Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Ballad of Willie Phoenix part one - Romantic Noise and The Buttons, 1978-1980

I have a heroically garbled cassette tape from 1978 of Romantic Noise, Willie Phoenix's best band EVER, playing a song called "I Feel New."  John Ballor, the lead guitarist of Romantic Noise, sings lead on the tune and it is, quite simply, one of the most gorgeous, heartfelt tunes I have ever heard in my rock & roll life. 

Romantic Noise was stunning.  Willie wrote virtually all of the songs, played strictly rhythm guitar (he didn't start playing lead guitar until The Shadowlords in 1983) and sang about 65% of lead vocals.  Bass player extraordinaire Greg Glasgow contributed the remainder of the original tunes (of which there was a mind-boggling number & variety, which we may deal with in a later appendix) and sang lead on about a third of the Romantic Noise repertoire.  Lead guitarist John Ballor only sang about three leads - the aforementioned "I Feel New,"  "Holly," and an early raver maybe called "Politician, Politician" - but Willie generously handed him off some truly killer songs to sing.  When original drummer David Machnicki (who employed a rather Ringo Starr-inspired style of playing) was replaced by madman Keith Moon-styled smasher Dee Hunt - the pride of Beckley, West Virginia - the Romantic Noise line-up was complete.  (And Dee was height-compatible to fit in with the rather diminutive Small Faces-styled Romantic Noise than the too-tall Machniki.)

For the purposes of full disclosure, I was a roadie for Romantic Noise from probably May or June of 1978 until sometime in 1979 (after they had become The Buttons), so I'm hardly unbiased.  I was a roadie for Romantic Noise because I fell in love with them the very first night I saw them, a week after The Great Blizzard Of 1978, at Drake Union on the Ohio State University campus.  I was a roadie for Romantic Noise because I realized very early on that I wasn't good enough to actually get INTO the band, that the internal cohesion between those four players was so balanced, precise, fragile and perfect that I had no hope of entering the circle.  I ran lights for that band, I took care of guitars, I published a band newsletter, I did pretty much anything that was asked of me.  Willie said, "Jump" and I asked, "How high?"  I was a roadie for Romantic Noise because they were one of the five best bands I had ever seen. 

In my Columbus rock & roll existence I have witnessed The Dantes, The Rebounds, The Fifth Order, The Four O’Clock Balloon, The Grayps and countless other "garage" and "progressive" bands of the 1960’s; I saw The Godz rockin’ the bikers and the hippies in 1975 with their white Marshall amps and McGuffey Lane drawl out their laid-back country-rock pickings that same year; I caught the R.C. Mob and The Toll in their 1980’s formative years right up through their major label deals; in the 1990’s I watched Watershed and Howlin’ Maggie grow up right in front of my eyes into killer rock & roll assemblages; in the 2000’s I got in on the ground floor of Mrs. Children as they transmuted into The Whiles.  And let me say this very clearly: not one of those bands was as good as Romantic Noise.  Romantic Noise was, quite simply, the BEST COLUMBUS BAND I have ever seen.

I learned so much from Willie that first year: watching Romantic Noise from the wings or from the balcony lighting board at The Agora was like a songwriting clinic.  I learned to sharpen my rather expansive songwriting down to a succinct precision.  I learned how to pace sets.  I learned a sense of personal style.  (Willie would actually dress the entire band for big shows, like when they would open for The Ramones or the David Johansen Group.  Greg, John & Dee had to bring changes of clothes in for Willie's approval and he would mix & match the outfits so they looked individually AND collectively great.  Every time in 2013 I witness some jag-off modern rock band on David Letterman or Austin City Limits in some hideously mismatched & pedestrian bag o' rags I think back on Willie and the range of his imagination in 1978.)


Willie Phoenix sidelight interlude, number one:
 One summer evening in 1978 my lead singer Nicole and I had to meet Willie at that Wendy’s just north of Schoolkid’s Records (now Used Kids Records) to get some tapes. So we were hangin’ out waiting because Willie was a rock star and rock stardom requires being late. Finally Willie waltzes into Wendy’s. You’ve gotta try to get the mental picture: Willie’s a five-foot tall black man with dreadlocks wearing girl’s pegged black jeans, a spangled tank-top, and not one but TWO neckties tied around his bare neck, held together by a Mickey Mouse watch. Plus, it almost goes without saying, platform boots. AND THIS WASN’T EVEN FOR A SHOW OR A NIGHT OUT, IT WAS JUST WHAT HE HAPPENED TO BE WEARING THAT EVENING. Ladies & gentlemen, it was 1978 in Columbus, Ohio: everybody else in that restaurant was wearing bell-bottom jeans and raggedy t-shirts.  Kinda needless to mention, but the guy turned heads. I can still see it, 34 years later.


1978 FLEW by.  Romantic Noise played all over Columbus and the rest of Ohio.  (They had already traveled to New York City a couple of times and played CBGB's  in the 70's heyday of that fabled rock mecca before I even met them.)  The band played everywhere: clubs, student unions, outdoor shows at a little stage on the riverfront by where COSI now stands, high schools (playing all original material at high schools in 1978 was unheard of - no pun intended - and every one of those shows went GREAT).  They headlined their own shows at Mr. Brown's Descent, Cafe Rock & Roll, Bogart's in Cincinnati and The Columbus Agora, where they also opened shows for the likes of The Ramones and David Johansen Group.

The band released a 7-inch single ("I Fell In Love With A Baby" b/w "Dead Flowers") and a 4-song ep - '78 Affair - that comprised two of their best songs ("Painter" and "Runnin' from Society") and simultaneously two of their worst songs ("Oh No, Not Again" and "Hold On").  This kind of breakdown in song selection on records would unfortunately continue throughout Willie's career.  NONE of Romantic Noise's best material ever got recorded in any kind of intelligible, releasable form.  (Rumors have persisted for years that Willie has well-produced versions of that material stashed away, but I've never seen nor heard concrete proof of that fact.  And what are we waiting for?)

Similarly, two of Willie's best songs from the 1982 period when he was on A&M Records - "Champaign" and "Bowery Express" - never saw wax.  (Though that may have more to do with A&M's total mishandling of Willie's entire stint on the label than it does Willie's judgements of his material.  But more on that in part two of this tome.)   I also have a 60-minute live cassette of The Buttons (Willie's band immediately after Romantic Noise) at a Q-FM Hometown Album concert in 1980 and cassettes full of unreleased Shadowlords songs, most of which are better than anything actually released by those bands on vinyl back in the day.  Further, the three best songs in the repertoire of Willie Phoenix & The True Soul Rockers in 1990 - "Lookin' For Wendy," "I Wanna Feel What We Used To," and "Electric Folk-Dreamin' Man" - never saw the light of day.  And except for the A&M record, Willie had the final say on what material was released in his name.

It was that inability to relinquish even the most basic of control that characterizes Willie to this day.  And while I'll defend to the death Willie's defense of his artistic vision I gotta add that it would've been nice if he could occasionally have collaborated with his bandmates or producers to execute that creative vision.  The first manifestation of that singularity was when Willie announced to the rest of Romantic Noise in November or December of 1978 that come January of 1979, the band would be changing their name to The Buttons (a really pedestrian moniker after the vastly more poetic & lyrical Romantic Noise) and that Willie would be taking over all the lead vocals of said band.

In the heady days of The Summer Of 1978, my most fervent hope was that Romantic Noise would get signed to a record deal and that Nick Lowe would produce their first album.  (Lowe's production work on those first two Elvis Costello records - My Aim Is True and This Year's Model - and his production credo of "Bash it down and we'll tart it up later." would have been PERFECT for Willie & the guys.)  By the spring of 1979 Dee Hunt had been booted from the band, ostensibly over the cliched "musical differences," but actually he was the only band member who would ever talk back to Willie and (this is my purely subjective opinion) Dee's increasing popularity with the female contingent of The Buttons' audience became problematic to Willie.  I quit the road crew when Dee was replaced with Jerry Hanahan, a really good drummer in his own right.

The Buttons subsequently played a lot of really great shows - the aforementioned Q-FM Hometown Album Concert and a KILLER set opening for Talking Heads at Mershon Auditorium right when the Heads' cover of Al Green's "Take Me To The River" was starting to burn up the charts - but the band was never really the same for me after Dee got fired, ya know?  The Buttons Mark II (or Version 2.0 for you 2013 cyber-geeks) with Hanahan on drums released one single, which, true to form, contained one GREAT song - "Hey Little Girl," that stayed in Willie's repertoire until the 1990's - and one middling tune - "Blue Bicycle," which of course Willie regarded as the A-side of the 45.  (The Buttons most popular radio song - "I Saw Superman" - was recorded when Hunt was still in the band.)

Okay, so that's 1700 words already and we're only up to 1980.  Coming up in The Ballad Of Willie Phoenix part two we'll be covering the A&M "Big Band" and Willie Phoenix & The Shadowlords (with maybe The Flower Machine thrown in for good measure).  But first, some Romantic Noise pics, a Focus live review and a scan of a Buttons Times.

 

Romantic Noise, 1978



(Did I remember to mention to the editors at Focus that I was working as a roadie for the band I was
 reviewing in this column?  Ummm, that particular conflict of interest might have slipped my mind.)




© 2013 Ricki C.
   

2 comments:

  1. Hi, you have a great blog here and this three articles about Willie Phoenix are very interesting, but you forgot too write about The Boppers, these great single: http://purepop1uk.blogspot.de/2010/11/boppers-dancing-in-rocket-city.html http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZcASW3Mgqk the A-Side http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42lFYnolI2E the B-Side which Willie Phoenix sings. One from The Boppers wrote on the Purepop blog: The Boppers were from Marion, Ohio. Willie Phoenix wrote both songs. I sang Dancing in Rocket City. Willie sang Cleveland Dolls. The engineer was relieved when Willie took the mic. He said something along the lines of, "finally, I've got a real singer to work with!" I agree.

    And Willie wrote me that they also released another single (with The Boppers) called "Catrina" with a B-Side "Let's Go Bad".

    Do you have any material from Willie's bands digital / on tape or do you know where I can buy the vinyls? I found nothing on the net, and I would to hear some of these recordings (Romantic Noise and The Buttons). Because I love The two Boppers tracks so much!
    Thanks Shalel

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    Replies
    1. Shalel - Thank you so much for getting in touch. I didn't write about The Boppers because I had no first-hand knowledge of them, meeting Willie in 1978 as I did. (The Boppers were either Willie's high school or immediately post-high school band earlier in the 1970's, or even late-60's. Little Eric was another band he had following that, but before he moved to Columbus.)

      It's great having these YouTube links, I have never heard ANY pre-Romantic Noise Willie material. I will check out the tunes as soon as I finish here and I'm sure other Willie fans out here in cyber-town will appreciate the links as much as I do. I want to extend a heartfelt thank you for those.

      And while we're on the subject of links, my good friend Colin Gawel from Watershed has instituted the Willie Phoenix Tribute Machine project, wherein Columbus musicians will be interpreting Phoenix tunes, as a tribute/thank you to Willie. Here's a link to the first "single":

      http://pencilstorm.com/blog/2015/1/26/two-free-songs-from-the-willie-phoenix-tribute-machine

      Further - on the subject of links - a local writer, Joel Oliphint, had a recent article in our local Columbus Monthly on Willie. Check that out here:

      http://www.columbusmonthly.com/content/stories/2015/01/rise-up-the-unstoppable-unknowable-willie-phoenix.html

      As far as providing further Willie material: as I said in the blog, Willie released very little material over the years, it's all really hard to find. Stay in touch on GOWR&R, and maybe we can figure something out.

      Again, Shalel, thank you so much for those links.

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