One of the greatest albums of the ‘80s was fixated on the ‘50s
It wasn’t easy being a roots-rocking band in the New Wave ‘80s.
Long before Americana became a musical genre, when it was way cooler for a rocker to come off like an android with a geometrical haircut than a gas station attendant with a pompadour, The Blasters were busy spreading the gospel of Bo Diddley and Little Willie John.
When the band formed at the end of the ‘70s in the L.A. suburb of Downey, punk was the coming thing in SoCal clubs, with bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, The Plugz, The Bags, The Germs, and X bringing something raw and real to local stages. But The Blasters were fronted by crate-digging brothers Phil and Dave Alvin, who worshipped at the altar of old-school American music: vintage rock ‘n’ roll, country, blues, and R&B.
Phil could sing like a man possessed, and Dave not only churned out fiery variations on the Chuck Berry verities, he was writing songs to match. Out of step with the mainstream rock scene of the era, the band found a place amid the L.A. punks, maybe because they were just as relentlessly uncompromising a gang of misfits as any of them.
In 1980, The Blasters released their debut album, American Music, on the tiny local rockabilly label Rollin’ Rock. But for the follow-up they joined their punk pals on the roster of Slash Records, an L.A. indie that had just acquired major-label distribution. With the arrival of their self-titled 1981 LP, The Blasters were ready for the world.
Bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman’s tight-but-swinging grooves gave the band the ideal rhythm section. Pianist Gene Taylor’s piano-bashing bravado was Jerry Lee one minute, Professor Longhair the next. The two-man sax section of Lee Allen and Steve Berlin sealed the deal — the former was a rock ‘n’ roll legend who’d played with Fats Domino, the latter a young firebrand who would eventually become a Los Lobos mainstay.
The band re-cut two of Dave’s best tunes from American Music: that album’s title track and “Marie Marie,” both of which would become Blasters signatures. With its bopping ‘50s feel, “Marie Marie” had already become a UK hit as covered by Welsh neo-rockabilly cat Shakin’ Stevens. “American Music” was the kind of thumbnail sketch Dave excelled at — a snapshot of an American G.I. on leave overseas longing for the C&W, Delta blues, New Orleans R&B, and jazz of his homeland.
Dave cranked out plenty of equally worthy tunes to go along with those. “Hollywood Bed” is a sexy Crescent City stroll. “So Long Baby Goodbye” is a roadhouse-rocking kiss-off song where the horns earn their money. “Border Radio” foreshadows the kind of vivid, tough-but-poignant storytelling Dave would excel at in his post-Blasters singer/songwriter career.
Cuts like “No Other Girl” and “This Is It” suggest that the guitarist could turn out timeless-sounding rockabilly with every eyeblink. But when the album arrived in December of 1981, The Stray Cats had yet to hit big in the U.S. (Their “Rock This Town” didn’t chart until autumn ‘82). So, a singer with a maniacal grin (see the album cover) and a Big Joe Turner vibe fronting a bunch of dudes who looked like they were rejected for roles in Grease still spelled “tough sell.”
Covers of tunes by Little Willie John (the leering, serpentine “I’m Shakin’”), Bo DIddley (“I Love You So”), Jimmie Rodgers (“Never No Mo’ Blues”), Sunnyland Slim (“Highway 61”), and obscure ‘50s West coast rocker Bob Ehret (“Stop the Clock”) didn’t exactly increase The Blasters’ chances of ousting The Human League from the charts. And they never did break through to the big time like their East coast cousins The Stray Cats. But with Phil’s soulfulness, Dave’s song craft, and the whole band’s potent punch, they still earned plenty of respect in the ‘80s, even turning up on American Bandstand a time or two. Maybe it was because they reminded a New Wave-besieged Dick Clark of his glory days.
VIDEO: The Blasters on American Bandstand