Forty years ago, punk/power-pop disciple Roger C. Reale enlisted the aid of guitar wizards G.E. Smith, Jimmy McAllister and Mick Ronson and drummer Hilly Michaels (Sparks) to create two minor masterpieces of rock & roll madness. But then…nothing happened. Yes, it was the same old story of bad (or no) management and record label failings but, as Jim Allen discovered, Reale’s story has a unique twist. Reale, in the interim, formed The Manchurians, and never looked back. Until now. His two albums, long shelved, are now reissued together as The Collection and stand ready to take their place as genuine lost classics.
“I don’t want it to be the great lost anything,” says Roger C. Reale of The Collection, which reissues his 1978 debut LP for the first time and finally unearths its follow-up after 40 years on the shelf. With a throaty growl, stomp-along rhythms, and riff-roaring tunes that split the difference between Slade and Wreckless Eric, the two albums by Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue are a street fight between punk and power pop where both sides win. But before this release, only a handful of people got to hear the first, and the second remained a mystery.
The four decades between the music’s origins and its current coming-out party encompass a long, strange tale involving Mick Ronson, Scientology, big beats, bad decisions, and the insular idiosyncrasies of the ’70s Connecticut rock scene. But Reale says, “I can’t tell you I’m bitter or have regrets. We definitely didn’t want to put this stuff out with that kind of feel to it, because to me the music’s too good… It’s a celebration that this stuff is coming out.”
Reale’s rock ‘n’ roll lifeline goes back to his days growing up in East Providence, R.I., absorbing an older cousin’s Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bo Diddley 45s, and going to bed with a transistor radio under his pillow to catch the sounds of everything from The Beatles to Motown and James Brown. By high school he was kicking up a garage-rock ruckus on bass with a band called The Spectres. He was already writing songs by that point, but the bands he played with in that era concentrated mostly on covers. “Rhode Island at the time was a hotbed of B-3s and Rascals cover bands,” he recalls.
After graduating from Central Connecticut State University, Reale was working part-time in a record shop, making sure to snap up copies of intriguing arrivals for himself. When the first wave of punk singles started rolling in, he was all over it. “One of the earliest ones I bought was [The Damned’s] New Rose, obviously that was considered the first one. All the Stiff stuff was a tremendous influence.” He’d already been making the pilgrimage down to CBGB to see The Ramones and others, and he had little trouble connecting the spirit of punk with his earliest influences.
the two albums by Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue are a street fight between punk and power pop where both sides win
“I didn’t see much difference between the Damned and Little Richard,” he says. “The aggression, the energy, it wasn’t a far jump from The Who to The Damned or The Jam, and I had all the Who stuff.”
Reale was soon moved to proselytizing. He was friendly with the owner of Wallingford, CT recording studio Trod Nossel, Thomas “Doc” Cavalier, who was starting his own label, Big Sound Records. “I had [Elvis Costello single] “Less Than Zero,” Reale remembers. “I threw it on his desk. I said, ‘This is where this is going, this is what your bands have to do’.”
Cavalier apparently respected Reale’s opinion enough to take him seriously. Within days, flagship Big Sound act The Scratch Band had put “Less Than Zero” in their live repertoire. Sufficiently emboldened, Reale took the next step of bringing Cavalier a rough, home-recorded demo cassette of his own songs, suggesting that somebody could cover them. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do them?'” recalls Reale. Though he hadn’t even considered that possibility, Reale decided to make the most of the opportunity. But there was one little problem — he didn’t have a band.
Reale elected to keep it simple in accordance with his punk-informed aesthetic. Covering the bass and vocals himself, he just needed a guitarist and a drummer. For the former, he reached out to The Scratch Band’s George Smith. At the time he was just a local hotshot, but he would eventually find fame as G.E. Smith, first as Hall & Oates’s guitarist and then as leader of the Saturday Night Live band. “George and I loved all the same stuff,” says Reale. “He was a tremendous guitarist and he was a quick study.”
Producer/musician Jon Tiven, who had become Cavalier’s partner in Big Sound, suggested New Haven drummer Hilly Michaels, who was coming off a stint with Sparks. “He got him on the phone,” says Reale. “I remember asking him, ‘Do you like Slade?’ He said, ‘Oh, I love [Slade drummer] Don Powell.’ I said, ‘Great, let’s do it!’ That was his audition.”
In the bash-it-out spirit of the times, the tracks for what came to be Radioactive were recorded in a single session. “We just played,” says Reale. “We did it live. We didn’t labor over anything, we just went with the energy of the three of us playing. Everything sounded the way I had it in my head.”
Michaels’ recollection is identical. “I showed up at the studio…we made it through a song and Roger looked at me and said, ‘You good with that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ And Doc said, ‘Okay, Take One!’ And we did 10, 12 songs in a row, bam, bam, bam… it was awesome.”
Smith was a fireball of energy, but for all the chops he had in his back pocket, he never went one note past what was needed. “I never met the guy in my life,” remembers Michaels. “I had my eyes on him, and he was really animated, jumping up and down from his amp, giving me goofy looks, and just playing his heart out. I just put on my Don Powell hat from Slade… just keep it grooving and simple and percussive.”
With Reale’s big, booming Rickenbacker bass lines, Michaels’ agile-but-unfussy drumming, and the sparks emanating from Smith, the trio worked up a sound suggestive of a band twice the size. It was too precise to exactly be punk, and too raw to be conventional power pop, but anybody listening to what was coming out of the U.K. at the time would have plenty to hang on to. For his part, though, Reale was just as influenced by mid-’70s glam.
“I was listening to Slade, Suzi Quatro, Sweet, even The Arrows,” says Reale. “Definitely stuff like ‘Stop and Go’ was influenced by Slade and that kind of thing, maybe to a certain extent even ‘High Society.’ On the other hand I loved Dwight Twilley, so ‘Please Believe Me’ was kind of like that, ‘Pain Killer’ was kind of like a Nick Lowe type thing. I was taking in all that stuff, it was coming out sounding like what Radioactive became.”
The band recorded three covers for the session too, but tellingly, all of them were ’60s tunes. “Dear Dad” is a Chuck Berry obscurity, and their version features what Reale considers “some of George’s most atomic guitar playing.” The amped-up version of Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” evokes the kind of punk/R&B amalgam The Jam served up on their debut album. And the unrelenting aggression of the trio’s take on The Troggs’ “I Can’t Control Myself” turns the tune from bouncy Britpop into a snarling, chomping riff monster.
For the album, Reale dubbed his backing band Rue Morgue, inspired by his love of Hammer horror films. Released in 1978, Radioactive seems in retrospect like exactly the kind of record that could have connected in a major way with New Wave/post-punk fans in 1978. But the record had a few factors working against it.
For one thing, Big Sound had trouble getting its records distributed consistently enough to really get a foothold in the market. And even establishing a regional presence was problematic because, according to Reale, “When it came time to get with their booking agent, it was so early for that [style of music] that he said he couldn’t book me anywhere, because I only play my own songs and I only do one set.” On top of it all was the niggling little detail that, upon the album’s release, Reale was once again a man without a band. “We knew it was a studio thing strictly,” he says of Rue Morgue. “I borrowed George from The Scratch Band. Hilly went down to play with Dan Hartman [on his breakout album Instant Replay, as did Smith].”
Between all these issues, sales of Radio Active spared Reale the necessity of navigating a new tax bracket. Nevertheless, Big Sound was sufficiently undeterred to offer Reale the opportunity to cut a follow-up. Still game, he began rehearsing a new batch of tunes with Michaels, who brought along his former Sparks bandmate, guitarist Jimmy McAllister.
At this point, the narrative expands to incorporate the entry of rock royalty. By 1978, Mick Ronson had already become an international guitar hero for his work with David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Ian Hunter. He’d also brought Michaels into his inner circle, and when the drummer played his famous pal the record he’d made with Reale, the man who put the Stardust in Ziggy was properly gobsmacked. “He said, ‘Hilly this is fooking great, I love this,'” remembers Michaels, ‘Is he gonna do another one?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I think so.’ And he said, ‘Can I play on it?'”
And so it came to pass that when the time for recording Reptiles in Motion arrived, Jimmy McAllister had some esteemed company in the guitar section. Again, the process was as punk as possible. Ronson and Michaels not only went in cold, they went in bleary-eyed. “Mick and I stayed up the entire night before,” confesses Michaels, “we didn’t go to sleep. We were chewing on cocoa leaves, I don’t know what we were doing — we were listening to Badfinger and playing music.”
“We all sat in a circle [in the studio]. Roger sang the songs from Reptiles… Doc said, ‘That sounds great, shall we take one?’ And we all looked at each other and went, ‘Yeah.’ Mick and I had never heard the songs before but we got it, we nailed it on the first or second take.”
Though Ronson was known far and wide as the guitar hero who helped Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie become a glam-rock god, by this time he’d also been bitten by the punk bug.
Though Ronson was known far and wide as the guitar hero who helped Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie become a glam-rock god, by this time he’d also been bitten by the punk bug. He’d just come off of producing U.K. post-punk pioneers The Rich Kids and was happy to just dig in and become a cog in Reptiles‘ machinery. “Mick could have gone crazy,” says Michaels, “but he knew Jimmy, he loved Jimmy, and feelings were mutual. Mick didn’t want to step on Jimmy’s guitar parts, so he was really, really cognizant of the fact that he was a guest guitar player there for coloring. But it was magic, it was total magic, the vibes in the room. Mick loved it.
On the way home we’re looking at each other, cracking up, saying, ‘Can you believe what we just did?'”
“He was great,” concurs Reale, “we got on really well. A real gentleman — really low-key, obviously an outstanding player. He understood that it was not a guitar record as such — he didn’t have to play blistering solos. These were songs, it was ensemble stuff, and he got it completely.”
Reale was feeling like things were finally on an upswing. Big Sound had a distribution deal with Decca, who had put out Radioactive in England on their revived London label and released “Stop and Go” as a single. “We were getting good press over there,” he recalls, “and Decca said, ‘Are you up for a 10-day tour?’ I’m thinking, ‘Man, this is the stuff dreams are made of.'”
But then the rug was pulled out from underneath the project. “I hear from Tiven that they’re having problems with distribution,” remembers Reale. “Reptiles was on the shelf, and the label sort of imploded and Tiven left in a huff.” Unsurprisingly, the tour plans fell by the wayside too. “[Big Sound] had larger issues at that time with distribution,” says Reale. “I think they had problems even getting records into the shops, let alone setting up a tour.”
Meanwhile, the firecracker of an album Reale had made with an at-his-prime Mick Ronson remained on the shelf in perpetuity. “I wrote a letter to them once asking about it,” says Reale. “They said it was gonna come out, it was gonna come out. The studio got involved with Scientology at the time and people were bailing, it had sort of reached a creative dead end. I knew that record wasn’t gonna come out. And I knew Radioactive was just gonna sit there in boxes. So I just moved on.”
“Every couple of years, I’d ask, ‘When’s that record coming out?’ says Michaels, “And Mick would ask me too. [I said], ‘I have no idea, there’s Scientology all over the place, and there’s a lot of discord and bad vibes. I think Roger’s record is shelved, I don’t think it’s ever gonna come out.’ Which was a shame.”
Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue played only one gig together, after the Reptiles in Motion session, at NYC hotspot Hurrah with Reale accompanied by McCallister and Michaels, playing songs from both albums. Subsequently, Reale connected with a couple of players from the burgeoning New London, CT scene — guitarist Tim Stawarz and drummer Suburban Joe — and began playing Northeast clubs. They put out a 45 in 1981 but didn’t progress much further.
Michaels had become a solo artist, releasing his debut LP, Calling All Girls, on Warner Bros in 1980 and hitting heavy MTV rotation with the title track. Reale later formed The Manchurians, who are still active today, but he also found success as a songwriter for other artists. Entering a writing partnership with Tiven, he drew upon his early love of the blues, and the pair ended up having songs cut by a broad swath of blues artists, including Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Johnny Winter, Son Seals, and Michael Burks. The Guy and Winter albums containing Reale’s songs were nominated for Grammys, and his song for Burks, “I Smell Smoke,” was nominated for a W.C. Handy Blues Award for Best Blues Song of the Year.
Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang perform a song written by Roger Reale and Jon Tiven on The Tonight Show.
The music of Reale’s Rue Morgue era might have remained in limbo if not for a rock archivist with an ear for gems that have fallen through the fissures of history. “I probably first heard Roger’s ‘Stop & Go’ on Scott Muni’s WNEW-FM radio show Things From England while I was in high school,” says Richard Brukner. “It’s funny, because chances are good that he got a U.K. copy of Roger’s 45 and played it on-air thinking he was an English act. The 45 was on London Records after all.”
“As a college freshman in Connecticut,” he continues, “I immersed myself in what turned out to be an excellent local scene, led by The Reducers, who had been having great success releasing records on their own label, Rave On Records, and they really turned me on to Roger’s record which I immediately loved. Fast forward a few years, I was producing records with The Reducers, and had also compiled a CD reissue for The Wildweeds, with future NRBQ axe man Big Al Anderson, another Trod Nossel-recorded act from the ’60s. The Wildweeds release turned out pretty well, and I started thinking about a follow-up. I talked to Peter Detmold from The Reducers about releasing Roger’s record on Rave On and he loved the idea. Roger’s record was a major inspiration for The Reducers and it seemed like a natural fit.”
Eventually, Brukner’s enthusiasm won Reale over. “Richard kept saying, ‘You should put it out,'” he remembers. “Then Doc died and it just sort of closed things out, until about two years or so ago. Richard said, ‘What if you owned everything? What if I could broker a deal with Darlene — who was Doc’s daughter — where you could buy everything and own it outright? We went back and forth with them until the price was reasonable. I went down there and had a nice chat with Darlene and she said to me, ‘This was the record we grew up on, that my father felt was gonna break this label.'”
After almost four decades, Reale finally had the master tapes for both Radio Active and Reptiles in Motion as well as the publishing rights. Brukner engaged mastering guru Scott Anthony to remaster both albums for release together as The Collection. “Not to update it,” reassures Reale, “just to capture a better sound without compromising the spirit of the sessions. I didn’t want to modernize anything.”
Though it took 40 years for Reptiles to finally peek its head aboveground, it gains even greater impact accompanied by Radio Active. The two are very much of a piece — a big, brash thunderbolt with all the concrete-splitting power of the punk revolution, backed up by neck-deep immersion in the rock ‘n’ roll history punk pretended to ignore.
“Those two [albums] belong together,” figures Reale, “because they were pretty much back to back. I never in a million years would have figured we’d be at this point where that stuff is gonna see the light of day. Richard’s done a great job with masterminding, being at the helm of this project.”
Looking four decades behind him in the rearview mirror, Michaels says, “It was unbelievable the sounds coming out between us, it was like total Frankenstein monster electricity.”
And now at last the monster has busted out of bondage, free to roam a world where its energy, passion, and pure, unbridled fun might scare the daylights out of modern-day listeners accustomed to feebler fare.