Monday, September 7, 2009

End of Summer IV -- Nostalgic End-of-Summer Car Songs

Without one hand of the clock, what good is the other?

Growing up, I assumed two things: that NRBQ were huge stars and that they were from somewhere in Western Massachusetts.

When I was a kid in Western Massachusetts, NRBQ were on the radio all the time. Their new albums were talked up and celebrated and their older out of print albums were mined for strange and wonderful songs like "Howard Johnson's Got His Ho-Jo Working," "RC Cola and a Moon Pie," and "Get that Gasoline."

Much later, I saw them live a couple of times (and was blown away each time). Once, while opening for Squeeze at an outdoor show (moved indoors based on a forecast of storms that never appeared) NRBQ played an amazing set that inexplicably ended with a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." As they slogged through verse after verse (and if it's been a while since you've heard the song, it goes on for about a year and a half), the receptive and happy crowd got restless, then annoyed, and finally openly hostile. By the end, people were booing and throwing beer at the band. But a few hearty fans cheered and NRBQ returned for an encore... and started playing "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" again. It was wild, zany performance art... that 90% of the audience hated and the other 10% loved beyond measure.

And then there was this:

Surely that song was a big hit. Everyone knew it, right? I mean it was on the radio constantly. That's what I thought then.

Here's what I know now:

NRBQ (originally the New Rhythm & Blues Quintet, later Quartet) was formed in Miami of all places. They later lived in and around New York (including in Park Slope, Brooklyn) and were legends for performing live shows without set lists, taking random requests, playing songs they didn't know, and somehow combining the best of avant-garde jazz, pure pop, '50s-style rockabilly, and blues and turning into something coherent and wonderful.

The band was a bit spottier on record, but made a series of strong albums in the '70s and '80s and were signed to major labels on several occasions (and usually got dropped after one or two albums failed to sell). The longest-running lineup of the band lasted from 1974 to 1994 and featured Joey Spampinato, Terry Adams, Big Al Anderson, and Tom Ardolino (and were frequently backed by the Whole Wheat Horns: Keith Spring and Terry's brother Donn Adams.

They were hared to pigeonhole stylistically (and were equally at home backing Carl Perkins, Skeeter Davis, Captain Lou Albano, or Spongebob Squarepants) and even appeared on The Simpsons. And although it always seemed that NRBQ would be around forever, they went on a long hiatus 5 years ago (but regrouped in 2007 for a 38th anniversary show in Northampton, Mass.).

As for "Ridin' in My Car"? I wasn't entirely wrong. It was an enormous regional hit (back in the day when there were regional hits) -- mostly in Western Massachusetts and Northern Connecticut.

It's also a perfect end-of-summer nostalgia song and I can't hear it without picturing the green rolling hills of the Pioneer Valley.

But, because pop culture does tend to eat its own tail, here's another perfect end-of-summer nostalgia song for that nostalgia. Jim Boggia wrote and recorded this song for his fantastic 2008 album Misadventures in Stereo:

On the studio recording, Boggia talks about taking his girlfriend to an NRBQ concert in Detroit and sings about what happened when Big Al took a solo -- which is followed by a terrific NRBQ-esque solo played by none other than Big Al Anderson.

And on that note, Happy Labor Day (and happy end of summer for those outside the U.S.).

(Note for the geeks reading this: "Ridin' in My Car" first appeared on All Hopped Up, on NRBQ's own Red Rooster Records. The band was then signed to Mercury, which released NRBQ at Yankee Stadium -- not a live album, but featuring the band sitting behind the dugout in an otherwise empty house -- and Mercury licensed "Ridin' in My Car" for the vinyl release and the first CD release. Mercury dropped NRBQ for not selling enough records and declined to renew their license for "Ridin' in My Car," which is why it doesn't appear on the current CD of NRBQ at Yankee Stadium. Which is okay because I've still got the vinyl!)

1 comment:

Alex said...

Original NRBQ guitarist Steve Ferguson is battling lung cancer. If you're interested or want to donate to a fund for his treatment, go here:"