Memory Motel: How I Learned to Love The Blasters (Hint: It Was Easy)
A roots-rocking journey of discovery.
In 1981, when I was a precocious 13-year-old who had just discovered the wonders of college radio and the post-punk/New Wave underground, WNYU's New Afternoon Show (which is still broadcasting new music to this day) was a constant source of amazement and amusement, lighting up my little heart with everything from the minimalist downtown art-funk of Liquid Liquid to the hook-heavy power-pop of The Speedies and the howling Halloween parade of Nick Cave's pre-Bad Seeds band The Birthday Party. Synth pop, goth rock, hardcore - everything that turned up in the DJ sets and on the stages of cutting-edge NYC venues like The Mudd Club and Danceteria (places I had no hope of getting into at my age) was paraded before my eager ears and fed into my burgeoning aesthetic.
But one day I heard a song on the New Afternoon Show that sounded like nothing else being played on the program. It was a far cry from the très moderne styles I'd quickly become accustomed to; instead it seemed at first to be more like the kind of late-‘50s/early-‘60s R&B and rockabilly records I'd heard growing up via my parents' record collection, an archive that seemed irretrievably oldies-oriented even then. Here was a raunchy baritone sax riff, a swinging drumbeat rolling out a sensual, stop-time feel, and a sweaty, soulful singer lamenting the deleterious effect his objet d'amour was having on his constitution, with lines like "When you take me in your arms and talk romance, my heart starts doin' the St. Vitus Dance."
At the time, I had no idea that "I'm Shakin'" was originally recorded 22 years earlier by R&B cult hero Little Willie John, let alone who the latter was. All I knew was that this band called The Blasters had an effect on me not unlike the one outlined by the band's frontman, Phil Alvin, in the song. The fact that this was almost entirely anomalous to the rest of WNYU's regular rotation made it stand out even more - here was a song that sounded like it belonged on one of those dusty old 45s in my mother and father's living room record cabinet than on the playlist of an au courant college-rock radio station. Next to The Blasters, rockabilly revivalists like The Stray Cats seemed like a skilled pastiche. But that was the beauty of The Blasters - though their roots-rocking sound drew almost exclusively on traditional styles (to quote their anthem "American Music," "We got the Louisiana boogie and the delta blues/We got country swing and rockabilly too/We got jazz, country-Western and Chicago blues, it's the greatest music that you ever knew"), they had come up on the L.A. scene amid the likes of X, The Go-Go's, and The Gun Club, and somehow their energy and urgency made them fit just fine into that scene. Hell, dapper Blasters drummer Bill Bateman was even the boyfriend of early-‘80s It Girl/Go-Go's singer Belinda Carlisle for a while.
It didn't take me long to discover that The Blasters were fronted by two Polish-American brothers from Downey, CA (shocked though I was to find out that voice belonged to a Caucasian): singer Phil Alvin and his songwriting, guitar-playing sibling Dave. Between 1981 and '85, they would release three amazing albums (The Blasters, Non Fiction, Hard Line) full of unfettered rock & roll energy before Dave split for a solo career that would eventually earn him a Grammy. Phil and the boys kept the band going on a smaller scale, playing roadhouses all over the globe and spreading the gospel of American Music everywhere they went. And even though Jack White has recently released his own version of "I'm Shakin'," there's still nobody that can belt it out like Phil.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Phil survived a near-death experience in Spain that caused the band to cancel its European tour, but his heart was miraculously restarted after flatlining, and apparently he's full of piss and vinegar again already. Good thing, since The Blasters released a brand new album on July 3, Fun On Saturday Night, only their second studio recording since Hard Line. Hopefully it won't be long till Phil and company are stomping out the new tunes onstage. And for what it's worth, I ended up being right about that connection between The Blasters' sound and my parents' stacks of singles - the Downey dudes turned out to be the only New Afternoon Show staples beloved by my mother, who still comes out with me to see the band play every time they roll through town.
|The Blasters - I'm Shakin'|
|Little Willie John - I'm Shakin'|