Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review of The Good Rats' "Tasty"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website this morning:

It's hard to believe today, but in the 1970s, Long Island had a vibrant original music scene. The legal drinking age was 18. The vehicle seizure laws for DWI arrests were decades away. MADD wasn't yet mad. SADD wasn't yet sad. Consequently, on a suburban island where everybody drives everywhere, there was a vibrant club scene for live music, with large clubs that would pack them in on the weekend, and sometimes even during the week. Out of this scene came bands like Twisted Sister and Zebra. And the kings of pack, standing a step above them all were The Good Rats.

For awhile, it seemed like The Rats were going to break it big nationally. The played venues like Madison Square Garden, The Nassau Coliseum, The Philadelphia Spectrum and even The Hammersmith Odeon in England, playing on the same bill and sometimes headlining for bands like Rush, Journey, Kiss, Meatloaf, Aerosmith and Ozzy Osborne, and all the while receiving FM airplay across the country.

Why they didn't make to the same heights as these other bands is unclear. Some have suggested that at some point, they ticked off the wrong record executives and got blackballed for it. Regardless, if you listen to the Good Rats' music, you hear a hard rock band that elegantly mixed in elements of jazz and blues, a band with strong musical fundamentals and a powerful vocalist who was also a sophisticated songwriter. And as most Rats fans will tell you, Tasty is the band's masterpiece.

Weighing in at 10 songs, the album is a lean, mean masterpiece. It showcases the band's best-known song, the quirky title number, which still gets a little airplay today on so-called classic rock stations, plus a number of other first-rate tracks.

"Tasty" is an atypical number for the Rats. It starts out quietly, as lead singer Peppi Marchello sings about how various ex-band members were replaced, such as the "flying guitar man" who was "going nowhere fast", or the "man named Crazy Ott" who "overplayed his bass a lot", each fired from the band because they couldn't play "tasty". As the song progresses, the tempo picks up as each of the current band members gets to show off their chops. It's kind of a novelty number, but a clever one. Although it's probably their most famous song, it's not the best one on the album.

There are at least 3 songs on Tasty that I'd rate as "excellent". The first is "Injun Joe", based on the Mark Twain character. This is a mid-tempo song that features a driving Native American drumbeat, some of Marchello's angriest lyrics (as the title character rails against society with lines like "I'm gonna take their black robes/I'm gonna wipe my waste on them,") and an excellent instrumental bridge that allows guitarist John "The Cat" Gatto and the rest of the band to shine.

Also top-notch is "Papa Poppa", a powerful rock number that laments the personal frailty of the younger generation who get drawn into things like religious cults because they "worship Mother Dear," even as they cry out for rescue: "Papa Poppa, where have you gone? ... Disciplinarian, where have you gone?" 

Perhaps the best of all is Marchello's most autobiographical song, "The Songwriter". This song closes the album, and by the end of Marchello's career, it was also the song The Rats used to close almost all of their live shows. "The songwriter can make you laugh or cry," he sings. "He's pumping gas at night just to survive/And all he asks of you is to sing his songs/and put his name in lights where it belongs."

All of the other songs on Tasty are at least worthwhile. The basic sound is hard rock, but with some sophisticated embellishments, and a couple of unconventional numbers thrown in for good measure (besides the album's title track, there's a tongue-in-cheek song called "Fred Upstairs and Ginger Snappers" which sounds like a number from a 1930s dance film). Marchello's vocals are somewhere between Geddy Lee and Meatloaf, the songs feature strong two- and three-part harmonies throughout, and while Gatto's guitar playing stands out, the rest of the band (Mickey Marchello on rhythm guitar and vocals, Lenny Kotke on the bass and Joe Franco on drums) are no slouches either.

Peppi Marchello and The Good Rats may not have ultimately seen their name "in lights", but they were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2008. Tasty was one of the reasons why. Hopefully some new listeners will give it a listen, and partake in some of the pleasure it's given Rats fans over the years.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Sneak peek: My next Sputnik review, hopefully in a week or so, will be of Memories of Love by Future Bible Heroes.