|John Piccolo - keyboards, Ron Ardito - lead vocals, guitar, Artie Lamonica - lead vocals, guitar, Caren Messing - lead vocals, Kathy McCloskey - lead vocals, keyboards, Bob Racioppo - lead vocals, bass, John (Zeeek) Criscione - drums
A Social Survival Story:
When the Shirts were really coming into their own, hitting their long stride with hits from their first album in 1978, it was easy to cast them as just one of several CBGB's bands breaking through after paying their dues to that extraordinary downtown scene.
Television, Blondie, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Shirts. All these breakthrough bands were different. But the Shirts were different again. The Shirts were, and are, about Brooklyn, just as the Ramones were about Queens. They are about neighborhood, street-level family. They liked each other then and still do, and that social glue continues to be reflected in the quality of their music.
Most of them are related: of the five men, three are cousins. Like the borough itself, they go way back. Back in 1972, the two elder statesmen
(Robert Racioppo and Artie Lamonica) were concerned to carve out our own culture in Sunset Park, and were the Shirts' acorn. The social convergence started in 1972, a rented storefront at 53rd Street and Seventh housing ten people at $10 a month each. Ronnie joined the band July 18: "in what seemed to me a religious ceremony, I was inducted into the group in the back alley of the storefront."
Many of the groups who would define that particular CBGB's era were at the beginning of art school. Not the Shirts. Ronnie again: "As I remember, there was no other choice than to be a musician. The only options were the army, a city job, or to be in a band. Most of us guys missed being drafted by a pubic hair."
Next up was Annie Golden. She bumped into Artie at a down-home bar that had music downstairs and a jukebox half-way between. At that time, the band played cover tunes, particularly those of the Stones, and Artie remembers her singing "Rip This Joint" and then accepting his invitation to join. Johnny 'Zeeek' Criscione (percussion, backup vocals) was playing in a different band, a large affair featuring horns.
The bands joined, and the Shirts' life as a big band started: nine players, including two drummers. It took a while to get comfortable together. Shortly before meeting Zeeek, this band of gypsies had moved to live near Park Slope in a loft, a full floor of an ex-clock factory at 13th and Seventh ($250 per month, which meant 25 tenants). Aside from providing a far bigger canvas for Robert's painting on the wall than had the storefront (he is now a successful artist under the pseudonym Robert Box), the new space paid big musical dividends in 1974.
The Shirts simply spent obsessive time writing songs and rehearsing, without being too sure of where it would all lead. They inducted Johnny
'Doom' Piccolo (piano, guitar, backup vocals), who had been roadying for them while in an assortment of other bands. One night, they went out to an old railwayman's bar on the Bowery. Patti Smith sang "Piss Factory." "Scary: holy shit, we've found it. It's like a den of vampires.' 'We knew we would only do originals, and now we knew that we could. We had tried to carve out our own culture in Brooklyn, and there it was."
The CBGB's scene was underway. Lots more practice, and a friend phoning masquerading as their manager yielded an audition in early 1975. The club didn't have a sound system then: bring your own. Fortunately, the band had a big one; they maneuvered it past owner Hilly Kristal in the doorway. "If you play too loud, I'm pulling the plug. I'll shut the electricity off and walk out." This sounded good to the group. 'Wow, he's going to walk out of his own bar and leave us to it?" Hilly loved them, and their first gig was with the Planets. Their next was supporting Television. After a few more, they were top of the bill, with the Talking Heads opening for them. Hilly, who had been drawn in to be an enormously enthusiastic supporter, at this stage was more adviser than manager.
The Shirts played all over as well as CBGB's: Max's Kansas City, Trude Heller's Club 82 and on. In late 1976 they cut two demos with Genya Ravan. For years, she had been a star in her own right and was a club fixture who produced several of the acts (notably the Dead Boys) and contributed her own brand of social mayhem. Despite being recorded in Electric Lady (engineered by Harvey Goldberg who coincidentally would record their second album), there were no takers. Still, you only need one break. It happened in late summer 1977. EMI London was in town. Nick Mobbs, head of A&R, had come to see Deaf School but had heard about one of the supporting bands, as yet unsigned. He came, listened, chatted pleasantly with Hilly (by now the de facto manager of the Shirts), and left.
A couple of weeks later, the band was staying in Boston with friends Orchestra Luna, playing the Ratskeller. Bob remembers there were two phone calls that day. "The first was from Jim at the house. The electricity had been cut off. The second was from Hilly. Nick Mobbs had called and said that he must sign the Shirts." Nick did so in October. Thanks to politics, it was officially a joint signing with Capitol Records, EMI's elephantine US subsidiary, despite Capitol's having passed on the band. After some thought, Nick asked Mike Thorne if he would be interested in producing the first Shirts album. After a varied career to date, Thorne had landed in Nick's A&R department and produced five albums in 1977, some of them groundbreaking classics. The demos didn't impress him, but he admitted there was something special in there. He flew in from Los Angeles, breaking a vacation in late December. The band played a set way better than any demo, and the social side clicked immediately.
The Shirts' first album came out to wide critical acclaim across Europe, the classic single "Tell Me Your Plans" making the top five in the Netherlands and notable chart presences in many other countries. They toured successfully, notably supporting Peter Gabriel at his request, even converting cool London club audiences to wild enthusiasm through performances ending with handshakes from the stage. In the US, similar strong grass roots reaction was the norm. But Capitol Records' nose was still out of joint. Such politics steered the second album, Streetlight Shine, to Mediasound in New York. Capitol had exhibited a nominal interest, so London thought a home recording location would be better for the group and its visibility to the crew who could make it happen in the home country.
The pattern of recording followed that of the first album, except this time the band could take the subway to sessions while Thorne relocated to New York for two months. The album combined the earthy social consciousness of their early, crazy, formative years with their exposure to the new sonic possibilities discovered in their introduction to recording in the big league.
Streetlight Shine produced hits and plaudits all around Europe. Spain, Germany and Italy, in particular joined the fan club. In the Netherlands, "Laugh And Walk Away," duly hit the high charts. And the US - Nice reviews. But nothing to help pay the rent. The Shirts now had to deliver in the high stakes environment that big music biz was becoming. That didn't sit comfortably for them. They had opted out of the cool image scene at CBGB's, not physically but intellectually, and had pursued without compromise their early seventies muse which told them to 'carve out our own culture', in Brooklyn, and which had found its anchor comfortably in grungy downtown Manhattan.
They had been supported in corporate battles outside their comprehension, mostly by Nick Mobbs. In summer 1979, their champion, who had signed the Sex Pistols to EMI and had made significant impact with his progressive music moves over a decade with two major companies, resigned from EMI to form his own independent label. Enough was enough. The new head of A&R in London, Brian Shepherd, was a major protagonist for the band and their new album. Unfortunately, despite coming from his post as head of International A&R for Capitol in Los Angeles, he had been presented with a fait accompli. Capitol had seen the band were successful, wanted them for themselves, and would not continue the embarrassing joint deal into which Mobbs had shamed them. The Shirts duly signed exclusively to Capitol.
The band's third album, Inner Sleeve, wasn't fun for them to record and was plagued by musical mis-steps. It was released late in 1980 with less than 10 000 pressed and sank without trace. So much for Capitol's enthusiasm to sign them. The Shirts continued for two years, winding down to a four-piece.
Then they "went dormant," but might as well have called it a breakup. Individually, the band members mostly continued to scratch the musical itch, supporting themselves with a wide variety of day jobs. Sometimes they would play in each others' projects. The list of names in the late 1990s is testament to continued focused activity: Chemical Wedding, Idle Chatter, Jing, Project X, Yoko Gomez, Five Minute Box, Rome 56. Walter was Robert's project which brought in Kathy McCloskey (who had grown up half a block from the Shirts' storefront).
They played downtown clubs, often with Artie's Rome 56 project. Then, in 2001, Robert formed Thin-G, along with Kathy and Caren Messing (who along with Johnny Piccolo were active in the Tsunami Tsingers, an acappella group). The Shirts had been around, but only sporadically. They had regrouped for a one-off in the mid-nineties, a benefit for CBGB's after its always-precarious finances had slipped off the shelf and the IRS had padlocked the front doors for non-payment of tax.
In 1999, they played again to celebrate their 25th anniversary, on a bill that was a mix of Shirts past and future: the Tsunami Tsingers, Yoko Gomez, Walter, Lex Gray, the Shirts. All the eventual new Shirts family were onstage that night, albeit at different times. Things were converging fast in 2003. Mike Thorne, now retired from commercial record production and running his own online record label, called and asked if he could interview Artie and Robert to publish as an accompaniment on his website about producing the Shirts' first two albums. The talk was fast, since the pair had to run off to rehearsal of the new Shirts.
Annie Golden was invited, as were Caren and Kathy. Robert's idea was a return to the big band format that had denied them success and hindered signing to a label nearly 30 years before. Add the two new singers to the lineup with Annie and make a big sound. A band of eight, all of whom could sing. Great idea. You can easily guess what went wrong.
Annie Golden had carved a successful theater and movie career by being the Brooklyn babe: fast-talking and gum-chewing savvy. She had been an unforgettable Philadelphia cabbie in 12 Monkeys and had a steady range of roles on screen and TV, following up her debut in Milos Foreman's Hair. She arrived at rehearsal, but that proved to be the last connection. Caren and Kathy took over the female vocal division. A real family had come together, a band of seven. The first gig of the 21st Century reformation was May 31, 2003, a memorable Saturday night at CBGB's. Mike Thorne: "They were world-class.
All seven locked together as if they had been playing for years." None of them gave up their day job, but they kept at the regular Thursday night rehearsal. So, now they're back. Even with two new female voices up front, they perpetuate that unique, indefinable sound which they own, which first showed up on the Bowery over 30 years before. And, somehow, 30 years haven't dulled the energy. The fourth album is here, after the unplanned hiatus.
The new CD, Only The Dead Know Brooklyn (inspired by Thomas Wolfe's great short story title) converged on a common theme, inevitably like the new family, and is released June 2006. The family that is the Shirts endures and grows. It's making music in the same grounded, uncompromisingly Brooklyn way that has been their reference point for over 30 years. There's a short story in there, somewhere.