Saturday, December 15, 2018

Record I Couldn't Live Without: The Rugbys - Hot Cargo; Remembering Pete Shelley

Pittsburgh Record Fest 20 took place last Sunday, December 8. It opened at noon and ran through the afternoon, rather than being an evening event. Since I had to be at work at 2:30, I had just enough time to run in, take a look around and buy a few things.

I've noticed over the past year how the price of used vinyl has gone up, at least in Pittsburgh. Maybe I got spoiled by the low prices that I'd see at Jerry's Records throughout the years that it was owned by its namesake. And I understand the reason for inflation. Running a record store isn't a sure-fire way to make money so if one wants to keep the doors open, the price tag will help with that. But that means the days of finding that the Five dollar blind buy album are long gone. Earlier this year, when I went on my '80s kick, I thought I'd be able to find Submarine by the Catheads in a used bin. Time was when I saw it constantly. (Time was when I owned it too, but wasn't enthused with the whole thing, so I sold it. But that's another story.) Now it's MIA. At least in a brick and mortar place.

With that in mind, events like this one make me go in thinking that I should look for records that I can't live without. I know my listening time is limited, as are the finances, so whatever I buy, make it count.

So when I came across this album, I stopped in my tracks.

I was given a copy of the Rugbys' Hot Cargo when I was in either kindergarten or first grade. In fact, I still have it. It's really scratched but I've pulled it out a few times and tried to ignore the loud pops made by the those scratches that can be felt on the vinyl surface.

The Rugbys initially showed up on my little radar around that same time when I got a box of 45s, also as a gift, probably around Christmas time. They were in a thin box, probably boxed up as a cut-out, designed to make a quick buck. Several of them had the SSS logo from Shelby Singleton Records. The Rugbys were on Amazon Records (with a label design that included a nude woman with long hair covering her chest) but that label was also run by Singleton. The single was "You, I" b/w "Stay With Me" and I loved it. Not only did "You, I" rock, with a nervy stop-start riff, it had some great wah-wah guitar. The final seconds have some of the nastiest fuzz this side of Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Ball and Chain." "Stay With Me" was more of a pop song, but it also had an urgency to it, with drum fills after each chorus that, in retrospect, remind of Moby Grape's "Omaha."

When I got both records, I couldn't read too well yet, because I remember asking someone in the family what the band name was and the song titles. I committed them to memory, but also used the shapes of the letters to help. (Thanks, Sesame Street.)

Sometime later, my mom came home from Downtown Pittsburgh, probably after a visit to the 5&10, with Hot Cargo, a whole album by the Rugbys! (The other time she did this, she brought me the debut of the Hassles, long after they had broken up but before their keyboardist went on to super-stardom as Billy Joel.)  Now I knew their names, who sang and wrote each song and what they looked like. However, I never knew which guy was bassist Mike Hoerni and which was drummer Glenn Howerton since neither of them are photographed playing instruments. They just look on while Steve McNicol plays guitar and Ed Vernon sits at the B3.

That record spent a lot of time on my Mickey Mouse phonograph. I knew it inside and out. I learned that "Stay With Me" wasn't listed on the back cover, but it did appear on the label and on Side one. Though in a reverse of the normal standard, the album version faded out before the roaring climax at the end of the single.

The copy of Hot Cargo at the Record Fair was sealed, and only $12, so I knew I couldn't live without it. Since I brought it home that Sunday, I think I've played at least a little of it every day. Part of this is probably the nostalgia factor, but the band sounds really good. They could fit in on any Nuggets compilation (and they might be on one, for all I know), but they're more than a typical garage rock band. For one thing, McNichol and Vernon, who split most of the songwriting duties, came up with some great music, moving well beyond the confines of three-chord rock. Their lyrics left a bit to be desired but "You, I" is a tense little number. "The Light" sounds slightly Doors-ish, but it uses some sly 4/4-to-6/8 time changes in the verse. During the bridge it makes a change that really takes it from catchy to intense. It's hard to tell if Vernon was going for a soul feeling on "Juditha Gina" but his delivery captures that. The nearly seven-minute "Wendegahl the Warlock" used to scare me a little as a kid, with the eerie organ intro and Vernon's opening shriek, but this could have been a showpiece in their live sets.

Which brings me to the band itself. Presumably they played everything and didn't get subbed out by the Singleton Wrecking Crew. That being the case, these guys are tight. Finally hearing the whole thing on sound system with good speakers and minimal surface noise, Horeni's basslines jump out a little more on "You, I." Throughout the album, he really locks in with Howerton, who sounds like he might have some jazz roots in his playing. McNicol's guitar solos are constructed really well, building up in melody and intensity in a song like "Juditha Gina," leading into Vernon's yell that brings things back down.

So the question lingers - how did these guys sound live? "Wendegahl" could be a long jam out song that got the teenyboppers in Louisville screaming. Maybe they danced wildly to "You, I." And maybe the purists thought they were okay when Hornei stepped up to sing the boogie rock of "Rockin' All Over Again."

A few years ago, I found a video of "You, I" on youtube where Steve McNicol had left a comment. It made me think that maybe I could track him down and do an interview that I'd post here. As I went looking for that video this week, I came across another one with some grainy footage of them lip-synching "You, I" on some TV show. Scrolling through the comments, there  was one that was posted eight months ago: "The guitar player just died last night." Sigh. RIP Steve. Somewhere along that search someone also mentioned that Ed Vernon, who seemed to go by "Eddie" everywhere except on the Hot Cargo cover, had also passed. Maybe Mike Hoerni or Glenn Howerton are out there somewhere.

When I think about how my ears were shaped by music, and what I listen for - harmonies, rhythm, noise, et al - Hot Cargo probably played a big role. I got it at a time when I was really impressionable and I played it enough times to keep it lodged in my brain over 40 years later. Some of the nuances of it could have been second nature ideas that I'd think of when writing my own songs.


In a similar vein, Pete Shelley's death last week was a pretty big downer, another addition to list that's become too damn long this year. I can remember seeing the cover of Buzzcocks' Another Music in a Different Kitchen in my brother's room when it first came out. (His copied came in the mylar sleeve.) It would be another five years or so before I really heard them, after locking my radio dial to the left side and soaking up music on WRCT and WYEP. The number of Buzzcocks songs seemed endless, and usually pretty high quality. Even the songs that beat a good idea to death (the end of "I Believe," "Why Can't I Touch It," "Hollow Inside") still got me pumped up.

I remember buying a used US pressing of A Different Kind of Tension and trading it for the UK version because I had to have the lyric sheet. Understanding all those contrasts in the title track's lyrics were important. But even without it, the crunch of those guitars was amazing. I used to imagine Shelley and Steve Diggle putting their whole forearms into it as they banged away on the strings. When the guitar solo reaches the high notes in "Raison D'etre," I was slayed every time. The way Pete whined the title of "I Don't Know What To Do With My Life" might you think that even a wordy title like that can sound breezy if delivered the right way.

Shelley's death seemed to effect a lot of far-flung people, if tributes on Facebook mean anything. They were a pop band but they were also a punk band, combining both qualities in a way that didn't water down either of them. When Shelley went solo, he dove into synth heavy music, but "Homosapien" and even moreso on the later, somewhat overlooked "Telephone Operator" and "Many A Time," the quality never waned.

I regret not getting into Buzzcocks' revamped music, as everything I've heard from people say it's also high caliber. Plus the one time they came to Pittsburgh was, according to many friends, one of the loudest shows they had ever heard. Someday, I'll dig into the part of their discography. For now, I raise my coffee mug to Pete and thank him for all the music and the conversations it has sparked over the years. You knew how to bring us together, Pete.

No comments: