Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Power pop supreme - 'off broadway usa'

off broadway usa is an American rock band founded by John Pazdan, Dan Santercola, Paul Darrow and Paul McDermott and Cliff Johnson in 1977 in Oak Park, Illinois. After several line-up changes, their debut album On was released by Atlantic Records in 1979. The album reached #101 on the Billboard 200 and spawned the single "Stay in Time", which reached #51 on the Billboard Hot 100. Off Broadway released a follow-up album, Quick Turns, on Atlantic in 1980 and continued touring for three years before breaking up in 1983. The band is currently composed of original album guitarist and songwriter John Ivan (lead/rhythm guitar), founder John Pazdan (bass guitar/backing vocals), Brian Cote (lead vocals), Sal Monaco (drums) and Scott Licina (rhythm/lead guitar/backing vocals). They will be touring in 2012 in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the band, and are currently recording a newly updated version of the hit "Stay In Time" which will be released this year along with a live recording of the albums "ON" and 'QUICK TURNS" from the upcoming tour.

off broadway usa had it’s auspicious beginnings way back in the summer of 1977. At the time, bassist John Pazdan was playing with guitarist Dan Santercola and drummer Paul McDermott in a band put together by saxophonist Tom Webb (formerly of “The Flock”, a Chicago based fusion group from the late 60's) called “The TS Henry Webb Group”. After a short stint gigging at places like Harry Hopes in Cary the group disbanded, but Pazdan, Santercola and McDermott stuck together, and with the addition of keyboardist Paul Darrow played a combination of acid jazz, funk and “instrumental mayhem” for a stream of shows at a little dive on Cicero and Augusta in Chicago called There Is No Name. The only problem was that the band didn't have a singer, so the four members decided to look for a vocalist to hire. At this time John Pazdan had been dating a girl (Ms. Deborah McManus) who was interested in promoting the band, and one night the name Cliff Johnson came up in conversation between the two. Johnson was one of the original members (along with Pazdan, Mike Gorman, Mimi Betinis and Mick Ruane) of the Chicago power pop group “Pezband”, and since that time had gone on to front a rock outfit called “d'Thumbs”, which had recently broken up.

McManus knew Johnson wasn't exactly doing much of anything musically, and since both he and Pazdan were living in Oak Park she suggested to John that they hook up. After a quick phone call and formal invitation by Pazdan, Cliff started coming to band rehearsals at a house John was renting down the street from Fitzgeralds (before it was Fitzgeralds- in 1977 it was a fine, tacky bar called the Deer Lodge- Hamms on tap, only 50¢). At the time Johnson was heavily into Roxy Music, and with a slight stretch of the imagination that’s what the mix of he and the established band sounded like when they jammed- Roxy, circa 1977, swimming around in the early Brit funk/”Art Music” pond. One night after a rehearsal, following a beer or 15 at a tavern down the street from Pazdan’s house called the Weinkellar (aka the Wine Keel-Over), the band decided to say screw it, and bring Johnson on board permanently… as long as they would do everything the opposite of what was happening at the time (big hair, big amps, big lights). This just happened to handily dovetail into the growing NYC-punk/DIY scene, circa ‘77.

The name off broadway came from that same girl that Pazdan was dating, Deborah McManus (no relation to DeClan, Jim or Shamus). One night they were sitting around trying to come up with a name, and out of the blue she said “you know... it sounds like you guys, if you were in the theater, you'd be like... you know... Off Broadway.” Click! Following along that idea, Paul Darrow came up with the concept that their “big” light show, much like a cliched Off Broadway play, should simply be five bare bulbs on a piece of cord, one over each member of the band. The band also decided that bowling shirts, which were as 180 degrees as possible from “rockstar” at the time, would be the perfect choice of attire. So down to Johnson and Johnson (no relation) Sporting Goods in Oak Park they went to order 5 bowling shirts with the group members' name over the pocket…

The first official off broadway gig was at Harlow's Nightclub on South Cicero Avenue in Chicago, in December 1977. The band consisted of Dan Santercola on guitar, Paul McDermott on drums, Paul Darrow handling keyboards, Johnson on vocals and John Pazdan on bass and synthesizer. The set included ‘Peg’ by Steely Dan, ‘Too Much To Lose’ by Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman, a reggae version of ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Full Moon’, “Drop Me A Line”, “Now You Got It Comin’” and a few others, including a scorching funkfusion instrumental by Eddie Harris called ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’. In attendance that evening were Rob Harding, Mickey Free and Mickey Sculley, who would soon become the group's first (though short-lived) manager.

That original lineup was short-lived, however, as Rob Harding soon replaced Santercola, after which the extraordinary guitarist John Ivan replaced keyboardist Paul Darrow and Mike Neff (later of another successful Chicago band, the “Hounds”) took over for Paul McDermott on drums. All of this transpired by the Spring of 1978, at which time the group became the “almost” house band at Mother's on Rush Street, and together that lineup (Pazdan, Ivan, Harding and Johnson), wrote and arranged the music which would take the Chicago music world by storm…

off broadway is one of those groups that, upon listening for the first time, you get the feeling, immediately, that, hey, this is very familiar territory. It still astounds me, 35 years later, that this band wasn't as big a hitmaker as, say, The Knack, who were great in their own right, or Blondie, who obviously had a better front person to watch and admire in a different way, being of the female type. Being from Illinois, I naturally gravitate to these "locals", much in the same way that Shoes and Cheap Trick still float my boat completely. The latter had an enormous track record over the years and is still going strong. The off broadways of the world are naturally meant to be flashes in the pan, that's the very volatile nature of cutting-edge rock, especially power pop. It can only retain that high sheen for so long, then it fades and gets relegated to a decade much the same way as Cheap Trich is mistakenly correlated to the 80's, by proxy of a couple bought-and-paid guaranteed hits (Desmond Child?). Off topic from on broadway, I'm personally happy that Cheap Trick have reverted back to the midwestern ethic of tour, tour, tour, record, tour, tour, tour rather than get so caught up in hiring George Martin, changing key members and generally grabbing for a brass ring that isn't even there anymore. They will forwever be loved as midwesterners by midwesterners, and they will definitely be featured in these pages in the future. Rightly so.

It was a definite surprise to me that off broadway usa had jazz fusion backgrounds, but you must remember, there were two distinctly different forms of music vying for dominance in the mid-late 70's. Pop/punk music was coming on strong, after a period dominated by prog and British pomp rock. Jazz fusion, while enjoying a steady, loyal following, especially in Japan for all these years, never really dominated any music scenes, and this time in music was definitely a pivotal point in the evolution of rock. As much as I love rock and pop I was truly hurt when jazz fusion didn't blow up in a much bigger way, but that's water under the proverbial bridge by now. There's room for every kind of music in the internet age!

Tomorrow we'll feature a slice of the michaelhigh experience as we have every day. This blog has been a total blast to create every single day, as it reflects my true love for all things rock and roll. The art form has been around long enough, with an extensive enough history and legacy, that there may never be an end to insights, to be chronicled here, that were gained while onstage, in the studio, or simply at home listening to radio and records! It's an all-consuming fire for me. SO...keep your tubes hot and your antenna up, and we'll see you all tomorrow!

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