Sunday, January 9, 2011


NRBQ were a great band. Not a good one that just never hit, but a truly great act. You had to see them live. But even if you never did see their fabulously crazy live show, there is much to enjoy in their records.

The original quintet version of the group made two records. The line-up of Terry Adams- piano, clavinet, organ, vocals, Joey Spampinato- bass, vocals, Frank Gadler- lead vocals, Steve Furgeson- guitar, vocals, and Tom Staley- drums was an exceptionally talented bunch. Steve Furgeson was a particularly hot guitarist. The country/rockabilly/rock 'n' roll/experimental stew they purveyed on NRBQ and Boppin' The Blues (with Carl Perkins), both from 1969, showed a love of diverse songs in the chosen covers, as well as some very sturdy songwriting from the band itself.

In 1972, Scraps featured a slightly more pop-like sound. It had the feel of a transition record, and it certainly was just that. Al Anderson had replaced Steve Furgeson, but Gadler was still on board. Plenty of really good songs with Howard Johnson's Got His Ho-Jo Workin', Magnet, New Tune, and Get A Grip. Also in '72, Workshop was released. Frank Gadler is gone, but Tom Staley is still there on the skins for the last time. It is a lost gem, and one of the more consistent records in their catalog. RC Cola And A Moon Pie, Blues Stay Away From Me, Deaf, Dumb And Blind, and Hearts Of Stone all rock. Joey's Mona and I Got A Little Secret are perfect examples of that Paul McCartney/Jonathan Richmond hybrid that he will do so well for years to come.

Between 1972 and 1974, Staley left the band, to be replaced by Tom Ardolino on drums. This quartet version of the band (Adams, Spampinato, Anderson, Ardolino) lasted twenty years, a durable outfit by any standards, but especially when there's not a single chart hit the whole time. And no reason, except that maybe Terry Adams is too crazy for fame. But really - rock 'n' roll magic with fun lyrics, great vocals, three songwriters, killer (and concise) lead guitar breaks, the best rock 'n' roll keyboards ever (Adams' clavinet), and a solid rhythm section in Spampinato and Ardolino. No one knows why it never happened. But It never did.

There is a lot of material released between 1977 and 1994 by this band, and I'll try to let you know which of these babies to scoop up from the used record bins. The band returned to recording in 1977 with All Hopped Up, and it's a good but not great record. Rocket In My Pocket, Cecelia, and Still In School are some of the strongest songs.

1978's At Yankee Stadium was one of the better studio records they made, and the beginning of a run of four fantastic records. At Yankee Stadium (I Want You Bad, The Same Old Thing, It Comes To Me Naturally, Ridin' In My Car), Kick Me Hard 1979 (Wacky Tobacky, It Was A Accident, Hot Biscuits And Sweet Marie, Don't You Know), Tiddlywinks 1980 (Feel You Around Me, Me And The Boys, That I Get Back Home, Roll Call, Definition Of Love), and Grooves In Orbit 1983 (Rain At The Drive-In, 12 Bar Blues, A Girl Like That, Get Rhythm) all contained classics, and there is very little filler. This run was their finest period. All four of the records above are essential. Especially Tiddlywinks. That's right, it is especially essential.

Next up was Tapdancin' Bats in 1983, a record that you either love or hate. Big Goodbyes, Trouble At The Henhouse, and Pretty Thing are strong, but the record suffers from a little too much experimentation (or screwing around) and not enough songwriting. 1987's God Bless Us All is a good live record, with Crazy As A Fox and Sittin' In The Park highlights. Diggin Uncle Q 1988 was a good but unfocused live album, and Wild Weekend 1989 was a good but unfocused studio album. Al Anderson's swan song with the band was Message For The Mess Age 1994, and it was their best effort since Grooves In Orbit. Over Your Head, Ramona, Advice For Teenagers and A Better Word For Love were all fine songs.

In 1994 Anderson left and was replaced by Joey's younger brother Johnny Spaminato on guitar and vocals. They were still fun to see live, but it was never quite the same without Al. 2002's NRBQ was surprisingly good, with Blame It On The World, Sail On Sail On, and Careful What You Ask For leading the way. 2001's Atsa My Band was another pretty good record. 2004's Dummy was the last studio recording, and it has a few keepers. But really it was never quite the same after Al Anderson left. His amazing guitar was, oddly enough, missed the least. His quality songwriting couldn't be replaced, and Johnny wasn't the nuanced singer that Al was, either.

Several other early live and unreleased compilations appeared on the scene since 2004, and fans will suck up anything. The Ludlow Garage 1970 2006 CD is worth a listen, but not essential.

The first two, NRBQ and Boppin' The Blues are killer. Scraps and Workshop are gems. At Yankee Stadium, Kick Me Hard, Tiddlywinks, and Grooves In Orbit strongly argue against the "great live band couldn't do it in the studio" crap that some say plagued the band. Message For The Mess Age was their last noble attempt, but it isn't Workshop or Tiddlywinks.

The 2 CD Peek-A-Boo: Best Of NRBQ from 1990 is a good sampler. The 1985 compilation Uncommon Denominators is also well worth grabbing up, and spans all except the first two records.

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