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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

THE SKELETONS: Fire In The Bones

The Skeletons:  Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou Whitney, D. Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown
Well, this piece sure bounced around a bit.  I was a big fan of The Skeletons, so I decided to interview the band's bassist and producer Lou Whitney.  I believe this was some (short?) time after editor Jeff Tamarkin had left Goldmine, and my enthusiasm for Goldmine may have dimmed somewhat.  So I sold this article to DISCoveries, which was Goldmine's chief competitor at the time.  It sat, unpublished, in DISCoveries' queue for a long time, until finally the editor of DISCoveries (a nice gent named John Koenig) agreed it was time to kill it.  I collected my kill fee from DISCoveries, and re-sold it to Goldmine.  (And, in the interest of maintaining transparency, I made sure that Goldmine editor Greg Loescher was aware of its prior sale to DISCoveries; Greg chuckled and said it didn't matter, as the publisher of Goldmine had just purchased DISCoveries anyway.  I got paid twice, published once.  Let's publish it again.

The Skeletons, from Springfield, Missouri, may well be America's coolest band. A peerless live act, The Skeletons consistently own every stage they grace with their irresistible gumbo of rock, R & B, country, soul, rockabilly, surf, power pop and whatever else they feel like playing. Their records are likewise keen exercises in the art of a-boppin' and a-poppin'. Yet they remain a cult band. That's the public's loss.

Bassist Lou Whitney's resume includes stints backing up the late, great sweet soul music sensation Arthur Conley. "I played in soul bands all over in the South," says Whitney. "I was [just] in bands that backed up Arthur Conley, so it wasn't like I was on Arthur Conley's payroll or anything." Whitney settled in Springfield in 1970. There, he met guitarist D. Clinton Thompson, and the pair clicked immediately.

"We had a little combo out doin' lounges in the Midwest," says Whitney, "just a money-making combo. Back in those days when it wasn't a sin to go out and make money doing cover tunes. We were just doing Top 40-type stuff in lounges, and we needed a guitar player. So I called Donnie, and he came and did it with us. So we played lounges around, and then we decided to try to see if we could do something that had a little more...credibility, I guess you'd say. Prior to that, we were just in a lounge band doing house gigs, but we would be the type of band that would do 'Jive Talkin'' by The Bee Gees, or 'Do The Hustle' or 'Kung Fu Fighting' or whatever was necessary to keep the job. And then we'd do a Who medley and 'Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)' or 'Jenny Lee,' you know what I'm talking about? Something that we wanted to do."

Seeking to break out beyond lounge-band status, Whitney and Thompson recorded five tracks, including a cover of The Ventures' "Driving Guitars." They sent the tape off to writer Gary Sperrazza!, then one of the guiding lights of Bomp! magazine. Sperrazza! raved about the tape in Bomp! in 1978, concluding that, "If this is what they do for fun, wait'll they get serious." "Gary's one of the reasons we're doing this," says Whitney. "So we said, 'Maybe we oughtta do something here.'"

"Driving Guitars" was issued as a single, credited to D. Clinton Thompson, and the duo formed The Symptoms shortly thereafter. The Symptoms were still primarily a cover band, but a cover band with a vision. "We decided we wanted to start a band," says Whitney, "but none of us really wrote songs at that point in time. So [we said] we're just gonna do stuff, songs that none of us had ever done in bands before."

The Symptoms released one album, 1978's Don't Blame The Symptoms, on Whitney's own Borrowed Records label. "It's pretty good," says Whitney. "It's not bad for bein' done all at once in a little studio with people just sittin' around on the floor drinkin' beer." But The Symptoms soon faded. "We were basically a Top 40 new wave band before anybody knew," says Whitney. "But then it became kind of redundant. Pretty soon bands like that just started sproutin' up on an hourly basis. So we made a record and quit that, and then we started The Skeletons."

The Skeletons formed in 1979. The Skeletons were originally Whitney, Thompson, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks and keyboardist Randle Chowning, formerly of The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Chowning left shortly after the band was formed, replaced at the keys by Nick Sibley. The group released three singles from '79-'80, all on Borrowed: "Crazy Country Hop"/"Gas Money," "Very Last Day"/"Sour Snow," and "Trans Am"/"Tell Her I'm Gone."

The six single tracks are split evenly--and sequentially--between covers and originals, beginning with tunes previously done by Johnny Otis, Jan and Dean and Peter, Paul and Mary, then moving to Sibleys Kinks-riffed "Sour Snow and Whitney's "Trans Am" and "Tell Her I'm Gone." "Trans Am," in particular, is a brilliant record, effortlessly moving from a rousing car tune to a subtle anti-draft protest within a sparkling rockin' pop context. It even includes a Bay City Rollers-style chant! Clearly, this was a group ripe for wider notoriety.

But The Skeletons were relatively short-lived the first time around. Late in '79, Whitney, Thompson and Hicks joined Steve Forbert's touring band, and The Skeletons eventually ceased to exist. From there, Whitney and Thompson decided to start a new band: The Morells.

In the mean time, however, the Ambition label included "Driving Guitars" on Declaration Of Independents, a 1980 sampler album collecting various indie single sides by acts ranging from Pylon to Robin Lane and the Chartbusters to Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band. "And then they also decided they'd wanna do a little single," says Whitney. "So they took three songs off of that Symptoms LP and put 'em on a single [credited to The Original Symptoms]: 'Double Shot,' 'People Sure Act Funny When They Get A Little Money,' and a song called, 'Hey,' which was our only original song. And they put that out, and it actually charted, 'Double Shot' charted in New York City. So we made lots of money playing New York and Hartford and places like that. As a matter of fact, they didn't put that record out until The Morells had already formed. 'Double Shot' was making some noise, so we had to go up and kind of play and explain to people who we were."

The Morells--Whitney, Thompson, drummer Ron "Rongo" Gremp and keyboardist Maralie, Whitney's wife--were critics' darlings, largely (and justly) on the basis of their acclaimed 1982 album, Shake And Push (Borrowed, 1982). Among the album's eclectic mix of covers and originals was "The Man Who Has Everything," the songwriting debut of Ben Vaughn, who would himself go on to become a producer and recording artist (both solo and fronting The Ben Vaughn Combo). Vaughn also subsequently became the musical director of Fox TV's That '70s Show! Vaughn credits The Morells with starting his songwriting career.

But acclaim wasn't enough to keep The Morells going, and the group split circa 1983. "We did pretty good," says Whitney. "We had put out that independent record, sold about 10,000 of it, it got four stars in Rolling Stone, it really did well. But we couldn't take it to the next level, couldn't get a major label deal. So you suddenly start like goin' around, [saying] 'Oh God, what are we doin' this for?'"

After The Morells, Thompson joined The Ozark Mountain Daredevils for a bit, and Whitney produced the first Del-Lords album, Frontier Days, in 1984; The Del-Lords' Scott Kempner had been a friend of Whitney's for a few years by this time, and Frontier Days would not be their last collaboration. Meanwhile, The Skeletons quietly prepared to come back from the dead. In 1987, the Scottish label Next Big Thing issued Rockin' Bones, a compilation of The Skeletons' old stuff (bolstered by three newer tracks). This, in turn, led to an all-new Skeletons album, In The Flesh!, in 1988.

"In The Flesh! was a true attempt at trying to make a record, get a deal," says Whitney. "We cut a six-song demo, Donnie and I did, pretty much in the studio by ourselves as The Skeletons, trying to get us a deal." However, Next Big Thing was plagued by distribution problems. England's Demon label subsequently picked up on the project, combining both LPs on 1990's In The Flesh! CD. ESD also issued that same two-in-one In The Flesh! CD in America in 1991.

By this time, Nick Sibley had drifted out of The Skeletons line-up, replaced by former Ozark Mountain Daredevil Joe Terry (who had also been a latter-day addition to the Morells). Terry was soon joined in The Skeletons by a second keyboardist, Kelly Brown.

The Skeletons also served as the World's Greatest Backing Band, playing on records behind the disparate likes of Scott Kempner, Jonathan Richman and even Boxcar Willie. Former Dictator and Del-Lord Kempner used the group on his Tenement Angels album (Razor & Tie, 1992), which Whitney also co-produced with Manny Caiati and Kempner. The group worked with Richman on his Jonathan Goes Country album (Rounder, 1990). And, while the match of TV record ad star Boxcar Wille and our own rock 'em, sock 'em Skeletons might seem incongruous, Whitney and Willie actually go back a bit, and Whitney had previously produced some of Boxcar Willie's records.

A gig at South By Southwest in 1992 brought The Skeletons to the attention of California's Alias label. The result was 1992's superb Waiting, a wonderful record highlighted by a bunch of ace group originals and an able take on The Easybeats' "St. Louis." Its rockin' vibrance notwithstanding, Waiting basically shipped to retailers in a body bag, and would be The Skeletons' only album for Alias. "I'm sorry it didn't do better for 'em," says Whitney with a laugh. "We recorded it, we take full blame. I love that record."

The Skeletons went on hiatus after Waiting, returning in 1995-1996 to play on albums by Syd Straw (War And Peace, on the Capricorn label) and Robbie Fulks (Country Love Songs, on Bloodshot). Back down to a quartet following the departure of Kelly Brown, the group signed with HighTone in 1996, and released Nothing To Lose in 1997.

Nothing To Lose is a highlight of The Skeletons' illustrious career. "[Nothing To Lose] is really the most focused sound--like a real record by a real band--than anything we've ever done," says Whitney. And the album is driven almost entirely by great, original Skeletunes; the two covers (of "On Your Way Down The Drain," an obscure Danny Kortchmar-penned single by The Kingbees, and "Tear Drop City," a Boyce & Hart non-hit by The Monkees) are the album's two least-interesting tracks.

In spite of its considerable virtues, however, Nothing To Lose did little to raise The Skeletons' profile. "You have to get airplay to make any noise beyond people who already know you," says Whitney. "There's 28,000 records a year released, and those are on labels. It's easy to get lost in the shuffle, especially if you're kind of like older guys who don't have a history of hits in the '60s or '70s, and you're trying to launch a bunch of older coots who have never been famous before. It's a job that has never been done in the history of the music industry. It's never been done. [But] I really think if it got on the radio it would make noise."

So, even while the general public remains tragically unaware of America's coolest band, The Skeletons soldier on undaunted. Though no new Skeletons album has yet appeared, Thompson did join a side group called The Park Central Squares (a trio with Dudley Brown and Katie Coffman), which released an eponymous album on the Blueberry Hill label in 1997. The Skeletons backed Syd Straw on a cover of "Harper Valley PTA" for the 1999 tribute album REAL--The Tom T. Hall Project, and also backed Robbie Fulks (again) on his '97 release South Mouth (Bloodshot Records), and Rudy Grayzell on his Let's Get Wild album (Sideburns, 1998). The Morells even regrouped for a new, self-titled album on Slewfoot Records in 2001, and an album called Think About It in 2005.

"We'd damn sure love to do another record," said Whitney as the dust settled after the release of Nothing To Lose. "I'm a firm believer in music, and I still believe there's a DJ out there somewhere who's gonna stick a laser to [our CDs] one of these days, and he's gonna say, "Downhearted!"' I can play that!" Or, '"Pay To Play!"' Goddamn, this needs to be on the radio!' I really believe that might happen."

It's hard not to believe. Who can argue with a Skeleton?


CLOSING ARGUMENTS POSTSCRIPT:  Lou Whitney passed away in 2014.  This is what I wrote at the time:

Last week, rock 'n' roll lost one of its all-time greats with the passing of LOU WHITNEY.  Please note that I didn't qualify that with an "unsung" or an "underrated," though both would certainly apply; see, Lou Whitney wasn't just one of the Greats among the Greats That Folks Never Heard--he was one of the All-Time Greats, period.  If you disagree with me, fine--that just tells me that you never saw any of Lou's bands--THE SYMPTOMS, THE MORELLS, THE SKELETONS--live.  Because lemme tell ya:  anyone who ever did witness a live performance by The Skeletons, or The Morells, or The Symptoms, would be quick to second my emotion with an emphatic, "Oh HELL yeah...!"

All three of these bands made great records.  There are also live recordings of each band, which can give you a hint of what made them such a damned transcendental live rock 'n' roll experience.  Because they just absolutely smoked live; it seems a disservice to refer to them as "The Best Bar Band Ever!" (even though that's the title of a terrific 2-CD Morells live package), but they clearly and consistently owned every bar, every roadhouse, every nightclub, and every hipster hangout they ever invaded and occupied, and that was over the course of decades playing and proving that they were simply the best there ever was.  You didn't just enjoy a Skeletons show--you BELIEVED in The Skeletons, and The Morells, and The Symptoms.  If bassist Lou Whitney and guitar wizard D. Clinton Thompson had joined One Direction, you'd freaking believe in One Direction.  These guys were everything I've ever loved about live rock 'n' roll.  I can't articulate it further.  I...just can't.  There are some wonderful personal reminiscences of Lou that are worth seeking out, particularly those written by Ben Vaughn and Robbie Fulks.  I can't say it as well as they have.  All I can do is play the records.