An exclusive RNR Globe chat with Roger C. Reale about creating some of the best power pop you never heard
Roger C. Reale should have been a star in 1978.
He had it all – good looks, skinny jeans, chops on the electric bass that rivaled Tina Weymouth and Nick Lowe and ably backed by Rue Morgue, his stellar backing band. His guitarists included G. E. Smith (Hall & Oats, Saturday Night Live Band), Jimmy McAllister (Sparks, Mitch Ryder) and Mick Ronson (Bowie, Ian Hunter Band), while drummer Hilly Michaels (Mick Ronson, Sparks) provided the backbeat.
As impressive as that line up was, it would have meant nothing without good material, and the tunes Reale wrote were brilliant. Hints of Chuck Berry, The Cars, Clash, New Order, Bowie, The Kinks and 50s rock float through the mix but, like other bands from the late ‘70s, Reale blended those elements into his own sound. The big guitar hook and zooming bass of “Stop and Go,” the blazing punk of “Pain Killer” and Mick Ronson’s signature fills on “Pros and Cons,” “Make It Over” and “Rock It to the Kremlin” should have been all over the radio
AUDIO: Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue “Kill Me”
Unfortunately, the band’s debut, Radioactive, came out on Big Sound, a small label that never gained much commercial traction. The logo went bankrupt before it could release their second outing, Reptiles in Motion. That album featured Mick Ronson, who joined the band after hearing Radioactive. Reale kept writing after the band folded, contributing to Johnny Winter’s Grammy nominated album I’m a Bluesman, and fronting The Manchurians, a band he continues to lead.
He spoke to the Globe about his early days and the process of reissuing his debut album from his East Coast home.
How does it feel to see these tunes back in print?
Given the years on the shelf, it’s amazingly gratifying to have these songs finally released – the first time in CD format for Radioactive, and the first time ever for Reptiles in Motion. It’s also exciting to have reactions that speak to the relevancy and timeliness of the material; they’re not nostalgia pieces.
How did you get involved with Big Sound?
I’m originally from Rhode Island, where I learned to play bass in a garage band. When my family moved to Connecticut, I played with various cover bands until the punk/new wave tide hit. I was always writing songs in notebooks and recording them, first on reel-to-reel players, then on cassettes.
I began hanging around Trod Nossel Studios, in Wallingford, CT. A college friend, Bob Orsi, was playing in The Scratch Band, one of the top working bands in the state at the time. I had a cassette of songs, most of which would emerge on Radioactive, that I was hoping to have some bands cover. The tape was just me playing bass and singing my songs, pretty basic!
Around this time, the Big Sound label was being formed, and Bob suggested I submit my tape to the studio head, Doc Cavalier, which I did. Doc suggested that I go in and record the songs myself. I immediately enlisted GE Smith, from The Scratch Band. We were already friends and musical allies, but we didn’t have a drummer. For me, that’s always the most important piece.
Jon Tiven, then in NYC, was largely responsible for channeling talent to Big Sound. He introduced himself to me and thought his friend, Hilly Michaels, would be perfect for the role. Hilly was just coming off the road with Sparks and was in LA at the time. Hilly and I spoke. Both of us loved Slade, so we had a band.
How did you present the songs to the band? When did you write them? Were you planning to play them live?
We recorded all the basic tracks for Radioactive in one session. We’d run the songs down, once or twice, and roll the tape. It was all done live – everything just clicked. Some of the vocals were kept as is. G. E. overdubbed some guitar bits and I did some harmony bits, but basically, it’s all live. If it was intense in any manner, it was intensely fun; we knew we had something. Again, it was a studio project, but the songs were recorded as they would have been presented live.
What did Doc Cavalier bring to the process?
Doc was present, but he didn’t really produce, as such; he gave us the freedom to do what we wanted, by default, actually. I knew going in exactly what I was looking for in the recording process. You have to remember, this punk/new wave thing was all new. It was essentially an all out assault on the conventional process of recording, not to mention the musical and social culture in general. I wasn’t playing games; I knew what I wanted, and I wasn’t going to blow a golden opportunity. We all had a great time, with no interference from anybody.
Were you disappointed that the album tanked?
Certainly, I was aware that Big Sound was a burgeoning small label, with all the baggage that comes along with that. We were going against the big boys but, especially early on, there was a real esprit de corps around the studio. As it happens, Big Sound was not equipped, in the long run, to compete on any level, and the record sank.
Why didn’t Rue Morgue play live?
Rue Morgue was formed as a studio band to record the songs for Radioactive and Reptiles. We wanted a group identity. Due to everyone’s other commitments, we had no gigs planned. The Reptiles band, minus Ronson, did one showcase gig in NYC at Hurrah. The set consisted of songs from both LPs.
How did Mick Ronson get involved with Reptiles in Motion? Where did you get the album title?
Hilly Michaels was involved with the Hunter/Ronson camp at the time. He played the Radioactive LP for Ronson, just as an example of what he had been doing lately. Ronson loved it and said he wanted to play with us. We were about to record Reptiles, so he came down and we recorded. Needless to say, I was over the moon. The album title, Reptiles in Motion, has no real significance; it was simply a working title for what we thought would become the second LP.
Were you intimidated playing with Ronson?
The songs were fully formed at the time of recording. Mick and Jimmy arranged their guitar bits, we ran through the songs once or twice, and we recorded straightaway. Mick was very receptive, offering ideas here and there and working on the arrangements with Jimmy and me. He was very down to earth, no star trappings, and definitely was enjoying playing in this group. We got on quite well. We all resolved to come back at some point to finish the tracks.
It says in the liner notes the album was unfinished? How so? Was anything added or subtracted in the re-mastering? It sounds amazing, if a bit muddy in spots.
They were unfinished to the extent that we were going to let it sit and come back to reassess. Nothing was added or subtracted in the re-mastering process. The tracks stand as we left them.
What were you doing musically while you were making these albums? Sideman? Playing in bands? Producing?
After recording both LP’s, I put a band together, but not as Rue Morgue, just Roger C. Reale, initially with Bob Roze on guitar, and Suburban Joe on drums. Roze was replaced later by Tim Stawarz. We played the New England area, with the occasional foray into NYC, for a couple of years. We also recorded an EP at Trod Nossel entitled Clout.
The songs are very commercial with hints of The Clash, Cars, Sex Pistols, Kinks, Bowie, and The Beatles in the sound and arrangements. Were you consciously trying to write hits, or following your muse?
I’ve never consciously tried to write anything. You have to be receptive when the song, melody, verse, phrase, hits your radar. I have pads and pens all over, including in my Jeep and I have a couple of portable recorders to record ideas when they hit. I’ve always tried to keep it simple. At the time of these recordings, we were all listening to the current punk/new wave bands, in particular; it was all fresh. But I also came up with the Stones, Animals, Beatles, Small Faces and Who, too.
Did the arrangements occur to you when you were writing, or did you work them out on the fly in the studio?
Nothing I do is ever on the fly. I come in completely prepared, but I’m also open to suggestions from the players I’m with, since they’ll put their personalities on the songs as well.
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You wrote songs recorded by B.B. King, Buddy Guy with Johnny Lang, Michael Burks and Johnny Winter. Did you write or co-write those songs?
After meeting Jon Tiven during the Big Sound days, we became fast friends, with similar musical tastes, so we began writing together at his studio in NYC. We wrote “Midnight Train” for Buddy Guy’s Heavy Love release. That received a Grammy nomination. We also collaborated on two songs for Johnny Winter’s I’m a Bluesman release. That also received a Grammy Nomination. The Michael Burks song, “I Smell Smoke,” from the album of the same name, received a W.C. Handy Blues Song of the Year nomination. Jon and I have a number of songs to our credit.
Is there an interesting story behind you tracking down the masters and putting them out with the help of Richard Brukner and Rave On Records?
There would be no collection if it weren’t for Richard Brukner’s kindness, persistence, and dedication in seeing this project through. He is directly responsible for me securing full rights and ownership of the masters, alternate takes, rehearsal and live tapes. We’ve known each other for over ten years, and during that time he would occasionally bring up what was happening with those recordings, which up until two years ago, was nothing. I can’t emphasize his importance to this release enough; he’s a very talented guy and a close friend.
What have you been doing since you made these albums?
Along with writing many songs with Jon Tiven, I recorded a full set of songs with Jimmy McAllister and Mickey Curry, with Jon producing, in the early 80’s in NYC. It was all done live and remains unreleased. In 1999, I formed The Manchurians, a blues rock outfit. Since that time, we’ve released four CDs. I’ve also released two solo CDs, under my own name. They’re available through Bandcamp. Since Radioactive and Reptiles in Motion, I’ve never really stopped.
VIDEO: Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue The Collection trailer