Rick Harte has seen, heard, and made a lot of rock & roll. As the founder, producer, chief cook and bottle washer at Ace of Hearts Records, Boston’s independent entry into the punk and post-punk rock uprising of the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, Harte brought the music of bands like Mission of Burma, Lyres, Classic Ruins, and the Neats to … well, if not the masses exactly, at least the hungry-to-hear, and hungry-to-be-heard minority.
Since launching his label in 1978, when indie imprints were also a fledgling, hungry-to-be-heard minority, Harte has pursued his passion for finding, recording, and releasing the vital work of under-heard artists with an unwavering sense of purpose. Making records can be tricky business; a risky endeavor of exhilarating highs and deflating lows, with a lot of decisions along the way about how a song or an album should sound, feel, look, be presented, and marketed. Every Ace of Hearts release, Harte will tell you, was and is a labor of love and all that entails and requires: a steadfast dedication to duty, and a fastidious focus and attention to details.
The satisfying result of those necessary elements can be found on the label’s latest addition to its venerable roster (and, if you know what’s good for you, your favorite music delivery system and listening device): “Shake … Outta Control,” the first album in over 30 years by Harte’s old friends The Real Kids, whose seminal debut album, incidentally, came out the same year Harte started his equally seminal label. After all this time, in a kind of Kismet, these two linchpins of Boston rock & roll history have finally been brought together: A voice and a vision — which part of the equation applies to whom is up to you – that have each constituted a good chunk of the Boston rock & roll vernacular and written its history over the past three or four decades. John Felice’s memorable music and Rick Harte’s peerless production: It’s a pretty perfect collision of worlds that, upon impact, creates a new one. And between you and me, it seems like we’ve not heard the last from either party. Both men, who grew up and came of age when LP records rightfully reigned supreme, say they’re extremely jazzed about an imminent vinyl release of “Shake … Outta Control,” (Yess!). “If you think the CD sounds good,” Felice proudly told me, “Wait until you hear the vinyl.” Felice claims he’s already begun writing and rehearsing songs for yet another new Real Kids album. With any luck, we won’t have to wait another 32 years.
RPM: Let’s start at the beginning. Your relationship with John goes back quite a ways.
HARTE: That’s right. I think I first saw The Real Kids play in 1976. I saw ‘em at the Summit Club (in Peabody), and then as the years went by, I saw them at the normal places – Cantone’s, The Rat.
RPM: How long had you wanted to work with them?
HARTE: When I saw them play, and saw the Nervous Eaters play, I was shocked that there could possibly be bands that were that good. It was obvious that there was some terrific music being played. When (the Real Kids) did the Red Star (label) album (issued in in 1978), I heard that album and thought, ‘Wow.’ I was completely impressed and blown away by every aspect of it. They seemed committed. But then the band kind of fell apart with the departure of Billy Borgioli and others leaving. Gradually, I started making other records by the Neighborhoods, the Classic Ruins. All of those records were really well received, which eventually led me to Lyres and Mission of Burma. So I was kind of on my own path. But (our working together) came together when Billy Borgioli and John (Felice) were back together with the Low Downs, and they had this fabulous bass player named Paul Rowland. And when I saw them play I knew I could make a good record with them. The ‘Nothing Pretty’ album (issued in 1988) was the result of that.
RPM: It’s hard to believe, but ‘Shake … Outta Control’ is, amazingly, the band’s first full length release in more than 30 years. I understand it’s getting a strong response out there. Was that a surprise to you, or did you think, ‘Well, of course this is a great record!’
HARTE: You know what? I’m just feeling like it’s fortunate that it’s been well received, because people could dump all over it too. You never know what’s going to happen. But when things turn out this way, I’m always pleasantly surprised. I work as hard as I can on every recording that I make. I put everything into it. But in the end, it’s up to the public to decide if they like it, and I have no control over that. I just do the best that I can.
RPM: In the last ten years or so, between losing Alpo (Real Kids’ bassist Allen Paulino, who died in 2006) and Kevin Glasheen (original Kids’ drummer, who died in 2011), plus some of John’s health struggles that he talked with me about, there’s been a lot of hardship and loss. How did those experiences feed into getting the band into a studio and getting the performances out of them that you got after all this time? There’s a lot of history there, and it’s different than a bunch of 22 year olds going into a studio, obviously.
HARTE: It was. But they still had to perform – and perform at a high level. And I had to find a way to make that happen, and to make sure that the vocals, and the vocal production, was absolutely tip top. I had mentioned to John when we first started that the vocals were going to be the whole game. There was going to have to be a lot of urgency and intensity in the vocal delivery, and it was going to have to be hungry, and it was going to have to be fresh. Real Kids fans, kind of like Mission of Burma fans, will kill you if you make a bad record. They will tell you, and you will never hear the end of it. And I’m telling you, I wasn’t going to be on the end of that! The fans are tough, and I was determined to deliver something as good as it possibly could be. Because I have to walk around this town. I wanted it to be spectacular. I don’t know if we got there, but I do know that seeing this band dozens and dozens of times in all kinds of situations, I know exactly what they’re supposed to sound like.
RPM: I know the guys had been working on the songs for a long time, on and off (initial recording sessions for the album were conducted at Kissy Pig Studios in Allston and then Q Division in Somerville). John talked about being pretty frustrated before you became involved. How did that come about, and what changed after you got there?
HARTE: They asked me if I would come up there and do it, and it just happened that I wasn’t busy. I was going to work with them when they had the so-called original reunion (of the ‘Red Star’ label-era lineup in 1999), but I had commitments, and these records are very hard to make. It’s very time-consuming, because you want to make a record that is memorable. To make a record like that takes a huge commitment. It’s a painstaking process. I have a framework in my mind of what the record is going to be like and sound like, and I work towards making that goal happen. It could take a few months, and in this case it was well over a year.
RPM: Was it a case of mentally starting from scratch and getting everybody on the same page?
HARTE: From the moment I walked into that studio, we were on the same page. But we had quite a lot of problems. The bottom line, is we got through it and we got something. When it’s successful for me is when the band tells me they really like it. Of course, I have to sign off on it (laughs). But it is a musical collaboration. It’s not just an asshole in there screaming at people. I have a vision in my mind of what the record’s going to sound like, and that’s based on a combination of how (the band) performs live and what the material is that we’ve recorded. I don’t think I’ve hit the bulls-eye many times, where I thought (an album) was exactly what I thought it was gonna be. But it’s gotta be pretty close or I’m just grossed out. In looking back (at my work) some of the records stand up better than others as time goes by. It’s very hard to evaluate.
RPM: When you make a record, it’s probably difficult to know what’s going to resonate with listeners twenty or thirty years later.
HARTE: Exactly. We were talking about this the other day: Nirvana. When those Nirvana records first appeared, I loved ‘em. But those records, to me, sound dated. They don’t sound good to me. I know everyone loves them, I’m not saying they’re not great. I’m just saying they sound dated. But at the same time, the Hole record that was being made – ‘Live Through This’ – doesn’t sound dated, and it was made at the same time. The ‘Hole record sounds completely fresh. The execution is absolutely shocking. There was a lot of thought put into it. There is a lot of restraint, but there is incredible intensity to that record. It’s all there, and I can’t say enough about it. It sounds pure, and I’m telling you, this is something I know about (laughs). I’m a guy that saw the Beatles, saw the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones more than one time, saw Jimi Hendrix twice, saw the Yardbirds just around the corner from where I lived, the Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin during one of their first shows where one of the nights (Zeppelin) played the songs twice because they didn’t have enough material. So basically, I’ve heard some stuff.
RPM: Was it a challenge to you – as a guy who, as you put it has ‘ heard some stuff’ – to capture the essence of the Real Kids and their sound after all this time?
HARTE: I have to tell you, and this is very honest. I’ve never felt pressured or challenged during a recording session. I always felt that I would be able to make the record that the band wanted. But I have to tell you, that (first record) was the elephant in the room. That Red Star album was a monster. And I knew if this was gonna be called the second record, compared to that it would be a challenge to pull off. So yes, I felt pressure. Not from the guys. But from that album.
RPM: There are some records whose stature only seems to grow with time. It becomes as much a statement about an era and a band’s legacy as it is simply an album of songs. So in some respects, I could see it being much harder to follow an iconic record like that now, from this vantage point, rather than back then, when there wasn’t this distance and daunting sense of history surrounding it.
HARTE: All you can do is try. I knew I could get the guitars to sound like they were supposed to, and I could get the music to work. But the vocals were the most creative part of it. There were a couple of times when, after the vocal session, I had to take John to the hospital because he was throwing up blood. I’m not an asshole, but I had to get the vocals (right). Some of the songs, like ‘Fly Into The Mystery,’ and the Kinks song (‘She’s Got Everything’), we may have only done one or two takes. With ‘Fly Into The Mystery,’ we did one take and I said that’s it. But the vocals had to work because that’s where all the emotion is. John poured his soul into it.
RPM: When I first heard the new album, I couldn’t believe that so much time had passed between then and now. The years just seemed to slip away from John’s voice. Clearly, whatever approach you took worked.
HARTE: The learning in the studio never stops. We love what we’re doing, and this is what we do. There’s not too many other things I know how to do at a high performance level. I can do a lot of stuff shitty.
Visit the Ace of Hearts Records page here for everything you heart (sorry, couldn’t resist): http://aceofheartsrecords.com/
Visit the Real Kids Boston Rock & Roll Page on facebook to see cool photos, memorabilia, and share your own memories: https://www.facebook.com/groups/39667370877/10152362356875878/?notif_t=group_activity