“And I been high and I been low, and I don’t know where to go, birth, school, work, death…” -“Birth, School, Work, Death,” The Godfathers
The late 80s have always been a bit of a musical void for me. In 1987, much to family’s joy, I graduated from college and took employment with a multi-national corporation. When I interviewed with them in May, they agreed to hire me but they didn’t need me until September 1st… A summer off, perfect. Oh, and then they added rather quickly, you’ll be stationed in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. They told me if I wanted to go down to “check it out,” they’d pay for me to drive down and scout around. All I heard was “you’re hired” and “summer off.” I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was taking a job at one of the most remote outposts this company had. It was a disaster.
In 1301 Dante Alighieri, mostly just known, like Prince, by his first name, was exiled from his beloved Florence, Italy. Dante was never to set foot in his home town again. Florence’s politics and his exile from there is one of the major themes in his beautiful, epic poem The Divine Comedy. Now, I’m not Dante and Kansas City is no Florence but I felt as badly about living in Fort Smith, which I unaffectionately called Fort Hell, as Dante did about living in Verona. Hell, Fort Smith wasn’t even Verona… I consider those years in Arkansas to be my years in exile. It was a grueling, awful three years.
One of the worst things about that town was that they had no rock and roll radio station. They had one, maybe two (if memory serves me) pop stations. MTV still played a few music videos but the ascendence of pop music had taken over their programming as well. So my memories of that era, 1987 to 1990 are a bit tilted toward pop. Madonna, Michael Jackson (especially Michael Jackson) and gads, Paula Abdul were the only kind of music I heard on the radio. Hip Hop was starting to conquer the world but I’ve just never developed a taste for that music outside of Jay-Z or Dr Dre who wouldn’t come along until years later. I have this vague memory that there were also a lot of hair bands around – Bon Jovi’s New Jersey or Poison’s Open Up and Say Ahh… seemed to get a lot of airplay. I also have a vague memory of synthesized, mopey alternative rock like say, Morrissey or the Pet Shop Boys. I remember a lot of drum machines. Needless to say, these memories make me feel like that was a really shitty time for music. I spent a lot of time making cassettes from my vinyl to play in the car so I wouldn’t be caught having to listen to the local radio. Yes, the dreaded “mix-tapes” got me through the barren years.
Although, in retrospect, I’m not sure that’s really a fair assessment of that era, that it was all awful. I’m the first to admit the Ft Smith pop-music lens has distorted my view of things. Metallica came out with …And Justice For All in 1988, so there was good metal coming out. U2’s underrated Rattle And Hum came out that year as well. Many of the bands who would later find success in the 90s were putting out their early records in that time frame, like say Jane’s Addiction. And yet all I can seem to think about is Steve Winwood’s creative nadir Roll With It. In my defense, living out in the middle of nowhere, I just never heard the good stuff that was coming out. Even though I usually spent every weekend away from Arkansas, I still never kept current (in 1988, of 52 potential weekends I only spent 2 in Ft Smith, and 1 of those weekends I had my wisdom teeth out).
My muse, the Rock Chick, strolled into the B&V labs a couple of weeks ago and said, “I bought a new album, you’ll probably remember it…” The next thing I know, this fabulous punk anthem, “Birth, School, Work, Death” is blasting over the speakers. I wanted to throw a chair, in a good way! I was dumbfounded. I’d never heard this song. When it was over, I had to ask, “Honey, who was that and when did you get into punk music?” I’ve tried to turn her on to the Sex Pistols a few times to no avail… Lo and behold, it was a band I’d never heard of, The Godfathers. And to my greater astonishment, the album Birth, School, Work, Death had come out in 1988, over a decade after the zenith of punk rock. When I heard the album came out during my exile years, it all began to make sense to me… why I knew nothing about these guys. The more I poked around, the more I realized, I’m not sure anybody knew who these guys were.
The Godfathers were formed in London in 1985 by brothers Peter Coyne (vocals) and Chris Coyne (bass). Joining them were Mike Gibson and Kris Dollimore on guitars and George Mazur on drums. Apparently, to go with the “mobster” name, the band would dress like they were members of Al Capone’s Chicago crime gang on stage. I’ve seen the pics, they were all slicked back hair, double-breasted suits and ties. That must have been something to see on stage… That look, along with the sound of this music, must have been slightly out of place out in the real world in 1988. (How would I know, I was exiled to Arkansas).
Birth, School, Work, Death is just a kick ass album full of crunching guitars, urgent drumming and desperate singing. The lyrics are snarling and borderline nihilistic. The title track is my new anthem when I think about how my career has gone but thats another story. “If I Only Had Time,” “Obsession,” “Tell Me Why” are all great, punky, riff-y rock songs. While the songs have a punk vibe and some great guitar playing they also have big, sing-along choruses (which, yes I know, is not very punk) and hooks galore. I find myself humming these tracks to myself. I love the way “Tell Me Why” ends – the lead singer says, “I told her I love her more than myself… and that’s saying something…” followed by a ferocious guitar solo. What a great track. “Cause I Said So” captures the angry young man vibe in a quintessential manner. It’s one of the harder, rockier tracks here.
“When I Coming Down” is a harrowing, almost psychedelic song about a drug trip gone terribly wrong. When the singer breaks into a spoken word passage near the end, I almost want to call for an ambulance. It reminds me of a story I heard about some friends of mine in college who did shrooms for Thanksgiving. One of them said he just curled up in a ball, staring at his digital clock hoping the numbers would turn and it would all be over. Another just wandered around all night saying, “Phyllis knows…” Phyllis was the elderly landlady who lived in the basement flat. This song could be the soundtrack to that evening. Thank God I stick to dark, murky fluids. “The Strangest Boy” is another song that’s guitar fueled, with a psychedelic vibe, although I might be getting that feeling from the bizarre, high pitched backing vocals. It’s just another sonically nuanced track that shows these guys could do more than three-chords and a chorus.
The only hint I get this music was from the 80s is the keyboards on the mid-tempo “It’s So Hard.” It gives the track a slightly New Wave vibe. Don’t get me wrong, there are still guitars, more understated here, and it’s still a great song. The lone tune I would call a ballad also boats a New Wave feel, “Just Like You” which is a brilliant love song. “I want to spend the day with a girl who looks just like you…” I’m just stunned this album wasn’t an enormous seller back in the 80s. These guys show they can do almost anything… On “STB” they sound like the Stones doing Chuck Berry’s guitar sound… they even work in the line (from the Stones “Star Star”) “make you scream all night.” The guitar work on “STB” sounds like something Keith and Ronnie would have done on Some Girls.
I did listen to their second album, 1989’s More Songs About Love And Hate and while it was good, it was a complete stylistic left-turn. Gone was the punk attitude and the crunching guitars. It’s not a bad album but it sort of sounds like a sophomore-slump. I just like the loud squall of the first record better. On the third album, 1991’s Unreal World they return to the sound of the debut album and I thought it was also worth a listen. After that third album, they went through a number of line up changes, break ups and reunions. I think they’re still out there touring… I hope I get a chance to see these guys. I just want to stand on a bar stool and yell, “Birth, school, work, death!” at the top of my lungs while I’m spilling beer all over myself!
I strongly recommend all you rock and rollers out there to check this one out!! It’s worth doing the musical spelunking! Cheers!