Atomic Kids' Stuff
The New Rhythm And Blues Quartet Cuts A Dynamite Disc For Kids.
By Dave McElfresh
AUGUST 11, 1997: THERE'S SOMETHING INHERENT in rock and roll that insists it belongs to young people.
Time has altered Pete Townsend's "hope-I-die-before-I-get-old" stance to a preference for defining "young" as a continuation of adolescent behavior and values, allowing him and his peers to remain in the scene. And we wouldn't settle for it being defined any other way.
You wanna read that Keith Richards quit drinking and throwing TVs out of hotel windows? Me neither. Wanna hear a John Lydon album dedicated to John Bradshaw? The very idea is sacrilegious. In fact, Sting's persistent bad rap is for writing adult, intellectual rock (which may be an oxymoron) devoid of any fuck-you element, resulting in a categorization of him under P for pretentious.
On the other hand, no small coincidence that the perennially adolescent Jonathan Richman played a major role in spawning the punk scene, comprised of an assaultive bunch of bands who proudly flaunted their musical incompetence like bad boys with Fs on their report cards.
Richman and punk may have seen their day, but NRBQ has carried the torch for pointless rowdiness and all manner of hormonal urges long before and after the Sex Pistols. Now, they're choosing to pursue a more critical audience than their usual followers. Hardcore thrashers? Nope. Rhythm and blues purists? Uh-uh. A far tougher audience: your kids, believe it or not. And, unlike Stephen Bishop or some other has-been who appears on Sesame Street because he certainly doesn't have any other plans, NRBQ have reached a true high point in their career with their kids album, You're Nice People You Are. The aging quartet has long sung praises to teen mentality; now they're singing for the true punks of the world--kid brothers and sisters.
Not too cool, you say? Well, for starters, this foursome is so in love with playing fun music--everything from Johnny Cash to Lawrence Welk polkas to Sun Ra weirdness--that they don't give a shit if you think they're hip or not. Never have, never will. Actually, the disc doesn't even sound like they're stretching into new territory. Joey Spampinato's perennially boyish voice sounds entirely at home with the message of his song, "Always Safety First": Just had a whim/to go take a swim/out on a limb, just haul off and jump right in/but that's not so smart and so/I'll hold on to the rim/ahh, and then I will live to swim again. The quartet even offers a children's equivalent to the Stones' "Start Me Up" on "Encyclopedia": Ice cream and jumping beans/atoms and genes/from zero to infinity/look it up, look it up, look it up. If you're a parent overly anxious to drag your child into the world of rock and roll, you'll not find an album that better introduces your family's shortest person to the joys of The Big Beat. Better yet, it's not like the disc was churned out by some gutless studio band on the Disney label--we're talking about NRBQ here.
NRBQ--short for the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet--has been together for 30 years. What has always separated them from other rock-and-roll bands is a curious mixture of maturity and immaturity.
The band has a far greater knowledge of musical history than does nearly any other rock band, allowing them to bet audiences that they can play anything requested of them--along with their standard repertoire of more than 500 tunes. They've been the backup band behind rockabilly's Carl Perkins, country songstress Skeeter Davis (now bassist Joey Spampinato's wife) and Bonnie Raitt. Various members have also backed jazzers Carla Bley, David Sanborn (on Another Hand, his best album to date) and Gary Windo; as well as Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, Marshall Crenshaw, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Keith Richards.
Lyrically, though, they've remained 16 years old. As far back as 1969, Boppin' The Blues presented a Three Stooges tribute entitled "Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard."
Twenty-five years later on 1994's Message For The Mess Age, they were still refusing to grow up, offering "Advice For Teenagers" (Do what you want to do/You can't please them/No matter what you try and do) and an ode to "Girl Scout Cookies" (Buy 'em by the box/I gotta get lots of them/Girl Scout Cookies/Chocolate chip/Oatmeal raisin/Mystic mint/Coconut macaroon).
On the nearly two dozen albums that came between, NRBQ sang "The Dummy Song," "I Love Air Conditioning," "The Batman Theme," "My Girlfriend's Pretty," "RC Cola And A Moon Pie," "Rain At The Drive-In," "Boy's Life" and loads of other songs with themes aimed at the young and the restless: accidentally getting a girl pregnant ("It Was An Accident"), falling in love with a car ("Little Floater"), World Federated Wrestling ("Captain Lou"), smoking dope ("Wacky Tobacky") and hard-ons ("I Got A Rocket In My Pocket").
On You're Nice People You Are, the band regresses yet another 10 years, fleshing out the kid themes they tackled on the 1984 Disney tribute album Stay Awake, and the 1985 soundtrack to The Care Bears Movie. The pre-teen set are given tunes about holidays ("It's St. Patrick's Day"), friends ("We're Walking"), collecting stuff ("Keep Looking For Tumbleweeds Danny") and the horrors of music class ("The Music Lesson"). Best of all is the Dr. Seuss-like "Plenty Of Something," which honors that secret possession no one knows about: I got plenty but what do I got?/No, no, nothin' it's not/Sure ain't plenty of nothin'/No nothin' it's not/It's something I got/I like it a lot/Now what do I got?
Actually, it wouldn't take much to turn the quartet into a Saturday morning cartoon, given the band's look and sound: Tom Ardolini's cherubic face and simplistic garage band drumming; the wild-haired Terry Adams' elbow and fist-driven keyboard playfulness; newcomer guitarist Johnny Spampinato's ever-present baseball cap; and scrawny brother Joey's kid-like singing. Whittle down their ages and they'd pass for a contemporary Little Rascals.
Could very well be that You're Nice People You Are will prove to be the most influential album of their career. Loads of Oasis fans got into the Beatles from having watched The Yellow Submarine cartoon in their jammies, or from hearing the old folks sing them to sleep with "Good Night" off the White Album.
Any whippersnapper who remembers NRBQ from this release and later checks out their catalog will be introduced to an immense array of American musical heritage. Ten years from now, many pubescent punks will be checking out the avant garde jazz of Sun Ra, having followed up on NRBQ's cover of "Rocket #9," or the rockabilly of Carl Perkins after hearing Boppin' The Blues, or the '60s country music scene as a result of hearing Skeeter Davis on She Sings, They Play.
Go ahead, drag your young ones to that Sonny Rollins concert, hoping that their pint-size brainpans will comprehend his improvisational skills. Natch, they'll fall asleep, as much as we hate to admit it. But NRBQ here meets them on their own turf, and will patiently wait for them to grow into all the solid music the band represents.
They've dragged thousands of adults into new musical terrain, thanks to their unparalleled musical prowess; now it's the next generation's turn--and they aren't waiting for them to hit the teen years.
NRBQ are evangelists for the cause of American music, taking the message to both adults and those still too short to go on the scary carnival rides. As they sing on the Diggin' Uncle Q album: I can't quit, I can't quit/It comes to me naturally. It certainly does. Think of them as four uncles willing to babysit your kids via the CD player.
If you bless your little ones with You're Nice People You Are, don't be surprised if they someday interrupt your menopausal breakdown to ask if they can borrow some Carl Perkins albums.
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