Friday, October 3, 2008

Talking In Your Sleep Is What I Like About You

As far as straight up infectious power pop songs go, the 1980s produced few that could match ‘What I Like About You’ by The Romantics. The Detroit based quartet set the Australian charts alight during 1980 with the song, and would repeat the feat on the U.S. charts several years later, albeit with a different song.

Initially taking inspiration from the U.K. punk-rock movement, four lads from the East Side of Detroit joined forces on Valentine’s Day 1977, with a vision to bring their own brand of guitar driven pop-rock to America. Appropriately enough the original quartet of Wally Palmar (vocals/guitar/harmonica), Mike Skill (lead guitar/vocals), Rich Cole (bass/vocals) and Jimmy Marinos (vocals/drums) named their newly established collective, The Romantics. But The Romantics were not a punk band per se, but rather took the oft time anarchic high energy of that brand, and harnessed it into their own formula of power pop-rock. They drew inspiration from the simplicity of the 60s British Invasion bands - the Kinks, the Yardbirds and the like - and melded it with the raw edged sound of some of their Detroit forefathers such as The Detroit Wheels, MC5 and the Stooges - and arguably owe a debt of inspiration to the Ramones.

Their surging high energy live performances were backed by a sharp image, not unlike the Knack (see future post), in terms of matching attire and relatively short hair - no big hair glam metal manes for these guys. They started writing their own songs, and had soon released their first single independently, comprising the first two songs they had written as a group - ‘Little White Lies’ and ‘I Can’t Tell You Anything’. Released in late 1977 on the group’s own Spider Records label, it didn’t sell many copies but that didn’t matter, it represented the first translation of The Romantics stage fury into a studio environment. Given these guys could play up a storm, it was simply a matter of the production team giving them the cue to let rip, and remembering to hit record.

The Romantics then embarked on conquering the entire U.S. East Coast, and in the process of extending their tour into Canada they came to the attention of Greg Shaw who ran a small time label called Bomb! Records, out of Toronto. Shaw gave them a deal to record an EP, which featured the track ‘Tell It To Carrie’. The EP sold well enough to indicate bigger things were on the horizon for The Romantics, and ‘Tell It To Carrie’ was the most advanced template yet of the band’s searing guitar power-pop formula to come.

Before long The Romantics were being labelled as part of the burgeoning ‘new wave’ movement, which in the U.S. represented a cleaner cut, more commercially palatable derivative of punk. 1979 saw a record contract with Nemperor Records, and again not unlike The Knack, The Romantics recorded their debut album in a quick fire period of three weeks. Producer Peter Solley managed to capture the raw but ultimately tight stage performance of The Romantics on their eponymous debut studio album. The matching fluorescent pink suits worn by the band on the album cover, reflected the sparkling pop-rock music contained within. Their earlier singles ‘Little White Lies’ and ‘Tell It To Carrie’ were included, but the stand out track was the new single ‘What I Like About You’. The rollicking rambunctious pop-rock number somehow managed to miss the mark on the U.S. charts (#49) in early 1980, but when it hit the airwaves in Australia mid year, it skyrocketed The Romantics to #2 nationally, spending 23 weeks on the national chart. Drummer Jimmy Marinos delivered a vocal tour de force on the track, backed by great harmonies, exemplary guitar work and Wally Palmar laying down a wailing harmonica solo. When compared to The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’, of just a year previous, The Romantics’ ‘What I Like About You’ stands firm as one of the finest examples of guitar-driven power-pop of that era. The follow up single ‘When I Look In Your Eyes’ and a polished cover of Ray Davies’ ‘She’s Got Everything’ gave ‘The Romantics’ (OZ#78/US#61) album everything it needed to be considered a first class debut effort.

Before the end of 1980 The Romantics had released their sophomore album ‘National Breakout’ (US#176), also produced by Peter Solley. A hectic touring schedule, which included Australia and Europe, hadn’t impeded the band’s song writing, and with added influences as diverse as surf music and Motown, it was apparent The Romantics weren’t about to rest on the same stylistic formula that had worked so well on their debut. For 1981’s album ‘Strictly Personal’ (US#182), The Romantics experienced their first line-up change with lead guitarist Mike Skill departing, replaced by Coz Canler. They also had a new producer on board with Mike Stone taking over from Peter Solley. Despite continuing to wow live audiences, The Romantics consistent popularity didn’t translate into great album sales or hit singles during this period.

Original lead guitarist Mike Skill then returned to the fold to assume bass duties following the departure of Rich Cole. The song writing collective of Palmar, Skill and Marinos, sometimes credited as ‘Palmarinoskill’, was back in action for The Romantics next album ‘In Heat’, released late in 1983. The album had been recorded in Miami during May and June 1983, the band taking a little more time over things this time around. Producer Peter Solley also came back into the fray, and he oversaw production on arguably The Romantics most commercially geared album to date. The lead out single was the radio friendly ‘Talking In Your Sleep’ which hit the charts almost immediately during October ‘83. The song became by far The Romantics biggest selling single, peaking at #3 on the U.S. Hot 100, and climbing to #14 in Australia in early ‘84. The follow up ‘One In A Million’ racked up sufficient sales to also crack the top 10 U.S. Mainstream Rock Charts (#37 Hot 100), pushing sales of ‘In Heat’ to platinum levels (US#14). The album also featured an interesting version of ‘Shake A Tail Feather’, and the minor rock hit ‘Rock You Up’, which highlighted a more arena-rock sound edge to The Romantics. It was perhaps this shift in style and focus that contributed to divisions within the band, and between band and management. The resultant fallout claimed Jimmy Marinos as a casualty, when the founding drummer left before the end of 1984.

David Petratos was recruited in place of Marinos, and in time for The Romantics next album, 1985’s ‘Rhythm Romance’. The album saw a further shift away from the band’s original simpler, straight edged power-pop toward slickly produced commercial rock. Though it yielded a minor hit in ‘Test Of Time’ (US#71), it was the first album by The Romantics to miss the U.S. charts altogether. The commercial disappointment of ‘Rhythm Romance’ resulted in The Romantics being dropped by Nemperor and their parent label Epic. The next few years proved a trying time for The Romantics, in every aspect of their career. It came to light that the band’s management had been licensing some of The Romantics’ songs for commercial use, without getting the ok from the band themselves. A prolonged and bitter legal wrangle ensued, which effectively tied the hands of The Romantics in terms of releasing any new material and even touring. With the royalty checks in stasis and no prospect of a breakthrough, it seemed by the late 80s that The Romantics were flatlining. Drummer David Petratos left the scene, and the remaining trio invited former Blondie sticks man Clem Burke to come on board during 1990. The new line-up began tentatively retracing the steps of their early career, re-discovering their old fan base and discovering a new one as a live act. With royalties and licensing fees locked up in legal proceedings, it was the band’s only means of income during the early 90s.

With the promise of a light at the end of the litigation tunnel, The Romantics released the five track EP ‘Made In Detroit’ during 1994 on a new label Westbound Records. Later in 1994 the news got better again for The Romantics when they received the gong for ‘Outstanding Pop/Rock Recording Artists’ at Detroit’s prestigious Motor City Music Awards. 1995 saw The Romantics finally regain control of their publishing rights and back catalogue, laying to rest seven years of litigation. Burke left to resume Blondie duties and original drummer Jimmy Marinos returned to the group during 1996/97. 1997 also saw the release of the live album ‘King Biscuit Flower Hour’, which had been recorded when The Romantics were at the peak of their powers in 1983.

Over the last decade The Romantics have maintained a solid touring schedule, up to an including 2008. During 2003 they recorded their first new studio album in over fifteen years. ‘61/49’ was named after the famous crossroads near Clarksdale, Mississippi at which it’s reputed famed bluesman Robert Johnson made his pact with the devil, and the album was intended to be The Romantics salute to the roots of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. In addition to the core trio of Palmar, Skill and Canler, drummer Clem Burke had returned to the fray (in between Blondie duties). Original drummer Jimmy Marinos also guested on a couple of tracks. The Romantics’ current line-up still boasts Palmar, Skill and Canler, but when Burke once more returned to Blondie, he recommended drummer Brad Elvis as his replacement.

Though ‘Talking In Your Sleep’ was by far their biggest U.S. hit, The Romantics remain best known for the power-pop anthem ‘What I Like About You. The song has featured in a U.S. sitcom of the same name, and been utilised in commercials for products such as Budweiser Beer, the Home Box Office (H.B.O.) cable TV network, and I recall the Holden car company in Australia using the tune for several ad campaigns. In early 2008 The Romantics won a law suit against the manufacturers behind the computer game ‘Guitar Hero - Rock Of The 80s’, for that companies use of a version of ‘What I Like About You’ in the game. It was alleged and judged that the game’s version too closely resembled The Romantics original.

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