In the mid-'80s, while I was in The Del-Lords, I started hanging out at this after-hours bar in the East Village called No Se No, which was one of the hubs of a new live-music scene that was happening in the East Village. There were all these little bars that started booking live bands, some of which—like the Clintons and the World Famous Blue Jays—I ended up producing records for. There was a lot of music going on, and the overall vibe was fun and positive, as opposed to hanging out at CBGB looking at your split of the door hoping that some record-company guy might show up.
At some point, I found out that No Se No's policy was that if you played there, you were entitled to free beer for life. So I put together a little band, Roscoe's Gang, to play there. It started out as an informal thing with a free-floating lineup; sometimes it was me and the other Del-Lords, sometimes Peter Holsapple from the dB's or Syd Straw would join us. And there were some other guys from that scene, like Mr. Thing, who'd worked the streets of New York and Paris as a street musician; I produced a 45 for him called "Avenue B is the Place to Be." And Breakfast George, a South African who was also part of the NYC/Paris street musician axis. And Jack Boy Smead, who'd played guitar in the '60s Chicago garage band the Banshees; Jack Boy had a band called the Boy Brothers, who I'd sit in with sometimes. There were probably some other people who played with us that I'm forgetting.
The Roscoe's Gang gigs before this record were kind of infrequent. It was a pretty much a party thing; we did a lot of covers, including a lot of the ones that ended up on this record. It was loose and informal, as opposed to the Del-Lords, which was a very tight, rehearsed band. I always felt like the only aspect of jazz that we could really use in rock 'n' roll was the ability to play with different combinations of people and put a little different spin on the songs. So the Roscoe's Gang thing gave me the loose thing that I was looking for.
In 1986 or so, the Del-Lords had just finished making our third record, Based On A True Story, and our manager, Mike Lembo, called us in for a meeting. He told us that our record company, Enigma, wasn't gonna release the album for six months, and that we should probably all get jobs. Everybody left the meeting pretty bummed out. I started thinking maybe there was different way for me to fry this fish.
I had a four-track cassette rig at home, and had been having a lot of fun working on my own stuff, learning about recording and learning to play some other instruments. So I called Lembo and said "Y'know, I'd like to make my own record, fuck the job." I told him I already had the concept for it, that I had a band in mind, and that I already had most of the songs demoed. Lembo said, "If you can get me a tape and explain the whole project on one single sheet of paper, I can get you a record deal." So I put together a tape of about eight songs and wrote an outline explaining the plan for the record I wanted to make, and sure enough Lembo came back with a record deal within a week.
My idea was to use my favorite band at the time, the Morells, from Springfield, Missouri. Lou Whitney, their bassist, had produced the first Del-Lords demos at his studio in Springfield. Lou also produced the Del Lords Frontier Days record. I learned a whole lot about recording from Lou. So the idea was to do it down at Lou's studio, using the Morells as the band, along with some of my New York friends like Peter Holsapple and Syd Straw and Jack Boy and Mr. Thing, and having Lou co-produce the record with me.
The Morells—Lou plus Donnie D.C. Thompson (guitar), Joe Terry (keyboards) and Ron "Rongo" Gremp (drums)—was almost the same band as the Skeletons, except for the drummer. But the Morells were more rock 'n' roll, more Stonesy, as opposed to the Skeletons, who were more like the Beach Boys. The Skeletons were great, but the Morells were more where I was coming from. I'm from the midwest, they're from the midwest; I really related to those guys and their whole thing, and I enjoyed hanging out in Springfield. Being from the Midwest, even though I'd lived in Hollywood and London and everything, sometimes the New York-ness of the New York thing got to me. Like when I'd be riding around with the Del-Lords, and we'd go into Denny's and they'd ask the waitress if it was real turkey or turkey roll—c'mon, there's some things you should know.
I wasn't really thinking about launching a solo career, I was just thinking it would be cool to make this rock and roll record with the Morells. It was really just about going down to Springfield and having a good time making a record. Those guys were truly one of the best bands I'd ever seen in my life. They had a lot of the craft thing going that was missing from the post punk DIY college rock scene. Musicians!
My other main idea for the album was that I wanted every song sound like it could be my theme song. To me, one of the most ultimate rock 'n' roll things of all time is James Brown's appearance in the movie Ski Party, which is the wintertime equivalent of the Frankie-and-Annette Beach Party movies. At one point in the movie, they slide open the French doors, and "Hey kids, it's James Brown and His Famous Flames." They're wearing ski sweaters, they shimmy in, they rock like crazy, they shimmy out, and they're gone. It was absolutely perfect—just one song, The Song. And on the Roscoe's Gang record, the goal was to have every song feel like that.
The band for the whole record was the Morells, with the addition of Syd Straw in the role of Girl Singer, Peter Holsapple on guitar and mandolin, Jack Boy on harmonica, Mr. Thing on sax and Springfield legend Jim Wunderle screaming some harmony. Will Rigby from the dB's somehow ended up in Springfield and played tambourine on one cut; later on, Will ended up playing drums on more Roscoe's Gang gigs than any other drummer, probably, but that wouldn't happen till the '90s. I had made plans for Mojo Nixon to be part of the record, but he ended up getting hospitalized for a Jolt Cola overdose while on tour so he sent his partner Skid Roper, who played rhythm stick on "30 Days In the Workhouse. "
The whole album was mostly cut pretty live, with everyone in the same room. In the original credits it sort of suggests that it was cut completely live, but that wasn't exactly true; "Vampire Blues" was the only thing that was completely live. Otherwise, we overdubbed backing vocals and fixed things here and there, but it was pretty much done as a full-band thing, and sometimes as a big-band thing.
After the Roscoe's Gang record came out, it was hard to tour behind it because the Del-Lords got busy and I really couldn't afford to get this Morells to go play with me. I played some shows in the midwest with them, and they came to New York and played with me on one great trip, and there was that one L.A. gig, but it was really kinda difficult and expensive to get that show together.
There was also an eventful Roscoe's Gang trip to Canada where it was just me, Straw, Jack Boy and Mr. Thing, plus my high-school drummer Larry "Wheels" Willey, whose dad was our band director in Batavia, Illinois. He hadn't played drums since high school, and I told him to listen to the Rolling Stones tune "Respectable," and when he could play along with it he'd be ready. He met up with us in Toronto, and they'd rented this big drum kit, and I started taking pieces off of it until there was just a little four-piece kit. We played a couple crazy shows up there.
I wasn't thinking of the whole Roscoe's Gang thing as a business. I didn't think too much about going on tour or getting on the radio. There was no plan beyond having a great time and making a great record. At the time, I still thought of the Del-Lords as my main gig, so I wasn't looking for a new career or anything like that. For me, this record is about having a blast making a record. Hope you dig it. I still do.
New York City
released June 7, 1988
Produced by Lou Whitney & Eric Ambel
Recorded and mixed by Lou Whitney at Column One, Springfield MO, the recording capital of Greene County
Assistant Engineer and Production Uncoordinator: Jim Wunderle
Re-Mastered in 2004 by Scott Hull at Masterdisk, NYC
This record was cut using the exclusive OTOBOD Method for State Of The Vibe Productions.
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