Diving deep into the 40th anniversary reissue of the Iron City Houserockers’ best album—the record that should have made their career—Have a Good Time But… Get Out Alive!
Artist: Iron City Houserockers
Album: Have a Good Time But… Get Out Alive! 40th Anniversary Edition
Label: Cleveland International Records
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
I was once lucky enough to have woman in my life who was a more devoted music fan than I was, and so many of her favorites naturally became my favorites.
Today I give her credit for setting me on a life path whether I knew it then or not. Along with a few guilty pleasures—Rod Stewart’s Blondes Have More Fun comes to mind—she loved Waylon’s Greatest Hits, The Doobie Brothers Minute By Minute, everything Springsteen, Earth Wind & Fire and the J. Geils Band ever committed to vinyl and three albums by a local Western Pa. band, The Iron City Houserockers. While we were both from the Pittsburgh area, she hailed from dahn the Monongahela Valley, and so had a certain authority when it came to all things gritty and real and the Houserockers were certainly both, a fact proven once again by the 40th anniversary reissue of their best album—the record that should have made their career—Have a Good Time But… Get Out Alive!
In popular music history, rock and roll and Pittsburgh are not a combination that readily comes to mind. Known more for the extraordinary amount of great jazz players that were born and raised there—talents like Billy Strayhorn, Art Blakey and Earl Hines—the list on the pop and rock sides is considerably thinner. Formed at an Air Force base in Pittsburgh, The Del Vikings, a racially mixed group whose members were all from elsewhere, had a 1956 hit with the happy, innocent doo-wop number, “Come Go with Me.” Later, in 1970, The Jaggerz broke through with “The Rapper.” Eventually there were garage bands like the Fenways, Marshmallow Steamshovel and Grains of Sand and a pair of classic clubs in The Decade and The Electric Banana, but for most of rock and roll history, The Burgh’s music scene rarely broke into the national consciousness.
Formed in the late 70’s and originally known as the Brick Alley Band, these children of blue collar workers were led by a special education teacher with a very Pittsburgh-sounding name, Joe Grushecky. Clearly influenced by other white rock/R&B bands like The J. Geils Band and especially the E Street Band, the Iron City Houserockers with Grushecky as impassioned front man had much in common with Springsteen’s incandescent cries.
In a move whose semantics provoked endless head scratching in Pittsburgh, the band signed with Cleveland International Records who’d hit the big time in 1977 with Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell. Separated by a mere 135 miles, these two rust belt metropolises, The Burgh and The 216 are more alike than different despite a longstanding rivalry provoked in part by years of epic battles between the NFL’s Steelers and Browns. After the Houserockers 1979 debut album, Love’s So Tough, which contained the band’s local hit, “Hideaway” failed to make a dent on the national charts, the band and Pittsburgher Steve Popovich who ran Cleveland International decided to go for broke on the second album.
Through what I assume was a combination of cash, Popovich’s connections and the fact that great material often drew top shelf talent: Mick Ronson, Steve Van Zandt and Ian Hunter all ended up contributing to Have a Good Time But… Get Out Alive! which was recorded over several weeks in NYC. E Street band member Van Zandt arranged five songs. And with Ronson producing and he and Hunter also playing on the record, the one-time bar band blossomed into a confident, kaleidoscopic, full-blown rock butterfly. Tempos were pushed, arrangements were tightened, the volume was increased and by the time the final strains of the closing track “Rock-Ola” echoed away, the band had themselves a bangin’ heartland rock masterpiece, one that fit right in with the ideas and perspective that Springsteen and Van Zandt were laying down at the very same time across town in The River. If there are any revelations to be gleaned from the demos included in this reissue it’s just how much all this rock star firepower brought to the skeletal demos which in a case like “Hypotized” [sic] consists of just a guitar riff.
From the bashed out opening chords of the title track where Grushecky actually barks at one point, it was clear that subtlety was not gonna be the calling card here. Like The Boss, the characters in the songs, most written by Grushecky with a number of co-writes with pianist Gil Snyder, were steel town hard cases. With Ned E. Rankin pounding on his kit, “Don’t Let Them Push You Around,” with its lyrical middle finger was a hymn to Pittsburgh’s battered self-image with the steel industry in its epic death throes:
“Now it’s time to attack
Don’t let them get to you
Don’t let them in
And don’t be ashamed of the places you’ve been
You better believe me, baby
“Pumpin Iron” with Marc Reisman’s harmonica wailing throughout, is another tale of a tough guys/poor boy who’s “got to live his whole lifetime In just one night,” but despite the pills, booze and a girlfriend’s father who won’t let him in the house still long in his heart, “to give her everything I’ve got at last.” Like most of the songs here, Grushecky’s growled vocals make it work. Produced by Ian Hunter, the moody, midtempo “Hypnotized,” with plenty of reverb and background whispers laid on, is what bringing rock stars aboard adds to a project. The dramatic plea, “Price of Love” complete with its Roy Bittan-toned piano is the track on the album where echoes of Springsteen are the loudest.
Set to a straight-ahead rhythm and arrangement, “We’re Not Dead Yet,” which opens side two of the original album, was another hardscrabble Pittsburgh paean, one that again benefits from Hunter’s production smarts. With some of his most inspired singing on the record, Grushecky sells a dark tale of desolation and perseverance.
“This town’s been dying since the day I was born
Shops all boarded up and house lying in ruin
We got our backs to the wall, got to find way to win.”
The album’s second side contains the project’s heart, the two-song pairing of “Old Man Bar” and “Junior’s Bar.” Taken at an appropriately slow tempo and adorned with an accordion, tinkling mandolin and Snyder’s convincingly decrepit vocals, “Old Man Bar,” evokes a sentimental scene familiar to anyone who’s ever spent an evening in a Pittsburgh tavern. Anchored by guitarist Eddie Britt repeatedly nailing the tune’s signature guitar figure that was composed by Steve Van Zandt, “Junior’s Bar” remains the Iron City Houserockers’ finest moment on record. It’s a rocker with background vocal accompaniment, a huge hook and a steady bass rumble from Art Nardini, all of which add up to what shoulda been the band’s breakthrough single. While you can wonder about sequencing that buried the band’s single on the album’s second side, the tune, freshened by this new remastering, remains a hit that never was. Labeled a “New America Classic” in a Rolling Stone review and generally fawned over even by cranky publications like The Village Voice, the album, while successful, never caught fire. Forty years on, and basically forgotten by all by Houserocker fans and Pittsburghers of a certain age, it’s now a full-fledged lost classic given new life by this long overdue reissue.