Sunday, April 19, 2009

Still Katatonic After All These Years

Thanks Hon: Thee Katatonix 30th Anniversary
Thee Katatonix
UK Spud, 2009

Excellent singles compilation highlighting local band's glorious mid-'80s neo-psychedelic period.

Forward into the past...

Adolf Kowalski just mailed me this latest "new" Katatonix CD - a collection of choice singles (and one new "bonus" track) by my old band's best lineup of Kowalski and Mr. Urbanity and various bass players and drummers (but mostly "Beautiful" Tony Belle on bass and "Big" Andy Small on the skins) - in honor of the 30th anniversary of the group's founding in 1979...(though the groundwork for the band was set in motion, amidst puffs of hemp and gulps of Blackberry brandy, in the fall of 1978 in Towson State University's wooded "Glen" - where freshman Ross "Adolf Kowalski" Haupt, freshwoman Katie "Katatonic" Glancy, and jaded junior Tommy "Gunn" Warner decided Punk Rock was the answer to their dying-of-boredom-in-the-'burbs collegiate blues - we didn't start playing out until our debut/debacle at Towson's Oddfellows Hall in April 1979.) Katie Katatonic and I (Tommy Gunn) are not on this CD at all, and that's why I like fact, though Adolf probably didn't appreciate it at the time, Katie and I did him a big favor by quitting Thee Katatonix at the end (literally, as it was New Year's Eve) of 1980. When we stopped playing music, that's when the band really started to play music. (I'd like to think the Thanks Hon title is a subconcious salute to the Tom and Katie bailout. If so, you're welcome - we did it all for you!)

That Year's Model: Katie Katatonic, Tommy Gunn and Adolf K. in 1979

Adolf, for one, grew as a songwriter when he started playing with real musicians. And he started playing with a real good one named Charlie Gatewood (pictured right), a Peabody-trained guitarist who had been playing in rockabilly and reggae bands before he started going to see punk shows (like the Katatonix) at the Marble Bar and succumbed to Adolf's considerable charms (we all did - that's why Katie and I ultimately had to leave; otherwise, we'd still be driving around in Adolf's station wagon playing gigs well into our 50s! Adolf was a born fact, the first time I met him in the TSU Glen he was dressed in his afterschool Macy's salesclerk duds - I'll never forget he wore a navy blazer with green plaid pants!).

Goodtime Charlie became "Mr. Urbanity" - Charlie claims I gave him this nickname based on his urbane culture vulture background (he read French Symbolist poets and knew how to tune guitars, which made him a Rhode Scholar in my eyes) - and initially played bass (a little Hofner, like McCartney) with the new "The Name But Not As Lame Kats." I honestly wish I had stuck around the Kats to be in that lineup, because I would have liked to have been one of the boys in this edition, but Katie and I were a package deal and, personally, I was frustrated with not recording; I wanted something to show for all the gigging; ironically, our 1979-1980 Edition Kats tunes would not make it onto vinyl until we moved on. It was as a trio (Charlie, Adolf and new drummer "Big" Andy Small) that the Kats released their first EP in 1983, which featured two Original Edition Kowalski-penned tunes "Valentines Day" and "Basket Case" as well as the new "Joie de Vivre." I dunno what started the French song title kick (see also "Maison le Rock"), but I liked it.

Then, in 1984 the new Kats, with Charlie firmly entrenched as lead guitarist and augmented by new bass player St. Anthony (he cured a ham), released Phase 1 of their psychedelic-makeover mission statement: Divine Mission. Though the sound was still predominantly punk during this transitional period (songs like "Beltway Beat" would have fit in our set lists from 1980), you could feel Mr. Urbanity's influence. His blistering lead guitar work refurbished the old Kowalski-Gunn chestnut "Fungus" as a psychedelic rave-up while the Urbanity-Kowalski two-guitar attack and vocal harmonies on "End of An Era" recalled the Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle formula circa the Buzzcocks' most progressive pop record, 1980's A Different Kind of Tension. Though credited to Kowalski/Urbanity/Small, I suspect Adolf was the driving force behind the album's best cut (and my 2nd all-time Kats fave song), "Maison le Rock," especially lyrically ("She's a junked-out girl/Like shoveled snow/But she was something to eat/She spent all my dough" - love it!). Still, Urbanity's "Shake Shake" and "Chain Letter" signaled a new sound and lyrical direction; small wonder they were the lead-off tunes on both sides of the album, establishing a precedent that would be hard to shake (or shake shake).

By 1985, the punk-to-neo-psychedelic transformation was complete and singles like Charlie's A-side "Daisy Chain" were getting heavy rotation on WCVT, no doubt benefitting from a nationwide psych revival spearheaded by LA "Paisley Underground" bands like The Dream Syndicate, Three O'Clock, and Rain Parade. This was the band's Golden Era, with national tours, TV appearances and regular radio airplay and...I hate to say it, but the fact is, it was Charlie's songs ("Daisy Chain," "We Need a House," "Book of Love") that led the way and propelled The Great Leap Forward musically. Good as Adolf's songs were ("Not Excited," "Something For You") - and they were now incorporating retro-sounding keyboard parts as well as guitar power chords - they still seemed rooted in the old cock-rock punk 'tude; maybe this was because to these ears, it sounded too much like what I was familiar with the first go-round '79-'80. Adolf was a frontman and showman par excellence and this was always his band, so it took someone special to make him share the spotlight; Charlie was that person, and to Adolf's credit he let him shine. The result was a more perfect union of songwriting.

Thanks Hon: 30th Anniversary

Which brings us to the 30th anniversary platter on UK Spud which, just like 1984's Divine Mission, is "produced by money and Thee Katatonix."

Once again Mr. Urbanity bats leadoff, opening with the best song Thee Katatonix ever recorded, "Ordinary Sunday"; it also sets the track template as, from this point, Urbanity and Kowalski alternate songs until Adolf's 11th "bonus" track at the end.

1. "Ordinary Sunday" (Urbanity) *****

"Ordinary Sunday" was the tune with which they made their TV debut on Baltimore's latenight dance show Shakedown - I can still recall going to the TV party over at WCVT DJ Rod Misey's apartment (this was in the days before Tivo, when you actually had to stay up late to see shows on in the wee small hours) to watch Charlie and Adolf rock out in with their matching Gibson SG guitars, their faces hidden by cascading hair and their skinny-ass torsos draped in beads and psychedelic shirts. Charlie especially was the picture of cool, looking like Cramps voodoo guitarist Bryan Gregory as he blew the hair away from his face to deliver his biting opening refrain "I was coming undone, because of an experience..."

"Ordinary Sunday" on Shakedown TV show

Charlie's poetic imagery is delivered in stream-of-conscious shotgun blasts - "Late afternoon by receding shoreline, near the scene of an accident, Perfumed bedroom/ black shoes/you're doomed, keep in mind it was an ordinary Sunday...late afternoon by imposing skyline, industrial forefront of our hometown, smokestack/water black/black pool/we're cool ...keep in mind it was an ordinary Sunday..." Bathe yourself in local color; you may never pass this way again.

2. "Crown" (Kowalski) ***
Nice intro and great soloing between the verses highlight this bitter love song in which Adolf laments that he's the King of Sorrow Tomorrowland and wears a crown of thorns around his heart (ouch!). I like the lines "Oriental schoolgirl flash a smile at me, while she holds her boyfriend tight, she knows I think of her at night, but she crossed me out because I'm white" (double ouch!).

3. "We Need A House" (Urbanity) ***
A long, layered guitars-and-synths intro leads into a song about alienation that continues to mount tension, like Led Zep's "Kashmir," as Charlie explains to his daughter Eleanor, "...we need a house with a little room outside the rooms inside, one that we could hide away in a day or two..." Home fires burn while the world passes outside.

4. "Something For You" (Kowalksi) ***
Adolf's Farfisa-sounding organ dominates this mid-tempo ballad...

5. "Mexican Hat" (Urbanity) ***
Peppy oddity with interesting bridge.

6. "Not Excited" (Kowalksi) ****
Once again Charlie and Adolf's guitars evoke the pop-punk Buzzcocks sound (always a good thing) on this non-stop rocker that's interlaced with organ riffing.

7. "Book of Love" (Urbanity) *****
"I want to read the book of love/I want to know the things you've done between the covers/I don't want to read the story between the lines..." Great psych anthem with Charlie even throwing in a teasing reggae riff on the bridge (it reminds me of Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers' "Egyptian Reggae") and a kick-ass middle eight leading into Adolf's organ solo. Along with "Daisy Chain," perhaps the band's greatest uptempo tune, driven along nicely by Andy Small's big beat. Infectiously catchy.

"Book of Love" live on SFTV

8. "Home Alone" (Kowalski) ** 1/2
"Don't go home alone, we gotta have a bone..." Cock-rock bragadaccio ("You know we like them, we like the little girls...") about the boys in the band getting take-out. Nice work if you can get it. Redeemed by the dueling guitars slugfest. Originally appeared as B-side of the "Daisy Chain" single.

9. "Daisy Chain" (Urbanity) ****
"People come and go, there's some things we may never know/We all sleep, but no two dream the same..." Perfect pop, peppily-paced, with cool solo and backing chorus - all clocking in at 2 minutes and eleven seconds. Deceptively flower-powery until the "Hope you choke on your beautiful daisy chain" end.

10. "F*** You" (Kowalski, 2008) ***
Adolf takes the old Kowalksi-Gunn number "Stretch Marx," beefs up the guitars and disposes of my disposable lyrics (no loss there!), replacing them with this fricative-friendly snarling retort to any and all Kats kritics. A rose by any other name, still smells as sweet...

11. Super Groovy Bonus Track (Kowalksi, 2009) **
Interesting guitar motif anchors this introspective brooder that finds Adolf moaning like Ghost Host. "I'm a changer rearranger...I've been observed, I've been observed..." Far from super groovy, but then again, as Adolf K.'s previous ditty advised, if youse don't like it: "F*** You"!

Related Links:
Thee Katatonix website



Anonymous kimbaba said...

what ever happened to Andy Small? I met him at a party at Widener University in 1984 or 1985... I got an autographed copy of the Joie de Vivre record... oh, and also a pair of his socks after I spent a few hours with him in his hotel room with some other guy passed out on the other bed!

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