Monday, 26 November 2018

The McCoys: "Hang On Sloopy" Tops The Pop Charts And Kickstarts Rick Derringer's Rock 'N' Roll Career!

The McCoys get ready to take off!
Cover photo from You Make Me Feel so Good 
(Bang Records, 1966)
Originally published in American Music Press (1992)

By Devorah Ostrov

Just out of high school and about to embark on a major tour with the Standells and the Rolling Stones, Rick Zehringer launched his group's debut LP with some cheesy introductions.

"Before we present our first album," the teenager says a little shyly, "I'd like to introduce the McCoys to those of you who don't already know us..."

Rick begins with the band's drummer, Randy Zehringer, who he thinks "is the very best drummer in the whole world." He explains, "Now, the reason I have to tell everyone that is because he's my brother, and when I don't say he's the best drummer in the world I get in an awful lot of trouble when we get home."

Hang on Sloopy (Bang Records, 1965)
Ronny Brandon is next up, but Rick is apparently struggling for an interesting titbit to share about the organist. "Now, he's the only member of the McCoys that doesn't live in the same town as the rest of us," he states and then a bit awkwardly adds, "And he does a real good job for us, too."

The "newest addition to the group," bassist Randy Hobbs is introduced next. "But he does a real good job for us also," remarks Rick. And he makes sure to point out that bassist Randy is "not the same as the Randy on the drums."

Finally, for the benefit of what they must have imagined to be a very young following, Rick announces, "The instrument I play is called the guitar." And he almost apologetically tacks on, "I try my best to play it."

It takes a full two-minutes to "Meet the McCoys" before Randy on the drums kicks into the group's 1965 worldwide smash hit "Hang on Sloopy." Rick would soon change his surname to Derringer, hook up with Johnny and Edgar Winter, write "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo," and become an international guitar hero. But it all began with the McCoys. (Actually, before they became the McCoys they called themselves the Rick Z Combo and had a fling with the moniker Rick and the Raiders.)

* * *

The Rolling Stones, the McCoys and
the Standells - June 28, 1966 at the
 Buffalo Memorial Auditorium
Fourteen-year-old Rick had already been playing the guitar for five years, and his 12-year-old brother Randy had been drumming for four, when the Zehringer family moved from Fort Recovery, Ohio to Union City, Indiana in 1962.

"I started playing the year Elvis became famous," Rick recalled during an afternoon soundcheck at Nightbreak, where later that night he debuted some fiery new material. "So, I was in awe of that kind of rock 'n' roll. And my uncle played guitar. He played a lot of country music, so I listened to a lot of that. I listened to anybody that played guitar. I watched The Lawrence Welk Show just because he had a great guitar player in those days. And Ozzie and Harriet because Rick Nelson's band had a great guitar player."

The Zehringer's new next door neighbor, 15-year-old Dennis Kelly, expressed a desire to play the bass. So, with Randy on drums and Rick assuming the group's leadership on guitar and vocals, the trio began rehearsing. "I'm  a Leo," he muses. "I guess that automatically made me the leader. I was always telling them what to do."

According to Rick, the first song they learned to play was an instrumental by the Ventures called "The McCoy" (from their 1960 LP Walk, Don't Run). "We decided that if we called ourselves the McCoys we would also, coincidentally, have a theme song. It was the only song we knew, but it was our theme song!"

Magazine clipping about the McCoys being named Teen-age Heart Ambassadors 
by the American Heart Association. What's their favorite food? asks the reporter.
 "Give me a nice juicy steak any day," says 18-year-old Rick. 
As they were all underage, the group's first gigs were uneventful affairs: battles of the bands, high school sock hops and proms.

"We played things like Kiwanis Club meetings," laughs Rick. "They'd say, 'Oh, the little kids from down the street would be great entertainment for our meetings.' From that, we got a regular thing every week on a local radio station [WDRK in Winchester, Indiana] where we did a show from the front window of a department store. We went from that to Greenville, Ohio where we got a gig every Saturday night at a local armory. The proceeds from our shows eventually paid for the building of Greenville's community swimming pool."

"Fever" b/w "Sorrow" - German picture sleeve single 
(Atlantic Records, 1966)
However, Rick insists the band never used their youth as a gimmick. "I'm sure that's the way some people looked at it, but the thing that made it not a gimmick was that we were pretty good."

When Dennis graduated high school and went to college, working during the week became difficult. Randy Joe Hobbs eventually replaced him on bass, and they added keyboardist Ronny Brandon.

Fate finally intervened in July 1965 when the McCoys opened (and doubled as the back-up band) for the Strangeloves in Dayton, Ohio.

The Strangeloves weren't really a band as such, but the studio persona of songwriters/ producers Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer (FGG Productions). In mid-1965 the threesome had released "I Want Candy," a Bo Diddley-inspired tune that became the first big hit for Atlantic's new offshoot Bang Records, headed by Bert Berns (AKA Bert Russell).

A prolific songwriter himself, Berns' impressive catalog includes "Twist and Shout," "Piece of My Heart," and "Here Comes the Night." In 1964, a black vocal group called the Vibrations had taken the Bert Berns/Wes Farrell-penned song "My Girl Sloopy" to the top of the R&B charts.

The Gene Pitney Show 
featuring the McCoys - May 18, 1966
But Berns thought the song, given a breezy beat and played by four young boys with Beatles' haircuts, could become an even bigger hit on the pop charts.

So, while touring the US with "I Want Candy," it became the Strangeloves' quest to find such a band. Dayton was the last stop on the tour, and they hadn't found anyone remotely Beatles-like.

"Not knowing this," says Rick, "we happened to wear our Beatles suits that night!"

One version of the McCoys' backstory suggests that Rick recorded the song's vocals over an already existing backing track. But during our interview he recalls the Strangeloves asking, "You guys wanna come to New York and record 'My Girl Sloopy?'" The boys said something along the lines of, "You betcha!" And the very next day, Rick and Randy's parents drove the group to New York to record the song.

While the original lyrics remained intact, its three verses were cut to two (the third verse would pop up on later Bang compilations) and for obvious reasons the title was altered to "Hang on Sloopy." As Rick observes, "The chorus says 'Hang on Sloopy/Sloopy hang on...' It doesn't say 'My girl Sloopy.' It made sense for us to change it."

Tonight: KNAK presents a Battle Of The Bands
Tomorrow: The Rolling Stones, the McCoys & the Standells
Rick also imprinted the song with a short, but distinctive, guitar solo. "They said, 'Go for it!' And I went for it," he enthuses.

In early October 1965 "Hang on Sloopy" hit #1 on the US Billboard chart. Eventually, the McCoys' version of the song would become a worldwide smash hit. Rick still remembers the thrill he got the night he came back to his hotel room after playing a show in Washington D.C. and turned on the news.

The McCoys - Bang Records promo photo
 "I heard it played over a loudspeaker in Red Square," he says. "Moscow had decided to play rock 'n' roll for the people, and when they turned on the speakers in Red Square 'Hang on Sloopy' was the song that was playing!"

Hang on Sloopy the album quickly followed the single. Produced by the Feldman Goldstein, Gottehrer team, the LP contained three FGG-penned songs, including the excellent pop ballad "Sorrow" (featuring bassist Randy Joe Hobbs on lead vocals and harmonica), which later became a UK hit for the Merseys. (In turn, David Bowie covered the Merseys' version on Pin Ups.)

The remainder were all covers: "I Don't Mind" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" were well-known James Brown numbers; "All I Really Want to Do" came from the Bob Dylan catalog; "High Heel Sneakers" and "Stormy Monday Blues" were R&B standards.

Two tracks — "Fever" (perhaps best-known as Peggy Lee's signature song) and Marvin Gaye's "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" — proved resilient enough to withstand FGG's cursory production job and exceled as pure pop. (Released as the follow-up to "Hang on Sloopy," "Fever" became a Top Ten hit in its own right.)

Meanwhile, the photos on the album's back cover (snapped during the McCoys first promotional tour with the Strangeloves) showed four squeaky-clean, happy-go-lucky moptops playing onstage, riding atop a stagecoach, and merrily spending their royalties.

"Hang on Sloopy" b/w "Fever"
Japanese picture sleeve 45 (Stateside Records, 1966)

"Wherever we stopped they'd take photos," reveals Rick. "They'd go, 'Get up on the stagecoach guys! Go ahead! Hold the guns! Perfect! Put on the fur coat! I can see it now!"

From the beginning Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer viewed the McCoys as little more than puppets, and whether the band liked it or not, their image had already been decided upon: they were to be marketed as a teenybopper's dream date.

"We didn't have much say about anything," states Rick. "They pretty much chose what we did and where we went." (To this day, he bristles when asked his favorite color. "I don't remember what I said in those days," he grumbles.)

Touring with Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars" (a buss full of chart-toppers driving cross-country; something Stiff Records would later revive) assured plenty of adolescent adoration. As part of "The Gene Pitney Show" they played alongside Bobby Goldsboro, B.J. Thomas, the Outsiders, and Chad & Jeremy. While the "Pop Music Festival" in Ft. Worth, Texas paired them with the Doors, the Box Tops, the Standells, the Seeds, and the Electric Prunes.

Back cover photo for the Infinite McCoys LP
(Mercury Records, 1968)
"No one played a full set," says Rick about the Caravan of Stars shows. "Each band would play for 20-minutes or half-an-hour." As far as sorting out who headlined and who opened, he adds, "We weren't too concerned about it; everybody had big hits. There wasn't much jostling around about who was the biggest."

More so than details about the individual shows, he remembers one night's long bus ride: "The bass player from Freddy and the Dreamers was sitting next to me. He started telling me about his life from the day he was born, and he was pretty much charting his life on a daily basis. At about year six I was falling asleep. Everybody else on the bus had long since fallen asleep. I fought for hours and hours to stay awake."

Poster for the Jimi Hendrix Experience
with the McCoys and the Soft Machine 
November 16, 1968
Rick later discovered that his conversation with the British bassist was an introduction to the effects of speed! "I was such an innocent," he exclaims. "This guy was on bennies, and I was trying to listen to him all night!"

In 1966 the McCoys (along with the Standells) opened several shows on the Rolling Stones tour. Immediate Records, headed by Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, had issued "Hang on Sloopy" in the UK and Rick figures the tour offer was made to cover their bet. "They wanted to make sure it became a hit," he says, "and one way to ensure that was to put us on the road with them."

So, what was it like? Again, it's an offstage incident that Rick most clearly recalls: "We all rode in the same charted airplane with the Stones every day. And everybody had compartmentalized food trays. There was the entrée section, and another section for the salad, and a dessert section. One night, the Stones were all up in the front of the cabin, in a big booth area. Us and the Standells were sitting around, and everybody's having their dinner. We all got done about the same time and the Standells and the McCoys are looking at each other going, 'You guys got any dessert?' At about that time, the stewardess came in from the front of the cabin by the Stones' booth, and she had a tray piled high with cups of ice cream. As she entered the room the Stones turned to everybody else going, 'You don't get no dessert! You don't get no dessert!'"

* * *

Autographed McCoys poster for a
show at the Springbrook Gardens 
Teen Club - August 15, 1967
With success came the realization that keyboardist Ronny Brandon couldn't actually play and needed to go. "In the beginning it was fun 'cause he happened to have his own organ," acknowledges Rick. "Nobody else owned keyboards in those days! So, we could put up with the fact that he couldn't play by showing him what to do and laughing about it. But all of a sudden we were getting paid a lot of money to be good."

The keyboardist was fired, but "he turned around and sued us," chuckles Rick. "He said his job in the band wasn't 'musician.' He was the heartthrob of the McCoys!" Ronny lost his court case and was replaced by Bobby Peterson.

However, the band had other things to be unhappy about. As Rick points out: "We had been writing our own songs before we did 'Hang on Sloopy,'  but we went into a situation where these producers had an agenda of their own which included them finding songs and them writing songs."

"We were also disenchanted with what was happening to our image," he continues. "There was a kind of music coming in that people started calling 'bubblegum.' It included groups like the 1910 Fruitgum Co. and the Ohio Express; all the bands from that era got lumped together, and with 'Hang on Sloopy' we became one of those. We were labelled as teenyboppers, and it bummed us out because it had no relationship to the music, in reality, that we were doing."

According to Rick, the McCoys were by nature an R&B band. "We had been playing songs like 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag,' 'I Don't Mind,' and 'Hi-Heel Sneakers' in our set. That's why, after the McCoys, we were able to become Johnny Winter's back-up band. That's why we were able to become the house band at The Scene in New York City. That's why we were able to have Jimi Hendrix come down and jam with us three or four nights a week while we were playing there. We were basically an R&B band. People just didn't know that."

The McCoys — Mercury Records promo photo
L-R: Randy Zehringer, Rick Zehringer, Bobby Peterson & Randy Hobbs
In 1966, the McCoys released a second (and final) album on Bang. Featuring a cover photo of the boys boarding a teeny airplane, You Make Me Feel so Good yielded one single (a cover of the Richie Valens' classic "C'mon Let's Go") which very nearly cracked the Top 20. Not bad, but not nearly the phenomenon "Hang on Sloopy" had been.

As disenchanted as the band was with the record company, so was Bang now with the McCoys. "We were disposable as far as they looked at it," says Rick. "To this day, record companies look at young musicians as exploitable, and they exploit them as long as the records sell. And when those records stop selling, they feel they can dispose of the band. We were kind of at that stage."

Advert for a Pop Music Festival in
 Ft. Worth, Texas featuring the McCoys
Although Bang would continue to issue McCoys 45s (sometimes combining non-album cuts with random tunes from the second LP) well into 1967, only the title track b/w "Runaway" would come close to troubling Billboard's Top 50.

Timing wise, it couldn't have been better for band. "We were looking for the first opportunity to get away from Bang Records," asserts Rick.

So, when the McCoys contract with Bang ended after the second album, the group didn't ask to renew it. "I think the record company was pretty surprised!" he laughs.

Although Rick didn't reveal the specifics of the Bang contract — which their parents had to sign as the boys were all underage — he did state: "Our parents sold us down the river without realizing it. We read it, and we realized it didn't look very good, but we had nothing to compare it to."

Mercury Records offered them the freedom to write and produce their own material, and in 1968 the band released Infinite McCoys, the first of two (shall we say unconventional) albums for that label. "It was the height of the psychedelic period," says Rick, "and we jumped right on that bandwagon. Our stuff was pretty psychedelic, pretty avant-garde, pretty experimental."

Hang on Sloopy: The Best of the McCoys CD
 (Columbia/Epic Records 1995)
Rick admits that the Mercury albums "didn't sell at all." But he proudly states, "It's good stuff. John Lennon had both of those records in his collection."

And he points out that what those LPs accomplished was more important to the band than sales figures: "They broke the mold and showed people that we weren't teenyboppers."

In 1969 the group shed any remnants of their teen-dream image when Texas blues-guitarist Johnny Winter hired them as his band. Of the four McCoys, only keyboardist Bobby Peterson didn't the make the move. "He chose that moment to have a nervous breakdown," notes Rick.

However, Winter was obviously still apprehensive about their teenybopper past. "Our bubblegum image wasn't very pleasant for Johnny to think about," allows Rick. So, rather than call the collaboration Johnny Winter and the McCoys, the group oddly became Johnny Winter And. "That way we didn't say — And The McCoys," observes Rick.

By the time the Zehringer brothers hooked up with Winter, Randy had shortened his surname to Z and Rick had altered his to Derringer. Why the change?

Advert for the All American Boy LP
Rick Derringer's solo debut on Blue Sky Records
"When I started working with Johnny on that first album, I thought it would be an opportunity to do a better record for more numbers," says Rick. "And I thought it would be a good opportunity to unleash a new name. Zehringer was always hard for people to pronounce. At the supermarket, my family will answer to any page that starts with Z! So, I was looking for a professional name, but then your family feels bad: 'What? Isn't my name good enough for him?' So, it's very hard to find a name that you can justify to your family as well as yourself."

His inspiration might have come from the pistol used on the Bang Records label, but a more interesting story says he saw the name in a dream — a scenario Rick is happy to support during our interview: "I saw the possibilities in a dream. My middle initial is D, and somehow the Z fell off and the D moved over, and I became Derringer! I thought, 'This is great! My family will dig it 'cause it's almost Zehringer. It sounds almost the same.'"

Following incredibly successful collaborations with both Johnny and Edgar Winter, Rick finally launched his decades-long solo career with 1973's All American Boy on Blue Sky Records. You can find out more about Rick Derringer by visiting his official website:

* Many thanks to Dyan Derringer for her help with arranging this interview.
* Thanks also to Jørgen Gram Christensen for finding many of the images that I've included here.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Cunninghams: Nice Guys Who Just Want You To Be As Comfortable As Possible

Seven Pearson
Photo from the Zeroed Out CD
Originally published in Teenage Kicks #2 (Fall 1997)

By Devorah Ostrov

After our pre-soundcheck, hour-long interview with the Cunninghams was over, Michael and I were out in the Warfield's glitzy lobby, chatting informally and comparing fingernail polish with the group's impossibly cute frontman, Seven Pearson.

"So, who are your favorite bands?" he asks me.

"The Replacements..."

"We've been compared to them," he says with a smile.

I can understand why. Both groups play/played an appealingly chaotic brand of brash pop-punk that sounds/sounded as if they just might explode at any second (or in the case of the Replacements, fall off the stage). And Seven delivers his angst-ridden lyrics of alienation, drug abuse and dissatisfaction (with the odd uplifting number like "Bottle Rockets" thrown in for good measure) with the same raspy, "I'm-so-pissed-off," impassioned intensity Westerberg (and for that matter Joe Strummer) was so good at.

Seven and Eric onstage at the Warfield
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
(Seven also says that they've been compared to Redd Kross, one of my other fave groups, but I can't see that at all.)

Anyway, what it all boils down to is, the Cunninghams have a lot in common with many of the bands that you already know and love.

And that's OK, because as Seven and guitarist Eric Craig (sporting faded blue hair and the smeared remnants of the previous night's makeup) stress during the interview, seemingly in all earnestness, is that they want people to feel comfortable with the Cunninghams.

Hence, taking their name from the '50s-based sitcom featuring the Fonz. "We wanted a name that was really common and familiar," explains Seven. "An icon-type thing. I mean, we could've been called Charlie's Angels!"

Hence, throwing random pop music references into their lyrics: "Ruby Tuesday got a second wind," sings Seven in "Narcolepsy;" "Junior's Farm" can be spotted on the right in "Generic Song;" the antagonist of "Wannabe" is warned Police-style, "Don't stand so close..."

Seven Pearson
Cover pic for Teenage Kicks #2
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"It's a Where's Waldo kind of thing," quips Seven. "And it goes back to making things familiar to people. When you're familiar, you're comfortable. We just want you to be as comfortable as possible."

Later that evening, as openers for INXS, the Cunninghams blasted ever so confidently and energetically through a 30-minute set, acquainting the largely indifferent audience (with the exception of myself and Michael, I think it's safe to say that no one was there specifically to see the Cunninghams) with just about everything on their debut CD, Zeroed Out.

And Seven (looking like a classic punk with short-cropped, jet-black hair and tight PVC trousers, but sans his trademark heavy eyeliner) made one member of the audience feel particularly comfortable when he stood at the very edge of the stage, leant over the barricade and shouted the lyrics from "Wannabe" in the guy's face.

The story of the Cunninghams begins, not as Seven likes to say, "in the Amazon jungle," but in San Diego and Seattle. Seven spent his adolescence in the former, listening to his parent's soul and Motown record collection. "For me, that was good," he says. "That kind of music is all about vocals."

As a teenager, he discovered Queen ("Freddie Mercury was amazing!"), the Police ("They had a lot of harmony, a lot of melody"), and AC/DC. "The first record I ever bought was Highway to Hell," he gushes.

The Cunninghams: Scott Bickham, Eric Craig, Seven Pearson & Eliot Freed
Photos from the Zeroed Out CD
"That was the first record I ever bought, too!" exclaims Eric, who grew up in Seattle. "I bought it used from a little record store a block from my house. I think the first five records I bought were AC/DC."

"I bought it from a kid at school," says Seven, marvelling at this new-found bond. "That and Judas Priest. What was the live one?"

"Unleashed in the East," fills in Eric. These guys were obviously heavy metal geeks in high school.

Seven Pearson
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"Yeah," nods Seven. "And I stole Kiss' Destroyer from a kid down the street. I borrowed it from him and kept it. That one and Hotter than Hell."

Eric was also fond of Eddie Van Halen. But before he became just another flashy guitar hero, his teacher instilled in him the idea that anybody could be a great guitar player, but not everybody could write a great song.

At that point, he says, "I became more interested in changes and chord structuring and arranging. That was more interesting to me than playing the guitar."

A few years later, Eric had formed the grunge-era Jesus Headtrip. He recruited the by-then relocated Seven, who recruited second guitarist Scott Bickham. But that band "just wasn't happening," says Seven. "We came close to getting deals, but it just wasn't what we wanted to do."

About two years ago Jesus Headtrip morphed into the poppier/punkier Cunninghams. With the addition of Eliot Freed on drums, and an assortment of bass players, the group began recording demo tapes with producer Don Gilmore. Their last demo featured a good portion of the material included on Zeroed Out: "Bottle Rockets," "No Complaints," "Narcolepsy," "Wannabe," "Can't Wait" and "Alienate."

Scott and Johnny at the soundcheck
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Gilmore — who made a name for himself in some famous Seattle band which neither Eric or Seven can remember the name of — "knew some people in LA" and was instrumental (along with a series of live shows which created the proverbial "buzz") in getting the group signed to Warner Bros. offshoot Revolution Records.

"Without him, none of this would have happened," states Seven. "Thank you very much, Don Gilmore."

Still lacking a permanent bassist, the Cunninghams entered Seattle's Stepping Stone Studios at the end of last year, emerging with Zeroed Out. Its 13 brilliant tracks zig zag from the pop-fuelled nostalgia of "Days Gone By" and "Bottle Rockets" to the gritty reality of "No Complaints" and "Narcolepsy."

Between sips of water, Seven filled us in on the inspiration behind some of his well-turned lyrics, beginning with "Days Gone By": Ain't it funny how the time seems to slip away/What was cool before is now cliché...

Eric Craig at the soundcheck
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"It's kinda about scenes," he says. "They just come and go. Not necessarily the Seattle scene. Just all scenes."

Meanwhile, "Bottle Rockets" takes its cue from Seven's own childhood memories:

We were young and out for kicks
We were million dollar babies
Knievel was crazy
Bubblicious on your lips
We were all out of control
Always believed in the rock and roll...

"The happiest times of my life were when I was a little kid," he states. "I was really naïve and stupid, just starting to learn about life — you're first kiss, smoking your first joint, taking your first drink. And everybody chewed bubblegum!"

Meanwhile, it turns out that the adrenaline rush of "Wannabe," was the productive result of a "bad mood": Your circle closed to me made to feel like something/Less not enough for you well who needs those kind of/Friends when all I need is me — my life's a mess...

"When we do 'Wannabe' live," says Seven, "it's usually the last song. So, sometimes when I get off stage I'm still pissed off."

And the unhappy tale related in "Narcolepsy" is true:

Zeroed Out
(Revolution Records 1997)
Zeroed out on Vicodin
Sugar smack your only friend
Peel away your face on a Saturday night
Where do you get the appetite?

"That person was really sweet," offers Seven, "and to see her get into that scene, to see her literally lose her mind and have to go dry out... It was just sad."

But the most personally revealing lyrics belong to "Take It or Leave It":

Hold on tight, take a ride till you're scared
Jump off
I'm a creep, never sleep and I
Don't need anyone...

"I've been sober for eight or nine months now," acknowledges Seven, "but at that point I was just starting to get sober. I was trying to come to grips with it. Drugs and alcohol, man! For me, it wasn't good. I was a totally different person. I was a creep. I'm still a creep some days, but at least now I know it doesn't have to do with being on drugs or alcohol."

In all, the recording process took about four-and-a-half months (two months pre-production, two months actual recording, two weeks mastering). That's a coffee break for Queen, but a fairly long time by punk standards.

The Cunninghams pose backstage at the Warfield 
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"We just wanted to get it right," explains Seven.

"We worked really hard," says Eric.

Seven: "We didn't wanna put out a record thinking, 'We could've done this better.' Could've/should've... There was no way that was gonna happen."

Eric: "Every second that we were involved in it, we were constantly thinking, 'Is it good enough?' But now that we're away from all that, we can sit back and go, 'Yeah, it's good!'"

My photo pass for the INXS show. The
Cunninghams were the "suport" band.
With the CD completed, the search for a bass player began in earnest. "It's difficult to put together a band that has what it takes to go to the next level," contends Eric. "It takes years to find the different elements. You just have to slowly gather people together. You can't just put an ad in the paper."

As it happens, the Cunninghams put ads in papers all the way down the West Coast, then held auditions in LA. The first few hopefuls were dismissed outright. "We'd explain to them what we were shooting for," says Seven. "That the band was, y'know... poppy. And we had guys coming in who were bald-headed, buffed and tattooed. We were like, 'Ah... no.'"

"There were guys with hair down to their waist," chuckles Eric.

Seven can barely contain himself. "And they would send pictures to us where they would scribble out their hair with a marking pen. And we were like, 'So, this is what you would look like if you got in the band?'"

When cool-looking Johnny Martin, bassist for LA ska band Cousin Oliver showed up, the Cunninghams breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Seven messing around at the photo session
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Seven: "We kind of knew right when he walked in."

Eric: "We'd seen his band one night at the Whisky."

Seven: "We found him quite entertaining."

Eric: "He was really off the wall, and strange, and peculiar!"

Seven: "He definitely adds to our live show!"

Johnny joined just in time to be in the video for "Bottle Rockets," a simple concept featuring the group playing the song in the window of an LA furniture store ("They moved a bunch of stuff out and moved a bunch of crappy stuff in"), while various hired actors ogle them.

It took about 15 hours to film and caused one traffic collision ("This lady was driving along and she was looking at us, and she ran into the back of another car"). Maybe you've seen it on MTV's 120 Minutes; the Cunninghams haven't!

"The other night we were driving through Barstow," says Seven, "and I heard 'Bottle Rockets' on the radio for the first time! I was like, 'Jesus Christ!' But we haven't seen the video on MTV. Our friends are taping 120 Minutes for us."

According to Eric, "Bottle Rockets" was the obvious choice for the first video. "It's an easy song to bop your head to," he points out, "and it has catchy lyrics that everybody can identify with."

Johnny and Seven onstage at the Warfield
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"What songs do you like off there?" queries Seven.

I tell him that I really like "Wannabe," apparently just like everyone before me.

Seven: "Everybody likes 'Wannabe.'"

Eric: "It's our oldest song. We almost didn't put it on the record because we were writing all these new songs. But the record company wanted it on, so we worked on it and Don helped us with it a little bit. So, it made the record, and everybody really likes it. It's probably gonna be our next single."

Seven: "Everywhere we've played, it's like, 'Man! That song rocks!' And we're like, 'Yeah, okay...' But after a while, it's like..."

Eric: "It's like that record 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't be Wrong. If they would've asked us, 'What do you want your next single to be?' We might not have picked 'Wannabe.' But everybody can't be wrong. It's not for us anyway. It's for the kids and the punters!"

"Bottle Rockets" CD promo single
(Revolution Records 1997)
"Punters..." He picked that up from INXS.

Before hooking up with INXS, the Cunninghams headlined their own cross-country club tour, which included a two-night stint in New York.

"We played CBGB's," says Seven with the proper amount of awe, "and the Mercury Lounge. It was cool!"

"Historic," agrees Eric.

Still, it was a decidedly low-budget affair, that seems to define the word "gruelling."

"I think in the whole eight weeks we had three days off," says Seven, "real days off when we weren't actually driving."

One day off was spent sightseeing at Graceland. But most of the time, "we saw a lot of truck stops," grumbles Seven. "We'd do a show, shake hands with people, then we'd all pile into the van, all sweaty and shit, and it was off to the next city."

The support slot for INXS came about through a mutual booking agent. And other than some embarrassing car trouble in Phoenix ("We were right in front of the place, getting ready to pull into the parking lot, and the van broke down.") everything is going smoothly.

Johnny, Eliot and Seven at the soundcheck
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"INXS are really nice guys!" enthuses Seven. "I'll be sitting there, and it's like: I'm sitting next to Michael Hutchence! He's talking to me! He's stealing my french fries!"

"When I was in high school, I used to see them on MTV every day," says Eric. "And now I have the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with him. And they've been really cool to us."

Does the INXS audience know who the Cunninghams are?

"No," admits Seven, "for the most part they don't. They don't even know that there's a warm-up act. There's this music before we go on, the lights go down and they think it's INXS. Then they're like, 'Hey! Wait a minute...' But midway through the set they're like, 'This is cool.' We're winning them over. Nothing's flying up on stage, so I guess we're doing all right!"

Seven takes his own photos backstage at the Warfield
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
How is the band doing back in Seattle? Are they hometown superstars? Other than opening for the Screaming Trees at one of those Miller Light Blind Date shows ("We couldn't even tell our friends that we were playing that night.") and a one-off opening slot for Third Eye Blind, they haven't been back to find out!

"We've been on tour since the album came out," laughs Eric. "We haven't had the opportunity to go home and headline our own show since all this happened. That'll be the fun thing! That's when we'll get to gauge how far we've gone in our hometown."

Johnny and Seven at the soundcheck
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Before Michael and I take our leave, I mention that the band members don't seem nearly as alienated as their lyrics make them seem.

"Did you get that vibe from the CD?" asks Seven, all innocent.

Uhmm... yeah. From "Wannabe" and "Losing Team," and the song actually called "Alienate":

I don't make much for company these days
Keep my thoughts all locked away
I'm ashamed
I'm ashamed

"Well, y'know," says Seven, "it's not a constant thing. You have your days... Even though life has changed now, I still have days where I think that nobody understands; nobody gets it."

* * *
R.I.P. Seven Pearson, who hanged himself in February 2001.

Here's a link to the Cunninghams single, "Bottle Rockets"...

Friday, 2 November 2018

In 1988 Ian Hunter & Mick Ronson Teamed Up For A US Tour & This Interview! Liz London Is Still Recuperating.

Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Originally published in Rave-Up #16 (1989)

Interview by Devorah Ostrov & Liz London

Like peanut butter and jelly, MTV and Bon Jovi, baseball and Sunday afternoons — Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson simply belong together. After assisting with Mott the Hoople's breakthrough album All the Young Dudes, Mick teamed up with Ian in the final weeks of the band's career.

Since then, whenever they've hit a stage together it's been magical (although it's always far too long between their joint projects). During a short US tour late last year, we were blessed with two back-to-back shows in the Bay Area: the first was at the Oasis in San Francisco on October 5, followed by New George's in San Rafael the next night — which is where our interview took place.

Ian Hunter
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Mick was busy soundchecking, so we began by chatting with Ian...

Rave-Up: I'm so happy that you and Mick are back together again! I saw some of the shows you did with Mick in... I guess it was 1980/81. What brought you back together again?

Ian: I hadn't really done anything since then, and I was getting rather desperate. I'd been living in the country for about five years, with me own studio, and it was no good at all. So, in '86 I moved back into Manhattan. And then I just started working again. It seems as if that's all it was. So, I wrote some songs and I thought I should ring Mick. He liked the songs, and we decided to go out on the road again.

Rave-Up: Did you just jump right back into touring, or was it a gradual process?

Ian: We started out by doing a couple of weeks in Canada, just to see, y'know. And it wasn't really there for the first few days. But then, all of a sudden, the x-factor started kicking in.

Rave-Up: Do you mean as far as audience response?

My backstage pass for San Rafael
Ian: I mean the thing that me and him have between us. That's what was important to us. We weren't really concerned about who turned up to see us. We were more concerned about how we wanted to do it.

Rave-Up: Judging from last night's show at the Oasis, the magic between you and Mick is definitely still there.

Ian: Well, whatever it is, it wasn't there. And then it came, and I was real relieved. I don't know what it is, but I know when it ain't there!

Rave-Up: You said that you had written all this new material, and then called Mick. Has he been able to collaborate with you at all? Or is the live set mostly up to you?

Ian: I don't know... We never really collaborate that much anyway. Usually how it works is, I'll bring the song in and he'll change it around. That's how we collaborate.

Rave-Up: You do quite a lot of Mott the Hoople songs in the set, but Mick only gets one song. Why aren't you doing more of his stuff?

Mick Ronson (left) and Ian Hunter (right)
Photos: Devorah Ostrov
Ian: Because... I'm aware of that and so is he. But for a start, he hates singing. People should know this: it's not my fault. It's not like I say, "We're going to do all my stuff." It's just the opposite. He just doesn't want to do it. But I consider this a 50/50 partnership, and the more he gets involved the happier I'll be.

Rave-Up: How do you feel about playing Mott the Hoople songs after all these years?

Poster for the 1990 Hunter/Ronson concert
at the L'Elysee Montmartre, featuring the
cover art for the Y U I Orta album.
Ian: I don't like it. I don't like doing "Memphis," but I do it 'cause people wanna hear it. It's as simple as that. "Memphis" is one of those songs... you can't really do much with it. It's done that way and you can't mess with it. "Dudes," we've messed with that over the years, and now it's basically back to where it was in the beginning. But that's a song you can mess with!

Rave-Up: You still get emotional when you perform "All the Young Dudes." The song still seems to mean a lot to you.

Ian: Well, if it wasn't for "All the Young Dudes" I wouldn't be sitting here. I'd probably be working in a factory or digging holes in the road. I'm very grateful for that song.

Mick Ronson enters the room and makes himself comfy on the couch — a very small couch — on which Liz is also seated. It was at this point that we lost Liz for the rest of the interview, as she became catatonic.

Rave-Up: I was really impressed by the show last night. A lot of times people just want to hear the old songs, but your new material is every bit as good as anything Mott the Hoople did. In fact, sometimes it was hard to tell where Mott's left off and the new songs came in!

Mick Ronson
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Mick: You couldn't tell? Good! Our new songs do have a sound to them, and a style. And I do think that the old stuff sounds like the new stuff, and the new stuff sounds like... It's not that different.

Ian: I think the new songs are better than what I was writing with Mott the Hoople. I'll tell you how I know... It's because we have a weird feeling that we're on to something. I haven't had that feeling in a long, long time. It's horrible when you lose that feeling, and there's nothing you can do about it.
   I was watching the MTV Music Awards and I thought, "Fuck me, nothing's happening." These kids are going to gigs thinking that they're seeing rock 'n' roll bands. They're not rock 'n' roll bands! It's not exciting. It's boring. All these clean little people, going to their clean little gigs, doing their clean little encores.

Rave-Up: It doesn't sound like you're intimidated by all the new flashy bands.

Ian leans back in his chair, smiles and shakes his head, "No."

Ian: The only time I felt intimidated in me life was the first time I worked with Mick [during the recording of All the Young Dudes]. I was fucking terrified!

Rave-Up: Why?

Ian Hunter
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Ian: 'Cause he'd worked with David [Bowie, author of the album's title track and hit single], and now it was me. And I just thought, "I'm a fucking rock 'n' roller. And now I'm gonna get all this shit thrown at me!" It wasn't that bad, but I used to be very aware of that.

Rave-Up: Mick, I've heard that you've been producing some albums in Nashville over the last few years. But I haven't heard anything about your own musical projects. Have you been doing much playing?

Poster for the Hunter/Ronson gig at
Manchester's Free Trade Hall
March 21, 1975
Mick: I was doing a bit of playing in England, but not that much. I wanted people in the industry to know me as more than just a guitar player, to know that I can do other things — like producing.
   Also, I'm not a very flashy player, or particularly fast either. So, when I saw all these flash guitar players around I thought, "I can't do this." I didn't even like it, y'know. I just didn't want to play it anymore, and I hung it up for several years.

Rave-Up: Until Ian asked you to join up with him again?

Mick: Yeah! And it's been great! For the first time in years, I really wanted to play guitar again. I love playing the guitar now. I never thought I would like playing the guitar again.

Rave-Up: Did it come back to you easily?

Mick: It didn't take too long.

Ian: It's like riding a bike.

Rave-Up: Mick, I interviewed you in 1982 when you were out here with T-Bone Burnett, and you said that you had been unhappy working with Ian because you didn't have any say as to what was played. Are you happier this time?

Ian Hunter
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Mick glances at Ian and laughs.

Mick: Yes, I am.

Ian: Have you been slagging me off?! Where is this fucking interview?

Mick: I wasn't slagging you off. We were together for quite a while, and it was time to move on.

Ian grabs Rave-Up #6 out of Mick's hand and reads through some of the interview.

Ian: Ah... I see it all now. Actually, I think that was pretty nice.

Mick: Well, the main thing with me, and I think with all of us, is I never wanted it to be like a job — where you go along and do your job and get your weekly pay. And when it ends up like that, you might as well get a regular job! It's got to mean a bit more than that to me.

Ian: It's just a question of keeping people occupied with new material all the time. If they're not occupied, if they're playing the same set night after night, that's what happens. And that's what happened to us before. And I'm not that prolific a songwriter either, which makes it difficult.

Rave-Up: What?!

Poster for the Ian Hunter Band featuring
Mick Ronson at the Capitol Theatre
October 21, 1979
Ian: I'm lucky if I can do five or six songs a year that I like. I write a lot of 'em, but I give 'em up halfway through 'cause they're not what I want. There were also a lot of people in that previous band [including a second guitarist], so doing anything seemed to be real difficult. I think it's easier with a smaller outfit.

Mick: Last time a lot of people would say to me that they couldn't hear me play. They came to see me play guitar, and they would go away disappointed 'cause they couldn't hear it. That's why I didn't want another guitarist again. I feel better when it's just my guitar.

Rave-Up: It's not like you need another guitarist!

Ian: We didn't need one then. We just had one for some reason.

Rave-Up: As veterans of the '70s glam era, what do you guys think about the resurgence of interest in that scene?

Ian: I don't know if that's relevant to Mick and meself. I just write what I write and I'll do that till the day I die, whether it's hip or it ain't. The only difference between what we did then and what we're doing now is that we're doing it for the right reason. Before it was like... We knew we'd be digging holes in the road if we didn't make it!

* * *

Follow this link to read my previous interview with Mick Ronson: