Friday, April 19, 2019

Favorite Artists, Part 5: About The Good Rats

This article will be a little different from the previous four entries in this series, as this is the only band on my Favorite Artists list (other than my wife's band The Slant) that I know (or knew) personally.

I first became familiar with The Good Rats due to the airplay they received in the '70s on WNEW-FM. I'm pretty sure the first song I heard of theirs was "Back to My Music". In short order, the station started playing a lot of stuff from the Tasty and Ratcity in Blue albums, including "Injun Joe", "Papa Poppa", "Songwriter" and the title track from Tasty, and "Advertisement in the Voice" and "Reason to Kill" from Ratcity in Blue. Shortly thereafter, when From Rats to Riches was released, and they started playing a bunch songs from that album too. In fact, a local club called Detroit started using "Taking It to Detroit" as the music for their commercials. (And I think the station even used one part of "Local Zero" as bumper music.)

I liked the band from the get-go. They rocked hard, they featured great vocal harmonies, and their lead singer, Peppi Marchello, had a powerful rock voice. Ironically, I bought Tasty on the same day I bought my first album from another of my favorite band's, Blondie's Plastic Letters. And I was back to my local record shop to buy Rats to Riches and Ratcity in Blue about a week later. Initially, I didn't even realize The Rats were a Long Island band. I just liked their sound.

At some point, in a previous post, I rode about attending frequent poker nights at my friend Mike's house, and how Mike's music collection helped me to expand my musical taste. One of the infrequent guests at these games was a fellow named John who I had also gone to high school with. At some point, I learned that John had spent a year or so as a roadie for The Rats. Although I seldom saw John, Mike was in frequent touch with him, so I sometimes heard stories from Mike about John's travels with The Rats. This only interested me in them more.

Although I didn't go to a lot of live shows in those days, I made a special trek out to Roslyn to see them at My Father's Place. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but I was living in Flushing at the time, and I didn't have a car. I don't remember if I took a bus or the Long Island Railroad out there, but it was worth it. It was one of the best, and most entertaining, shows I ever saw.

Before long, I started to traveling to a large Queens Village club called Beggar's Opera to see them. They would headline the club on a Saturday night, and it was always packed. I had to take the Q-27 bus to get there (and back), about a 45 minute ride, but again, it was worth the trip. I remember taking a date there once, a girl I worked with. She was pleasant about it, but it was obvious they weren't her thing.

Eventually, I realized that although there were always some women at The Good Rats' shows (as evidenced by the line of "Ratettes" that Peppi would invite up onto the stage whenever they played the song "Yellow Flower"), The Rats were one of those bands that mainly appealed to working class guys. There were several reasons for this. For one, and I say this with love, they were kind of an ugly guys' band. Peppi and his brother Mickey were all hair and beards, and there wasn't really anyone in the band with the kind of matinee idol looks that made the ladies go weak in the knees.

More importantly, though, their songs were really all built to appeal to guys. Many of Peppi's favorite themes were about trying to pick up women and failing miserably. Songs like "Coo Coo Coo Blues" and "Reason to Kill" were about pick-up attempts that went horribly wrong, and "Fireball Express" was about a guy who got caught cheating by his wife, and all he can think to do is take a train as far away as possible.

Other male-centric songs included "Injun' Joe", a song sung from the viewpoint of the Tom Sawyer villain, "Victory in Space", about an interstellar prostitution ring, "Boardwalk Slasher", about a surprisingly bashful serial killer, and "Local Zero", about how your bosses and your union leaders work together to screw you over.

The Rats always seemed to be on the cusp of making it big. When Birth Comes to Us All came out in 1979, I remember thinking this was the album that was going to put them over the top. Instead, as far as national fame was concerned, it was their last gasp. I'm not sure why. It's an excellent album, but in some ways, it's kind of quirky. Except for "Cherry River", which is a hard rocking classic, many of the songs are quieter and subtler, and three of them took a chronological step backups by being centered around school-age themes (even though "School Days" became one of their better known songs.)

The next time I saw the Rats after the release of Birth, there had been some personnel changes. The Marchello brothers were still there, and Joe Franco was still drumming. But John "The Big Cat" Gatto and Lenny Kotke were gone on guitar and bass, replaced by Bruce Kulick (who would later join KISS, and later still Grand Funk Railroad) and Schuyler Dale. It was good, but it wasn't the same. They released one album with this lineup, 1981's Great American Music, and after that, they disappeared.

I continued to play my Good Rats albums over the years, but I never thought I'd hear from them again. Then, in the late nineties, I somehow learned that Peppi was now playing local shows under The Good Rats moniker with his sons, Gene and Stefan. Denise bought tickets for us to see them on a show they did on a boat, which took a night cruise around Manhattan. It was amazing to hear them again, even if it wasn't the original lineup. It clearly wasn't Denise's thing, but it was certainly mine.

After that, although the traveling could be difficult (I was still living in Queens without a car), I started going out to see them. One night, I caught them at some club in Nassau County. At this point, Peppi had seen me at several of their shows, and we'd sometimes talk before or after the band's set. On this particular night, I was waiting outside after the show for a cab to take me back to the LIRR. Peppi came out to take down his "GOOD RATS" banner, saw me waiting, and asked what I was doing. When I told him, he said matter-of-factly, "You're out of your fucking mind," and followed it up by asking if I wanted a ride home. Hell yeah I did!

So once the band was loaded out, Peppi drove me back to Flushing (even though I later learned he lived on the north shore of Suffolk County.) He played me songs from the band's upcoming Tasty Seconds album, which for a fan like myself, was quite a treat.

Eventually, I moved to Suffolk County myself, at which point I finally got a car. Over the next decade, I caught the band frequently at clubs both small and large all over Long Island. I also attended several of the reunion shows of the Good Rats' classic lineup. As I started becoming more involved in the local music scene, and began writing for various local music papers, I covered what was going on with the Rats regularly. I also played them fairly often on my radio show on WUSB, and played the video for their "World Party Anthem" on the LIMC-TV show. Peppi usually greeted me over the mic whenever I came to a show, which of course, I was honored by.

A decade or so ago, however, when my wife and I adopted our children, I no longer had the freedom to go out to the clubs at night, and several years went by without my being able to see the band. Then, in July of 2013, I got the tragic word that Peppi had died unexpectedly of a heart attack while recovering from a heart operation he'd had a few weeks before. He died much too young, at 68 years old. I went to the wake, and to the funeral mass.

Since Peppi's death, his son Stefan has kept the band going in some form, although these days, they don't play out very often. The Rats have also released two albums since Peppi's passing, which contain a bunch of Peppi's posthumous material, plus (in the case of the second album, Making Rock and Roll Great Again) some of Stefan's original material.

So what can I tell you about The Good Rats? Well for starters, I say with complete certainty that to me, they're the most underrated band in rock history. Not to their fans, of course -- the band's core fans always knew how great they were. But based on their talent, and the quality of their music and their songwriting, they should have been much larger than were. I heard rumors that once upon a time, the Rats had pissed off the wrong record company executive, and had been effectively blacklisted. I don't know if it's true or not, but I could certainly believe it. Otherwise, it's hard for me to understand why this band never made it to the upper echelons.

I once told Peppi that on certain days, I thought that Tasty might just be the greatest rock album ever recorded. Not every day, by any means. Wish You Were Here, Who's Next, etc. certainly each make their own case. But Tasty is really a perfect album, and From Rats to Riches, Ratcity in Blue and Birth Comes to Us All aren't so far behind. Even in their later period, when it was long since clear that The Good Rats had missed their chance at the brass ring, while the LPs they released weren't completely consistent, there were spots of blinding brilliance. Songs like "Cover of Night", "Ashes to Ashes", "The Springer Singalong" and "World Party Anthem" are classic songs, even if no one knows about them but The Rats' core fanbase.

I've always felt that being a Good Rats fan living on Long Island in the mid-to-late seventies gave me some kind of insight into what it must have been like to be a Who fan living in London in the early sixties, before the rest of the world knew how great they were. For me, Peppi Marchello will always be in the upper pantheon of rock songwriters, along with the giants like Pete Townshend, Ian Anderson and David Gilmour. And one of his favorite things to write about was the music business itself. "Songwriter" is perhaps my favorite Rats song, wherein Peppi pays homage to the great George Gershwin, and confesses "I must admit sometimes I think I'm you". Another his classics, "Dear Sir", talks about how difficult it is to keep your artistic integrity in the music business ("Well I swear I'd rather clean the cages in the zoo/Than to change my songs for you.") But when I think of Peppi Marchello these days, I think about the joy he took in getting to live a life devoted to music and to rock and roll. And wherever he is now, I hope he's living an existence like the one he wrote about in the song "Rock and Roll Point of View": "Sometimes I pay my bills/Sometimes I don't/Sometimes it's steak, sometimes it's Raisin Bran/But when I get to take this on the road/You're gonna see a happy man."

Rest in peace, my friend. And wherever you are, rock on.