THE SHADES “Hello Mr. Johnson” (NOW PLAYING ON PHAWKER RADIO)
Excerpted From THE BOB JR. Part Six
BY DAVID SNYDER I’ve swore I’d get to this single before I put this miserable pamphlet in its grave. To set the context we’re going to revisit the bits and pieces of my life that on occasion have previously bubbled up here in the bastard offspring and, before that, in the old rag. I was born in Philly. But between fifth and sixth grade the family shipped out to New Jersey, some suburbs — from Northeast Philly, which was then a kind of a suburb itself, but I was too young to recognize that at the time. This happened to be a suburb of Trenton — Lawrence Township to be exact — even then the area was like a donut with this ring of suburbs surrounding a miserable hole. The only good things about living in New Jersey, even from this distance, was that you got both Philly and New York City TV and Radio signals (back in the days before cable penetration reached us), and the drinking age was 18.
As was common across the Mid-Atlantic area back then, I used to buy most of my records from Korvettes. Like your Best Buy, Circuit City & Target today, they always had a couple of new records heavily discounted each week — standard loss leader thing. In my Senior year of high school I found a tiny shop over in Ewing called Hole In The Wall, where I could pick up some of the stranger things I was hearing on WNEW-FM. I’m not even sure how I found out about this place, but I was now able to get the Bezerkley stuff I had been searching for. Somehow I got myself into a university, and ended up back in Philly. One weekend my first term when I was visiting home I stopped over at Rider College (that was about a mile over from our house, and back in high school it was easy to crash some of their parties and get all the beer you could drink for 50 cent or such) and found they were having a party in the student center. There was a band on one side of the room. They were dressed in white lab coats and played in front of a painted backdrop of a brick wall with graffiti on it and the name NOBODY SPECIAL in large letters.
They played various British Invasion covers — I mostly remember Kinks and Beatles. I had a couple of beers and when their set was done I headed on my way.
The school I went to has what’s called a Co-op Program, where you work some terms at a regular job, ostensibly in the field you’re studying, and they get you for five years worth of tuition. At the end of the Summer ’77, between my Freshman and Sophomore years, I got a phone call from the school saying they had a job interview lined up for me for the Fall term at the Trenton office of the US Geological Service. So I found myself once again stuck in Mercer Co. longer than I cared to be. One day I saw a sign go up that they were hiring for a new Sam Goody’s opening up in the shopping center five blocks from the house. (They had also built a big mall a few miles down the road a couple of years beforehand and thus that Sam Goody’s wasn’t long for this world.) I got myself a part-time job there, nights and weekends to fill up time around the USGS job, plus a discount on records, even a few free, and some new stereo pieces.
One of the other people working there was a guy I recognized from Hole in the Wall, name of Casey. Turns out he was one of the owners. They had sold the store off to some others who drove the place into the ground. One night he tells me I should come over to this bar where some friends of his are playing; they’re called the Shades. I found the place, down a bit on Quaker Bridge Road, across from the fields where I had played some Winter Soccer two years before. I get myself a beer — to this day it doesn’t feel normal seeing a band without a glass or bottle in my hand — and find Casey. Turns out he’s “doing lights” and he introduces me to some of the guys in the band. After a little while I realize they’re the same guys I saw at Rider the year before. Over the next few months I saw them play a number of times, since they were at that club twice a week, and Sunday nights featured $1 pitchers (though they were these mini things that must of held only about 24 oz.) of Gennesee Cream Ale.
Once I was back at school I started my brief career in radio and ended up spending many nights over the next three-and-a-half years in clubs (probably way too many nights considering my grades) around town. Soon the Shades started making their way down for the occasional gig in Philly. Like a lot of bands that had beginnings reaching back pre-1976 and started doing original material they got enveloped by the Punk scene, though they sounded nothing like the Ramones, Dead Boys, etc. Their sound had much more in common with otherAnglo-centric bands soon to be tagged Power-Pop, like Artful Dodger, Off Broadway, Pezband and Shoes, though a bit more keyboard laden. Eventually they hooked up with the guy who owned the first Punk Rock club in town for management. Then these two guys who had a similar radio show to mine at the university next door, who decided to start a label and wanted to do a single with the Shades. Which is the platter that brings us to this feature: “Are You My Angel?” b/w “Hello Mr. Johnson” (Go Go 003). (NOW PLAYING ON PHAWKER RADIO)
Twenty years after I lost touch with any of them I made contact with Bob DeStefano — singer/occasional keyboard player/main songwriter — to relive the tale of the band and that single:
Jack met Bill at the end of his third grade. I didn’t meet Scott until my third grade, a year later. Scott and I were in the same class, as were Jack and Bill. While Jack and Bill became very fast friends, Scott and I were more casual acquaintances. Jack and Bill actually formed a band in 6th grade, the name escapes me. Then, when Jack and Bill were 14, they formed another band. I started to become a bit interested in what they were doing about then, and would sometimes go their practices. They were trying to write their own music, even then, which I thought was pretty cool as I was writing songs by then as well. They continued with a new drummer for about a year and half until I was about 15. As is normal for both the DeStefanos and the Evans’s, no one ever actually came out and talked about anything important. I don’t know if I said something to Jack about needing a keyboard player (Jack was playing bass at the time) in the group, or if he asked me to play keyboards. I just recall that I never spoke to Bill or anyone else in the band. I remember asking Jack “are you sure it’s OK for me to join the group? What did Bill say?” Jack would say ‘it’s fine'” I also remember feeling a bit odd about turning up at Bill’s house with my brand new electric keyboard, ready for a rehearsal with people I’d never really said two words to. Jack had told me that Scott was also going to join the band as a bass player and that he, Jack, would be playing rhythm guitar from then on. Billy was actually singing lead at the time. He couldn’t sing worth a damn, but no one else had the intestines to sing in front of people. It was about 1973-74 time, and we started by learning a full set or two of covers. Mind you, we never thought to learn Top 40 stuff, or the stuff that other kids would know. We played the stuff we liked. MC5, Iggy, Roxy Music, Alice Cooper, Bowie, Dylan, the Move, etc.
My best mate at the time was Joe Tobias. He and his sister Meg, who played and sang very well, would often get together with me, Jack, and whomever was around for sing-alongs. Joe and Meg sang much better than Bill did, so we’d sing harmony songs, folk songs, things that didn’t require much amplification (only the bass, which I played). Joe didn’t play any instrument, but he had a lovely voice (still does). I enjoyed the harmonizing that I was able to do with Joe, so, again with little or no discussion with everyone, Joe simply started signing background vocals at our rehearsals. By this time, I was singing lead on a few tunes as well, still from behind the keyboard. We then got a job at a high school doing a class night thing, the theme of which was that nefarious tune “Dream On” by Aerosmith. No one wanted to “dirty” themselves singing it, so we asked Joe to do it instead. From that point on, he started singing more and more lead, Bill singing less and less. At the same time, Bill must have seen the hand wringing on the wall, because he went out and purchased a Roland string unit to play. We now had two keyboard players whenever Joe sang.
The lead guitar position was forever a headache. We couldn’t find anyone who liked what we liked, fit in with us, and was good. Bill had become friends with Steve Bross at Steinert (a high school over in Hamilton Twp.) in 11th grade, Steve having a similar love of the Firesign Theatre. Steve had a friend who played drums called Obie, who was somewhat older than the rest of us. I recall saying to Jack and Bill, “we gotta get Bross and Obie in the band. Steve can play guitar and Obie’ll do what he does.” This time, we actually did go, as a group, to Steve and ask him to join up.
(The name) Nobody Special was a nod to the self-deprecating stance made famous by the Kinks et al. It also had “shades” of the Who in it, insofar as it didn’t quite answer the question ]”who’s playing tonight?” The wall was Bill’s idea. I’m fairly sure that he gleaned it from Alex Harvey’s Vambo act on stage wherein he spray painted VAMBO on a brick wall behind the stage. We wanted to give the impression that we were playing in some alley somewhere, a garage band extraordinaire. It was a real pain in the VAMBOs to cart that piece of stage gear about. While the “brick” paneling was of small mass, the 2 x 4s that framed them were quite heavy.
Bill and I were far more into the newer sounds that were then happening (’75, ’76) than were the others, and this presented some problems. There was constant friction within the group when it came to deciding on a song list. Everyone wanted, in the spirit of compromise, to have a system wherein each member could suggest a song to play. We’d go round the circle (there were 7 in the group at the time) until we had enough songs for a few sets. I strenuously objected to this arrangement, and soon Bill joined me, and then Scott. My argument was that we sounded like a juke box, not a band. We sounded that we were being pulled in seven different directions, not knowing where to go. In short, we sounded like a disingenuous, equivocating mass of indecision. I did not want to do that. I then suggested that since I was the main song writer, I should be pushing the musical agenda. Obie left the group, unable to live with this. That’s when we got George.
We met George through Franny the K. (Kowalski who ended up playing keyboards in Alex Chilton’s band, which also had Chris Stamey on bass, for a while) He’d started hanging out with us, giving us his “take” on music. I, for one, was quite impressed with his talents, specifically as a pianist and also as a singer. His songwriting was hit and miss, but he was obviously a real talent. Anyway, when Obie quit, he must have found out some way, because he came over to Scott and Bill’s old home in Chesterfield and said “I have the answer to your drumming prayers.”
So we set up an audition for George, who looked like a chubby Bev Bevan, which boded well. It wasn’t too difficult to find some songs that we all knew and we played for about an hour. Immediately after the first song, a couple of us excused ourselves to go upstairs to get a drink. Steve Bross remarked in a whisper “our search for a drummer is over.” And so it was.
And you are correct in your recollection that both Steve and Joe were in the Shades. Obie, however, was not ever in the Shades. The Shades was the result of our recognizing both the outright need of a new name for a new band (Obie was gone and the direction was settled) and a desire to align ourselves with the “New Wave,” from which most of the bands returned to having a “the” in the name. I, for one, always felt it was a poor choice for a name. We made lists and lists. I came up with it almost as a joke – as a spoof on an old blues band who all wore sunglasses on stage. I would assume one of the characters of that band during sound checks if I remember correctly, when I’d say “we’re, like, the shades, man.” And we never came up with anything that sounded better, I guess. At least we never came up with anything that really moved us, so we settled into the Shades. It really had nothing to do with Scott’s sunglasses. The Lou Reed connection we discovered after I came up the name, but before we “went public.” It certainly lent legitimacy to the moniker.
Joe and I were best friends when I first joined the band. It just so happened that Joe was a fairly straight-laced chap. And even though Joe was far, far less judgmental than my folks he couldn’t help but look askance at some of the antics in which I engaged back then. And, of course, I resented what I saw as his lack of acceptance of me. In reality, he accepted me just fine. He simply didn’t agree with me. Since Bill was more radical, and more encouraging, I began looking to him for support. Bill appreciated me because I was foolish enough to do some of the things that he was too afraid, or to prudent, to do.
Also, at this time, I had met and fallen in love with the Mumps. The Mumps were the first act that I saw that I loved totally. While Lance (Loud)’s was clearly no match for Joe’s, his overall stage presence was astounding. I felt that I could do better than Joe was doing — using Lance as a barometer. Also remember that we were playing my songs. I wanted to sing them.
This milieu eventually rendered a meeting in which we had to vote on whether Joe stayed in or out of the band. I remember that, like political candidates, both Joe and I giving speeches to the others about our vision for the group and such. Joe’s commitment was very much called into question as he had missed both gigs and rehearsals owing to school stuff. The vote was 4-3 in favor of Joe’s exit. The “Joe’s out” votes were, I believe, me, Scott, Bill, and George. Jack, Steve, and Joe voted for Joe to stay. Later that day, I received a phone call from Steve saying that “Joe’s my friend and I can’t do this thing. I have to quit.” So we then needed a guitar player.
We thought of only one person to fill his shoes. We’d seen a band at Trenton State College Ratskellar called Shot in the Head about a year earlier. The amazing thing was that they shared almost their complete song book with us. And nobody was playing that stuff then: The Move, Bowie, MC5, etc. They had a fabulous guitarist who we now wanted to replace Steve. We phoned their agent in New Brunswick who told us the names of both of the Shot in the Head guitar players: Peter Tomlinson and Joe Hosey. (Both guys, at that time, worked for infamous importer/exporter Jem Records.) Unfortunately, he had only one phone number, that of Joe Hosey. So we called Joe and the rest is history. The interesting thing is that it was Peter that we wanted. Peter was the lead player, Joe only played rhythm. But after Joe came down to rehearsal and knew the songs, well, we couldn’t tell him “no” could we? Our first gig with the new band was in Washington D.C. opening for, of all people, the Mumps. After the show, we got thumbs up from Mump-dom, which gave us a great deal of confidence.
I always found lyric writing more difficult and time consuming than I found musical composition. This was especially true once I stopped writing Bob Dylan type songs, where I’d write the lyrics to a very simple tune around a simple chord progression. Once I started composing a bit more ambitious pieces, I stopped writing lyrics along with or first. When I first joined the band, Billy had written quite a lot of lyrics that had no music to them. When they needed a song, their guitar player would throw a riff together and Bill would squeeze one of his lyric sheets onto the riff in some way (whether it fit or not). After I joined and started writing for the band, I would present completed songs, but I didn’t like the time it took to do the lyrics. here was a lad who hung out with us when we were boys who was called Terry Hughes.
Terry was actually the first drummer that Jack and Billy had in their first band. Every summer, Terry would talk about killing himself. He fancied himself a Rimbaud type character and asked me to put some music to his “poems.” So I did, but found that he had no real concept of what was needed musically in a song. Even a three minute song usually requires more than a double stanza. They do when I write them, anyway. This usually meant that we’d get a song with half the lyrics written and the other half made up on the spot when we did it live. Bill decided he could do better than Terry, and came up with “Perfect Strangers” for the music that I’d written for a Terry poem called “All of Nothing.”
Bill did such a nice job with that one that we figured, let’s do this more often. The problem was that Bill turned out to be just as meticulous and time consuming when writing lyrics as I had been. And worse still, he would always get to a part of the song where he simply couldn’t think of anything — at least nothing that he felt was good enough. But let me backtrack for a second. In order to rehearse my new compositions, the ones in which there were copious vocal harmonies, I had to write working lyrics. Later, when John (DeMarzo: soundman, producer of the single in question and compiler of 25-years-after-the-fact 21-track bootleg CD) started recording us with his TEAC 4 track, I would write a song with working lyrics in order to record it and play it for the fellows.
The interesting thing is that when Bill would eventually hit these walls with his lyric writing, we’d resort to the working lyrics. Or Bill would work from the working lyrics. In “Men From the Boys,” the full middle eight was taken from the working lyrics. There were a few songs like that. So, I’d end up writing a few songs, giving them to Bill, and then waiting. We’d have a few gigs upcoming, and we’d still be waiting as Bill suffered over every syllable. Eventually, I started presenting completed songs again.
The putative A-side of the single that brought us here, “Are You My Angel?” is a mid-tempo number that starts with a forceful rhythm, a whirl of keyboards and a mournful sax line. The vocals carry the bulk of the melody — high with a touch of strain, and harmonies even higher — riding on a dense backing of a variety of keyboards and interstitial guitar riffs. In the verses the vocals generally take on the solidity and a bit of the patterns of the beats. While in the choruses they go soft, lightly gliding while the backing vocals turn airier and wordless (angelic?).
The bridge arrives with a shift to a reedy, child-like vocal, briefly interrupted by these burly voices (see 10cc reference below) and a disjointed rhythm, while the drums build tension underneath. With the return of that reedy tone they build together into a repeat of the final line of the chorus. The song takes a kind of weird tack in its ending, with a reprise of the sax solo and then a petering out of everything, which is quickly cut off before completion by a tight backward masking fadeout. A catchy, romantic Pop tune with its sense of yearning colliding with its expression of befuddlement. While not sounding like any particular song, this shifting structure and use of extra elements brings to mind Roy Wood’s songwriting on the first Move album.
About “Are You My Angel?” — I can actually recall writing some of that song! I was going out with Casey Confoy’s (see intro) sister Karen (now my sister-in-law) at the time and I can recall working on this song on the out of tune piano at her mother’s home in Ewing Twp. I can remember rehearsing the song, prior to Bill’s having written any lyric, and having Scott and Joe sing “Gimme a donut” and “I also want some milk” in place of “waiting for something” and “we’re too drunk to care”which came later. I also remember Joe’s misunderstanding Bill’s lyric — the bit where I sing “that you’re most inviting” — and thinking I was singing “the Germans are fighting.” I guess he thought it was a WWII epic. Musically, I was moving forward at the time. There are many individual influences. I recall that originally I had a lead guitar line where the sax later played. The “heaviness” of the first two chords and that guitar line were inspired by the Mumps, as was the syncopation in the “we’re too drunk to care” bit. It was a song called “Gimme Gimme.” The sax was inspired not by Roxy Music but by the sax in “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. I quite liked the fact that the verse was in two different keys, something I thought rather innovative for a pop song. The “Clothing Makes the Savior” vocal part was inspired by 10CC of all people. I liked the way that they were able, especially on their early records, to change the entire vocal inflection and feel during different musical phrases. I wanted the voices to sound almost automated and robot like, like a voice or schema imbedded in one’s mind from youth such as “you must succeed in everything you do in order to be of value.??
The flip, “Hello Mr. Johnson,” is more of a straight up rocker. While not really topping 55, it has a driving nature. It begins with the machine gun rat-a-tat-tat of a snare. Then over a solid 4/4 rhythm the various keyboards and guitars work their way slowly down a scale — a move that reappears throughout. With a head of steam the lead vocal enters: a little gritty and dishing out an overabundance of words. The rhythm switches to a tom-led syncopation with the vocal following in its wake in the chorus. The transition to the bridge features a snippet of crowd noise from which, for its first half, the lead vocal turns softer and gentler with a bit of a McCartneyesque lilt. In its second half the vocal firms up and backing harmonies finally appear, briefly. (The lyrics of this segment seem really out of left field: “Back in Tokyo, there’s a running joke/Down in Singapore, there’s a fashion show-oo-ow??) The scale run leads back to a verse. After which the final chorus hits the “Hello Mr. Johnson, meet your audience” three times with the last being denuded of instrumentation and augmented by handclaps upon which it all ends. Mixed in underneath are specks of some Chuck Berry riffs and the tinkling of some Barrelhouse piano. The things that really hook you are first the chorus syncopation, second the rush of words. And after the seventh play all the little bits, which are inadequately described in that last sentence in the paragraph above, start popping out at you. Such depth of arrangement while maintaining a focused song is something very rare today.