and Clem Burke.

How were you first introduced to ska and reggae music?
DA: It was my Cryin’ Out Loud band mates that brought forth the genre. Don Brody read the music trades and would pick up on stuff early. I remember having The Go-Go's playing and thinking they had such a great offering of tight little pop song’s too bad nobody knows about them - only to ultimately see them achieve significant commercial success. When I heard Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” it was...Oh man that sounds cool! I wanted to emulate that sound. Of course that was just my very first hint of a derivative reggae influence.

CJ:A high school friend I played guitar with came over one day, dying to play this weird song he had just heard by a band called The Police - Roxanne. I didn't know anything about ska and reggae, certainly not enough to know that The Police were playing it wrong! But still, it did not catch on with me until after I was in Cryin Out Loud.

How did COL get started? Where did you meet your band mates? Whose idea was it to call the band COL?
DA: We got started in Columbus Ohio. I was attending Ohio State University because I was “supposed to”. I got pissed in a Philosophy of Ethics class because I got a D- on a mid-term after getting an A- on a “practice test” just three days earlier. I walked out in dramatic fashion and started hanging-up flyers that said “Bass Player Looking for Work” In my mind it was time to live the dream. I got a call from John Calvert. He was really the founder of the band technically speaking. I met him, Don Brody, and Chris Johns at his mother’s house and we played a cover version of “Take me to the River” by the Talking Heads. Remarkably it was just that simple. We were young. Chris and I were 19, I think John was too and Don was 7 years our senior. Don brought some experience to the table. I’d hardly ever played a gig short of high school type venues to easy audiences. That was either very late 1979 or early 1980 as best I can remember.

CJ:Another high school friend/guitarist (John Calvert) called me up and wanted to know if I would be interested in playing in this band he was forming. He gave me a record of the kind of music he had in mind. It was Blondie's "Eat to the Beat." I'd never heard it before. I didn't really know anything about "New Wave." I thought I was cool as hell. Then we got together in Calvert's basement, and I met Dan Acker (bass) and Don Brody (guitar, vocals), who had responded to an ad Calvert put up. We did a few covers and a couple of Don's songs. Among them, a song that had a 'reggae' feel in a Police sort of way. Later, we came up with another. But at that stage most of our songs were power-pop new wave. As I recall, the band name came from Dan's sister, Cindy. Prior to COL, Don had been in a well-known local punk band called 'Screaming Urge.' So, Cindy suggested we were now 'Cryin' Out Loud.' It seemed to fit. Most of our songs expressed complaints of some sort (Give the Kid a Break; I Can't Dance; Heartstrung Boy).

When and how did you hit on the COL sound? Did you all agree to make ska/reggae a part of your sound? Who was the main songwriter?
DA: We immediately took to writing our own material. I haven’t thought about this for a long time but it was pretty amazing how we just got to work. I’d have to say there was a lot of determination there. At that time we defined ourselves as a “power pop” band. How accurate that was is hard to say. We all sang leads, back-ups, and wrote songs. It was a very democratic environment. If you didn’t write the song it was typically up to you to arrange your own instrumentation. I’d write my own bass lines, and Chris would compile the rhythms. John would handle lead guitar and rhythm guitar while Don largely held fast on rhythm guitar. As time went by Don clearly moved out front on the song writing. He was very happy it seemed to allow complete free rein to the rest of us on arrangements. Some of my favorite memories recall the creative process and when a song would first click. The English Beat was pinnacle to our turn to ska although I remember Bob Marley and The Specials being on the turntable a lot. UB40 had such a great polished sound that I personally enjoyed. That was later in our formation and as I can best recall didn’t really transpire until after John Calvert left the group and Todd Novak joined. Todd and I had played very casually together in High School but he was a year behind me so he was actually still in High School in Toledo Ohio when the band was formed. I personally flipped over the English Beat. We tended to play at high tempos as it was and the energy we found there was irresistible; at least to me it was. I still love the English Beat. I have satellite radio and I troll around for them but rarely hear them. I don’t get why some bands don’t get there due. I really thought the English Beat had it going on. There is a live radio simulcast we did and we covered “Twist-n-Crawl” by the English Beat in that performance.

CJ:The sound. Well, that's hard to explain. But I think the main idea was "keep it simple, not flashy. Less is more. Melody over virtuosity. Danceability. Tight and chunky. We dabbled in ska, just because, I don't know. It was cool! But the major shift to ska/reggae didn't come for another year or so, when we all heard The English Beat for the first time. At least, that's how I remember it. "Just Can't Stop It" really lit us on fire and pretty much changed us, although we didn't completely quit the power pop. But the English Beat were just so infectious. I loved the drumming style. Everett Morton--big influence. Then it was The Specials, and everybody else. Black Uhuru, UB40. "I Just Can't Stop It" is still one of my all-time favorite albums. Don Brody was by far the main songwriter. But everyone wrote and contributed to each other's songs. It was a very democratic band, and the funnest part, other than live shows, was creating a song during rehearsals.

When did things start to take off for the band?
DA: I don’t think things ever really took off. In Columbus we developed a kind of siege mentality. At gigs the audiences would still yell for "Whipping Post" by the Allman Brothers Band, Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd and simply yell “AC/DC”. We’d say this is an AC/DC song and then kick out one of our own because we were generally annoyed and felt it was pretty obvious we weren’t an AC/DC cover band. I had a chip on my shoulder about it and I don’t think it was healthy. I think the best way to put it would be to say that we did have a couple milestones. The first of those would be getting on a compilation album, which was part of winning a contest for the local rock 'n roll radio station. This actually gave us some radio airtime locally, and as I mentioned earlier, it allowed us to have a live gig on the radio. The second milestone would have been getting on MTV.

CJ:Did they ever take off? Well, we had a break early on, when we got a song on a local radio station's "Hometown Album." But soon after (1980 or 81) Dan, Don, and I moved to NY (Hoboken) in order to make our break there. After a year or so, we decided to put out our own EP and make a video. It took a while to put this together, due to a couple of changes in guitarists. One song from the EP, "The Distance," made it onto the "New York Beat: Hit and Run" compilation. In 1985-6, MTV put our video in "light rotation" for about six weeks. That felt like a huge break for us. We got some good slots at CBGB's, did some out of town club touring. But--things never really took off. We didn't have record distribution, so even if someone saw our video, they couldn't get the EP.

Where and when did you play your early shows? What kind of response did you get?
DA: We played most of our gigs on High Street, which is the main commercial strip in the Ohio State University campus area. There were a lot of get sloppy drunk bars there for the college students. A place called Mr. Brown's was the venue we played most. It was a biker bar - nothing college about it. I don't remember the response always being that good. Sometimes it went very well and people seemed receptive and other times it was just the opposite. It could vary greatly from venue to venue. I remember one time very early on we played on top of a flatbed trailer at a day time event. I think it was in a drive-in movie theater. I remember noticing small stones skipping across the trailer bed of the truck while I was out there. I didn’t even get it ‘til afterwards. The natives were a wee bit hostile. Even with the exposure of being locally played on the radio and the apparent sanction on our good work I don't recall any significant uptick in general interest in what we were doing. By fall of 1982 we were living in Hoboken New Jersey. Our first gig in the metro area was at CBGB’s on a Tuesday night and quite late too as I remember. My close friends Scott and Paula Moore traveled in from York Pennsylvania to see us and they were the only other people we knew there not to mention the only people “there” besides the CBGB’s staff!

CJ: Before we came to New York, we had a wild reception, opening for Huey Lewis and the News! In NYC, we played at various clubs on Bleeker St. Occasionally CB's, and other places I can't recall nor would anyone else. We played a few times with The Toasters at CB's. That was always cool. Response? Well, I have to admit that most of the time it was not that great. I mean, those who liked us, really liked us; but there weren't many of them. I think it was hard to place us musically. The audience (and maybe we ourselves) didn't know whether we were a ska band, a power-pop band, or just a rock and roll band. Our identity was not distinct enough, I think.

How did you first get introduced to the NYC ska scene? What was the NYC ska music scene of the 80's like from your perspective? Was COL a part of the NYC ska scene?
DA: For me it was quite nice to be included in part, although I didn't have any real personal investment. I couldn't say I was a personal torchbearer for the whole scene. Don Brody was really the main networker for our band and he deserves the primary credit for any of the advances we made concerning social and business connections. I don't know the whole back story, but I'm pretty sure at some point either Don reached out and/or Rob Hingley reached out to us. I was very flattered to be included. In retrospect I wish I had been more outgoing and interested by making more friends within the scene. I don't think I really had the maturity or social confidence do that at the time. Personally speaking I became used to being competitive and suspicious of other bands. It was a hangover attitude from the perceived threat of “long hair” bands back in Ohio. That was a level of oversensitivity and insecurity I wish I had overcome as I look back. I remember one night during one of the gigs we opened with the Toasters coming out front and seeing three or four scooters neatly parked out in front of CBGB’s. It was a bit of a revelation because for so long it seemed we were on the outside looking in and I suddenly realized this was part of a movement. I was like wow, the owners of these scooters came here to make the scene ….and they traveled here on scooters... look at the scooters... I couldn't believe it. I just thought it was really cool.

CJ:Somehow, Don Brody got in touch with Rob Hingley, or Rob with him, I'm not sure. (I'd ask Don, but unfortunately he died in 1997.) Occasionally we played with some other ska-ish bands in Hoboken, like The Objects. But I wouldn't say we were a significant part of the ska scene. Again, I think that's because we didn't have, for better or worse, a distinct identity. In the 80's, there seemed to be a number of distinct scenes. I don't think we were authentic or pure enough. But the ska scene was alive and kickin', and we were excited to participate in it. At one point, our songs became almost entirely ska-reggae based. We loved it, although I'm not sure our audience liked it as much as we did.

Tell me about the experience of recording your 4 song EP 'Live It Up'?
DA: By that time, I'd have to say for us being in the studio and recording was pretty much business as usual. We were extremely well rehearsed. We would practice virtually every night of the week. In fact, we all lived in the same house in Columbus for a while practicing in the basement and when we first moved to Hoboken we all shared the same apartment. In Hoboken we had a rehearsal space rented from a realty office that we got to it by going through a metal trap door in the sidewalk. We never did rent rehearsal space by the hour like so many bands do in New York. Because we were typical struggling musicians; once we got into the studio we had it in our mind to make it happen as quickly as possible because we were paying by the hour.
It wasn't a long drawn out creative process in the studio; it was a more knock it out get it done type of mind set.

CJ: As most recording sessions go, it was both fun and tedious! We also had some difficulty, because we replaced our guitarist in the middle of it. Todd Novak, I think, gave us a more distinct ska sound, whereas we had been "rocking" more. We recorded the EP at "If Walls Could Talk" in New Jersey, a really nice little studio for the money, at that time. We were going for a rather stripped down, low-on-the-reverb sound. The basic tracks were laid down in one or two takes. We recorded six songs, but decided on four, all of which were ska-reggae. The whole process was kind of exciting, actually. I mean, recording, mixing, mastering, printing, doing the album over, copyrights, and making it a business, so to speak. At first, we didn't know anything about how to make a record. But we learned a lot. It's not easy! These days, with the internet, it would be so much easier.

You made a video for the song 'Live It Up' that ended up on MTV. What kind of impact did the airplay the video received have on the fortunes of the band?
DA: I think it gave us some personal confidence as a band. It's amazing that it was as simple as getting the thing sent in. Although I think it took us three tries to make it happen and again Don Brody deserves all the credit for that. I'm not sure we knew exactly how to capitalize on it. Unfortunately our distributor went bankrupt and our E.P.’s got locked up in bankruptcy court. We couldn't even get our record out on the store shelves. Really bad timing! No one came calling in earnest either. Because everything was self-made and independently produced, I don't think we really had the collective experience and infrastructure available to us that would've allowed us to use MTV as the steppingstone you would expect it to be.

CJ:We made the video rather cheaply, with help from a friend of ours, Paul Provenzano. He did a great job, 16mm black and white. It looked great and we were really proud of it. But the only real impact it had, as far as I could tell, was that we got a nibble from an independent record company, and some clubs and managers started to take us a but more seriously, and we got a few interviews. But, except for a brief time, perhaps, it didn't really attract much attention, didn't really increase our audience. One thing we learned from this is that it is not enough to have a video. You have to have a strong network of promotion and distribution of your product. You have to get on the radio as well and have your record available. It's hard to get on the radio, although we did get some play on several college stations. The trick is, everything has to work together at once, and we didn't have the resources to put it all together..

When and why did the band stop playing out regularly?
DA: Chris decided to quit. That was the end of it.

CJ:Well, I can only speak for myself. But for personal reasons, I felt it was time for me to go to college, so I quit. After 9 or 10 years, a video and a record, I felt I had given it my best shot, but I just couldn't keep the faith. Much of the time it was a real struggle. We all had hard day jobs, and NYC ain't exactly a bargain town. Every few years, we had to replace a guitarist and start over again. It was hard to stop, though, and the decision was not a sudden one..

What are your lasting memories of performing with COL?
DA: Too many gigs to boil down here I think. It’s the whole bonded experience of you and the others. Playing live was always a trip on some level and all the hurry up and wait that went with it. When I reminisce I miss it pretty badly, but I'm sure a lot of that is colored by nostalgia. I really miss the creative process of working together and coming up with something that didn't exist before. For me a gig was always like stepping into the unknown. Some nights it seemed like we could do no wrong and people just loved us: other nights, not so much. Some of our best performances happened to an empty house. A lot of what I miss is the people I worked with and a lot of people who really helped us working behind the scenes. My sister Cindi and my brother-in-law Dean were extremely important components that helped make the band go in the early days. My sister produced our flyers and graphics. She did the lights at gigs, and my brother-in-law Dean did the sound, photography and graphic work for us as well. Chris’s mother put up with some noise when we moved operations to her basement in the earliest days. There were also other significant players who were members of the band, including John Kricki and Jimmy Lee taking their respective turns at the lead guitar position and Paul Provenzano made our MTV video. My girl friend at that time Amy Bogart was a C.P.A. and helped us with tax stuff as well as giving us her general interest and support. We were fortunate to have these people participating so in the end I feel a lot of gratitude. All in all, I wouldn't take it back for anything. I’m glad I had the experience.

CJ:Oh, gosh. Too many. Don Brody was the funniest man you'd ever hope to know. I'd say driving across Pennsylvania, on the way to a gig at the Electric Banana in Pittsburgh. It's just you, the band, the road, the music. That's all there is and all that matters. The gig was a blast.

Aside from their appearance on the NY Beat compilation, COL only recorded one 4-song EP titled 'Live It Up'. Long out of print, hard to find copies can sometimes be found on EBay.


Todd said...

So glad you guys were able to do the interview with Marco. Nice job!

Kames Jelly said...

Great interview!

The obsessive collector in me lead me immediately to Ebay to see if I could find the Hometown Album comp mentioned in there. I found a QFM 96 comp called Hometown Album Project from Columbus Ohio, but Cryin Out Loud aren't on there. Any hints that'd help me find that record?

Anonymous said...

Kames Jelly - You want the QFM96 Hometown Album Project Vol.3 from 1981. The song is "Give the Kid a Break" Classic Don Brody.

Kames Jelly said...

thanks a lot. I'm gonna keep my eyes peeled for that one

Victor and Denise said...

For Crying Out Loud was a great band back in the day! Dan and Don sang at our wedding in 1984! Would love to hear from Dan...
-Victor and Denise

John Kricki said...

I loved playing with this group of very talented musicians, it was an honor that I will always treasure!
Thanks, John Kricki