Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review of The Good Rats' "Birth Comes to Us All"

I posted this review last night on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: We never saw the end coming.

I always thought that being a Good Rats fan living on Long Island in the mid-to-late '70s must have been a little like being a Who fan living in London in the early '60s. They were both working-class bands with (mostly male) working-class fans, on the way up, and seemingly destined for glory. Tasty (1974), Ratcity in Blue (1976), From Rats to Riches (1978) -- each new Rats release garnered plenty of FM radio airplay (especially in New York), as the Rats shared the stage with (and often headlined over) a host of '70s bands, many of whom later went on to become rock legends. To a Rats fan, at first, Birth Comes to Us All (1979) just seemed like the Rats' next step on the way to world domination. Then, somewhere, it all went wrong.

It's not that Birth Comes to Us All is a bad album. Far from it. I know that many Good Rats fans would disagree with me, but in some ways, I actually like Birth better than Ratcity in Blue. But although it did receive some airplay, it seemed like it got a lot less than the previous three albums. The following year, the Rats released a double live album, Live at Last, that was still pretty popular on the radio. Unfortunately, that was the last gasp. In 1981, guitarist John Gatto and bass player Lenny Kotke left the band. In 1981, the revamped Good Rats released Great American Music to little acclaim and even less publicity (I never even knew they'd released a new album until several years later). They plugged away for a few years, then disbanded in 1983.

So what was the problem with Birth Comes to Us All? Why was it less popular than the previous three albums, and why did it start a downward slide in the band's fortunes? I believe there are several reasons.

For starters, Birth Comes to Us All feels like a less organized album than the others. It's ironic, because actually, it's probably the most thematically unified album The Good Rats ever released -- most of the songs are somehow tied to the idea of the cycle of life. It feels a little disordered, though, mostly to do with the makeup of the songs. While the Rats were always known as a hard-rocking band, the only real songs of that type on Birth are "Cherry River" and "Gino". Most of the others are either slower and quieter, like "You're Still Doing It" and "Birth Comes to Us All", poppier like "School Days", or quirky character-study type songs like "Man on a Fish" and "Ordinary Man". With so few hard rock numbers, the album didn't feel well paced.

The other thing that I think had a big impact on the album's fortune, though, was the choice of which songs received airplay. "School Days" got a decent amount, and in the ensuing years since Birth's release, it probably became the Good Rats song to receive the most radio play other than "Tasty". "Cherry River" got a little airplay also. When the album was first released, however, the song that was pushed the hardest by the radio stations I listened to was "You're Still Doing It". I don't know whose choice this was -- the band's, the label's (and I think the album was actually released by Uncle Rat Music, so the band was the label) or the radio stations', but regardless, I think this was a huge mistake.

When the album was first released (on vinyl, of course, since it was 1979), "You're Still Doing It" was the first song on Side 1, the song that led off the album. It's not a bad song, and in fact, it has one of lead singer/songwriter Peppi Marchello's best vocals. But it's achingly slow for a single, and more to the point, it's a love song. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for the average band, but the fact is, Marchello was never known for his love songs. He wrote lust songs, mostly about being the average Joe with blue balls who has to work up all of his courage just to make a play for a woman, and who usually winds up with egg on his face, and that was something his blue collar fan base could relate to. But a love song? Maybe if "You're Still Doing It" was a love song about that electric feeling teens and twenty-somethings get when they start a brand new love relationship, it would have opened the Rats up to a wider fan base, even if it didn't score big with their usual fans. In 1979, though, Marchello was a married man with four young children, and he wrote about what he knew. So he wrote a love song to his wife about a mature relationship. "You're still doing it," he sang. I go away on the road, and I play music in front of a bunch of people, and it's great, but in the end, I just look forward to coming home to you. It's a beautiful sentiment, but it made for a lousy single -- it didn't appeal to young record buyers, and his usual audience just didn't relate to it. To me, this was the biggest reason Birth Comes to Us All never took off the way its predecessors did. "You're Still Doing It" was just the wrong song to push. And it's worth noting that a few years later when the album was released on CD, the order of the songs was rearranged so that "School Days" is now the first song, while "You're Still Doing It" was placed seventh.

Nevertheless, Birth Comes to Us All still has a lot to recommend it. "School Days" is a humorous look at ... well, school days, with amusing observations like "Kindergarten playing in some sand box/Next five years they slap your hands a lot" and "I'd better stick my hand up/Before the lady calls on me". It's a nostalgic look back at what Marchello seemed to remember as mostly happy times.

As previously mentioned, the two rockiest numbers are "Cherry River" and "Gino". "Cherry River" follows Marchello through an exhausting hike deep into the woods. He stops at a creek for a drink of water, and suddenly this wild woman appears "in a flash" and treats him to the sexual encounter of his life. Did it really happen? Was there something psychotropic in the water? Was it sunstroke? We never find out, as our hero spends the rest of his life futilely trying to find that place again. Real or fantasy, though, it made for a powerful rock song. "Gino", on the other hand, is one of those songs that never made an impression on me until I saw it performed live. This might have been because of the contrast of hearing an adult Gene Marchello singing the Gino part in a powerful rock voice when the revamped Good Rats performed the song in the '90s, as opposed to listening to little 10-year-old Gene Marchello squeaking "No Daddy, it's not for me" on the record. Now when I listen to the recorded version of this song about a hitman father trying to teach his son about the ways of the world ... "You got to step on them before they step on you, my boy!" ... it comes alive for me in an entirely different way.

"Man on a Fish" is the story of an old man whose world has left him behind. "Like the old movie houses that haven't been sold/I was filled with a warmness that's turned into cold". This has one of my favorite verses that Marchello ever wrote, as the crusty main character brags to his young interviewer, "Look at my face boy -- study it close/Look at my eyes and notice my nose/Are you thinking that I must have been quite a man?/Well it's more than you think, I can still break your hand/If it's pity you're giving -- then I'll have me none/If it's warmth you're expecting -- go out in the sun!" He sounds sort of like Popeye's Pappy. "Ordinary Man", meanwhile, is another character study of a man who doesn't seem to have much of a home life, so he gets his feeling of power and importance from being a citizen patrol officer. "Oh yes!" Marchello croons, "He's volunteered now for six tours a week/Guarding the stores while the merchants all sleep/Isn't he something?" The percussion for this one is very military, and the music starts quietly but builds in volume until it's just a little out of control, much like our protagonist.

The closing song on Birth Comes to Us All is the title track, and it's the gem that ties everything together. Starting with a simple pair of slow bass notes that repeat themselves, this song follows the cycle of life in plain but poignant words, through the various stages that human beings all share ... birth, growth, names, ways (habits), hurt and love. Several of Marchello's songs over the years were about the relationship between fathers and sons, and this song contains one of his most regretful observations: "Isn't it a shame/You never took the time to thank the real Santa Claus/And when you found it out/Too old to kiss his mouth." I'd be lying if I didn't admit that this verse has brought a tear to my eye on a few occasions.

Birth Comes to Us All isn't a perfect rock LP. It's nowhere near as consistent as Tasty, and it doesn't have as many classic rock anthems as From Rats to Riches. If you take it for what it is, though, there are enough treats here to make it more than worthwhile. It was certainly strong enough that when it was released, we Good Rats fans never guessed it would be the Rats' last real chance at making it to Olympus with rock gods like Rush, Ozzy or The Who. The album -- and the band -- deserved a better fate. If you believe in rebirth, though, maybe somehow, someday, they'll get it. And as Marchello sings in character as the man on the fish, "And I'll throw out my arm as I reach for the ring/Life's a merry-go-round -- I'll repeat everything!"

Rating: 3/5 stars