“Vinyl Testaments” is a series of articles looking at forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise obscure record albums.
Not Kane, not Weave, not Bad Voodoo. Not the Mellencamp album or the Sandler movie soundtrack. Nothing to do with Kick-Ass or Bioshock. After a Google search returns all those and you go to look for this act, you will find…
Not much. Formed as Big Daddy Dipstick and the Lube-Jobs in the late 1970s, they achieved what success they did after about five years, releasing four albums, a best-of, a spin-off maxi-single, and then vanishing. I was barely aware of the band during its lifetime; I passed over their third album (in cd form) several times in my local library before curiosity finally made me check it out. I was overwhelmed with what I heard and hurried back to find a previous release (one of two that had been vinyl and cassette only) at the same library. The first album was long out of print. Some years later the band released what many would call their masterpiece, which I acquired spankin’ new. I also went for the even later, posthumous ‘best of’ because it included new work. The real thrill was finding myself in an eBay bidding war for a cassette of their first album. I lost it to one Jack Abramowitz, the Comics Buyer’s Guide contributor. I contacted him and we negotiated a deal that gave me a copy of that album and him a copy of the second.
So what? Who are they and who cares? They were a band, from six to nine members and lots of guests, with meta-levels: They claimed to be original golden-age rock and rollers, lost during a tour of the Far East and returned to the U.S. decades later to find their fans long gone but the music still alive. They met the situation by covering “modern” hits in the style they knew. These sites
do a clever and thorough job of explaining just how they go about that, but I have to share with you some of the high points. From the beginning…
The first for me was their third album, Cutting Their Own Groove, so it was the Whitney Houston hit as if the Belmonts were delivering it. It’s not difficult to explain what these guys did; the arrangement, instrumentally and vocally, evokes the artist or even the specific older song they are using to interpret the later one. What is difficult is to convey the enthusiasm they bring to the effort, the joy they express and inspire in songs worn out by airplay. Most of these songs were huge hits, which means they had had whatever life and originality they started out with devoured by the record industry before they even fell off the charts. Here they are revitalized and imbued with a different, often better life by being reimagined. The Living Years, done here via Leader of the Pack and including a nod or two to other death songs, becomes worthwhile. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For gets a run at Hank Ballard and it works perfectly. One of the great charms is Born to Run mingled with Travelin’ Man; the listener sees how well they mesh, but moreover there is a deeper appreciation for the musicality of both songs and how well Bruce grasps the roots of his artform. Last, I have to tell you how Ice Ice Baby is re-envisioned through Chuck Berry and my daughter, about three when we first played it for her, would scream-shout along. The music is beautiful, wistful, familiar yet new, and rocking fun.
And that’s just one album. Their previous release, 1985’s Meanwhile…Back in the States, offers rejuvenation to Sussudio (a la Dion), Every Breath You Take (if the King did it), and an Eddie Cochran take on Jump. My favorites here, though, are The Safety Dance heard as the first dance craze record and I Just Called to Say I Love You as if the Del-Vikings were calling. Sometimes the song was a favorite before, sometimes I had no use for the original the first time I heard it. It’s what these guys do with the material that restores its value. I’m being vague, because digging too deep here would be like dissecting a comedy routine. I don’t want to expose too much because the beauty here should be discovered by the listener for himself.
The first and last complete albums are What Really Happened to the Band of 1959? And Sgt. Pepper’s. The first varies from the others in that it reaches a little farther back for material; I imagine the guys didn’t know if they’d get more than one shot so they wanted to get their all-time picks in, so in addition to contemporary chart hits they also pulled Hotel California, The Rose, and the Theme from Star Wars. There are moments here as strong as on any of their other discs.
Sgt. Pepper’s might seem to be more ambitious, and these guys are never predictable or lazy. Even obvious choices turn inspired when they turn loose. You know the song titles here, so I will just say that some of the acts used for interpretation include the Dominoes, Little Richard (a favorite, this is his third appearance), Elvis, and Johnny Mathis. The finale is fitting, inspired and chilling. As a complete body of work, it amazes in its ability to stand alongside the original as commentary.
I’m sorry to say the first coda to this work, Chantmania, probably did the act more harm than good. Capitalizing on that 45-minute chant craze of the mid-90s, some of the guys returned to the studio and cut five a cappella tracks. The idea and song choices looked hilarious on paper. It’s the difference in a funny seven-minute skit on Saturday Night Live and Superstar. I bought it from an Amazon seller for $3. It was sort of worth it.
The real coda, then, is the Best of Big Daddy which included a handful of new tracks: Little Red Corvette (live), Sukiyaki from a Japanese release, and a new recording, My Heart Will Go On, giving another worn-out piece of radio fodder a new life. The only other track I know of is the long-ago Hamster Love, cut when the band was using a female singer and not really worth hunting down and adding to the catalogue. It is to the 4.5 albums above what The Beatles with Tony Sheridan is to Revolver.
Readers, if you love early rock and roll, pop hits of the late twentieth century, superb musicianship, music that is clever without being snide, or just danceable, hummable, singable records, seek these discs out. You don’t hear this kind of fun very often.