Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review of The Good Rats' "From Rats to Riches"

This is a review of the classic Good Rats album From Rats to Riches. I posted it last night on the Sputnik Music site.

Whether or not it's their personal favorite among Good Rats albums, most Rats fans would acknowledge that Tasty is the band's masterpiece. It's the album that has garnered the most airplay over the years, and to the extent that the Rats are remembered on classic rock radio, the song "Tasty" is the one they're most remembered for. Ask what's the band's second-best effort, however, and you're likely to find that opinions are split. Many would choose Ratcity in Blue, the Rats' 1976 follow up effort to their tour de force. It has much to recommend it, as songs like "Advertisement in the Voice", "Reason to Kill" and "Boardwalk Slasher" all received some FM radio airplay back in the day. For my part, though, I'd have to go with From Rats to Riches.

From Rats to Riches was released in 1978, at the height of the band's popularity nationwide. Building on the FM radio acclaim the Good Rats had already achieved with Tasty and Ratcity, it came at a point when they were playing the largest rooms and opening (or sometimes headlining) for bands like Aerosmith, Rush, Journey and Meat Loaf. It's probably the album that has the highest number of hard-rocking songs on it, containing numbers like "Taking It to Detroit", "Mr. Mechanic", "Let Me", "Don't Hate the Ones Who Bring You Rock & Roll" and "Local Zero". In short, Rats to Riches catches the Rats at their pinnacle, just when it seemed that lasting fame and fortune was within their grasp.

While bands like Rush wrote epic songs about future dystopian societies and civil wars among the trees, the Rats typically focused on topics a little less grand. Singer/songwriter Peppi Marchello often targeted his lyrics around two central themes: music and the music industry, and trying (and usually failing) to pick up women.

While Tasty featured a pair of songs focused on this first theme ("Back to My Music" and "The Songwriter"), Rats to Riches adds three of its own. The first is "Taking It to Detroit", the song that opens the album. Building slowly with heavy guitar riffs, it's a simple song about following the paths of acts like KISS and Bob Seger to fame and fortune in the Motor City. The song became so popular in its native Long Island that it was used for bumper music and radio commercials for years after this album's release. In contrast, "Dear Sir" is more of a ballad. This song takes the form of a musical letter to a record industry executive, as Marchello struggles to find the balance between craving success and not selling out. "I am nothing but some red ink of black," he admits. "I'm demotion or a second Cadillac." On a lighter note, we also have "Don't Hate the Ones Who Bring You Rock & Roll", which finds Marchello pleading with that angry drunk in the bar who's jealous of the glamorous rock lifestyle, "Hate your mommies, hate your daddies/Hate the lousy little brats who call you fatty," but please, don't hate your friendly neighborhood rock band.

As for that second theme area, The Good Rats were always a working man's band. While guys like Mick Jagger might have been able to just walk into a room and have the ladies under his thumb, Marchello wrote songs for the guy who had to screw up his courage just to approach a woman, and the guy who nine times out of ten walked away from the encounter empty and humiliated. There are no less than five songs on the album that cover this topic. "Let Me" is a simple seduction song that features one of guitarist John Gatto's strongest solos. "Coo Coo Coo Blues", in contrast, sounds a little like the music that closes Saturday Night Live every week, with a humorous story about a pickup attempt that goes horribly wrong when the lady in question's boyfriend shows up. "Could Be Tonight" is a lighthearted number about staying hopeful you're going to find that special someone, "Even if you haven't made a point all night/And your natural beauty's fading in the morning light". "Just Found Me a Lady" is a happy little ditty written about that oh-so-rare successful hookup. Finally, "Mr. Mechanic" is arguably the strongest of the lot. In this fast-rocking number, the singer compares his body to an old junker car with a busted heater and bald tires. Musically, the song sounds a little like Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir", as played by a band on amphetamines. Clearly, the Rats had some fun with this one.

There are a couple of other highlights on From Rats to Riches that don't fall into these two theme areas. The first, "Victory in Space" features Marchello's warped sense of humor, as he recruits for an interstellar prostitution ring. "Ladies of the universe," he promises, "Ladies of the world/We'll treat you all like goddesses, and when you get back home/You'll have your memories of victory in space." It's a song meant to bring a smile to Captain Kirk's face.

The climax of the album is it's powerful closing song, "Local Zero." On this one, the Rats show their blue collar roots, as they take on the collusion between the companies and the unions who are supposed to be sticking up for the little guy. "If we sit back and let them ride," Marchello wails, "Then we'll be dead tomorrow/'Cause the longer we let 'em slide/Means the deeper we borrow." The gist of his message is this: "Up the local unions/Up the bosses too/Scratching each other's backs and laughing/At you." Of course, this is the RIAA-approved clean version. In his live shows, he didn't sing "Up".

From Rats to Riches cemented the Good Rats reputation as a powerful hard rock band. It also sealed their identity as a middle class band for a mostly male audience that knows that the system and everything else is rigged against them, but still keep their sense of humor, never give up, and take delight in the little victories, even if they're few and far between. The band did put out some worthwhile songs and albums after this, but they were never again as close to making it to the top of the mountain as they were here.

Rating: 4/5 stars