Sunday, October 01, 2006

Keen on Keene

In my bipolar musical taste universe, my two fave artists are Tokyo's Pizzicato Five for uptempo happy music and Bethesda, Maryland's Tommy Keene (pictured above) for beautifully melancholy melodic pop.

Tommy who?

OK, admittedly he's mostly a local legend, unless you happened to see him tour as a hired guitar slinger with Velvet Crush in '96 (supporting Oasis) or Paul Westerberg in '97 or saw his band perform briefy in the 1986 Michael Anthony Hall film Out of Bounds. But he shoulda been bigger. People mad for Keane are keen about the wrong Keene.

To further confuse matters, Tommy's latest project is The Keene Brothers, a collaboration with Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices, in which Pollard sings. (I don't like the name, envisioning branding issues with Britain's Keane, and I don't like that Tommy has to take a back seat vocally and lyrically to Pollard just because ersatz-Replacements wannabes Guided By Voices have name recognition with the College Radio Crowd.) The Keene Brothers album is called Blues and Boogie Shoes. As a result of this recent collaboration, Tommy will be playing in Pollard's Ascending Masters band when they hit Baltimore November 15 to play at Sonar in support of Pollard's latest record, Normal Happiness.

Anyway, it's Fall. Leaves are falling, I have to start working Sundays, colds and flus are surely on their way, and at times like these, my mood turns melancholic - so naturally I dig out my Tommy Keene records. And, while digging through my Keene Klutter the other day, I ran across an old, incomplete Tommy Keene record review from the late '90s laying dormant in a drawer. The record was Songs from the Film, originally released in 1986 but not re-released on CD (with bonus tracks) until 1998. With that as a starting point, herein is my rap on Tommy Keene and why he matters.



Songs From the Film
Tommy Keene
Geffin (GEFD-25225)

by Tom Warner

You don't have to read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables to understand injustice. Just consider the plight of local guitar hero Tommy Keene. A true original in an age of indie rock knockoffs, Bethesda, MD-native Keene once seemed destined for greatness, a sure thing bound for certain rock 'n' roll glory. As a kid in 1966, he met Jeff Beck backstage at a Yardbirds gig and so impressed him with his knowledge of guitars that Beck gave Tommy his prized Fender Esquire (which Tommy has used on every subsequent studio recording), saying, "Maybe someday you'll make better use of this than I can." History may reserve judgement on the outcome, but Keene fans know Tommy has played his heart out since, trying. Influenced in equal measure by the brightness of The Beatles and the darkness of The Velvet Underground, Keene's forte became, in his words, "melancholy music set to a jubilant beat," with a big jangly guitar wall of sound, effortless hooks, clever (and deceptively simple) wordplay, and a reedy voice brimming over with passion, conviction and, quite often, bitterness and regret (much like his role models Alex Chilton and Lou Reed). (Other influences, according to his Myspace page, include The Who, Elvis Costello, Paul Collins Beat, Joe Jackson, The Records and The Smithereens.)

His "jubilant melancholy" seems to be an oxymoronic contradiction. But as he told Matt Hickey in an interview with Magnet magazine, "I think most good pop music touches a nerve in people. I mean, it's true, obviously, going back to the Beatles. But even people like Bruce Springsteen, that's why people really went nuts for him, because he had these sort of desperate songs, but he rocked out."

"That's kind of my shtick or my thing. There's a constant thread running through all of the records that I put out. Some records, I think, are darker than others, but they're all pretty consistent. I get a lot of flak for it (from the press). This guy in D.C. who's been there forever called me `Morrissey's American cousin.' You know, whatever. I guess Morrissey has the patent on misery."

After a brief but successful career with Washington, DC's Razz in the early 80s, Keene went solo in 1981, making one epic demo tape (1981's still-never-matched -- or released on CD -- masterpiece, Strange Alliance) and two critically acclaimed EPs in 1984 for Dolphin Records: Places That Are Gone and Back Again (Try). He relocated to New York City, then to his current home in L.A., as the Tommy Keene Band (Doug Tull on drums, Ted Nicely on bass and Billy Connelly on guitar), gaining a rep as an electrifying live band, especially when Tommy cut loose on a legendary jam-out of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons." Then in 1986, he finally got his big break when he signed to Geffen Records; the resultant album Songs from the Film (the title inspired by the British subtitle of the Beatles' Help! and A Hard Day's Night albums) was to be his smashing debut in the limelight. It didn't work out that way. Even with a former Beatles studio engineer, Geoff Emerick, running the boards and a video of "Places That Are Gone" getting airplay on MTV's then-fledgling 120 Minutes. Perhaps it was a classic case of right place, wrong time, as the music industry was then in the midst of a Payola scandal. College radio, then as now, was sympathetic to Keene's particular strain of melodic pop, but becoming, at best, only an acquired taste to fickle flavor-of-the-month program directors. Disappointed that Keene didn't write cheery little ditties like then-popular Rick Springfield, Geffen quickly pulled the plug and didn't let him record again until contractually obligated to in 1989. His Geffen swan song, Based On Happy Times, has the nothing-to-lose feel of an artist freed of the concerns of making hit records; no wonder it's Keene's personal favorite. (In a sad commentary on the obscurity of this long out-of-print record, let me just say, I only have my CD copy of because it was being used as a wall decoration in a music store, thumbtacked to the wall, before I offered to take the dog-eared disc off their hands.)

In 1998 Geffin re-released Songs from the Film, perhaps inspired by the referential (Look Back In Anger?) title of Keene's 1996 Matador Records release Ten Years After, or maybe just to give listeners another chance to see why for the past 20 years he's influenced just about every melodically inclined indie-rock group (just don't say powerpop, as Keene associates the term with "skinnyties and matching suits" Knack-offs) from The Replacements (whose leader, Paul Westerberg, hired Tommy as a guitarist for his Eventually tour) to The Gin Blossoms (whom I saw Tommy open for - as the third billed act, even warming up for the second-billed here-today-gone-tomorrow no-talents Dishwalla!), Teenage Fanclub and The Posies (hey, even notoriously uncharitable Noel Gallagher was reportedly wowed by Keene's strumming when he joined Velvet Crush on their 1996 British tour opening for Oasis). And this time it's the Director's Cut, with nine additional songs - four previously unreleased tracks and four tunes from Keene's long-out-of-print (and vere released on CD) 1986 Geffen Ep Run Now.

[Blogger's Note: That was "all she wrote" - the end of my abortive journalistic effort for Cool & Strange Sounds magazine back in 1998. God knows where the rest of my notes are hiding. But let's pick the story up at this point from other sources.]


THE STORY SO FAR: An Annotated Tommy Keene Timeline
(the cheeky asides are mostly from from Matador Records press bio)

Early 70s. "As a child, Keene played classical piano before picking up guitar and drums. He spent his teenage years drumming in a rock trio called Blue Steel, whose original guitar player, Mike Lofgren, was the younger brother of Nils Lofgren. Consequently, Keene's first notable gig was when Blue Steel opened for Lofgren's band Grin." ~ from artist bio

1977. "In 1977, while attending the University of Maryland [where he briefly shared a dorm with future DelMarVas and Rockheads bassist Bernie Ozol - who never lets anyone forget it!], Keene switched to guitar and formed the short-lived band The Rage with songwriter Richard X. Heyman[a future drummer for Link Wray and a solo artist on Sire Records]. ~ from artist bio

Late 70s. During this period, Keene left The Rage to join a popular Washington, D.C. rock band called The Razz, who opened for such notable acts as the Ramones [the Razz played their last Baltimore gig opening for the Ramones at Martin's East in 1979], Devo, and Patti Smith. It was in the Razz that Keene met bass player Ted Nicely and drummer Doug Tull, who would work with him throughout the '80s.

1978. Along with The Slickee Boys, The Razz were THE DC band, noted for their charismatic frontman Michael Reidy and the twin guitar attack of Tommy Keene and Bill Craig (later of cover band Junior Cline & The Recliners). In 1978, Tommy replaced guitarist Abaad Behram (who played on the first Razz single, 1977's "C. Redux/70's Anomie") and records the abortive "Move It" 7" single (Cherry Vanilla/Move It/Doo Wah Diddy); Abaad played on one song, Tommy on two, but release is scrapped (look for test pressings on eBAY!).

1979. The Razz (Michael Reidy - vocals / Tommy Keene - guitar, vocals / Bill Craig - guitar / Ted Nicely - bass, vocals / Doug Tull - drums) release the 4-song EP Air Time, produced by Skip Groff for O'Rourke/Limp Records. Only 1,000 copies were made, so good luck finding this gem, which was from a live recording of a concert they did for radio station DC101. The show was recorded at the University of Maryland Student Union Grand Ballroom, where the band opened for Dave Edmund's Rockpile (featuring Nick Lowe). Skip Groff: "I think Air Time was one of the greatest records ever to come out of DC. I edited it. That was my entire involvement in it, aside from putting it out." The A-side included "Marianne/Cherry Vanilla" (the latter about the infamous New York groupie/rocker/scenemaker who was Bowie's Glam-era publicist and also acted in Warhol's play Pork) and the B-side was "Love Is Love/Hippy Hippy Shake." Tommy wrote "Love Is Love," which as Skip Groff points out, quickly established itself as The Razz's live set tour-de-force. "It became the ending piece later on, and they would do that at the very end of a set and expand on it."

Later that year, Razz releases its final single on O'Rourke/Limp, "You Can Run/Who's Mr, Comedy." The A-side was a Tommy Keene original with sneering lyrics - "You can run but you can't hide/Pity for you is in short supply" - by Reidy (a remix of "You Can Run" also appeared on the Declaration of Independents compilation LP). The flip is also credited to both songwriters, but it sounds more in Reidy's vein. Unfortunately, by this time Reidy's ego - and a disdain for Razz's guitar-dominated sound - precluded further development of Keene's songwriting ideas, and Tommy decided to move on. (See Limp Records Discography for details on Razz recordings.)

In late '79, Tommy helps out his pal Howard Wuelfing (The Nurses, ex-Slickee Boys), playing guitar on the Reind Dears' Xmas 7", "Xmas (Is Going To Bring Me Down)/White Christmas."

Early 80s. After the Razz, Keene embarked on a European tour as a sideman for New Wave singer Suzanne Fellini (a one-hit wonder most infamous for her 1980 single about phone sex, "Love On the Phone" - which featured lyrics like "Its so hard when Im feeling on fire/And
all I can hold is the telephone wire ...You know I want you cause you're the best/Hang on a minute I'll get undressed/Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No!"
), before co-founding a band called Pieces in New York. Unhappy with the music, Keene decided to form his own group with the former Razz rhythm section of bassist Ted Nicely and drummer Doug Tull, as well as guitarist Mike Colburn (who were all then playing in a band called Nightman).

1981. Tommy's debut solo LP Strange Alliance is released on Avenue Records. Excessive use of guitar harmonics predates U2's Edge by two or three days. A different version of "Strange Alliance" appears on the 1981 O'Rourke/Limp Records Connections compilation LP, as well as "The Heart" - a Keene tune unavailable anywhere else.

1982. Strange Alliance is reissued with the inclusion of a bonus 7", "Back To Zero," still one of Keene's finest moments, and the song that arguably brought him to national attention. "Better than 'Radio Free Europe'" said somebody (we forgot who). The B-side is the hook-happy "Mr. Roland."

1984. North Carolina's Dolphin label releases the Places That Are Gone 12" EP, which goes on to become one of the year's top selling independent releases. The EP garners a four-star review in Rolling Stone, and is voted the #1 EP in the following year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll. Includes killer cover of Alex Chilton's "Hey! Little Child." Tommy also releases the Back Again (Try...) EP on Dolphin in 1984. Also in 1984, Tommy records several tracks with producers T-Bone Burnnett and Don Dixon for the original version of what will later become Songs from the Film; four out of five of these tracks will later be released on 1986's Run Now EP.

1986. After signing to Geffen Records (home of Cher, Stan Ridgeway and Quarterflash), the original Burnett/Dixon version of Songs From the Film is scrapped in favor of new recordings with producer Geoff Emerick (he of Beatles and Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom fame). Matador Records bio: "The new version, recorded for billions of dollars in Berumda (or Nassau, or Pago Pago, who knows) goes over about as well as that romantic comedy with James Woods and Dolly Parton (we remember the name of it but we're not telling you)."

1986 also sees the Run Now 12" EP released on Geffen. Produced by T-Bone Burnett and Don Dixon, four of the five songs were culled from the same sessions that were to have produced the original version of Songs From the Film, Tommy's second album. The only new song, the title track "Run Now," was produced by Bob Clearmountain. From Tommy Keene's Myspace page: "The EP's title track is one of the all-time great Keene rockers, with inspired rhythm section work from drummer Doug Tull and bassist Ted Nicely, plus a terrific guitar solo from Keene. The singer as well as the song appeared in the Anthony Michael Hall movie Out of Bounds. Rent it today and catch Tommy's 15 seconds of celluloid glory."

1988. Keene fires his entire band and moves to Los Angeles, predating a similar move by Bruce Springsteen by several years. Always a pioneer...

1989. Based On Happy Times, the darkest album in the Keene canon, is recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis and released (reluctantly) on Geffen Records, Matador Records bio: "Based On Happy Times is released, deleted and destroyed all on the same day. Keene's management company and booking agency also drop him that afternoon. We really think if Tommy was into astrology this particular day would've turned out differently, but you'd better not mention it to him." R.E.M.'s Peter Buck appears on two tracks, lending some Marc Bolan-style guitar on the Beach Boys cover "Our Car Club" and mandolin on "A Way Out." Based On Happy Times marks the first time Keene worked with another songwriter on an album, co-writing "When Our Vows Break" with Jules Shears. The track "Nothing Can Change You" is later covered by the Goo Goo Dolls (appearing on the B-side of the Australian version of their single "Slide").

The 90s. Tommy basically toured and was a guitarist for hire for various groups.

1990-91. An endless series of "showcases," demos and expensive phone calls leads to very little. An offer from Island Records is pulled off the table when Keene is quoted in the Santa Monica Shopper as saying U2 "really stink" (Keene denies making this statement). Tommy does a brief tour playing guitar for Reprise artist Adam Schmidt.

1992. New Matador 5 song EP Sleeping On a Rollercoaster, ecstatic response, resurrection in the marketplace, etc. Don't you just hate these guys who get famous overnight?

1993. Alias Records release a career "story so far" retrospective that includes the 1984 Places That Are Gone EP, the "Back To Zero"/"Mr. Roland" single, "Back Again (Try)" and "Safe In the Light" from the 1984 Back Again (Try...) EP, and various demos, outtakes, and miscellany, including covers of Alex Chilton's "Hey! Little Child," The Who's "Tattoo," and The Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action." Also includes the song "Sleeping On a Rollercoaster," which doesn't appear on the 1992 EP of the same name.

1995. Tommy tours the States as a guitarist with Velvet Crush. You can hear the results on the Velvet Crush's 2001 live release Rock Concert (Action Musik).

1996. Ten Years After LP/CD on Matador Records is Tommy Keene's first full-length album of new material since 1989's Based On Happy Times . The "Turning On Blue" video is shot in support of the new album. In 1996, Tommy toured the UK with Oasis as lead guitarist for support act, Velvet Crush. Noel Gallagher asked a British journalist "Who's the clever fucker with the Telecaster?" The journalist noticed, "Don't you think he looks a bit like you Noel" to which his reply was "Bollocks, but ee's not half bad...Bastard!"

Paul Westerberg recruits Tommy to wear suits and play lead guitar, play some piano & sing a little on his Summer tour supporting the Eventually album. One Midwestern critic reported, "Guest guitarist Tommy Keene added some sparkle to an inspired set with some superb playing and backing vocals." Tommy still hasn't showed that review to anyone but thanks to Burrelle's clipping service for the tip.

1997. Baltimore public access television program Atomic TV includes Keene's "Turning on Blue" music video in its "Local Music" episode.

1998. Geffen reissues Songs from the Film with nine additional songs, including four previously unreleased tracks and four tunes from Keene's long out-of-print 1986 EP Run Now. Matador releases Isolation Party album.

2002. Keene corrals his longtime rhythm section of John Richardson and Brad Quinn, Wilco's Jay Bennett, singer/songwriter Adam Schmitt, and ex-Gin Blossoms frontman Robin Wilson to issue The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down.

2004. Drowning miscellany compilation CD of outtakes, demos and B-sides released. Notable for being the album on which Tommy records the only known power pop song about Karl Marx. Tommy also opened for Guided By Voices during some of the group's final dates in 2004. Later, a restless Keene volunteers to join frontman Robert Pollard's first solo tour and play keyboards as well as guitar: "Robert was really excited. He said, 'I've never had a keyboardist live!'"

2006. Tommy releases his 10th solo record, Crashing the Ether, his first studio effort since 2002's The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down - and the most "solo" of Tommy Keene solo albums. Besides recording the 10 songs comprising the disc at his Los Angeles home, Tommy played most of the instruments himself, with help from longtime drummer John Richardson.

Keene also finds time to tour as guitarist/keyboardist with Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices and to collaborate with Pollard - under the moniker The Keene Brothers - on the album Blues and Boogie Shoes, released in May 2006. Some of the songs on Crashing the Ether were originally slated for the Keene Brothers album. According to a Billboard interview, Keene described the record as - at Pollard's request - "a Tommy Keene record he can sing over. "I thought, okay, that's good," Keene said in the interview. "I mean, nobody does Tommy Keene like me."

Also, in a 2006 cover story interview with Magnet magazine, Tommy "comes out," admitting for the first time in print (at least as far as I know) that he is gay. In case anyone missed it, he repeated his confession in the May 9, 2006 issue of The Advocate. Tommy never denied it, it's just that, as he told the magazine, "Nobody in the press ever just came out and asked, and everyone around me always knew." He has been with his partner for the past 15 years. For more on this, see also the Feast of Fools podcast #386 interview.


STRANGE ALLIANCE (Avenue 1981, 1982)

Strange Alliance was originally released in 1981, and then re-released the next year with a 7" single containing the song "Back to Zero." This bonus single was a smart move, as "Back to Zero" was a big jump forward in songwriting from most of what was on the album. Strange Alliance wasn't bad by any means, but there were fewer hooks and fewer memorable songs than on future Keene releases. Basically a power pop record with a raw garage -- almost punkish -- feel, it was better than most of what was being released in the same period. Overlooked then and now, the album is by no means a classic, but is definitely worth seeking out by Keene fans and those with an interest in music akin to Jules & the Polar Bears and early Greg Kihn. ~ Rob Caldwell, All Music Guide (from

As the jacket blurb on Strange Alliance attests, Keene's music does bear some superficial resemblance to the Only Ones and early U2, though without their depth or charisma. (Audible influences also include the Beatles and the Byrds.) The first album contains eight immediately likable, if melancholic, tunes, every one a winner. (A later pressing adds a subsequent single.) Keene's reedy voice, chiming, arpeggiated guitar chords and occasional piano make for a lightweight but appealing blend. ~ Ira Robbins/Jim Green Trouser Press (from

BACK AGAIN (TRY...) EP (Dolphin 1984)

Back Again (Try...) offers two cool covers, recorded live at the Rat in Boston, and two studio originals. Roxy Music's "All I Want Is You" — why didn't anyone think of doing that sooner? — and the Stones' "When the Whip Comes Down" show Keene's rock'n'roll abilities, while the title track and "Safe in the Light" are in more of a Tom Petty power pop vein, and quite striking at that. ~ Ira Robbins/Jim Green, Trouser Press (from


In 1984 a six-song platter of pop perfection titled Places That Are Gone(Dolphin) put Tommy Keene onto the CMJ charts and atop the Village Voice EP of the Year poll. Looking back, it's easy to forget what an audacious piece of work the record was. Blatantly romantic, unapologetically melodic, bittersweet but absolutely invigorating, Places That Are Gone was the sort of record that you could put on before you went out on a Saturday night, or sit around and mope to if you didn't feel like facing the world. It still stands as a powerful statement, not only establishing Tommy as a unique singer-songwriter but also as a guitarist with a sound as distinctive as Pete Townshend or Johnny Marr. ~ Eleven Thirty Records bio (from


In what seemed like an attempt by Geffen to make a "big" pop record and endear Keene to an audience wider than critics and a small cult of discerning record buyers, renowned producer Geoff Emerick (Elvis Costello, Beatles) only succeeded at rounding the edges, thus stealing the spark from Keene's performance. The drums are buried in the mix and Keene's distinctive vocals obscured behind a wash of studio processing, but fortunately, Keene's talent shines through in memorable songwriting and biting guitar solos. "In Our Lives" and "Goldtown" are classic Tommy Keene melodic power rockers, while "The Story Ends" stands among his best Beatlesque ballads. But the infectious "Places That Are Gone," which opens side one, sounds awkwardly sped up and doesn't come close to matching the quiet intensity of the version that appeared as the title track of the 1984 Dolphin EP. The story has it that Geffen rejected the original Songs From the Film sessions, produced by T-Bone Burnett and Don Dixon, to make this record, although the label at least momentarily came to their senses and released tracks from those sessions later that year on the excellent Run Now EP. [Geffen's 1998 CD reissue of Songs from the Film includes the Run Now EP, plus four previously unreleased songs: "Take Back Your Letters," "We're Two," an alternate full-band take of "Faith in Love" and a live cover of the Flamin' Groovies' "Teenage Head."] ~ Jack Leaver, All Music Guide (from

RUN NOW EP (Geffen 1986)

Containing the song "Run Now," produced by Bob Clearmountain, and included in the Madonna film Out of Bounds, four of the other five tracks here were culled from the T-Bone Burnett and Don Dixon sessions cut in 1984 for the original version of Songs From the Film. In contrast to the album Geffen ended up releasing, the Burnett/Dixon tracks reveal an effort to capture the subtle nuances and characteristics of Keene's unique guitar sound and style. Thankfully, the drum sound in these recordings belies the typical bigger-than-life studio reverberation found on commercial recordings of the day; Burnett and Dixon opted to keep the foundation for these tracks simple and nature. The title cut -- produced by Bob Clearmountain -- is okay, but it pales next to songs like "They're in Their Own World" and "Back Again," which appeared in 1984 as a 12" single. A plus is the killer live version of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons," which is much better than the studio rendition released on Songs From the Film. ~ Jack Leaver, All Music Guide (from


Much like 1986's Songs From the Film, Geffen seemed bent on making Keene's music bigger than life with Based on Happy Times, but this time the overall production sounds less forced and truer to capturing the purity and aggressiveness of Keene's live sound. Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis with Joe Hardy and John Hampton at the helm, Based on Happy Times brought together the best elements of Keene's previous work, including excellently crafted pop songs, delicious guitar figures, and tight ensemble playing. Among the collection's strongest cuts: the sadly beautiful "This Could Be Fiction," which fades with a lovely string passage; the powerful "When Our Vows Break"; and the haunting album closer "A Way Out," featuring R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on mandolin. And as usual, Keene can pick interesting cover tunes, this time around doing a quirky and fun take on a Beach Boys obscurity, "Our Car Club," which also includes a guitar cameo by Buck. Perhaps if this superb record had been given the promotion it deserved, Tommy Keene would have the name recognition of the aforementioned artists. ~ Jack Leaver, All Music Guide (from


After a less than ideal tenure at Geffen Records, Keene emerged undaunted in the '90s with a rockin' new band and a strong batch of fresh songs, as evidenced on this five-song EP. Produced by Keene and Steve Carr -- who engineered a good share of Keene's work in the '80s, including the magnificent Places That Are Gone EP -- Sleeping on a Roller Coaster contains some of Keene's most dynamic and powerful pop/rock performances to date. With muscular grooves provided by Brad Quinn on bass, vocals and piano, and drummer John Richardson, along with a guest guitar appearance from Justin Hibbard on two tracks, Keene -- who also doubles on keyboards -- delivers an irresistibly melodic guitar assault and inspired singing throughout the set. ~ Jack Leaver, All Music Guide (from


A well-done and welcome retrospective of a talented guitarist/singer/songwriter, The Real Underground boasts 23 tracks, all of which are currently out of print in their original packaging or previously unreleased. Although this is a great collection, unfortunately it does not include anything from the two fine albums Keene made for Geffen, or the excellent tracks that company released on the Run Now EP. Regardless, fans will delight in having the outstanding Dolphin EP Places That Are Gonein its entirety, as well as singles and previously unreleased demos from 1982-92. Some of the fun in those unreleased tracks comes from great covers, such as the Who's "Tattoo" and the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action." ~ Jack Leaver, All Music Guide (from

TEN YEARS AFTER (Matador 1996)

The first full-length album since 1989's Based on Happy Times, Ten Years After comes closer to capturing the raw energy of a Tommy Keene live show than any of his previous studio recordings. Kicking off with a hard guitar assault in "Going Out Again," the intensity and emotion is sustained throughout the rest of this superb 12-song collection. Keene's voice has never sounded better, and his guitar lines are fluid and inspired. The strength of lyric and melody in songs such as "We Started Over Again" and "Turning On Blue" assure that Keene's songwriting craft is still in top form. Ten Years After contains a memorable hook at every turn, whether it's in the drive of the delicate acoustic guitar in the folky "Silent Town" or the thunderous eloquence of "Your Heart Beats Alone." And Keene's band is particularly impressive; bassist/ vocalist Brad Quinn and drummer John Richardson rock hard, yet still provide the right rhythmic footing for each of the guitarists' musical detours -- for example, the country flavoring of "You Can't Wait For Time." A must for longtime fans, as well as anyone who appreciates intelligent and well-crafted pop/rock that maintains a sharp edge. ~ Jack Leaver, All Music Guide (from

ISOLATION PARTY (Matador 1998)

Tommy Keene always sounded a bit smarter and edgier than the sizable majority of his pure pop brethren back in the early 1980s, and he was a much tougher guitarist than nearly any of his peers (check out his live take of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons" on the Run Now EP sometime and hear him blow a hole in Reed's original). Which might be why his best stuff hasn't dated much, and, 15 years after his debut album, he could still come up with an intelligent and razor sharp set of hard pop songs, with Isolation Party as the result. While the tunes may be a shade less catchy than the highlights from Songs From the Film, nothing here sounds like a dud, either, and Keene offers up plenty of committed rockers ("The World Outside," "Getting out From Under You," and "Long Time Missing") as well as hooky, lower-key pop numbers ("Tuesday Morning" and "Weak and Watered Down," the latter of which does not live up to its title). Also, recording for Matador, no one was likely to tell Keene to lighten up on his guitar parts, and the result is a harder and leaner set than he usually offered up in his earlier days (with a Mission of Burma cover for good measure), though the hallmarks of his style -- moody but graceful melodies, a nimble and efficient rhythm section, and Keene's passionate vocals and subtly sublime guitar work -- are still very much in evidence. In short, Tommy Keene has long been an underappreciated talent, and Isolation Party once again begs the question why someone this good isn't a major star (or at least a bigger cult figure). ~ Mark Deming, All Music Guide (from


After years of touring, Tommy Keene -- one of America's most criminally underappreciated songwriters -- decided to fulfill fans' wishes and release a live album. The result, Showtunes, shows off the pick of a catalog bursting with shoulda-been hits -- as well as Keene's top-notch guitar work. Among the well-chosen 15-track program are most of his best power pop tunes, including five from the classic 1986 album Places That Are Gone and another four from the long-out-of-print follow-up Based on Happy Times. The title track of that album, in fact, is the one that most benefits from the live setting, as Keene strips away the strings and polish of the studio version to give it an emotional makeover. Elsewhere, there are few surprises for Keene fans, which is OK; they get the crunchy, catchy riffs they've grown to love, delivered with energy and precision -- as well as a hidden track that samples the band's silly stage patter through the years, as a bonus. ~ Dan LeRoy, All Music Guide (from


Isolation Party was one of Tommy Keene's career peaks, and one of the times where he managed to gel his taste in sonic crunch and his ability to write hooks in one place. Unfortunately, the winning streak doesn't continue for the spotty The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down, Keene's first new studio album in four years. While much of the record sounds as fantastic on the surface as Keene's earlier material, none of the songs have a hook on par with Places That Are Gone or Long Time Missing. The album's highlight and centerpiece is the 16-minute-long "The Final Hour," which sits right in the middle of the disc and bizarrely slices it into three parts. Despite its length, "The Final Hour" is fundamentally a basic Keene rocker, and more or less follows basic verse/chorus/verse conventions -- albeit for a wee bit longer than the other cuts on the album. And shoving it in the middle of the album's running order is certainly an attempt to thwart convention -- one would expect this to be the closer -- but it doesn't really help the disc (and, in fact, it destroys any semblance of flow) as much as show that Keene is open to trying new things. Apart from "The Final Hour," which -- qualms aside -- is actually one of the better cuts on the disc -- the album's best moments come in the other places where Keene tweaks with his own formula. After repeat listens, it's songs like the boozy closer, "The Fog Has Lifted," or the New Orleans R&B-influenced, horn-spiked "The Man Without a Soul" that stand out and beg to be regarded with the best of Keene's work. Despite its flaws, The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down is still a decent Keene record with enough highs to please anyone who came onboard with one of his earlier releases -- it's just not the place to start. ~ Jason Damas, All Music Guide (from


The Real Underground, Pt. 2? Well, no, not quite. While that fabled compilation pulled together the cream of Tommy Keene's superb early indie-label work, Drowning is devoted to unreleased material, seasoned with some rare cuts that even obsessive fans have probably missed over the years (flexidisc giveaway tunes, Japanese bonus tracks, contributions from out of print compilation albums). Also, while The Real Underground had a remarkably high batting average, the nature of Drowning makes it significantly less consistent, though given how talented Keene is as a guitarist and songwriter, there isn't anything here that could honestly be called a dud. Keene has thrown a few oddball experiments into the mix, including "Karl Marx" (a psychological analysis of the Soviet leader in the guise of a pop song), "Tell Me Something" (Tommy gets funky and doesn't embarrass himself in the process), and "Lover's Lies" (the liner notes suggest Keene has no fond memories of the drum machine used on this number). There are a few lost classics along the way -- the title cut was written for Songs from the Film and would have been a fine fit for that album, while the demo for "Where Have All Your Friends Gone" is a real gem with a ripping guitar solo despite the rough recording. Keene has also included notes on each song that are both informative and witty, and his photography that graces the package is nearly as impressive as the music. These may be Keene's odds and ends, but there's still plenty of great guitar-driven pop on Drowning, and it's well worth investigating. ~ Mark Deming, All Music Guide (from

CRASHING THE ETHER (Eleven Thirty 2006)

Between 1982 and 1989, Tommy Keene released a handful of superb records that blended intelligent lyrics and classically styled pop melodies with Keene's stellar guitar work to create some of the most satisfying American pop of the era (especially his superb major-label debut, 1986's Songs from the Film). This period represented Keene's creative peak, but was also something of a millstone, as his fans kept wondering when (or if) Keene was ever going to make a record that good again. Of course, Keene has already made several fine albums since then (most notably Isolation Party and Ten Years After), but Crashing the Ether is the album Songs from the Film fans have been waiting for -- ten songs full of walloping drums, guitar lines that crunch and jangle at once, glorious melodies that speak eloquently of pleasure and sadness, and lyrics that deal with adult matters of the heart and mind without sounding either glum or unrealistic. While Keene is in fine voice on these sessions, it's the guitar work that really makes Crashing the Ether stand out -- Keene recorded the album in his home studio, and without the worry of having to watch the clock he's created ten tracks brimming with beautifully layered guitar lines, especially on "Warren in the 60s," "Alta Loma," and "Texas Tower #4," and they all bounce beautifully off John Richardson's thundering drum tracks and the rock-solid bass figures (overdubbed by Keene himself). It's anyone's guess if Crashing the Ether will finally elevate Tommy Keene from cult figure to the wider recognition he's so long deserved, but for anyone who has been following his career, it's a splendid return to form and for first-time listeners, it's a fine example of what Keene does so well -- it's must listening for fans of smart guitar-driven pop. ~ Mark Deming, All Music Guide (from


Battle Lines (from Isolation Party)
Circumstance (from The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down)
Hanging Over My Head (from The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down)
Nothing Can Change You (from Showtunes)
Lives Become Lies (from Crashing the Ether)
Warren in the 60s (from Crashing the Ether)

(a list Tommy posted on

Led Zeppelin 1 (Led Zeppelin)
I think this is their best and it's the first one. Recorded and mixed in 36 hours (?) or something close to that, it is the prototype for English heavy metal blues. But it also contains a certain poppy tunefulness as heard in the lead track, "Good Times Bad Times." Did they ever play that song live?

Pretenders (The Pretenders)

Another debut record and once again the band's best. James Honeyman Scott, one of my favorite guitar players ever, had such a wide range, from hard rock blues to punk riffing to a classic arpeggiatted pop style. I am forever emulating him. This record stands the test of time and Chris Thomas's production is amazing, especially all the vari-speed guitars.

Beatles VI (The Beatles)
I know this isn't a real album but I didn't know that when I got it as a seven-year-old. By happenstance though, the songs all flow together really well. This is their mid period folk/pop classic, a blueprint for jangle power pop. Stand-out songs include "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party," "What You're Doing," "Every Little Thing," "You Like Me Too Much" (a very good, overlooked George song), and a wailing cover of Larry William's "Dizzy Miss Lizzy."

['Beatles VI' was a U.S.-only vinyl release. Most of its songs are available on the individual (British) CDs Help! [UK] and Beatles for Sale. It is also part of The Capitol Albums Vol. 2 (Longbox) box set --ed.]

Silverhead and 16 & Savaged (Silverhead)
Michael Des Barres (husband of Miss Pamela--I'm with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie) is now known mainly for filling in on tour for Robert Palmer with the Power Station and various TV spots such as 'Melrose Place' and as a teenager in the movie 'To Sir With Love'. This is his first band--vintage early '70s boogie rock with great tunes and hilarious lyrics. This is not a guilty pleasure because it's really great stuff: check out "Long Legged Lisa" and "More Than Your Mouth Can Hold"--need I say more? Also, the bass player, Nigel Harrison, went on to play with Blondie.

Live At Leeds [Deluxe Edition] (The Who)
Captured at their peak playing their best songs, this IS the greatest live rock album ever, period.

Siren (Roxy Music)
It's difficult to pick one favorite from the first five records but this would have to be it. Sorry Eno but I think Eddie Jobson, on keyboards and violin, brought more to the plate. Often neglected classics such as "Nightingale," "She Sells," and "Could It Happen To Me?" make this their best.

Mag Earwhig! (Guided by Voices)
Their biographer tosses this record off as one of Pollard's weakest. Not. Contains all the four P's: Pop, Punk, Psychedelic and Prog. A little lo-fi, a little hi-fi... a most satisfying musical experience!

Let It Be (The Replacements)
The record where Westerberg's wide range of styles all collided into a masterpiece. There is garage rock, punk-hardcore, ringing pop songs, and a little cabaret.

The Byrds - Greatest Hits (The Byrds)

As a kid I picked this one up because I only really knew the singles from Top 40 radio and didn't get into the LPs till much later. This one has all their early British Invasion chestnuts and the best of the Dylan covers.

Cheap Trick (Cheap Trick)
And yet another debut album, produced by Jack Douglas. This disc captures their live sound much better than the Tom Werman-produced records that follow it. Some of their best songs ever on one disc: "Candy," "He's A Whore," "Taxman," and Terry Reid's anthem, "Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace."


Hey! Little Child (Alex Chilton) - on Places That Are Gone EP & The Real Underground
Kill Your Sons (Lou Reed) - on Run Now EP( live), Songs From the Film
Carrie Anne (Hollies) - on Drowning
Einstein's Day (Mission of Burma) - on Isolation Party
Tattoo (The Who) - on The Real Underground
Car Club (Beach Boys) - on Based On Happy Times
Shake Some Action (The Flamin' Groovies) - on The Real Underground
Teenage Head (The Flamin' Groovies) - on Songs From the Film reissue

Selected Discography:

Strange Alliance LP (Avenue 1981)
Back Again (Try...) EP (Dolphin 1984)
Places That Are Gone EP (Dolphin 1984)
Songs from the Film LP (Geffen 1986)
Run Now EP (Geffen 1986)
Based On Happy Times LP (Geffen 1989)
Sleeping On A Roller Coaster EP (Matador 1992)
The Real Underground LP (Alias 1994)
Ten Years After LP (Matador 1996)
Isolation Party LP (Matador 1998)
Showtunes: The Live Tommy Keene Album LP (Parasol 2000)
The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down LP (spinART 2002)
Drowning - a Tommy Keene Miscellany LP (Not Lame 2004)
Crashing The Ether LP (Eleven Thirty 2006)
The Keene Brothers - Blues and Boogie Shoes (Artist 2006)

Tommy also appears on:
Velvet Crush - Rock Concert (Action Musik 2001) - live from their 1995 tour

Related Links:

Tommy Keene Official Website
Tommy Keene (from Wikipedia)
Tommy Keene on Myspace
Tommy Keene Band on Myspace
Magnet Mag Interview (2006)
Harp Mag Interview (2006)
Pop Matters Interview (2006)
Matador Records Bio Bio
Trouser Press Bio
Isolation Party Review ( 1998)
Razz Singles (from Limp Records Discography)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

An exhaustive (and, I'm sure, exhaustING) labor of love, this post. Nice job, Tom. I had always thought Keene was from North Carolina, because of his releases on Dolphin, whose roster comprised mostly NC artists.

2:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very intense, it's all there...quite a feat, no Little one that's for sure!!
Skip Groff
Yesterday And Today Records

8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael Reidy, Abaad, & Doug Tull from (The) RAZZ 2008


5:04 AM  
Blogger tunestony said...

I saw that you were a big Tommy Keene fan. I've talked to him twice for my show, Icon Fetch. For the latest one, he talks about his new record, Behind the Parade. The direct link is:

Enjoy, and keep spreadin' the word.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

this is a good and informative articles and blog that i've read this past few weeks and have reviewed some classic movies and classic actors.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Ted Niceley said...

He didn’t fire his band. Otherwise pretty good.

1:30 PM  

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