i94bar.com - Interview with John Felice of the Real Kids
John Felice is one of rock’n’roll’s unsung heroes. A founding member of the Modern Lovers at the age of 15, he quit the band before the sessions that resulted in their classic album, and was subsequently written out of the history of one of the most influential bands of the ‘70s.
The band he left to form, the Kids, made some local waves but ultimately went nowhere, pretty much coming to an end when he went off to New York to audition for the Heartbreakers - a job he turned down.
Back in Boston, he formed the Real Kids, and finally wrote his own chapter in rock’n’roll history with an album for Marty Thau’sRed Star label that goes down as one of the greatest ever – a perfect blend of Eddie Cochran, the early Stones and the Velvet Underground, with killer tunes, energy and feel, and some of the most honest and affecting lyrics ever put to music.
Of course the Real Kids went nowhere, but a solid fanbase in France led to a new incarnation appearing in the early ‘80s. By the late ‘90s, under the patronage of #1 fan Miriam Linna and Billy Miller at Norton Records, the band’s reputation had grown enough to demand another reunion, this time of the Red Star-era line-up. Of course all the while Felice had had other bands – the Taxi boys, the Primevals, John Felice & The Lowdowns and the Devotion, and all had basically made Real Kids music, but without the name it seemed to not connect with anyone but the diehard fans.
Since the ‘90s reformation the band has been an off-and-on concern – the other three original members Billy Borgioli , Allen ‘Alpo’ Paulino and Howie Ferguson left one by one (and Alpo sadly passed away.) Felice and guitarist Billy Cole, of the early ‘80s band, have persisted as best they can, which given, Felice’s not-great health, has obviously been pretty difficult..
Up until now, the only new Felice music we’ve had since the late 80s really was a Devotions album, recorded in the early 90s but left unfinished until a few years back when it came out, effectively as a local Boston release. It was a killer record, full of great ‘new’ Felice originals. (Get it here.)
And now we have, finally, a new Real Kids record. "Shake... Outta Control". It’s a cracker. Age has wearied Felice a bit, but it rarely detracts from what was intended as, and what sounds like, a true follow up to the band’s Red Star debut. It’s simple and rocking stuff. Most of the tunes do in fact date from the immediate post-first album period, and live versions – some pretty primitively recorded – previously appeared on Norton’s revelatory "Grown Up Wrong" collection in the mid-'90s. This album doesn’t replace that collection, but it’s great to hear this stuff given a full-bodied studio treatment.
Producer and Ace of Hearts label boss Rick Harte ( a major figure on the Boston Rock scene from the late ‘70s and beyond) nails the band’s sound (the raunchy twang of Felice’s guitar sounds is instantly recognisable) and adds some neat touches, including harmonica and occasional mandolin, that give it an honest and rootsy vibe.
The album features an astoundingly faithful cover of longtime Felice fave "She’s Got Everything" by the Kinks (which sounds like a fun exercise in seeing if they could replicate the sound of the great original recording, which they managed to do), and, most significantly a drop-dead stunning version of the early Modern Lovers Jonathan Richman tune "Fly Into The Mystery" (which Felice took a loan of when he left the Modern Lovers – a mid-70s live version by the Kids appeared some years back). It might not have the tearaway energy of the band’s first album, but it’s got everything else – if you like the Real Kids you need to hear this record, regardless what you think of reformations.
Fans of Australian rock’n’roll should note too that John Felice’s material has been covered by many great Aussie bands over the years – The Eastern Dark did a wicked "Down To You", the Trilobites did something off the first album (was it "Taxi Boys" or ‘She’s alright’? anyone?). Dom Mariani named the Some Loves after John’s "Some Love Like Yours’" In the ‘90s, the Freeloaders did a ripping "Who Needs Ya", and Perth label Spinning Top put out a Real Kids tribute album that featured a few locals, including the Finkers and a great "Bad to Worse" by The Hunchbacks. More recently, Johnny Casino cut a great "Who Needs Ya" on one of his live albums, and Australia’s best rock band of the moment, Hoss, have been cranking out a killer "Hit You Hard" (and sometimes "Bad To Worse" as well) for years now.
I first met/spoke to John in the mid-90s for a big piece that ran over a couple of issues of Ugly Things back then. With the new album bowling me over, I thought it time I took the opportunity to catch up by the man again via email. Thanks to Rick Harte for putting me back in touch with John. Check out the Ace of Hearts site, where you can of course buy the album, here.
John, congrats on a great new album. What was the thinking behind revisiting what is a set of mostly old songs never recorded in the studio before, and do you have new songs also ready to record?
Thank you, David. And "hello" to you after all these years. As far as the thinking behind this record, well it's pretty much as you have stated, these are songs that were up to now only heard on theNorton Records " Grown Up Wrong" LP. All except the two numbers, "That Girl Ain't Right" and "Tell Me (What You Want Me To Do)" which are new songs.
When we were signed with Red Star Records, it was for two albums. The songs on this current release were all songs that were intended for that second album. The album that never got made due to our leaving Red Star rather suddenly.
In past when I interviewed you said then you'd never use the Real Kids name again- what changed?
Well, you know, things change. The only thing I can think of is that I would never use the name unless I had at least one of my original mates in the line-up with me.
I thought the Devotions album was great. Shame no one ever heard it. Was a fantastic set of songs. How do you feel about stuff like that just getting lost? No plans to re-record that stuff under the Real Kids name? Can you talk about about the devotions as a band and what you achieved - and what working with Steve Wynn was like?
I can only say that it breaks my heart a little bit that those songs seem to be destined to exist in obscurity forever. I am glad that you like it though. Nobody believes me when I say that the Lowdowns record was the work I am most proud of. And when I listen to the Devotions record I get a little bit of that same feeling. That record WAS/IS a punk rock record. The songs and the delivery were meant to have that kind of energy, and big guitar sound.
We worked hard to get all that material tight. Recorded the whole thing live in the studio in one week-end. Steve Wynn was there. The record was mixed at the same studio we just made "Shake...Outta Control" at, by Chris Brokaw. Love that record. Billy is on me to record some of that material again. You see, it started out as being for the Real Kids, but we weren't together enough to make it happen at the time. Who knows, some of it may show up on a future Real Kids record.
Onto the new album....Rick Harte gets a great honest and full bodied sound in the studio, and I Iike the added instrumentation, like the keyboards, harmonica and mandolin. Reminds me of some of the touches that Andy paley brought to Outta Place. Describe you working relationship, what he brings to a recording, and how you feel about this added instrumentation, especially the mandolin, which is certainly something unexpected.
Yeah, well it sure would be a boring enough thing if we didn't try some different shit every now and again then, wouldn't it?
I've worked with Rick in the studio before on the "Nothing Pretty" LP, which up until this latest record was my favorite thing I've ever done. Rick and I have a greatsymbiotic relationship in the studio and outside. We have similar feelings for, and an understanding of, rock and roll music. When we approach him with an idea, like say,a mandolin part, or whatever, he is open to hear anything we gotta say. That don't mean he's gonna do it automatically, but he listens, and we share ideas. It is truly a co-operative collaboration. A great way to get along with your producer. But more than anything I consider Rick a true friend. It may sound kinda corny, but it's way better to make a record with someone who's like one of the band.
How come its taken this long to record "Who Needs Ya" in the studio? Have you heard the great version by Sydney's Johnny Casino?
It's like I said, "Who Needs You" as well as "Common At Noon" were supposed to appear on that second Red Star record, had it been made. And after that, I'm not sure why it took so long to get to them. I'm glad that it did though. So that they could finally be heard the way I heard them in my head when I wrote them.
There is no greater compliment that could be paid to myself as a songwriter, or the band as a whole than to have someone cover one of your songs. That said, no, I haven't heard that cover yet, but I would love to. Australian rock and roll (Celibate Rifles, Radio Birdman, Lime Spiders, Hoodoo Gurus and even AC/DC) are all BIG favorites of mine. Don't know if it will happen in this lifetime, but I'd love to tour down there. You guys know your shit, seriously.
"All Night Boppin" in particular sounds like you were really into rockabilly for a brief time after that first album. Yeah??
Man, I been into rockabilly since I was like 12. Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane, and of course Buddy Holly were huge in my world. After fallin' in love with the Beatles and Stones, I started to listen to the shit that influenced them, so...Yeah!!
How comes these songs were never actually recorded by the band in it's second lifetime in the early '80s. I think only "Hit You Hard" from that "Grown Up Wrong" live album was picked up the later band .... and what are your thoughts these days on the "Hit You Hard" album and the production on it? I remember being disappointed when it came out but I think it has really stood the test of time ..
At that time we were going through a lot of changes. The songs I wrote for the Taxi Boys records were kinda taking up our time at the moment. I guess it was just a prolific time for me, writing-wise, and some stuff was just bound to get lost in the shuffle. As I said, the songs that appear on "Grown up Wrong" and again on the new record, fit, at the time, right into that place following the 1st album. That would include " Jeannie, Jeannie..." as well as "Don't Talk to Strangers", both of which may still end up on a future recording.
As for "Hit You Hard" - well, I still love the songs on that record, despite the production not really bringing it to the conclusion I had hoped for. That record was made under some seriously fucked-up conditions. I was very, very sick with Hepatitis B. Too much alcohol and drugs, and nobody, nobody at all, steering the ship. It is no small miracle that that thing ever got to a point that could be called finished.
"Fly Into The Mystery" is obviously a song you have a long relationship with? The version on the album is fantastic. What are your feelings about that song? How do feel about the Modern Lovers and the fact that too often you're written out of their story?
I have been playing that song, for what feels like forever. Thank you, I am glad you dig the version that we were finally able to record for "Shake...Outta Control". It turned out to be more than appropriate timing for two reasons. Most importantly, the original lyric that Jonathan wrote some forty-odd years ago, rings particularly true today, given Allen's somewhat recent passing along with the fact, like I mentioned earlier, that these were songs that would have found their way on to a second Real Kids record, had it been made at the time.
Alpo's home town was Beverly, Ma., right up Route 128 like the song says. I changed the lyric a little in the second verse, so as to make it a little more personal in regards to Alpo. I did so only after checking with Jonathan to make sure it was okay, and he indeed gave it his blessing. So, I guess you can see how that song strikes several chords with me, especially in the over-all history of the Real Kids. So much of who we were and what we were to become was tied to Boston's North Shore, where both Billy B. and Alpo had called home for most of their lives. And where we would play regularly (...and still do to this day) to cultivate a hard core, loyal, blue collar following of real rock and roll fans.
As far as my relationship with/to the Modern Lovers, what can I say? I was just 15 years old when my next-door-neighbor, Jonathan Richman finally caved to my nearly constant pleading that he consider starting a band with me, in stead of continuing his career as a solo performer. I loved his songs, and thought that they could be even better with a real, live rock and roll band backing them up.
So, in the summer of 1970 we started out to become the Modern Lovers. We had a bunch of really cool songs. We had J.R., who was, in his own way, real cool ('though he would go to any length to deny such crazy accusations), and we were armed with the knowledge that there was NOBODY any where on this planet that sounded anything like us.
So with that, I was launched into my career, no teen-age garage outfits to cut my teeth on. No high-school dances playing top-forty. Just jump right in there and go for it. And without the Modern Lovers there would probably have been no Real Kids. At least not the Real Kids that people know and love today (nyuk - nyuk).
So I don't worry in the least when people who think they know so much about our history, somehow forget that I was a founding member of the band, and that I was there on that freezing cold night when the ML's finally (after two long years of courtship) signed a record contract for a significantly lower dollar amount than was originally offered, and that I left THEM, because due to two long hard years of difficult negotiations, suicides, evictions and just shit raining on us everyday it seemed, I saw the writing on the wall.
And in the end I was right. The band didn't even last until the mixing stage of recording before breaking-up. Actually, I would love to see it happen, if for no other reason except that we are all still alive and able, to see us get together if not for any length of time, maybe cut a single or play one show somewhere for a cool charity. I say this only because I know it will never happen, as sorry as that makes me.
We know Billy Cole’s background- can you tell us about the other guys in the current band and on the record?
Okay, Dickie Oakes is a very close friend of the band's, going back to the mid eighties. Very close with Alpo, Billy and the whole crew. He'd seen the best and the worst of us, so when Allen passed away, Dickie was easily the most obvious choice. And...on the new album we got two drummers, Judd Williams, and Randall Gibson who is now our regular full-time drummer. He played in several real good Boston bands, most notably Scruffy the Cat. Another old friend and an easy choice as a "replacement".
How/when did original Real Kids drummer Kevin Glasheen die? And what's Howie (Ferguson, who played on the first album) doing these days?
Yea, I'm still hurting from losing Kevin. He was my best friend from when we was just wee lads, me 9, and him 10. I don't think any one ever gets "over" losing their best friends. No matter what, there is this big hole there. And that ain't ever gonna go away. Hurts even more, I think, if you are unable to understand exactly what it was that took them from you.
It's been a couple of years now and it's still as raw as it was when I first heard. Surround yourself with friends, mutual friends. And tell stories of all the highs, lows, ups and downs you were lucky enough to have shared. It don't make the hole go away. It kinda makes the hurt a little more tolerable, even for a short time.
I wish I could tell you what Mr. Ferguson is up to these days. I ain't seen nor heard from Howie in over ten years at least. I really hope all is well with him.
Billy Borgioli has been to the last couple of gigs we played in Boston, and I am very happy to say that he is doing real well, from what I could tell any way. It makes us all happy to see Billy B. up and out and rockin' at shows. The news hasn't always been great, concerning his health as of late. So it is extra special to see him doing so well.
Myself, I am doing pretty good, all things considered. The past ten years, or so, have been kinda rough. I've had six surgeries on my hands, just so I could keep playing. Also, I've been in and out of the hospital for issues having to do with my lungs and heart. Never smoked a day in my life, but I guess that's just the way it goes. All the pain and stress seem more than worth it when I hear the new record, or play a great show, like we did just the other night. So, at the risk of sounding real goofy, I am grateful for a lot of things. Not the least of which is myhealth.
You , The Classic Ruins, Nervous Eaters and Lyres are all still playing round. How do you see the Boston scene that you guys helped shape sits in an overall punk/rocknroll historical context , from the position of hindsight? And what's it like when you guys get together? Lots of old war stories?
War stories? I think not. Mostly, I think we are all grateful to be alive and still able to do this. As far as where the Boston music scene sitting someplace special historically, I leave that to guys who write articles and books. I know what happened here was special, very special. And we played a big part in it, and I am proud of our contribution, and I'm sure if you asked any of the guys in them other bands they would have a similar answer. We keep playing because that is what we do. It's fun to play with these other bands, because there are kids in the audience that weren't even born when our first records were released. And they dig it.
In your liner notes you talk about Marty Thau. How do you think things might have worked differently for you ifRed Star had had the backing to really support that first album?
Sure. It wasn't easy to walk away from Marty, but we didn't have any choice. So yeah, that sucked. Seems people really liked that first record. Fucking shame.
The Real Kids documentary that was made a few years back has some amazing old footage. That rehearsal room stuff featuring the Red Star line up is amazing. Is there more of that? Was that from Art Freedman? Did he film other bands like that back in the day?
I can't remember who did that stuff. I am tempted to say it was Steve Guiliani, the guy who did the only video we ever made, of "Every Day Is a Saturday". He was the only guy who would have been around in those early days with a video camera.
Can you talk a bit about more the earlier days - the early 70s? The local scene with Andy Paley’s band the Sidewinders...did you guys relate at all to Aerosmith or j geilsthen? What else was happening in those pre-punk days? And what were you into apart from the obvious Velvets/Stooges/Dolls.... Did you see Big Star when they played with Badfinger in Boston??
Wow, that's one big loaded question. Well, the Modern Lovers started in the summer of 1970. In Boston, there weren't many places to play. You had to make your own gigs. And we did. We played regularly on the Cambridge Commons. A park in the center of the city, just adjacent to Harvard University and Harvard Square. On Sunday afternoons, when the weather allowed, there was a bunch of bands that would play, no money or anything, but those were some fun shows.
The Sidewinders, who were called Catfish Black when I first saw them, had Ernie Brooks and Jerry Harrison in the band and they later left the Sidewinders to play with us in the Modern Lovers. They were like a big deal local band at the time, along with J. Geils. Aerosmith were friends of ours, and they were just getting going at that time. We played some shows with them out on Revere Beach.
There were some pretty rough bars out there in those days, even today. J. Geils played those Cambridge Common shows quite a bit. During that time when we were talking to record companies, we were expected to get some kind of management deal in order so as to act as a middleman in negotiations. One of the guys we were in talks with were Lieber&Krebs, who managed, among others, the N.Y. Dolls. They ended up doing something with Aerosmith as well.
Anyway, they had a show booked at the Mercer Art Center on New Year's Eve, '72/'73, with the Dolls headlining, and they stuck us on before them. Big party afterwards. That was when I met Johnny Thunders and we hung together and got drunk. We were both the youngsters in our respective bands, so we had alot to talk about, besides our love of old girl groups and stuff. On the way home to Boston that night I told Dave Robinson that I was gonna quit. We had one more show to play in Boston, at which we were supposed to sign our contract. And like I said, I was there for the show and witnessed the signing of the elusive contract, and that was it for me in the Modern Lovers.
I was starting to find my own voice as far as songwriting went. I hooked up with Kevin on drums and we went through a couple of permutations as the Kids, and I remained close friends with the guys in the Dolls, and whenever they were in town we would party, which would lead inevitably to John and I in a seperate hotel room jamming to Eddie Cochran and Shangri-Las songs. This happened quite a bit, because I visited them down in NYC alot as well.
Anyway, I kinda got the word that Jerry and John were dissatisfied with the way things were going with the Dolls and that a change may be imminent. Get a phone call that they had indeed left the band, in the middle of a tour no less, and that they were putting together a new band to be called the Heartbreakers, and would I like to come down and "try out" for second guitar.
I went down, had the gig, if I wanted it, but what I witnessed down there scared me, and I knew that I'd be dead in months, so I reluctantly packed up my guitar and headed home to Boston and the job of putting the next Real Kids line-up together.
It was 1975. There was no scene in Boston. Gigs were hard to come by. We struggled on. Working on new songs and hoping to find the right band to make it work....Boston in the early seventies was like alot of big cities. Nothing going on. This was part of what gave birth to the scene in the mid decade. A reaction to the crap on the radio, the top-40 crap that dominated the club scene. It wasn't easy being a rock and roll band in those days. That's what 'Better be Good" was about, trying to get it through these kid's heads that there was a tradition of rock'n'roll in our town and we should get up and show some respect for it.
Big Star and Badfinger. I seen that show. And yeah, great double bill. Didn't know much about Big Star. Badfinger was one of my favorite bands back then. I did see the Box Tops play in a little venue right when "the Letter" broke as a big hit. So that was cool.
What music do you listen to these days and do you like any current stuff? Any thing musically that you've never explored that you'd like to?
I listen to a lot of Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac, Small Faces (w/Stevie Marriot and Rod Stewart), the usual old Rolling Stones and Beatles. I loves Memphis Soul and all that Muscle Shoals stuff. If it's good - I'll listen. I know if something sucks, and that crap I don't listen to.
As far as trying anything new, I ain't sure who said it but it goes something like "...stick with what you're good at". That don't mean I wanna just keep making the same record over and over. But our fans are hard core, and if we tried to go all 'Sgt Pepper' on them they would rise up and kill us. No, we just keep doing what we do. We've got a great producer in Rick Harte an he ain't gonna let us fuck up, and make a bad record. This current record is as far afield as you can ever expect the Real Kids to go.
So how do feel about the Real Kids’ legacy now? I remember in the '80s and '90s the band was really unknown outside of Boston and France, and you seemed to fall in between punk, power pop and garage rock and not really be adopted fully by any of those audiences. The realisation for me that that was changing came when you appeared on the cover of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll in the late ‘90s. You're not up there with Ramones or even the Buzzcocks in the punk hierarchy fame wise, but you’re much higher than you were 20 years ago. How do you feel about all that?
Honestly David, I don't think about it. Other people labeled us a punk band, I didn't get it. The Ramones were close personal friends, they weren't a punk band. If they were still alive they would tell you that just like us they were a rock and roll band. I can't help but think that the Buzzcocks feel the same way.
So what happens from here. Another record?
Yes, new songs. Rick producing. Double vinyl album. We've already started pre-production and hopefully we'll start recording early 2015. After that we'll just have to see. Maybe some touring in support of both records might be in order. We look forward to working with Rick as long as is possible, and I doubt that we would even consider any other arrangement, if one were to come our way. Also, I need to add, how important it is to us that we don't overstay our welcome, so to speak. It's important for a band to know when it's time to exit the stage.