Real Kids frontman John Felice didn’t think he’d live to see thirty. Now professing astonishment at having nearly doubled his predicted life expectancy, Felice and the latest, formidable incarnation of his equally improbably long-running outfit have just released a new album, “Shake … Outta Control.” It’s a snarling, strutting, soulful little record that for all its old-school rock & roll influences sounds half his age. Felice considers the new work – which he talks about with equal measures of pride, elation, and amazement – to be the true and proper follow-up to the Kids’ seminal self-titled 1978 debut. Except it’s six presidents and thirty-six years later. He can’t believe that either.
Ask him nicely and Felice obligingly reminisces about the old days. He’s justifiably proud of his hard-earned history, and – if we’re to glean some personal traits from the handful of ripped-heart ballads the man has penned across the decades – he can be as sentimental as he is hard-bitten. So yeah, he’ll visit the old times, the old spaces, and the old places. But that doesn’t mean he wants to live there. He’s got too many songs he’s still writing, too much music he’s still hearing, to be stuck in the creative cul-de-sac of the past. That’s not to say that the past – especially when John Felice sings it and the Real Kids play it – doesn’t still sound bracingly immediate and emotionally resonant. Whether played in the past, present, or future, it’s Rock & Roll that cuts to the quick. So does the new stuff. Just listen.
RPM: Congratulations on releasing the first new Real Kids album in more than 30 years [“Outta Place,” the band’s second album, was released in 1982 on Boston’s Star-Rhythm Records]. I know this one took some time. Not 30 years maybe, but still. Do you feel relief, excitement, surprise that it’s finally done and out?
JF: Relief (in finishing). We just wanted to get the songs recorded, and it was a disaster right from the start. These were songs that were supposed to be on our second Red Star (label) album – had one been recorded – but it fell apart rather quickly. We realized we were in over our heads and (everything) that was happening was more than we bargained for. But I had worked with Rick (Harte, producer and owner of Ace of Hearts Records) 25 years ago in the late ‘80s and he was interested in working with us. He had been keeping an eye on what we were doing, and we had a lot of the same ideas about what (the record) could sound like. He ended up being just what we needed in terms of a producer. You never really know. There’s been a lot of mis-matched producers in bands over the years. Major labels would stick a producer with a new act and they were forced to work with them. With the Modern Lovers (Felice was a member of the original incarnation of that band with his neighbor and friend Jonathan Richman), it was (ex-Velvet Underground member) John Cale. A lot of people think that Modern Lovers record was so great, but I think if John Cale had nothing to do with it, it would have been a better record than it was. And I have a unique take on that because I know what the songs sounded like from the beginning.
RPM: Well, you were there!
JF: I just don’t think John Cale did them the justice that they deserved. Like the New York Dolls with Todd Rundgren producing. An atrocious first album, just awful. So, you never know what you’re going to get with a producer. But since I had worked with Rick before, I knew I could trust him. He’s a few years older than me, but we grew up through a lot of the same things. He saw a lot of the same bands I saw and grew up liking the same music I did. And he’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of music. I’d say I’d like a Hammond organ on a track and he knew just the way to go about getting it.
RPM: Like the mandolin you have on the new album? That was a surprise to hear.
JF: That was something me and Billy (Cole, guitarist) wanted to do for a long time. We felt like we were pigeonholed by the first Real Kids album in a lot of ways. People just kept expecting us to make that same record over and over again. I mean, we made that thing in ‘76, ‘77. It was music of a certain time. We never considered ourselves a punk rock band, but there we were, stuck in the middle of it and caught up in this whole punk rock scene that we really didn’t understand what it was about. We didn’t really want to be part of it, but people kept referring to us in that way and we couldn’t break away from it. I’m proud of the songs on that first album. But I think the production is pretty god-awful because there was no production, really. It was just us recorded live in the studio.
JF: It was very raw but nobody knew what they were doing. There was absolutely nobody involved at all from the top down (who) knew what they were doing. The engineers had recorded nothing but jingles prior to recording with us. But the songs stood out, and I guess that was what made the record stick in people’s minds.
RPM: You were what, the ripe old age of 21, 22 when you recorded that album?
JF: I started doing the Modern Lovers when I was 15, so by the time the Real Kids rolled around, there was pretty much nothing that I hadn’t seen in terms of what bullshit record companies could pull on you. That’s how I ended up with Marty Thau on (his record label) Red Star. When I was in the Modern Lovers, he was in the running to be the manager of the Modern Lovers. He was manager of the (New York) Dolls and he wanted to manage us too. It ended up not happening, but I got to know him through that process, and so when he started up his own label (Red Star), it was pretty neat to be in on something that was completely outside of the mainstream. But he lost his backing, and most of the songs that were on (‘Shake … Outta Control’), were songs we had started to rehearse for our second album. It never came to pass, so (‘Shake … Outta Control’) was kind of like the long-lost second album. ‘That Girl Ain’t Right’ and ‘Tell Me (What You Want Me To Do)’ are new songs. Everything else is stuff we planned for the follow-up to our first album, including ‘Common At Noon’ and ‘Who Needs You’ which turned up on other things. ‘Who Needs You’ was never supposed to be on (the various artists compilation LP) ‘Live at the Rat.’ What happened was, everybody was supposed to record two songs, and we picked ‘All Kindsa Girls’ and ‘Better Be Good’ off the first album, and something went wrong in the booth and they radioed down from upstairs that they needed us to do another song. So we just did it real quick and raced through it, and got out of there because it was total chaos. And that version of that song became the version that everybody was familiar with off that ‘Live at the Rat’ album. But that isn’t how I wrote the song.
RPM: Making this album must have felt like unfinished business.
JF: That’s exactly what it was. All these years it was just eating away at me. I could barely listen to that Norton (label) ‘Grown Up Wrong’ record. All the stuff on that was pieced together out of in-store performances, live radio station performances, and a couple of club performances. I don’t know where they got these recordings from, but they had them. They were too fast, and were not done the way those songs were supposed to sound. Now, the way we got them this time with Rick was exactly right, tempo-wise – everything-wise. Rick nailed it. He was very hardcore about making sure that I got my vocals right, so that it sounded like it fit as a follow-up to the first album. A lot of people come back after 30 years and a lot of times they should have stayed retired because they just don’t got it anymore. Their voices are gone – too much alcohol, too much cigarettes, they’re not singing enough. Who knows what the problem is?
RPM: You’d never know that almost 40 years had passed since that first album, because your vocals sound pretty much intact. I thought when you said Rick was hardcore that you were going to go into a story about Rick having a cattle prod at the ready!
JF: (Laughs) No, Rick ain’t like that. He’ll just make you do it ‘till you get it right. He’ll let you know if you’re giving the best performance you possibly can. It took two years to do this record. I never thought I would ever spend more than two months on a record, never mind two years. But we’ve already started getting the songs down for the next record. I haven’t really stopped writing or anything. I’m still writing songs.
RPM: The last time we talked was back in 1999, when the ‘Red Star’-era lineup of the Real Kids reunited for some shows, and since then you’ve lost a couple of members, sadly (bassist Allen ‘Alpo’ Paulino and pre-‘Red Star era’ drummer Kevin Glasheen). You’ve also battled some health issues. What have the last 15 years looked and felt like to you as a person and as a songwriter?
JF: My next birthday’s gonna be my 60th birthday. And between the ages of 15 and 25, I lived my life like I had no intention of making it to 30. And so when I made it to 30 I was shocked, and every subsequent decade marker after that has been like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me!?’ Now I’m staring down 60 … I’ve got arthritis. That’s what all the surgeries have been, on my hands so I can keep playing. I have to have another operation that’s on my spine to get the feeling back in my fingers. It’s a pretty fucking hairy thing to go through, but I gotta do it if I’m gonna continue to play another few years. I can’t do anything but play music. As late in the game as it is, I can’t imagine not playing guitar. It’s what I’ve always done. And if you don’t do what you do, then there’s really no reason to keep on going.
RPM: So you’re not going to make a career switch and go to law school, eh? Seriously, though, who would have thought back in 1977 that here you’d be in 2014 talking about the new Real Kids album.
JF: Dude, I was shocked I was around for the millennium change! Because that was something I couldn’t even imagine in my wildest dreams back in the ’80’s — being around another 20 years.
RPM: What does it feel like to write, play, and perform now?
JF: We haven’t really changed that much since the ‘70s. The pace of the songs is maybe not as manic as it was, but this is how I want them to be played now – to get the point of them across. Rock and roll doesn’t have to be played fast to be powerful.
RPM: What would you say was – and is — the sound, essence, and chemistry of the Real Kids? Can you pin-point it?
JF: The biggest influences on me have always been Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, and the Beatles as songwriters, and the Rolling Stones. Kind of an amalgam of all that stuff. We put our own feel to it, but it’s just rock and roll. It’s nothin’ special. We can’t reinvent the wheel here. The thing about rock and roll is, it’s beautifully derivative. People have been rewriting Chuck Berry songs for fuckin-ever, and somebody still manages to put their own little stamp on it to make it sound fresh 50 years later. Whatever you add to it is what makes it special. I don’t think we’re doing anything special. I’m not a great singer or guitar player. I think I’m a better songwriter than I am either of those two things. But when we gel on stage, we play our rock and roll aggressively. That might be our thing. And because of that it’s been confused with punk rock. But being aggressive doesn’t make you punk rock. I’m not afraid to write ballads, I’m not afraid to write melodies. It’s all rock and roll to me. I don’t think the Ramones are a punk rock band. I think the Ramones were a rock and roll band. Period. I think if any one of them were alive to agree with me, I think they would. I knew them all personally and I’ll tell you right now: None of them bought into that fucking punk rock crap. Joey and Dee Dee (Ramone), who were writing all the songs, their favorite things were the Beatles and Girl Groups and Phil Spector. What does that have to do with punk rock? Nothing.
RPM: Finally, given that the bulk of ‘Shake … Outta Control’ consists of songs you had wanted and intended to record decades ago, what’s your relationship to those songs after all these years? Have their meanings changed over time?
JF: I like the songs. If I didn’t think the songs stood up, I would not have revisited them. I wouldn’t play them if I didn’t like them and didn’t think they were worth doing. When I sing ‘Who Needs You’ now I’m not as angry at the girl that I wrote it about. But Jesus, that was a long time ago. I don’t even remember what she looks like now. So that kind of emotion has perhaps died down. But rock and roll still has an effect on people. It can make people really happy. So when I do a song like ‘All Night Boppin’ ’ the dance floor completely fills up. I don’t even have to think about how I feel about a song because it’s there. It’s right in front of you. The audience is giving it back to you just as much as you’re giving it to them. If you deliver the goods, then they’re gonna respond in kind. That’s what you get, that’s your reward. It’s not money at the end of the night. You’re looking for that connection in that moment. That’s what I get out of it. I mean, why resurrect a song that’s 35 years old? Why bother? Because it brings some joy to people. That’s why bother.
Check out “Shake … Outta Control” right here (and don’t forget to turn it up!): http://open.spotify.com/artist/46hWN2cZ7MboMi8eUmxttj
… And then buy it here (or ask for it at your local independent record store) here: http://www.amazon.com/Real-Kids-Shake-Outta-Control/dp/B00MONGSAC
Boob Tube Time Machine: Watch (and hear!) a rare live 1982 television appearance for “Outta Place,” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rf1qnguH0ww