Friday, January 30, 2009
Love Letter from a NRBQ Cult Member
1994's Message for the Mess Age—a recommended starting point for any listener.
Matt Groening salutes NRBQ. That's fame, isn't it?
Master songwriter Al Anderson
The inspiration for this entry—Joey Spampinato
It was Joey Spampinato's birthday yesterday. Every morning before the first period bell rings I regale my homeroom with selected facts from a feature called "This Date in History" in The Boston Globe. I noted Joey's birthday while my favorite rock band NRBQ played a song written in his honor ("Spampinato") behind me.
Hey, if it leads to one download, the smallest "ka-ching", for the boys, then I've done my job. Throughout the day I listened to the Q and was reminded once more why I love them so dearly. Yes, like the San Francisco Chronicle, I mourn too for the passing of this "sadly defunct cult band."
Why they never gained more than a cult following says much about how rock music was packaged and sold in the previous decades. NRBQ (short for New Rhthym and Blues Quartet) was never able to be pigeon-holed. They were rock, pop, jazz, country, blues. Their inspirations ran from Harry Nilsson to Carl Perkins to Johnny Cash. They were simply an infectious bar band that never got beyond the tavern because they didn't translate to the masses. Yes, I'm being a bit snooty here!
For most of their history Al Anderson, a top-notch songwriter, penned many of what I find their most memorable and durable tunes. May I submit for your consideration the 1994 release Message for the Mess Age? This release was actually Al's swan song, but he went out blazing with the tracks "A Little Bit of Bad" (dig the bass hook!) and "Nothin' Wrong with Me". In the latter, the rhythm rolls and Al, whose voice is very pleasing to the ear, drives home the clever lyric.
Just because I sleep the whole day through
Don't think that I'm dreaming about you
When I awake I see what's on TV
Life is great, there's nothin' wrong with me
Just because I like to drink alone
And I don't bother answering the phone
I feel no pain, I'm happy as can be
And baby, there ain't nothin' wrong with me
I'll bet you're sorry you walked out the door
Hey, look at me, who could ask for more
I know by now that you have changed your mind
And I bet you're wishing you had back
The guy you left behind
Al tired of the road and the obscurity shortly after this release and high-tailed it to Nashville, where for 14 years he's been writing for a variety of popular country singers. Throughout his career he has also issued solo work. Give 2006's After Hours a listen—any song from it could be plucked and turned into a hit by the right talent. (Also highly recommended for a hard-rockin', roadhouse blues havin' good time is 1996's Pay Before You Pump.)
The heart of NRBQ throughout it history was Terry Adams. Terry played the piano and electric keyboards and provide lead vocals on much of his material. When you'd see NRBQ in concert, Terry always made a splash when he shook his long blonde tresses and displayed his sublime skill playing boogie-woogie on the keys. He'd play standing up mostly, and his banter with bandmates between songs was often funny.
Terry and Joey Spampinato often teamed up to write and sing. Their music could be incredibly sweet. Take "Ramona" from Mess Age—
Ramona, ohh, I just lose it when you smile at me
It's such a feeling I can't hide
It comes from way down deep inside, oh, Ramona
Just like a roller coaster ride, ahh
You're just so very, very
Be my Ramona now
Joey has a terrific voice—so melodious and captivating. You'll be smitten on first listen.
These two penned many rockers too. Bonnie Raitt, an admirer of the Q, chose their composition "Green Lights" as a title track on one of her releases.
I was a late admirer of NRBQ. In college, I listened to Scraps, and enjoyed their take on "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Postive", but I never saw them in concert or bought another recording. Then, through most of the 1980s, I engaged in my autodidactic pursuit of jazz standards and anything Sinatra. It was only in the early '90s when I re-engaged with rock that I awoke to their massive talent.
I then picked up much of their vinyl released on Rounder Records, a Cambridge, MA based folk and roots label. NRBQ did some time on the late '60s on Columbia, but their eclecticism soon drove them to smaller labels. In 1989 their biggest salvo for commercial success, Wild Weekend, was released on Virgin Records.
I saw them probably almost a dozen times in concert, and was never disappointed. They generated a great buzz and excitement in a bar, and it was a treasure to witness their playing so up close.
So here's to the Q and to the spirit of pop music. Lift a glass to the honorable pursuit of the hook and to their two to three minute confections that stream seamlessly off any release.
If you love the Beatles (now there's an appeal to the masses!) you will love NRBQ and utterly respect their longevity and tireless devotion to their art.