Johnny’s At Grendel’s
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 28, 1975
By Stu Horn, THE DRUMMER
“My friend Johnny plays good rock and roll. He’s got strength, he’s got power, that man’s in control.
IT IS WEDNESDAY night at Grendel’s Lair, a little after 10:30. The room, which was almost emptied after the evening’s performance of Pretzels — Grendel’s topical off-Broadway review – is beginning to fill up again. Business is picking up at the bar and, onstage, Johnny’s Dance Band is setting up their equipment.
The cold rainy night has convinced everyone that Indian Summer won’t be back, but the atmosphere inside the cabaret is busy and expectant. Johnny’s Dance Band has been playing at Grendel’s Lair every Wednesday night for months, and by this time they have picked up a large following through word of mouth and a live radio concert on WMMR which attracted 75,000 listeners.
ALTHOUGH WAITRESSES CONTINUE to circulate between the rows of tables, the mood at these Wednesday night dance concerts is more relaxed and informal than for the preceding show. Conversation is animated, traffic at the bar becomes increasingly congested, and there is a surprisingly active pick-up scene. The partying is frequently heavy and long when Johnny’s plays, like a good private jam. The clientele is largely in the 21-35 age group and can afford a couple of drinks on top of the $3 admission. There are occasional suburban couples leftover from Pretzels who linger long enough to be seduced by the band.
The tables begin to fill as band members who have been upstairs in the dressing room or talking at the bar gravitate toward the stage. Soundman Jay sits behind a bank of blinking electronic gear in the center of the audience. The lights go.out and a red spot shines on the stage.
Ladies and gentlemen, the high steppers of South street — Johnny’s Dance Band!
THE BAND COMES ON like dynamite — with a tight, loud, blues-rock with a strong beat. It instantly captures the attention of the room and holds it almost without a lapse for the entire performance. The band’s message is clear right from the beginning: “Listen to this, we’ll show you what rock and roll is all about.”
The first song is about a guy who buys a magic lamp for his baby. What happens next is as predictable and classic
as “Love Potion No. 9:”
Boom, boom, it shook the whole room, I saw the white flash. . .
Crash,crash.I saw the white flash. . .
That’s the last time I ever saw my baby.”
The lead vocal is sung by Bobby, who also has a long, lively guitar solo. With his long hair, big sunglasses, and wrestler’s body, he is taut and sexy. His face is like rubber as he mimics the lyrics and acts out the story, dancing around the stage like a randy punk. Six other members of the group are onstage, working together as a well-oiled music machine, each an essential part of the group’s total sound.
THE NEXT SONG IS INTRODUCED by Chris, the man on keyboard and synthesizer, who thanks the audience for coming and for their enthusiastic welcome. The band goes into a winding Calypso beat and Nanette, the stunning brunette vocalist, steps up to the microphone wearing black silk chinoise pajamas and begins a long musical introduction which includes patter with a male member of the audience (“What’s your sign? No! Let me guess!”) and an imitation of Barbra Streisand doing “People.” It is a standard showbiz gimmick to loosen up the audience which works like a charm – the charm of Nanette, who is not only the current Sweetheart of South Street but the object of both sexes’ adoration wherever she appears.”People” turns into “Regular People,” which goes in
“I’ve been in Bricklin cars,. .
I’ve been with movie stars,
I had to sit and listen to their jokes. . .
So don’t tell me your story
About your fame and your glory It’s all very boring to me
Just give me some regular people, regular people Just like you and me. .. “
“Regular People” mellows out with multi-layered harmonies and flute into a very laid back “Everyday People.” The first two songs have been equally strong but completely different in style and mood. If the uninitiated are wondering just what the band is all about, the next song settles the question. It is the song which gets the most people off their seats and dancing.
“GET UP, BABY, GET DOWN” is written by Courtney, who plays the flute, sings, plays guitar, and provides a large part of the show’s fun. Like Bobby, he dances and mugs. “Get Up” is a slick white disco number which, like the songs on Bowie’s Young Americans album, is at once a parody and a perfect example of the genre. Courtney says the song first came to him at a Bar Mitzvah when the band he was playing with had to improvise “something funky.”
The dancers literally work themselves into a frenzy on “Get Up,” which starts out with a Superfly-O’Jays guitar and honey chorus. There is an audience participation bit (“You people wanna hear some drums?”) and a hilarious synchronized steps routine which even gets Chris out from behind the keyboard. A favorite is when the singers come in near the end after Courtney says, “I wanna hear some vocals.” The group’s energy level is phenomenal.
“Get Up, Baby Get Down” will be included in a film for which Johnny’s Dance Band is providing the music and appearing in called “The Great American Teen,” which will tour U.S. high schools as part of an assembly program sponsored by Pepsi. They are also providing music for a inside out and can set up the audience beautifully for their musical punches.
BEFORE THE APPLAUSE STOPS, the band goes flaky onstage as Chris begins a rap about monsters: “There is one beast man has not been able to conquer,” he says, “And that is: The Monster of Love.” This is a shoo-be-doo-wah song with Chris on lead vocals which gets a heavy beat and a wonderful high-pitched background chorus. “Monster of Love” is funky and gets down with a large dose of Zacherly and Bobby Pickett, a raving monologue in the middle, and lots of jumping around.
It is well past midnight but the mood of the audience and the band is still waxing. Courtney takes center stage next to do a campy narrative acted out by Nanette called “Mary and Joseph.” This fine burlesque includes a chorus line singing “Glory to God in the Highest” and a speech by Tony:
Now don’t take this story too lightly friends
Because it had some serious repercussions
Although Joseph knew his wife Mary very well,
Thinking she was probably lying,
Millions of people throughout the world
Believed her impossible story, as people often will.
Why, they even created an entire religion based on it.
“Side Pocket in Your Game of “Love” begins with keyboard and maracas and a Who-like chord, then proceeds into a low-key “Love is Strange” groove. Chris recites the chorus before the song begins. Like most of the songs, “Side Pocket” is infinitely danceable.
The next song is Alfredo, one of the group’s most popular numbers, which features, in addition to Courtney on flute and greasy pantomime, Nanette as an Italian Baby Doll whose boyfriend’s body is “the genius of love.” This is done with an Anna Magnani accent, a boo-boo-be-doo background, and lines like:
He’s in condition and I’m in position
Number Seven in the Book of Love
When he knocks on my door he calls me Nanookie
He’s my baby and he brings me his cookie
LIKE CHRIS, COURTNEY IS from North Jersey. The group does a song about an old hangout of theirs called the Adventure Carhop on Route 22 in Union. The song is called “Cruise Down the Highway” and it is one of the group’s best, a car radio classic with “the amazing, incredible no-count beginning, close knit Beach Boys harmonies and an exhilarating feeling of tranquility and space in the final chorus. There is a long introduction which deals with Chris’s experiences as an adolescent doing his bit for birth control at the drive-in and the carhop. Where is Fat Betty now?
You know we’d cruise down the highway rolling real fast
Hope and pray to the baby Jesus
My cam shaft will last.
Repeated into the sunset with the audience clapping slowly, bobby beating his guitar, a waitress wiping nostalgia evoked tear from her eye.
The group’s next song is “Pick-Up,” another hard rocker which gets those with any strength left up dancing again. I was satisfied to tap my foot at this point. “Pick Up” seems to have great commercial potential:
You’re just a pick-up baby and I don’t wanna know your name
you’re just a pick-up baby and I don’t care about your brain
with Nanette and Tony clutching the microphones, Bobby doing the splits. The audience goes wild when the song ends. Chris says to the audience, “Boy, you’re loose tonight,” but it is the group which has inspired the looseness. I yell, “Sock It To Me!”
AT THE END OF THE SET, before the second encore, “Blueberry Hill,” or the third encore, “Roll Over, Beethoven,” the band does a song in which each member of the group is introduced. Nanette introduces Tony last as “the backbone of the group.” The song itself emphasizes the important part each individual talent plays in the group as a whole. There are few ego conflicts, onstage or off, although some are inevitable. “We’re just having a good time at your expense,” Chris once told the audience, but the audience also benefits from the obvious pleasure the group takes in their work.
Johnny’s Dance Band leaves the stage to cheers by the die-hards. The lights come on and the room empties slowly. The band packs their own equipment.
SUCCESS AND A RECORDING CONTRACT are well within the group’s capability. With people like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne clearing a path for regional rock, Johnny’s N.J.-Pa. sensibility is only one step from national myth material. Their reputation as a comedy group, which is often reinforced by their publicity photos, is balanced in performance by the hardness of the music, the physical energy which they discharge, and the spontaneity of their humor. The group’s routines are wonderful in person but may have to be curtailed for records, where the visual, physical element is missing. At this point, Johnny’s is a perfect “live” band, which is how they have always presented themselves.
One of their hallmarks is change – no two performances are ever exactly alike. They are inspired by audience contact. The big question is, “Can the freshness of their music – and their personalities – be captured by the media?” But, as you can catch their act at least once a week on South street, in South Jersey, or at John and Peter’s in New Hope, the question may be relevant only to those not fortunate enough to be able to see the group in person.
WATCHING A GROUP like this come up, tighten up, be so good, is an exciting process. I would like to be the first to say they’re great, but by now that is an accepted opinion. As one fellow leaving Grendel’s said, “I feel like I found my own band.”