Heritage Hump Day: Gentlemen Afterdark - "Promises"
Every Wednesday is Heritage Hump Day! That's because every Wednesday from now to the end of the year or before someone really big stops us, Heritage Hump Records (a temporary subsidiary of Onus Records) and New Times will be bringing you a limited edition collector's item of a much beloved Phoenix band that walked the scorched earth of Arizona before the year 2000 A.D. We will honor that band with a commemorative digital single that you, the digital public, will have only seven days to download to your computers and smart phones before this single gets marked up to an exorbitant price as determined by the mp3 collector community. When that happens, a new Heritage Hump subject will be chosen and the free-for-a-limited-time-only cycle begins anew.
This week's Heritage Hump selection also comes to you through the kind courtesy of Fervor Records, which has licensed the music of a band whose sound epitomized the glossy pop sheen of the ’80s and is reuniting for the HoCo Festival in Tucson, Gentlemen Afterdark.
Like Jimmy Castor said in "Troglodyte," what we're gonna do right here is go back, way back, back into time. For our purposes, way back goes as far as our New Times archives will allow. Writer Sarah Ventre summarized Gentlemen Afterdark's entire pre-1993 history for any and all latecomers when the band reunited for a pair of shows back in September 2010:
"Help from Alice Cooper, placement in People magazine's "Stars of the Future" issue and a mountain of cocaine? It seemed Gentlemen Afterdark were headed for great things in the early '80s Phoenix new wave scene. Nope. This Phoenix glam act, once referred to as the "West Coast answer to the New York Dolls," almost made it when its 1983 self-titled EP was produced by Alice Cooper and his main man, Dick Wagner. Their break never came, but that didn't stop them from partying like it had, further foiling their plans. You know the drill. So they split up, with Tucson's Winston Watson going on to play with Bob Dylan and Greyhound Soul, and singer Brian Smith going on to be a writer and the big boss at Detroit's alt-weekly. The group reunites for shows in Tucson and Phoenix for one weekend only — a chance to remember what almost happened."
While that would make it seem as though their moment came and went in the early ’80s, but the and continued and had its closest shot at mainstream recognition late in the decade when the band relocated to Los Angeles. The core of the group was still Brian Smith (vocals), his brother Stuart Smith (guitar and vocals), and Robin Johnson (guitar and vocals), but with the two men who would later comprise the Beat Angels' indomitable rhythm section, Jon Norwood on drums and Kevin Pate on bass.
These were the days when being in a glam metal band and showcasing for major labels was still commonplace. The days you could rub shoulders with any number of hair farmer bands and have the glitter dandruff on your sleeve to show for it.
"We were all living in LA and we obviously didn't fit into the metal shit that was going on," recalls Brian Smith today. "That's when I met Gilby Clarke and Jonathan Daniel [then in the power pop band Candy. After his stint in Guns 'N Roses, Clarke would produce the Beat Angels' two albums]. Gilby and Jonathan helped the band in huge ways. I was booking Madam Wongs in Santa Monica. 55 bands a week on two stages!" Robin was doing sound and sleeping with all the waitresses at Wongs. Gilby was doing sound there too, on and off. He had that MCA band Kill for Thrills with Michael Nesmith's kid (Jason). They were good."
Gentlemen Afterdark managed to catch a break just before the grunge changing of the guard.
"Booked so fucking many of those, too," Smith says. "Those horrible grunge bands were rising. It was like we couldn't win. At that point We were into Roxy music and Bowie and that same stuff I always loved. You can hear it in that tune ‘Promises.’"
"We got a demo deal with A&M in '89 after a lot of circumstantial and band-created heartache. We recorded this song with two others at the A&M Studios in Hollywood," recalls Smith.
Robin Johnson agrees that 'Promises' was the standout track of their A&M demos, along with a song called "Holiday."
"Yeah, we were living in LA at the time," says Johnson. "My memories of that time in the studio are plenty. All good, too, which is rare. Working with Rob Jacobs directly after he'd concluded working with U2 on Rattle and Hum; he had a million funny stories about those guys. (One was that the band referred to their record as Bubble and Foam, which I thought was funny.) I also brought a work cassette of 'Promises' one night and discovered an early rough mix of U2's "All I Want is You" on the other side. It was a beautiful song. I gave the tape to a girl I knew who was a huge fan and she cried when she heard it. It was touching.
"One day I was hurrying down the hall, turned a corner and ran headlong into Herb Alpert, knocking a handful of documents to the floor and his glasses askew. Like in a movie, we both went for the papers and knocked heads. I was apologizing profusely and he looked me in the eye and laughed, said 'It's okay, son.' I walked back to our control room (Studio C, I think) feeling super humbled and honored to be knocking heads with a legend.
"I remember that both Kevin and I were clean but not sober at the time and we felt great," he continues. "Back then the booze wasn't a problem. I remember that we gigged all the time leading up to those sessions, which lasted two weeks, and so we were at the top of our game. People in LA thought we were from outer space because we didn't sound like GnR—-as everyone else in Hollywood did. But they sure as hell watched us play. Mouths often agape.
"A&M gave us the deal, and was really into the band. Said the songs were hits etc. But then Jimmy Iovine disappeared and, I think, turned up with Interscope Records soon after and that was that," says Smith. "Timing is everything in this life."
Gentlemen AfterDark will be performing on Saturday, September 5, at The HoCo festival at Club Congress in Tucson at 10 p.m.
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