The master of power pop burst on the scene in 1982 with a debut album that turned heads and ears, spawning rave reviews and respectable enough sales to suggest a star was born. But then, in the post-punk shuffle, Crenshaw’s fresh face and fresh sound—Buddy Holly meets CBGB—was overshadowed by hair metal and arena rock juggernauts, even though he continued to make one great album after another of his perfect power pop. Crenshaw talks with PKM’s Eric Davidson about those days and a new series of reissues that he will soon be releasing.
Marshall Crenshaw’s career was primarily kickstarted when he got cast in the original touring production of Beatlemania, that peppy ying to The Rutles parodic yang from the first-wave of Beatles revisionism in the late 1970s. Luckily for fans of excellent power pop, it forced Crenshaw to move from Detroit to the Big Apple, where he found his own personal ying/yang – AM pop love and MC5-inspired energy – plopped down into an exploding new music scene.
The fresh neo-Buddy Holly face and ringing hooks that shone from his first two amazing Warner Bros. albums cemented him as one of the best classic pop songwriters alive – albeit right at a time when “classic” was being challenged. He had his college radio hits, and eventually rolled out five major label albums of some of the absolute best guitar pop of the decade. Seemingly “can’t miss,” Crenshaw was a classic example of not fitting perfectly into any of the mainstream radio holes available in the 1980s, and by 1990, Warner Bros. waved so long.
A brief one-album stop at MCA led to Crenshaw settling into respected veteran status, and he was soon picked up by the then-fledgling indie, Razor & Tie. Armed with some new at-home recording gear, the first release for Razor & Tie, Miracle of Science, had Crenshaw freely fiddling around while laying off the spit-shining that usually spread across his Warners records.
We loved playing CBGB, played there about five times I think, maybe more. The last couple times, you couldn’t get in the door. I loved the NYC scene as soon as I saw it and heard it, and it really took us in right away.
Gratefully unlike the usual singer-songwriter facing a mid-life crisis, Crenshaw never plopped out a bloated concept album, folk roots yawner, or Dylan-wannabe 8-minute epics, and has for the most part stuck to instantly catchy, teen drama-hearted pop, with sneakily adult melodrama and a garage rock gut weaved throughout. His underrated stint at Razor & Tie proves that once again, as Crenshaw (via his own label, Shiny-Tone) has set up a full reissue series of those five albums, originally released from 1996-2003. Each will be remastered, available on vinyl for the first time, and with two new songs added (the vinyl will include a 7” with the new songs).
So far, Miracle of Science is the only one officially out, so we dug into that great return-to-form record, his early NYC days, and more.
PKM: You’ve spoken of how Miracle of Science was a turning point for you. Can you explain why you felt that way?
Marshall Crenshaw: Actually, it was sort of a case of circling back. In the 1970s, in the Detroit area, I was part-owner of a recording studio, and I used to go there and do things by myself all the time. I even went there on Christmas Eve once. Then in 1978-79, I bought a Teac 4-track from a fellow Beatlemania cast-member and embarked on the first real creative binge of my life. So with Miracle Of Science, I was circling back to home-recording, self-recording. The other thing was that it wasn’t a major-label thing; in 1995 I was out of that world after being in it for almost 15 years.
PKM: Given the at-home recording ability you were discovering at the time, if given appropriate budget today, would you record in a studio again, or do you prefer home recording now?
Marshall Crenshaw: Ever since Miracle Of Science I’ve done both, and even on that album too, it’s about 50-50 between home and working in Nashville at this very cool place called Alex the Great, with a great crew of musicians, friends of mine. Over the years I guess it’s been 50-50 between outside studios and home. I love the camaraderie factor that happens during a recording session with great people.
PKM: Tell me about that fun soundbite at the beginning of Miracle. I assume that is just the kind of thing a major label would’ve told you should not be on the record.
Marshall Crenshaw: I imagine you’re right about that. I probably would’ve stifled that idea on a major-label record, rather than go through having to explain why I wanted to do it, etc. It’s a moment from a classic grade-Z movie called Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. That movie’s completely off the wall.
PKM: The first two songs, “What Do You Dream Of” and “Who Stole That Train,” are as good as any from the latter day Warners albums. Were those songs that had been sitting in your songwriter suitcase, or brand new at the time?
Marshall Crenshaw: Thanks! I had “What Do You Dream Of” as of 1992, a few years before the album. To some extent it was about needing to do an album in order to get that song out. You couldn’t just do a single back then, at least I didn’t think so.
I’m glad you like “Who Stole That Train,” but I didn’t write it. I heard it on a Ray Price album. His version is from about 1953, I think. Of course, we completely reworked it, didn’t try and do what he did. I like the lyrics, they’re a little bit surreal. It’s like cartoon logic.
PKM: “Starless Summer Sky” from Miracle was once “Starlit Summer Sky,” a very early demo. Can you say how the song came back into your orbit – and why the title change?
Marshall Crenshaw: Right, another old one that I dusted off for this album. I co-wrote it in 1979 with two guys from the Detroit area – Rick Cioffi and Fred Todd. That was the first song that I ever co-wrote, or wrote, that I thought was great. It got passed over when I did my first album.
Changing that one word – “Starlit” to “Starless” – for me it changed the character of the song in a good way, gave it a little bit of a dark atmosphere. There used to be an amateur-talent show on TV in Detroit called Starlit Stairway. Maybe that’s where Rick got that word “starlit” from.
PKM: Another great cover from Miracle, “2541.” Wondering how/when you came across that Grant Hart song.
Marshall Crenshaw: I first heard the song on the radio, being covered by Robert Forster, and loved it right away. I reached out to Grant around that time, when my record of the song was coming out. We were friendly after that, and I’d see him every once in a while, mostly when I had a gig in the Twin Cities. I still love the song. I know that it was real personal to him when he wrote it, but there’s something universal about it.
PKM: Grant was of course originally in Husker Du. Do you have a good story of ever landing on a bill with a hardcore band?
Marshall Crenshaw: The closest I ever came to that was when a Canadian metal band called Helix opened for us, at a little theater somewhere. I actually think it was in Alabama, maybe on a campus. Another time a performer called John Sex opened for us. I actually enjoyed both Helix and John Sex. At one of my first New York gigs, the one where I was first spotted by someone from Warner Bros, I found out later, we were opening for Holly Woodlawn, who’s, of course, mentioned in a famous Lou Reed song. I liked that we were on a show with Holly Woodlawn.
PKM: I always felt there are lurking influences in your music that might not be immediately apparent. Like the way you covered the MC5 early on, played CBGB a lot when you first moved here, etc. This being Please Kill Me, I wanted to ask if you think you ever utilized or translated that original-era punk energy into your songwriting.
Marshall Crenshaw: I remember reading an interview with Robert Quine where he said that one of his guitar heroes was Ritchie Valens. I loved how there was a kinship between “original-era punk” and ‘50s and early ‘60s rock and roll. That was something that I really related to.
We loved playing CBGB, played there about five times I think, maybe more. The last couple times, you couldn’t get in the door. I loved the NYC scene as soon as I saw it and heard it, and it really took us in right away. That was a joyful thing for me. I loved how eclectic the scene was, different genres crossing-over, mixing together. By the time I started playing out, I’d already started to create a body of work, already had a style of my own. But I was inspired by everything and was really paying attention during this time.
PKM: Can you tell me about some early punk or proto-punk bands you saw in Detroit, or once you got to NYC.
Marshall Crenshaw: I have vivid memories of the Detroit scene, circa 1967-69. I saw all the rock bands at least once. The ones that I saw the most were the Frost with Dick Wagner, The Sky with Doug Feiger, and the MC5. I saw them about a half-dozen times. They were greater than great. There’s that YouTube clip of them doing “Black to Comm” on TV. I saw that when it was on Channel 56. I saw The Stooges only once, at a big show at the State Fairgrounds, maybe 20,000 people. I’ll never forget it.
PKM: Where did you live when you first moved to NYC? What were the clubs you’d frequent when you first got here? And any memories of your first NYC gig?
Marshall Crenshaw: I got to New York in March 1978, to be an understudy with Beatlemania, went to work every day at SIR on W. 54th Street. Scepter Records was still on the building directory; Studio 54 was two doors down. Then for two years I was on the West Coast, first as a cast member, then a touring company. So when I was really living in New York and getting involved in the nightlife scene, that started in February, 1980. We lived in Pelham first, then on E. 91St St., then on E. 10th St., about 10 years all altogether.
The ones that I saw the most were the Frost with Dick Wagner, The Sky with Doug Feiger, and the MC5. I saw them about a half-dozen times. They were greater than great.
Our first NYC gig, with my brother Robert and Chris Donato, was at the Lone Star opening for Robert Gordon. We got a great review in New York Rocker, and it just snowballed from there. I guess the place that we played the most was Webster Hall, which was then called The Ritz.
PKM: Okay, so back to the future past. I’m a little confused – for the extra songs on these upcoming reissues, they are two newly recorded songs on each reissue, right? Can I guess they were taken from the eras the albums were from?
Marshall Crenshaw: No, the two new tracks with each album are going to be brand new. I made a commitment to create some new songs and new recordings. That’s how I tricked myself into doing it.
PKM: You mentioned that on Miracle you “re-addressed” some songs on the album, comparing it to Coppola messing with Apocalypse Now in later director cuts. So you added new vocals or instruments to some songs on these reissues?
Our first NYC gig, with my brother Robert and Chris Donato, was at the Lone Star opening for Robert Gordon. We got a great review in New York Rocker, and it just snowballed from there.
Marshall Crenshaw: When I knew the reissue was happening, I thought, “OK, what was it that I thought I didn’t like about this album?” I hadn’t listened to it in ages. So I listened and mostly really loved it. I always enjoyed fooling around with drum machines, would spend a long time doing the programming. That sound still works for me on “Starless Summer Sky.” That’s all programmed, and “The In Crowd” too. But on two others, “Only An Hour Ago” and “There and Back Again,” I thought it was a little stark. So I added live drums to both, played with brushes, and for me that made them brand new. I did a couple other things to them. The one that I couldn’t figure out how to fix was “Seven Miles An Hour,” so I just decided to put it backwards on the album. I prefer it that way. It sounds much better backwards to me.
PKM: One of the new extra songs on Miracle, “What the Hell I Got,” is a cover by Michael Pagliaro. It says in the press release it was something you’d hear on CKLW when growing up. Tell us about that station and Pagliaro.
Marshall Crenshaw: By about 1972, I couldn’t stand FM rock radio anymore. The way it changed from 1969-72, it just made me sick. So I switched back to Top 40 radio and loved it. CKLW was across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, but identified as a Detroit station. The music director was Rosalie Trombley. She was solely responsible for choosing the music on the playlists and was brilliant at it. She didn’t use call-out research, or consultants, or any of that bullshit. She loved George Clinton, Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly Stone, et. al. They also played the Osmonds, and Bobby Sherman, “Snowbird” by Anne Murray, etc., but I like all that stuff too. Better than I like “classic rock.” Because of Canadian law, they had to play 20% Canadian content. So the Michel Pagliaro thing was just a record that they played for a while that became a favorite of mine.
PKM: How did you originally hook up with Razor & Tie? And how did that relationship end? Were you off the label before they stopped, or did that kind of coincide?
Marshall Crenshaw: I got asked by the guys at Razor and Tie to do a song on an Arthur Alexander tribute record and met them at the session. They asked me what I was up to. I was not with a label at that moment, and it just went from there. It just ended when it was time to end it, I guess, after five albums, about eight years.
PKM: To step back a second, when you were on Warner Brothers, the end of that deal coincided with the rise of CDs. So was there already talk of maybe not doing a vinyl version of the last Warners album, Good Evening? And I assume vinyl versions never even came up with Razor & Tie, and hence part of the raison d’etre of this reissue series?
Marshall Crenshaw: I remember one of my first conversations with Lenny Waronker, president of the label, right after I first signed with Warners in 1981. He told me that he’d been to an expo in Tokyo and heard the compact disc, and that phonograph records were going to get phased out. It took about 10 years for it to really happen, but then [vinyl albums] came back due to popular demand. Yay!
PKM: Since Miracle is the only reissue that is officially out as of now, I’ll just ask a quickie about the rest that are upcoming. So while going through #447 and What’s in the Bag? again, what were some discoveries you happened upon?
Marshall Crenshaw: With #447 and What’s In the Bag, I won’t have to do any minor surgery on anything like I did with Miracle Of Science. And the packaging for all the others in the series can stay the same as the originals. Miracle is the only one that needed some extra TLC, or whatever you’d call it.
PKM: The demos / rarities collection from 1998, The 9 Volt Years, has long been a favorite album of yours for me. I think it’s kind of an accidental indie rock precursor, as lots of it has the kind of lo-fi feel and charm of what would become known as “indie rock.” But of course for you, those songs were simply demos. What made you want to cobble it together back then; and how did you feel listening back now, while getting it set for re-issue?
Marshall Crenshaw: I wish that I’d have known more about how to combine that approach with the kind of production values that Warners expected on my first album, but I just didn’t. The tracks on The 9 Volt Years were done with old-fashioned overdubs, overloading everything including the tape itself, etc. I tried to get back on that page with Steve Lillywhite on Field Day. That was more my taste.
Marshall Crenshaw: I called that album The 9 Volt Years because I ran everything through battery-powered stomp-boxes, that were my “recording console.” I had high-impedance mics, no mixer, just a junction box, a DBX compressor with one big knob on it, set to “smash.” I loved that set-up.
PKM: Finally, any new album plans?
Marshall Crenshaw: No. I honestly don’t plan on ever making another album. Just singles!