Record Store Day, and Lone Justice’s worthy addition to it
At this point, complaining about Record Store Day is like bitching about musician biopic movies – they’re going to happen, they’re going to be goofy, but they essentially mean well, and once in a blue moon they offer something worthwhile.
Sure, no one needs another 180 gram vinyl copy of Electric Warrior, especially for $40. Yes, the mom’n’pop shops RSD was originally intended to highlight can’t afford to order most of the increasingly pricey releases, many of which are major label, cash-in reissues of titles you could find used in $5 bins, if you went to record stores more than twice a year. And yes, a $12 7” single misses everything about what made a 7” single fun in the first place.
But it’s still neat to peruse the list of RSD releases when they drop, and it does seem to continue to draw people into the stores in droves, even if it is only for that one or two days of the year. Maybe some of those fairweather fans will drop by more often. And hey, maybe I need a clean copy of Teenage Head’s “Picture My Face” for DJ-ing purposes. But man, $25?! Really?! And I have to buy the debut LP to get it? I already have that album, and, and… okay, sorry, I won’t bitch.
RSD does hit a sweet spot once in a while, when someone offers up genuinely worthy unearthed recordings for the fanatics. Despite their brief existence in the mid-80s, Lone Justice have their fanatical fanbase. Born of a small but fervid Americana scene in L.A. in the mid-80s, within a couple of years, Lone Justice went from getting a new rhythm section, to becoming a main draw in La-La-Land, opening for U2 in arenas, and like music industry clockwork, quickly succumbing to the dreaded over-hyped, over-produced debut album and band breakup. Singer Maria McKee went on to a well-regarded solo career, and the band members have all had working projects along the way. But Lone Justice remains one of the great “shouldabeens” of the 1980s, presaging 1990s alt-country with their rootsy sound, but never having translated the club excitement into a classic album.
That said, their 1985 debut holds up as a solid roots-pop platter. But yeah, the production does that whole “’80s thing” we all know and bitch about. I saw the band open for U2 in 1984, and even in the incredibly ill-fitting, massive environs of the same arena that the Cleveland Cavaliers played, the band’s strong hooks and McKee’s Parton-like pipes translated well. But the impression left was one of, “I’ll catch them in a bar the next time they come through.” Which for Cleveland, was never again.
One can’t really blame the major label suits for focusing on McKee as the band went through their two-album career. She was the ideal example of any A&R 101 class – gorgeous, charismatic, and with a voice wider and brighter than an L.A. highway. And the band were a solid bunch of scene vets, able to effortlessly whip up classic licks weaved through catchy originals. And all that comes across in the new Record Store Day live release, Live at the Polomino, 1983 (Omnivore Recordings). To ears today, it will not sound face-slap trailblazing. But it’s a reminder that in 1983 – the heyday of big booming British synth-pop on one end of the radio dial, and gut-punching hardcore on the other – Lone Justice and their small scene of big city hillbillies felt fresh with possibilities.
Thanks to bassist and reissues producer Marvin Etzioni, we’ve now got a few examples of the simple pleasures of Lone Justice in their nascent stages. First was the release of This Is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983 (2014); and then The Western Tapes, 1983 (2018); and now this live document. All three have presented a slow-burn revival of Lone Justice’s missed possibilities, documenting an earnest roots rock band trying to figure out what to do with such a strong singer.
We caught up with Etzioni to get his take on Record Store Day and his contrib-utions to it.
And check out my suggestions for worthy RSD 2019 release, below.
It’s true, sometimes Record Store Day releases seem superfluous. Your Live at the Polomino is a more workable release. The general consensus is that the first Lone Justice album was a missed opportunity. So this live album and the demos are an opportunity for fans to get an idea of what might have been, what the band sounded like months before that debut. Is that fair?
Yes. I think the original thrust of RSD was independent labels showing, “Hey this is outside of the mainstream, stuff you can’t get anywhere else, you record collector fanatics.” The difference is, something like Electric Warrior on 180 gram vinyl or whatever, is label catalog. So when you start releasing catalog on RSD, it’s hard to complete, because people already know about that stuff, rather than like this Lone Justice stuff. I mean, something like Electric Warrior, that could come out whenever, it doesn’t really need a RSD profile.
Plus, some small indies can’t afford to buy those major label RSD releases. But I still think overall it’s a fun idea.
Oh yeah, I know what you mean, but I think it’s great. Regarding Lone Justice, The Western Tapes was made before I joined the band. I produced it, and I was writing with the band. it was made two years before the first album was recorded. Then this live album, I had just joined the band, it’s still a year and a half before the debut. My point of view of production is reflected in these releases. That’s all I can really say about that.
Just to give you a context of the time, and what was going on musically, when I went into the studio with the band for those Western Tapes, I was telling the engineer, “You know that sound that’s popular now on MTV, that huge, over-the-top drum sound? That’s not what we want…” And as I’m telling him this, he’s plugging in all these effects. And a few minutes later I said, that’s exactly what I don’t want!” Just unplug everything, I just want it to sound like a stick hitting a drum. And that was not a popular way of recording in 1983. Two, the bass player leaves the band. I said, great, let’s find a bass player. Well at that time, there’s no internet, we’re putting up signs in guitar stores, talking to people. “What are you into?” Well, we’re into Creedence and the Clash. And it was like, “What’s Creedence?” It was really difficult to find a bass player who understood what we’re trying to get across. It seems like it would’ve been easy, but it wasn’t. So they found me a Fender bass for 75 bucks – the one I still use! – and I knew the songs, but I wasn’t the first choice. That was the context at that time: it was very hard to find like-minded people. Mind you, two years later when I left the band, there was a line around the block to replace me.
When I first met Ryan (Hedgecock, guitarist) and Maria (McKee, singer) a year earlier, 1982, I was their producer, arranger. But they were doing all covers. I told them, I think you’re really onto something, I love this kind of music. George Jones, Merle Haggard, but at the same time, Velvet Underground, Clash. So I asked, can we get some original material together, and we could maybe break through.
There was a little bit of a scene going in L.A. though, right?
Yeah, but it’s not like we’re going to get Tony from Rank and File, he’s got his own band. How many other bands were doing whatever that hybrid was? You could count them on one hand. We were doing shows with Rank and File, Los Lobos, Blood on the Saddle. But that doesn’t mean there were tons of bands doing that.
Do you have any memories of that club, or of that particular show on this release even?
I remember a sense of urgency about it, immediacy. I’ll guess maybe three, four hundred people in the club that night. People were really appreciative. That club’s scene was a real cross-section. It was all ages, so young kids were showing up, parents were bringing them, some punks too. It became like a second family for people there, a like-minded society of people showing up for this little private world, the only place to get it. It wasn’t on MTV or the radio. That was it for this sound, at the time. It was its own thing, I don’t know how else to explain it – but it was like we were building a bandwagon to jump on.
We played the Palomino a bunch. The thing is, we didn’t have a record out yet, so there was nowhere for this music to play, no one to help promote. In hindsight, Dwight Yoakam did it right. He made a self-released, five-song EP independently that led to the completion of his first album. We should’ve self-released something. But we were headlining, and Dwight is calling us asking to open. Then we’re doing two shows a night with him, and each show was sold out. So word of mouth was happening, local papers were covering, but no radio, not signed. It was an interesting landscape. The clubs were packed, more people coming. In a short amount of time this thing was gaining traction.
When was the first time you heard Maria sing?
In the late ‘70s, I was in a local band called The Model. We played with the Plimsouls, the Motels, Translator, Code Blue – all those kind of power pop bands that ended up getting signed. The Model never did. We did record some stuff with Chuck Plotkin, who recorded Bruce Springsteen, right before he mixed The River. I am assembling an album with those recordings.
Anyway, we’re playing these clubs, and one thing doesn’t lead to another, it didn’t get to the next step. In 1980, ‘81, there weren’t too many places to play original music, and I wanted to go in this acoustic direction. There was a punk club called Café LeGrant, and I had a residency there for a bit, solo acoustic. One time I opened for the Bangles, I’d call Madame Wong’s too, and ask if I could open up for punk bands, and they’d say, “You mean, on your own acoustic, like a coffee shop?! Why?” Ha.
So at the end of one of the residency shows, a guy comes up and says, “Weren’t you in the Model? I really loved your songs.” He had a flattop, and we started talking about George Jones. So he said, “I’m putting this thing together with this girl singer.” I said, why don’t you come next week and take my slot, and I can hear what you’re doing. And that’s how it started. And the next week, there are about seven or eight people in the audience, and that’s the first time I hear Ryan and Maria playing acoustic, and it was all covers, Hank Williams, you know. I was immediately taken with the harmonies. I told him I loved it, and I told him I’d be excited to be involved if you work up some original material. They didn’t even have a name yet.
Soon after we came up with the song “Working Late,” and that was really what took us out of a band kind of mimicking this kind of music to being an original band forging our own thing.
I saw Lone Justice open for U2 in 1984, at the Richfield Coliseum in Cleveland. I’d never heard you, and I liked the set. After seeing you, and getting the debut, I thought this music is really probably better in clubs; and I wonder how much club touring you’d been able to do before being put on this huge tour in these big arenas.
Even at the time, I felt it would’ve been healthier for the band to get in and go play Any Club, USA. That would’ve been my approach. The approach from the label was that U2 tour. I remember being on the tour, and talking with Bono, and him saying that he really liked us when he first heard us, thought we were a combination of Dolly Parton and the Who. I thought he was on to something.
I can assume how those big tours in those big places go. Were you able to actually hang out with them much?
Oh yeah, they were great, they were really nice. Everybody treated us well. I would hang out at their soundchecks, talk with Bono about music. He liked what we were doing, he seemed to get it. Only have good things to say about them.
But I remember going up to the sound guy and asking, “Can you move the mics closer together?” I mean the stages were the size of a club. And he just said, “No, I’m not going to do that.” He was nice, but he said, “If you want the mics close together, go back to the clubs.” And we hadn’t really come from enough of them yet. But by the time you’re on night four in a row, you just think, Oh, I guess that’s how this is. We’re relying on monitors, standing 20-feet apart, etc. It wasn’t that long of a tour, maybe less than two months.
Do you think that kind of quick leap to arenas led to a dissolution of that original four-piece lineup?
Oh yeah. I had a point of view that is only now getting released. By the time that tour was over, I wanted to go in a different direction, and I soon realized that wasn’t going to happen. So I had to leave. I’m trying to simplify a long story. Ha ha.
I was watching the video for “Ways to Be Wicked” this morning, and in the opening, Maria comes rolling in on a skateboard. Did she really skateboard?
Oh god, I don’t know. By the time that happened, we were just showing up for something.
So by that time of making that video – the first single/video off the debut album – you were already checking out?
Oh yeah, I mean I just had a different point of view. It’s hard for me to even comment on that video.
Over the years, did you keep in touch with Ryan and Maria much?
Yeah, I ended up working with Maria on her second album, Sin To Get Saved, co-wrote some of that, played on most of the record, we did some touring. Ryan and I have kept in touch, I’m producing a record of his right now. But yeah, my point of view back then was more like this new live record. How does it sound to you?
Oh, I like it! I like stuff in its basic form. Plus, it sounds really good for a live recording. It’s always hard to find good live recordings. Like I’m a huge New York Dolls fan, and over the years I’m a sucker for any new, unearthed Dolls release, but the live ones are always pretty rough.
That’s my favorite American band. I saw their very first show at the Whiskey. And then the Hollywood Palladium, with the Hollywood Stars, Zolar X (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M5iqhfP6nA ). I snuck into the sound check at that one. That was kind of an end of an era show, that Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer put together. I saw the Dolls for their second album at the Civic. By then it was kind of the end, like the show wasn’t sold out. I’m a fanatic for them. I remember once, I was in an Italian restaurant in L.A., and David Johansen was sitting at a table next to us. And the whole dinner I’m trying to pretend that I don’t know who that is. He was with this woman, and finally, as we were leaving, I just went up and said, I just want to say I am a big fan of the Dolls, and thank you. And he was nice, like, “Oh thanks.” I told him, I saw your first show at the Whiskey, and he said he was just telling that woman about that show! I asked him, any chance of you guys getting back together? And he said, “No, we want to grow old gracefully.”
Other intriguing, and way limited, Record Store Day 2019 releases (https://recordstoreday.com/SpecialReleases ) to check your checking account for:
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – E. 1999 Eternal (first official vinyl edition)
Dream Syndicate – Days of Wine and Roses (extra tracks w/ 7”)
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (Different “New York mixes”)
Human Switchboard 7” (Debut 7”, w/ zine)
Mission of Burma – Peking Spring
Ramones – Live at the Palladium, 1979 (2 x LP)
Otis Redding w/ Booker T & the MG’s and the Mar-Keys – Just Do It One More Time – Live at the Monterey International Festival
Lou Reed – Ecstasy (2 x LP)
Roxy Music – Debut remixed 2 x LP, w/ new photos
Teenage Head – 40th Anniversary debut, w/ 7”
Todd Rundgren – Complete U.S. Bearsville and Warner Bros. Singles 4xLP
Thirteenth Floor Elevators – The Psychedelic Sounds of… (mono picture disc)
Soundtracks: Ghost World, Basketball Diaries, Office Space, and The Coneheads (for some damn reason)