- Concrete Blonde's "jam sessions" are unlike any other.
Second acts in rock and roll: Are they misplaced sentimental journeys, uneasily handled unfinished business, or cynical cash-ins?
L.A.'s Concrete Blonde offers a muddled answer to this line of questioning. The band formed in 1987 and enjoyed an early '90s chart run that culminated in the Top 20 hit "Joey," a heart-stopping pop gem similar in tone to the Police's "Every Breath You Take." Its memorable story line (about a romance shattered by alcoholism) gained considerable visual momentum when the video hit rotation pay dirt on MTV. The band was kaput by '94, however. So, confronted with a Concrete Blonde reunion album and tour, consumers might warily ponder the above scenarios.
Check "None of the Above" or perhaps "Don't Know" when it comes to this band. Hell, the members themselves -- vocalist/bassist Johnette Napolitano, guitarist Jim Mankey, drummer Harry Rushakoff -- aren't even sure why they drifted back together in the middle of last year.
"Well . . ." Mankey draws the word out slowly, as if he's about to drop a bombshell, then with a chuckle, doesn't. "We had done a few things in the meantime, so it wasn't that nothing had been happening." (Since '94 Mankey and Napolitano, in addition to their own projects, continued to touch base and worked together on other artists' albums.) "Johnette just called, and then we just had fun jamming, really. That's something we never really did before, jamming. It didn't take long for us to feel like we'd been playing together for a while -- it was kind of shocking. We realized we just want to try to keep creating and remain relevant to ourselves."
So why the initial breakup? Any Behind the Music-worthy scenarios?
"To be honest, I guess we were just getting on each other's nerves. Johnette wanted to do her solo thing, which she did. Plus, we were all just goddamned tired! None of that Fleetwood Mac stuff! But you know, VH1 did approach us. I just do not want to get behind that thing. Harry is the only one here that has the proper stories to tell, tales of debauchery and excess. I lead a very boring life; not much there to interest the demographic target of VH1, I'm afraid."
Which isn't to suggest that the band's history is without color. Mankey and Napolitano hooked up at the tail end of the '70s, while both were working at Leon Russell's Paradise Studios in North Hollywood. Mankey, a former member of the comedic rock band Sparks, was an engineer; Napolitano was the receptionist. Forming the band Dream 6 around 1982, they became fixtures on the L.A. postpunk scene that included Dream Syndicate and Wall of Voodoo. Later, at the suggestion of a friend (Michael Stipe) and with drummer Rushakoff coming into the fold, they rechristened themselves Concrete Blonde and signed with IRS, releasing their debut album, Concrete Blonde, in '87. The trio's first taste of commercial success followed two years later with "God Is a Bullet," from the sophomore effort Free; "Joey" and its parent album, Bloodletting, arrived in 1990.
Recalls Mankey: "I remember the first time when we were rolling down the road, and some radio station was playing us. We all got excited, of course. But then you say to yourself, 'Well, it's working. Let's keep doing what we're doing' and take more of an overview. But I will say, my most exciting time was when we were in Australia, standing on a street corner about to cross the street, and a car drove by and I heard 'Joey' blasting. Now that excited me! Halfway around the world, in a passing car: That's when you know you've made it."
For 1992's Walking in London and 1993's Mexican Moon, Concrete Blonde moved to Capitol, and while neither yielded hits on the order of "Joey," both albums maintained a consistently high degree of musicality. The band continued to tour heavily until the breakup, and its international fan base also continued to grow.
That fan base has remained active -- judging by the numerous Concrete Blonde websites -- which should ensure the newly reincarnated trio a strong response to Group Therapy, issued recently by Manifesto Records. The album was produced by the band, and as a result of extensive rehearsal sessions, it came together in the studio in a whirlwind 10 days. (Mankey: "Previously, Johnette, as principal songwriter, would have the song either fully written or close to it. This time we would all jam, tape it, pick out the things we like, then beat them into a song. It made everyone feel a lot more involved.")
And yet Group Therapy is remarkably consistent with its predecessors. From the vibrant surf/Latin/Hendrix vibe of "True, Part III" and the gently anthemic pop stylings of first single "Roxy" (an FM natural along the order of "Joey" -- and yes, it's a tribute to Roxy Music) to the edgy, chiming noir-metal of "Violent" and the surreal, ominous psych-blues of "Angel," the album sounds as if the band never went away. Key, of course, are Napolitano's signature vocals, dramatic (but not theatrical) and sensual (but not cartoonishly sex-kitten), and her narrative lyric style. The latter encompasses caustic self-examination, reflections on doomed relationships, surreal streams of consciousness, and some decidedly pointed recasting of dreams.
But will it be enough for Concrete Blonde to strike "Joey"-style gold this time around?
"People have pretty short memories," Mankey says. "Personally, I think our new stuff is good enough to be on the radio, but only time will tell. As far as trying to make a living, we're [trying to be smart], because the major record companies are headed for some traumatic change. Every 10 years or so, they collapse under their own flab, then manage to co-opt whatever replaced them and rise to the top again. So our deal with Manifesto is really unusual. EMI and Miles Copeland [IRS Records] own our previous masters; with Group Therapy, we pretty much own everything and are leasing/licensing the music.
"You know, Courtney Love gets a bad rap when people talk about her -- and she's easy to criticize -- but I really admire her for putting herself on the front line [of record companies vs. artists' rights]. She's probably the only person who can do that: go up against them and really not care if she never has lunch in this town again. Record companies will collect your money, then won't give it to you unless you sue for it. So I think we've learned a lot."