By Tom Semioli
Somewhere, somehow beyond this mortal coil, Michael Ronson is smiling (see the last line of Roger’s final quote). For those of us above ground (more or less) there is a yet another hitherto unfound rock and roll gem which has been unearthed and is now to be treasured.
Once upon a golden era of rock and roll (1978) singer, composer, bassist Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue waxed a remarkable platter entitled Radioactive which failed to garner much attention -despite its release on Decca/London in the UK, and indie label Big Sound in the US.
However you may recognize Reale’s Rue Morgue co-workers: namely guitarist G.E. Smith (SNL, Hall & Oates, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters), drummer Hilly Michaels (Sparks, Ian Hunter, John Mellancamp, Ellen Foley, Ronnie Wood), and guitarist Jimmy McAllister (Mick Ronson Band, Sparks), and of course, Mick Ronson.
Recalls producer / guitarist Jon Tiven, who was then working as Big Sound’s A&R man, “punk and new wave was getting through…and Big Sound wanted to be a part of that! Roger [was] the closest thing we had to an artist that I thought would be appealing to Ramones fans, Richard Hell fans, somebody who had that adrenaline rush.”
Says G.E. Smith “Roger was a good singer, a really good singer. I remember, man, when the three of us would sit in a room and play… it was huge! I’ve played on a bunch of things since then, you know, but that whole album is really one of my top two or three.”
The band played a grand total of one gig its entire lifetime – a showcase at Hurrah in Manhattan. Yet despite the record’s lack of commercial success, a second album was planned. Then fate intervened, as it often does.
Michaels spun Reale’s debut slab for his pal Mick Ronson who, according to Hilly threw up his hands and wanted in. Said Ronno to the drummer ‘Fucking hell, Hilly, this is amazing! Can I play on the next one?”
Who can refuse a Spider from Mars? Or a Rolling Thunder Revue Hoople no matter how brief? Mick came on board – and as was his reputation – served as the ultimate team member.
“Mick locked in and it was lightning in a bottle a second time…” remembers Michaels. “Even better, even more thematic and powerful. And I think Mick was hedging a bit, because he fell for Jimmy. Mick was that sweet and kind and considerate, not overdoing it, and maybe underplaying it just a bit so as not to take away from Jimmy. Amazing.”
No rock and roll legend would be complete with out the usual record label debacles and disagreements. The intended album Reptiles in Motion was shelved; and thought to be lost for the ages.
However, no rock and roll legend would be complete without redemption. Reale along with compilation producer Richard Brukner secured publishing and maser tapes, and hence we now have The Collection which combines both albums as nature intended – forty years later.
An everlasting testimony to Reale’s pop artistry, and the late Messrs. Ronson and McAllister, and the work of the former Hilly Boy Michaels, Roger reflects on what was, what could have been, and what is!
We are close in age, however I’d like to have you attempt to explain to young folks how the “punk” movement impacted pop music. As I recall, in an instant, everything that came before punk was irrelevant, even though many of the “punks” were actually seasoned musicians who revered the old guard. Thoughts?
So, the punk thing, I welcomed it with mixed feelings. I was working in a record store at the time, so we had access to all the stuff coming from the UK and abroad, as well as domestic releases. Certainly, The Damned, The Clash, The Jam figured prominently in the songs that became Radioactive, our first LP. But Slade, Suzi Quatro, and The Sweet were there as well. The whole Stiff Records attitude was a huge influence: “If you don’t want ’em, we’ll sign ’em.” Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Motorhead, they certainly weren’t “punks,” so I sort of identified with them more than the safety pin crowd. Plus, everyone in Rue Morgue was strong players; we certainly were not dumbing down our approach. If punk/new wave accomplished anything, it opened up the airwaves for a brief period, giving one the sense that anything was possible.
Tell me about your remarkable roster of side musicians. G.E. Smith and Hilly Michaels were just starting to garner recognition, and Mick Ronson was among the few “old” musicians whom “punks” revered. What was Ronno’s thoughts about the “new wave?” How did Mick, G.E., and Hilly enhance your artistry?
I met Hilly through my pal Jon Tiven. Hilly was initially in LA, I believe, coming off a Sparks tour. I remember asking HIlly if he liked Slade. He said, “Of course,” so he was in. If you listen carefully to the first LP, he’s doing his best Don Powell, while putting “Hilly Michaels” all over that LP. The drums are like thunder. To this day, nobody plays like that. G.E. and I were already friends, we liked the same music, and he was perfect for the songs. We rehearsed briefly, and then went in to track. We did all the backing tracks in one day. Doc Cavalier gave me total freedom in the studio; he did not really “produce” anything, and I insisted he be listed as the producer. There were very little overdubs, maybe some guitar here and there, backup vocals. Many of the vocals were kept as is. The whole session was a blast.
I already had the songs for the second album, the Reptiles sessions. Hilly was already on board, but G.E. was off doing Dan Hartman’s “Instant Replay” tour, so he was unavailable. Enter Jon Tiven again. He and Hilly recommended Jimmy McAllister, who had worked in Sparks. So, I talked with Jimmy and we bonded immediately. Overall, the addition of Jimmy McAllister definitely brought a different energy to the new songs.
Also, Hilly brought in Mick Ronson, who had heard the Radioactive LP, and wanted to play on anything we were doing. Needless to say, I was rightly chuffed. We recorded those tracks after a brief run through, Jimmy and Mick working out their parts, and me sitting there absorbing the fact that it’s Mick FUCKING Ronson playing my songs. Mick and I talked about the then current music scene. He had just finished producing The Rich Kids LP. We talked about them and he noted the strong songwriting from the front three: Glen Matlock, Steve New, and Midge Ure. He thought they showed promise.
We wanted a fuller production on the second LP. I wanted to further progress without losing the identity of Rue Morgue. We recorded the tracks with the understanding that they were unfinished, and we’d all reconvene to complete the second LP. At this time, Decca/London was also involved, and they brought along the folks from Rocking Russian for a photo shoot (sans Ronno) at a local abandoned train depot. Things looked very promising. A UK tour was discussed. It all changed when our label, Big Sound, went pear shaped. Big Sound went out of business and these tracks were shelved. Until now, that is.
Looking back on the work you did 40 plus years ago, what were some of the new revelations that struck you as you reviewed the recordings and heard the remixes after all these years. Better than you remembered?
First off, The Collection, all 24 tracks, are the original mixes. The intent was to capture the spirit of the times, as well as reinforcing our conviction that these songs withstood the test of time.
The thoughts of “why bother” shifted to “why not” when I gained ownership of the masters and the publishing a couple of years ago. Up until that time, I only had a cassette of the Reptiles songs. Even though I had no hope of it ever being released, I had never lost faith in the quality of the performances. My attitude towards releasing the tapes had nothing to do with that.
If any one song typifies what we were shooting for on Reptiles, it might be “Radioactive.” We wanted a dense, big guitar sound, with something more in the vocals. Mick was very helpful in the arrangement; we just seemed to click. The lyrics were already written, which isn’t always the case. There is real interplay between Jimmy and Mick on that one, and Hilly, well, is Hilly. The bass and drums maintain the consistency from the first LP to the second.
Tracks you waxed nearly a half century ago still sound relevant today! How did that happen? Did rock and roll hit a brick wall or was Roger C. Reale a visionary? A little bit of both perhaps?
With the first LP, all the songs were written before we started the sessions. We basically ran them down in the studio, once, some twice, and then hit “record.” It was as simple as that. Everything just clicked with Hilly and G.E., and we never wasted time. G.E. did a few overdubs, I did a few backup vocals, and that was it. It was all great fun. I’m not so sure Doc Cavalier and Richard Robinson (the engineer, NOT the NYC Richard Robinson) considered this “proper” recording at the time, but they let us go.
With Reptiles In Motion, again, all the songs were basically written before we went in. I wanted to progress to a more developed feel with the songs. I was thinking about different approaches vocally, song by song, without losing any of the identity as Rue Morgue that had been established on the first LP. However, with Jimmy and Mick, arrangements were necessarily worked out beforehand. Again, everything was one or two takes. Hilly and I were already locked in, and Jimmy and Mick were hand in glove. We all felt we left it unfinished, that we’d come back when schedules permitted to complete the tracks. Big Sound folded, and we went on the shelf.
Relevancy? That’s for the public to decide. I’m certainly not one to second guess and I don’t see the point. I do know that, after 40 years, overall, these songs hold up, and these performances capture the spirit of the times. There’s no nostalgia involved. There’s no “what might have been.” The albums exist as they do. Period.
Tell me how you came to be a bass player!
When the Brits hit, bands sprung up all over Rhode Island, where I’m from originally. I joined a local high school garage band, The Specters. I picked up a ’65 Fender Jazz; with two less strings than a guitar. How could I go wrong? I still have that bass today. We played frat parties at Brown and Providence Colleges, until my family moved to Connecticut.
Fave bass players, in no particular order: Lemmy, John Entwistle, Bill Wyman, Jack Bruce. My influences still remain Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, my Holy Trinity. Those guys are my Holy Trinity. I also admire Phil May, Eric Burdon and Mick Jagger.
Granted, the Rue Morgue song list did not rival the dexterity required to execute such 70s “widdly diddly do” as say, the Return to Forever repertoire – however talk about coordinating your singing with your bass playing. Any advice for Sir Paul? Gordon Sumner?
All my songs are written on the bass, from the bottom up, so to speak, and I’ve always considered myself a singer who plays bass. In the early days at Trod Nossel, before there was a Rue Morgue, I would rehearse my songs, alone, on bass in the rehearsal barn behind the studio. Other bands there at the time thought that was curious, but they had bands, and I didn’t. I was rehearsing the songs, playing them as they would sound when I had a band. In fact, the demo cassette that got me signed was just me playing the songs on bass, a ’68 black Rickenbacker that I played through an Ampeg Portalfex.
My advice to Sir Paul McCartney and Gordon Sumner: Cover one of my songs!
Talk about composing songs for artists other than yourself – ever consider pitching Madonna Louise Ciccone “Madonna’s Last Stand”?
My pal Jon Tiven, now a Nashville producer by way of NYC, and I have written for Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Johnny Winter, and Michael Burks, among others. The covers these artists have done pretty much follow the originals, so it’s always interesting to hear someone follow your vocals, or at least interpret them their own way, as was the case with Buddy Guy and “Midnight Train.” When I had the opportunity to ask him about the lyrics, he said that it was, in fact, the train imagery that resonated with him. On the other hand, the songs we wrote for Johnny Winter were written specifically with him in mind, and submitted to his producer at the time.
As a writer, I don’t really see much of a difference; you have to be ready when the bits of song ideas come in. For me, it’s always in the air, and you just try to get it down. Of course, it’s always interesting when you give a song to someone else, even if it’s your band, because then it’s not yours anymore. “Madonna’s Last Stand” was written well before the other Madonna, but she’s welcome to take the same advice I gave to Sir Paul and Gordon.
Though the record industry may not have done Roger C Reale & Rue Morgue commercial justice – it was the golden era of making records. Now with digital distribution and free streaming, the record industry is kaput – is it the best of times? Worst of times? What’s a rocker to do in the modern era?
The digital age presents a laundry list of challenges for any musician, let alone one who’s as grizzled as I am. Every format in which music is presented dilutes the performance, to some degree. Just ask Neil Young, LOL. The age of instant access and instant gratification has drastically reduced the excitement of waiting for an LP or single to be released. It used to be such a thrill to go to the local record shop to grab the vinyl, hold it, and then bring it home where we’d sit and listen to it, flipping it over, to savor the sounds that would change our lives a little bit more.
Share with me a few memorable Rue Morgue anecdotes!
The fact that maybe we captured something was further amplified (no pun intended) when I went to a Hunter/Ronson Band show a few years after the Reptiles sessions. I stopped in to say hello to Mick, and the first words out of his mouth were “Roger! What happened to the recordings? When is that coming out? And why isn’t it?” I’m happy it’s finally all coming out!
The Collection is out on October 18, 2019 Rave On Records.
RCR reissues teaser trailer: https://youtu.be/5d98cgi1Nag
Amazon CD: The Collection: https://www.amzn.com/B07VCMMLWL
Amazon LP: Reptiles In Motion: https://www.amzn.com/B07VGTXKLS
If folks order the Reptiles In Motion LP via Bandcamp, they get an original pressing of the 1978 Radioactive LP as a free bonus: https://rcrrm.bandcamp.com/