“Well, I was driving ’round Boston / Looking for a place just to shake my ass/ Don’t wanna hear no disco / Gotta hear something outta my past” — The Real Kids, “Do The Boob”
One way or another, Boston singer-songwriter John Felice has been cranking out gritty, from the guts, heart-on-sleeve rock & roll longer than some of us have been alive. He grew up in Natick, Massachusetts with a neighbor and Velvet Underground-infatuated kid named Jonathan Richman. After picking up a guitar at age 13, Felice pestered and persuaded his slightly older friend to allow him to join the first incarnation of Richman’s fledgling band, The Modern Lovers (which would eventually include a future Talking Head, Jerry Harrison, and a Car, David Robinson). Felice was all of 15. High school commitments reportedly prevented the teenager from participating in the first (read: now legendary) Modern Lovers LP when it was recorded in 1972. No matter. A few short years later, Felice began writing a clutch of tough and tender tunes that would, in their own right, become instant classics — ripping ravers like “All Kindsa Girls” and “Reggae Reggae,” and emotionally quaking numbers such as “Just Like Darts” and “Common At Noon.” He found a vehicle for his vision and named it The Real Kids. The band’s self-titled debut, issued on Red Star Records in 1978, immediately put the Kids on a very short list of best Boston rock & roll bands at a time when there were quite a few of them vying for the honor.
Felice would be the first to tell you that those go-for-broke all of the day and all of the night times were a long time ago, and as Johnny Thunders said, you can’t put your arms around a memory. So be it. But here we are in 2014, and nearly 40 years after that iconic debut album from the Real Kids, Felice is still here among us, having outlasted The Rat, Cantone’s, and just about every other legendary dive whose graffiti-scrawled, sweat-stained (and worse) walls barely contained the blistering, beautiful racket the Real Kids kicked up with ferocious regularity back in the day. More importantly, he’s toting a revamped, re-booted Real Kids that includes longtime friend and foil Billy Cole on guitar (whose tenure as the “new kid” in the band at this point dates back nearly as long as Ron Wood’s in the Stones for cryin’ out loud) and bassist Dickie Oakes. Meanwhile, lately, ex-Scruffy The Cat drummer Randall Gibson has been rounding out the sound on stage. Not too shabby. Oh yeah, almost forgot (not really): Felice has a brand new, kick-ass Real Kids album called “Shake … Outta Control” out on Rick Harte’s Ace Of Hearts Records (home to Mission of Burma, Lyres, Neats, Neighborhoods, Classic Ruins etc.). Boston enough for ya?
As for laying to rest any lingering doubts about whether this really is a Real Kids album so many years and shakeups after the fact, check out the first few guitar-riff-crammed seconds of the album’s potboiler opener, “Can’t Shake That Girl.” With the same brutal efficacy by which the band used to be able to knock audiences senseless, “Shake”‘s opening salvo picks up right where the old mayhem left off. But that’s not the only decades-shedding surprise. Incredible as it may seem, we also get to hear the first-ever proper studio rendering of “Common At Noon,” as well as an affectionate nod to Felice’s old friend, in the form of a definitive cover: Jonathan Richman’s “Fly Into The Mystery.” Oh, and in case you were wondering. Yes, John’s still profoundly smitten, sore, and shaken up by the fairer sex: There are songs about girls who “ain’t right”; girls who “have everything” (including, as an accessory, a sly guitar quote from Deep Purple’s “Woman From Tokyo”); and girls who “don’t take” John’s shit (good for them). Familiar echoes abound elsewhere too. Felice (and producer Harte) closes the record with a Phil Spectorian drum beat that kicks into the solar plexus and tear-stained bitters of “Who Needs You” — an old stage standard given a new studio treatment replete with a pretty mandolin picking at the raw, open wound of Felice’s psyche. When it all ends in a sobbing flurry of electric guitars, you realize that Felice may have lost the girl, but he’s found another classic for his canon.
Last week, I had the pleasure and privilege of catching the Real Kids playing an otherwise quiet Tuesday night (quiet until they took the stage, that is). They arrived at the Midway Café in Jamaica Plain semi-incognito, billed as Johnny and the Hartebreakers (yep, spelling intended). They’ve been playing under a few assumed names the past few weeks, honing their chops, sharpening the new songs (but thankfully, not too much), and heating up the old amplifiers. Their willful energy and electricity immediately filled the small room. For me, at least, they sounded exactly like the kind of rock & roll band you’d wanna hear to break up, or slough off, the doldrums of your day.
I talked with John Felice (and Ace of Hearts honcho Rick Harte) about the kind of effect the music, when it’s done right, can have on a person’s soul and spirit. We also chatted about much more — John’s past, his future, and everything in between. The bulk of that conversation is headed your way tomorrow as part of my special “Real Kids” weekend, proudly spinning at “RPM: Life In Analog.” But first, I’ve chosen a bit of background and a little history of my own as my opening track (why not keep the metaphor going, eh?). Below is the first piece I ever wrote on the band back in the autumn of 1999, which was also my first face-to-face encounter with John and Co. after moving to Boston after years spent in the respective wildernesses of New Jersey and South Carolina. This story — and theirs — holds a special place for me. The feature, written for the Boston Phoenix (and published in the Sept. 9-16 issue) on the occasion of the band’s reunion of its “Red Star”-era label lineup, also marked my debut as a regular contributor to the Phoenix’s long-running “Cellars By Starlight” column. To me (and no doubt others), “Cellars” offered a fantastic, relatively roomy (a full page that held 1,600 words) platform to champion and showcase some of the best and most deserving local artists defining the Boston music scene.
I was, unfortunately, too young to have experienced the Real Kids the first time around. But I knew what they had meant to people just like me. In short, I wanted to tell their story right. I had some homework to do as a refresher — and by homework I mean devouring as much Real Kids music as possible. Frankly, I simply could not have asked for a better, more historically or musically rich story to tell. This story was about a group of musicians whose legacy, like the city itself, was built by dreams and — despite some admittedly knee-buckling setbacks — strengthened by defeats and made wiser by them.
Fifteen years is a long time between gigs, and a lot has happened to the band — some of it not good — since I first sat down with John Felice, including the deaths of a pair of Real Kids alumni who helped forge the sound: bassist Allen “Alpo” Paulino and pre-Red Star era drummer Kevin Glasheen. Fittingly, “Shake … Outta Control” is dedicated to them. More about the new Real Kids record tomorrow. But right now, here they are as they were.
BACK IN PLACE: The Return Of The Real Kids
Eight years after they last stood on the same stage together, twenty-one years after they issued their eponymous debut LP, John Felice and his cohorts faced the clamoring crowd that packed the Linwood two weeks ago and identified themselves. “We’re the Real Kids,” Felice said as casually as if he were ordering soup. “Here we go.” With that, the band — Felice (guitar, vocals); Allen “Alpo” Paulino (bass, vocals); Howard Ferguson (drums) and Billy Borgioli (guitar) — crashed into the present and instantly, two decades seemed to drop away.
Maybe it was Felice’s spitfire sneer, which, after all this time, was still as venomous and wounded as a teenager who’s been jilted. Maybe it was the fact that it took all of about three seconds for these four aging punks who’ve long since gone on to other lives (Alpo’s now a drug counselor in Falmouth) to prove that they hadn’t lost touch with the gleeful mayhem that defined classics like “All Kindsa Girls”, “Just Like Darts”, “Reggae Reggae,” and a dozen other gritty odes to misspent youth. Or maybe it was the fact that they all still seemed to care.
The Real Kids are back among us and — here’s the kicker — there’s more music on the way. In October, the Real Kids’ original lineup will head to The Outpost in Stoughton and begin recording a brand new album for TKO Records with Rancid guitarist Lars Frederiksen at the helm. Also next month, the band’s slated to release both a new 7″-single, as well as a four-song CD EP of new tracks. As surreal as it sounds, January 2000 will mark the release of the Real Kids’ third studio album — some 18 years after the last configuration of the band issued Outta Place, its sophomore (and, until now, final) album, on Boston’s Star-Rhythm Records in 1982.
“A lot of people figured we’d be long gone by now — dead, many times over,” said Felice over a beer at the Linwood a few hours before show time. “Just the fact that we’re all still alive is part of the reason why we’re all into doing this. Although I’ve played with some good people, nobody compares to this lineup — this lineup just clicks.”
You only have to go back and listen to the guitar-stoked adrenaline rush of the Kids’ first album to understand what Felice is talking about — although there’s some prime stuff on later, post-original lineup works like Outta Place and the consistently satisfying “mini-LP” recorded for Bomp Records as the Taxi Boys. In fact, both of these albums have just been reissued by Norton Records, the label that a few years ago re-released the band’s seminal debut on the long-since-extinct Red Star label, as well as Grown Up Wrong, a blistering collection of unissued live Real Kids recordings from 1976-78.
The newest Norton discs, renamed Better Be Good and No Place Fast, include a remastered version of the group’s 1977 single, “All Kindsa Girls”, originally recorded for Sponge Records (as well as its equally great B-side, “Common At Noon”); half a dozen alternate takes for the first LP; and several demos the band recorded for Bomp in 1979. No Place Fast brings together the long since deleted Outta Place album and Taxi Boys Bomp Mini-LP in one convenient package. That Norton’s come out with a new batch of cool Kids stuff is not, in and of itself, surprising. What is extraordinary, however, is that the Real Kids themselves are intact, have snagged a new record deal, and — if that Linwood show is any indication — are playing better than ever.
“We’re more mature now and not as obnoxious and drugged out as we used to be,” Felice said. “We have a lot more respect for each other and we’re much better players than we were 20 years ago — still not virtuosos by any stretch of the word, but we play together well. We’ve all progressed.”
It all started with one phone call. A friend asked Felice if the band might consider regrouping for one night for a party he was hosting. The party fell through, but the rumor of a possibly reunited Real Kids reached a booking agent for the New York City all-ages club, Coney Island High. The agent asked Felice if the band would consider playing a show at the club. His old bandmates were interested, and in September 1998, the Real Kids were reborn.
“A year ago, we really had no intention of being a band or playing together ever again,” Felice said before delivering the punch line. “We sold out two nights at Coney Island High. To sell out two nights anyplace was just a real shock for us, because we used to play New York years ago and it used to be the kind of place where everybody would be just too cool for the air they were breathing. But this time, to have everybody go apeshit over us …we still had the magic. It felt like the Real Kids.” As it turned out, the influential punk ‘zine Maximum Rock & Roll was at the show. After the ‘zine ran a cover story on the band, Felice said the calls started pouring in.
Enter Lars Frederiksen. When he was a kid, Frederiksen’s older brother bought the Rancid guitarist his first four records: the Sex Pistols, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Ramones, and the first album by the Real Kids. The way Felice remembers it, while the band was playing a gig in San Francisco in December 1998, a star-struck Frederiksen approached an equally nervous Felice. “He said ‘God, I’d love to work with you’ and he invited us over to his house for a Christmas party.” They spent hours talking music.
Around the same time, the punk indie TKO label contacted the band. Felice was stunned. “We had just played a couple of gigs and we weren’t really trying to make any plans about taking this anywhere. But we sat down with the guys from TKO and they just sold us on it — they said we really believe in what you are.” Now, it seems, even Felice is convinced. “It’s real important to us that people don’t think we’re just some fuckin’ old band that’s getting together to milk our old records. “We’ve got new songs. [The forthcoming E.P.] will shut up anybody who has that attitude about what we’re doing. Nobody’s going to think that we’re just riding on our past glory. We ain’t.”
Amid all the renewed attention, a question lingers: why, until two weeks ago, hadn’t the re-grouped Real Kids played Boston? Felice wonders about that himself. “This is not the town it used to be, OK? This town, in the 70’s and early 80’s, bred some of the best rock and roll bands ever. It is not a great rock and roll town anymore. It’s not our choice that we’ve only played one gig here, but nobody’s acted like they ever cared one way or the other about the Real Kids getting back together. Nobody has approached us. Absolutely nobody. I couldn’t even get anybody to call us back.”
Like the other bands of their day that bubbled up from the underground and seeped onto the streets and into the clubs, the Real Kids banded together in early 1976 as “a reaction to the crap that was on the radio in the mid-70’s.” Instead, the Real Kids harked back to the scrappy bluster of bands like the Sonics, the Flamin’ Groovies, and, of course, Boston’s own Remains. “We felt like we were a Boston band and we wanted to play Boston rock and roll. We really thought we were carrying on a tradition and that was what we wanted more than anything — to just be a really honest, working-class rock and roll band. We really believed in that.”
The rest of the Real Kids story is well-known and all too typical. Inter-band squabbles coupled with Red Star’s lack of promotional resources resulted in the break-up of the original lineup (guitarist Billy Borgioli was the first to go; he was replaced in 1979 by Billy Cole). Felice would go on to other band-related projects during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, but things were never the same. “I got real bitter a couple of times, but that would end up fucking me up more than anything. I would just get deeper into doing drugs,” he said. “Rock and roll is the only thing that makes me feel good, it’s the only thing that works for me. If I’m not creative, writing and playing music, then something really big is missing from my life and I’ll end up trying to fill that hole with dope and alcohol, and that’s just self-destructive. It gets to the point where you say, you can either shoot enough heroin to become just another failure story, or you can pull your shit together, start writing songs, and get another band going.”
At age 44, Felice has got back the best band he’s ever had. It’s one he hopes has as much of a future as it does a past. “I make sure I’ve got my ear to the ground as far as current music goes, because that connection (with newer punk bands) means a lot to me. I listen to the college stations, all those punk shows and that’s where I feel at home — out there on those edges. And now, there’s so much to look forward to. I feel like a kid again.”
Hear “All Kindsa Girls,” the first Real Kids single from the debut right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGnLx1wj9ZI&list=ALBTKoXRg38BBYjLoD0a-Xku6qZkOJqXux&index=1
Hear “Just Like Darts,” one of my favorite Real Kids tracks, also from their classic debut, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Xa6gE-0-i8&list=ALBTKoXRg38BBYjLoD0a-Xku6qZkOJqXux&index=6
Hear “Common At Noon,” one of my favorite Real Kids tunes, and the B-side to “All Kindsa Girls,” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqb8H3tQDcI
Hear “My Baby’s Book” from the debut here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxVaWV1In1A&index=8&list=ALBTKoXRg38BBYjLoD0a-Xku6qZkOJqXux
The entire debut LP can be heard here (but by all means, track down and buy a copy if you can!): The Real Kids – The Real Kids
The online archive version of my Real Kids feature as originally published in the Boston Phoenix here: http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/music/99/09/09/REAL_KIDS.html